An Italian wedding: Like American weddings but with more romance and … do you have a red suit?

The wedding of Diego and Monia at Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I sipped Prosecco Saturday in the same piazza where Benito Mussolini worked his fascist throng into a froth. I stood in Piazza Venezia, in the shadow of the gargantuan white confectionery monument called Il Vittoriano, in suit and tie, and celebrated the most Italian of Italian traditions.

The Italian wedding.

No, not mine.

It was the daughter of our friends and it was my first. At least, it was my first traditional Italian wedding. In 2002, during my first stint in Rome, I went to a gladiator wedding. True story: I had just graduated from Rome’s gladiator school (Yes, there is one.) and a fellow gladiator, who also had done gladiator reenactments around the city, got married. We all came to the church — dressed as gladiators. Helmets. Axes. Tunics. As they left the church, the couple walked under our raised swords.

It was the first wedding I’ve ever attended wearing a breastplate.

Saturday’s wedding dripped Italy. From the 18th century church lined with paintings to the view of Rome from the 100-year-old villa that hosted the reception, the whole affair was right out of Central Casting. You could have added a violin ensemble and the cast of “The Godfather” as guests and you wouldn’t have noticed.

The typical Italian wedding has a lot of the same traditions as in the U.S. The bride and groom don’t see each other the night before the wedding. The father walks the bride to the groom. They even throw rice.

But there are some differences.

Me outside the church in front of Trajan’s Column and Il Vittoriano in Piazza Venezia. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Take the color theme. Marina, who works with the bride’s mother, told me I had to wear red. Huh? Yep. She showed me color swatches that were expected to be honored by all the guests. I happened to own — yes — a red suit. I bought it in a discount warehouse run by a group of guys who look like ex-Camorra hitmen. The Gautieri suit is so shiny I can see my reflection. It looks very Italian.

However, with my ruddy complexion and WASP heritage I look like a flunky for the Irish mob.

I had to shop for a red and black tie that was less flashy than the red, black and purple tie I once wore on Valentine’s Day and repulsed Marina. The man who sold me the new tie talked me out of a new black kerchief I like wearing with this suit.

“It’s only worn at funerals,” he said.

I got off easy. Marina was subject to another odd Italian tradition. In lieu of gifts, guests give the couple 300 euros. It’s smart for the couple. Unlike in the U.S., no Italian bride is stuck with five sets of silverware or three dozen candles. They get enough money for a honeymoon. In this case, it’s a three-pronged adventure to Jordan, Doha and the Maldives. They don’t give away luxury huts over the water in the Maldives.

Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano was built in 1751.


Also, not many American weddings are held in Baroque churches built in 1751. Those that are, the churches don’t feature 18th century paintings decorating six side chapels with marble walls and alabaster stonework. The list of adjectives for Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano (The Church of the Most Holy Name of Mary at the Trajan Forum) is as long as its name. In a country with at least 40 percent of the world’s art, with the most beautiful churches in the world, this one still left me slack-jawed.

Also, the neighborhood isn’t bad.

Across the piazza stands Palazzo Venezia sporting the balcony where Mussolini addressed his mob that filled the piazza cheek to cheek. Photos from the 1930s show a dark sea of humanity, looking up at this chubby fascist waving his arms and jutting out his jaw.

Eighty years later, the piazza now fills with Italian-loving tourists. Fans replaced fascists. Nikes replaced jack boots.

It’s also appropriate the church is in the shadow of Il Vittoriano. Besides called Mussolini’s Typewriter, the monument, built in 1885 to honor Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel II, it goes by another nickname.

The Wedding Cake.

Hovering over the church steps, just about 50 meters away stands Trajan’s Column. Built in 113 A.D., it’s a 100-foot-high column with intricate carvings depicting Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. In a way, the column helped save the church from possible bombing during World War II as fascist archaeologists claimed the Temple of Trajan lay underneath. They were full of shit but generals didn’t know that.

The throng awaits the bride. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina and I arrived at the church by taxi on a typical October day in Rome: sunny and bright blue skies in the mid-70s. Greeting us at the front steps was the groom. Diego is about my height — 6-foot-3 — a giant by Southern Italian standards. With a full head of black hair, a neat beard and dark complexion, he’s so Italian he looked like he came to the church by paddling a gondola up the Tiber.

The inside of any church in Rome is like walking into a museum. When you add a wedding, it’s like walking into someone’s romantic dream. Huge paintings hung in the chapels lining the walls. A massive organ hung 40 feet high over four balconies. A cellist and violinist played classical music as the guests entered.

As the guests filed in, I learned why my favorite line about my bachelorhood always fell flat in Italy. When people ask why I never married, I always say, “Marriage? Ha! I get nervous walking down a movie aisle.”

My friend, Severio, walks his daughter, Monia, to the altar. Photo by Marina Pascucci


This church had no aisle. Chairs were fanned out in a circle forming a gaping hole in the middle. Standing next to Diego were only two groomsmen standing off to the side in black tuxedos and magenta ties. One, his brother, kept fixing Guido’s collar.

I noticed one other man in a red suit.

Yes, the bride’s train was long. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The bride, Monia, dragged a train on her dress that nearly stretched out the door. Our friend and her father, Severio, walked her to Diego, marking the start of a 90-minute ceremony. It included a mass, complete with a line to take the wafer (the body of Christ) and scriptures from the Bible.

It also included some personal instructions from the priest, who said he has been conducting weddings for 50 years. He talked about mutual respect and the need for affection and looking after each other. Diego’s mom kept wiping away tears through the ceremony.

A little boy and girl approached bearing the rings as the cellist played “Over the Rainbow.” Thankfully, huge fans behind the guests cooled the church as temperatures outside rose to the high 70s.

The priest never said, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” After a long discourse in Italian which went way over my head, the couple kissed to loud and applause. And kissed. And kept kissing. After all, this is Italy.

I don’t remember seeing a couple have so much fun getting married. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Afterward we all filed out to see a portable cart lining up glasses of Prosecco. As tourists wearing everything from Yankees ball caps to flip-flops filed past us, we raised toasts to each other, to the couple, to Marina and me. Hell, I even raised a toast to a guy walking past me wearing a USC T-shirt. One more glass of Prosecco and I would’ve turned to face Palazzo Venezia and raise a toast to Mussolini’s ghost.

As in the U.S., the wedding is just the antipasti. The meal is the reception. They held Saturday’s at the Casina di Macchia Madama, a sprawling villa high atop Monte Mario with a beautiful view of Rome below. It’s carved inside a forest with a clearing that’s lined with about 40 meters of tables holding antipasti: mini pizzas, cheeses and salamis, couscous, salads, fruits. An open bar was filled with Prosecco bottles, lined up like little sentries.

Casina di Macchia Madama. Residenza d’Epoca photo


This is a historic spot. During the Middle Ages, Roman emperors encamped in this forest. The villa was built in the early 1900s and owned by the Bourbons of Naples. Restored in 1989, it is almost exclusively used for weddings.

Italian weddings.

I say “Italian weddings” in quote marks because they have become a huge business, particularly for the American audience. Like the Amalfi Coast and wineries in Tuscany, the Italian wedding is part of many Americans’ Italian dream. In fact, according to the website Find Your Italy, wedding tourism in Italy earns 385 million euros a year. More than 24 percent of the clients are from the U.S. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West married in the Fort di Belvedere in Florence. Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake married in Borgo Egnazia in Puglia. Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise married in the Odescalchi Castle not far from Rome on Lago Bracciano, an event that cost a reported $3 million.

Funny, Italian weddings are very popular for everyone but Italians.

Italians are marrying less frequently than ever before. According to ISTAT, Italy’s statistical arm, Italians married 194,377 times in 2015, the last raw numbers available. That’s down more than 20 percent from the 246,000 married in 2008. In 2017, there were 3.1 marriages for 1,000 people, an all-time low. That’s down nearly 35 percent from the 4.7 in 2012 and more than half of the 8.0 in 1970.

The aperitivo area at Casina di Macchia Madama is set in a forest. Residenza d’Epoca photo


In 1991, 51.5 percent of Italian men aged 25-34 were married. Last year that dropped to 19.1 percent. For women the numbers went from 69.5 to 34.3. Today one quarter of Italian men between 45-54 aren’t married and 18 percent of the women. Divorce has increased four times from 376,000 in 1991 to 1.67 million.

A number of factors have contributed, nearly all economic. Italy remains in its biggest recession since World War II. Employment for Italians 24 and under is at 35 percent. In Europe only Spain and Greece are worse. Emigration is at an all-time high. Italy’s birth rate — it had only eight births of 1,000 inhabitants in 2017 — is the lowest in Europe. Many of the growingly independent Italian women have learned they can have careers and, without children or husbands, they have enough money for those two weeks in Sardinia every August.

Italian men, many of whom still live with their mothers, have become an Italian woman’s accessory, not her necessity.

Regardless of the trend, when Italian weddings do happen they are a highlight of one’s life and not just for the marrying couple. The taxi took Marina and me to the opulent north end of Rome and wound its way up Monte Mario. Olympic Stadium, all lit up in preparation for Italy’s European Championships Qualifying match against Greece that night, stood just below us, its surrounding statues back lit like glowing jewels.

Monia and Diego. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Torches lit the villa’s long, windy driveway and doormen greeted us as we arrived. We took seats at cast-iron tables and looked at this city of Rome below. In the distance we could see Il Vittoriano. On the other end stood St. Peter’s Basilica. Rome’s infamous garbage that I recently wrote about, for now, was nowhere to be seen.

A forest path led to a string of statues and quiet nooks away from the villa’s flood lights. If this place was any more romantic, staff would have to hand out towels.

Dinner was something out of Italian Gourmet magazine. Risotto agli agrumi mantecato al parmigiano con petali di fiori eduli (risotto with creamed citrus fruit, Parmesan cheese and edible flower petals), cavatelli con polipetti, calamari, cicoria piccante e pecorino (short pasta with baby octopus, squid, spicy chicory and pecorino), cosciotto di Chianina al forno e contorni di stagione (baked Italian beef leg and seasonal side dishes) and torta nuziale (wedding cake).

Leaving the church to a rain of rice. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After dinner I beelined to the open bar where differences between American and Italian weddings were even more stark. The bar was nearly always empty. Romans are famous teetotalers but even when it’s free? Free Prosecco? Good Prosecco? Served by a guy in a suit and tie? In the U.S., half the guests are hammered before the first salad is served.

I camped out at the bar and drank a toxic mixture of Prosecco, Italian Chardonnay and the occasional shot of Grey Goose vodka. Dangerous? A little. Totally immature? No doubt. Pointless?

No.

Dancing was on the agenda and for me to dance, I need to find the right balance between lost inhibitions and inebriation that doesn’t go over the low bar of Italian tolerance. Why? Because the three things in life I hate most are: one, animal abuse; two, war; three, dancing. The one positive I can add is that at least they’re in that order.

A violinist and cellist provided the music. Photo by Marina Pascucci


A gray-bearded DJ with a Yankees ball cap spun popular Western dance hits from the BeeGees to Michael Jackson and threw in some romantic classics such as “Love is in the Air.” Watching Monia dance with her mom, shimmy to shimmy, made me think back and wonder if my parents ever danced.

Ever.

Between songs, I camped out at a table holding large bowls of “confetti,” small, candy-covered eggs with fillings ranging from strawberry to walnut to chocolate.

The not-so-blushing bride. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We left at 1 a.m., with the party still going strong and the dance floor hopping. It was a long day, filled with lots of taxis, music and Prosecco. My head was spinning, from the booze, the dancing, the views, the romance. I think Marina’s was, too. If not from the above, maybe from after the wedding. When we stood outside, looking at the bride and groom covered in rice and heading into a new bright future in the most beautiful city in the world, I told her:

“This will be us some day.”

Walk across Rome without traffic: A stroll across a 3,000-year-old city

Terracotte Persiani, a 200-year-old shop that sells terracotta artwork, is just one of the many surprises on the back streets of Rome.


Living in Rome is like living in a big city with a small town right across the street.

Can’t believe you can get a small-town feel from a city of 2.8 million people who drive like they’re escaping a coming earthquake? Just walk down a street. In fact, walk down many of them. Walk down them all day. Chances are you’ll discover my favorite Italian word: tranquillo.

Rome is one of the few major cities in the world — in fact, I can’t think of another — where you can walk across town without ever walking down a busy road. I know. I did it the other day. I walked from the Termini train station on the east end of town to Vatican City, on the west end, and never once walked down a street where horns blared and traffic crawled.

As a seagull flies, the distance between Termini and Vatican City is only about three miles. However, I zigzagged my entire way, not only staying on side streets but also discovering interesting sites hidden in the plethora of the city’s nooks and crannies. I covered 7.5 miles. It took nearly seven hours.

That’s how many hidden points of interest this city has. Walking across Rome is like walking through an outdoor museum lined with 3,000 years of history, abstract gift stores and the world’s best food.

I saw a shop covered with terracotta busts for sale. I saw a church holding the entrails of a dozen popes. I saw the former home of the Catholic Church’s last executioner. Along the way I had the world’s best cappuccino, had a fantastic lunch in a tiny, newly discovered piazza and passed a half dozen new restaurants I must try before I die.

More than anything, I rediscovered my love for my adopted city. It’s one I recently trashed for its trash, bitched about its bureaucracy and protested its public transportation. But every city has its civic embarrassments.

New York has the Knicks. So it all evens out.

Rome, besides its famed seven hills, has a strange layout, suitable for a city nearly 3,000 years old. In the center is ancient Centro Storico, a labyrinth of alleys pinwheeling off piazzas and bordering the Roman Forum, ruins of where Ancient Rome ruled the most powerful civilization known to man. On the other side of the Tiber River stands the Vatican where once stood marshland.

Who designed the city depends on whose history you read. It’s a quilt spanning three millenium, layered like a flat geological civic map, each area having its own individual makeup.

“Every architect and pope put their hands on the design of the city,” said Massimiliano “Max” Francia, my favorite tour guide (www.rometoursnobodygives.com) in Italy and a walking Google search on Roman history.

Francia said one man who does get credit for Rome’s ancient look is Cornelius Meyer, a Dutch hydraulics engineer who replaced the brick roads with his specially designed cobblestones in the late 16th century.

The cobblestones cover much of the city and nearly all its city center. I think I hit every cobblestone along the way. With the help of Annett Klingner’s terrific book, “111 Places in Rome That You Must Not Miss,” here is what I found.

***

Mercato Centrale in Termini train station opened in 2016.


At 9 a.m. I left my apartment in Monteverde, the neighborhood fascists transformed from said marshland into a chic neighborhood in the 1920s. It was a glorious sunny day about 55 degrees, perfect for a long passaggiata, the Italian oft-used word for “stroll.” Wearing khaki shorts and a black T-shirt, I shed my red A.S. Roma sweatshirt after only 20 minutes.

I took the bus and subway to my starting point. Termini was my first entry to Rome in 1978, back when I was a scruffy backpacker living on $15 a day. Back then Termini was a dark, foreboding, intimidating den of thieves and shysters. In preparation for Jubilee 2000, however, the old gray lady received a facelift. In the massive main hall came high-end shops and glass-encased boutiques. Then in 2012, 7,000 square meters of public services, from cell phone stores to a food court, transformed Termini into a great place to just hang out.

I made a beeline for Mercato Centrale Roma. the 2016 addition which features 18 food stalls ranging from a coffee bar to fresh seafood. It even has a beer garden. As soft rock flowed from a loudspeaker, I ate a creamy chocolate cornetto for 1.60 euro while mapping out my route across Rome.

The area around Termini is somewhat seedy. A few years ago a female friend got knocked down and robbed walking alone at night behind the station. The homeless who often sleep along the walls didn’t wake up to help. Across the street in front of the station is filled with basic hotels, crowded coffee bars, kabob shops, cheap souvenir stands and hawkers selling everything from city tours to selfie sticks. In this neighborhood, only the train station is a destination.

Or so I thought.

I crossed Via Giolitti, the main street bordering Termini, and into one of the relatively quiet side streets, Via Cattaneo. I passed two lovers wildly making out next to an iron gate surrounding one of the most under-appreciated buildings in Rome. The Giardina Casa dell’Architettura was built in 1887 as an aquarium and fish farm for what was then a growing bourgeoisie in this Esquilino neighborhood. With its elliptical base and two symmetrical stairways leading to the niche arch entrance, it looks like an ancient Roman temple, curiously next to a train station.

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma


I walked down Via Principe Amedeo, a taxi lane lined with outdoor cafes under protective plastic, like large cages where specimens feed. I walked past Rome’s opera house, which pales in reputation and architecture with Milan’s Scala but still beautiful in its simplicity, hidden in the warren of back streets not far from teeming Via Nazionale, one of the main arteries leaving Termini.

I looked up Nazionale as I skipped past it and saw a massive demonstration in huge Piazza Repubblica a block away. About 1,000 people waving various labor union flags were set to march on the nearby Ministry of Economic Development to protest U.S.-based Whirlpool laying off 1,350 workers from its Rome plant. Bored riot-proof police stood guard. In Rome, demonstrations happen as often as soccer games.

I continued, the chants fading in the quiet shadows of another side street.

On Via Torino, a small open door revealed one of the most astonishing art stores in Rome. Terracotta Persiani is an outdoor market covered with terracotta artwork of every Roman motif. Gods. Emperors. Nudes. Wolves. Any kind of Roman bust throughout history could probably be found on the stacked shelves and scattered around the gravel floor. There are wash basins and cat ring trees, flower boxes and signs.

This market has stood since 1804 and Domenico Persiani has been copying antique objects and doing his own designs for 30 years. Originally, the market supplied art for Rome’s aristocracy and even the popes’ summer palace. The prices looked reasonable. I saw little plaques for 25 euros and large friezes for 50. Then I remembered.

Christmas is less than two months away. Who can’t use a terracotta wild boar?

I walked down Via Modena and on the corner of Via Napoli stands the huge Carabinieri headquarters, which spits out all those cops in Armani-designed uniforms with the pointy hats and bright red stripe down the pants. I approached the front gate and one of three cop/models on the other side approached just as fast.

“Sto solamente guardando (I’m only looking),” I said, suddenly realizing what a hapless tourist I must look like.

“NO!” he said with no need of translation.

I turned heel and walked into Monti, arguably Rome’s hippest neighborhood. I’ve taken Italian classes here and often stuck around to explore the narrow streets that always found their way into a quaint piazza or designer chocolate shop or rowdy bar. I walked down quiet Via Palermo past the small door leading downstairs to Indian Affairs, my favorite Indian restaurant in Rome and one of the few ethnic restaurants (I’m serious) in the city. The overstuffed chairs and decorations make you feel like you’re in an Indian grandmother’s home but with dark lighting to add a romantic touch.

Quirinale Palace has been home to 30 popes, four kings and 12 Italian presidents.


I followed a 30-foot brick and cement wall along a narrow and empty Vico di Mazzarino leading to Via del Quirinale, one of the widest boulevards in Rome. Across the street is Quirinale Hill, the highest of Rome’s seven hills and home to the Quirinale Palace, built on this hill in 1583 to get as far away as possible from the stench of the Tiber River below. The palace, at 110,500 square meters the ninth largest in the world, has housed 30 popes, four kings and 12 Italian presidents. That doesn’t include one emperor named Napoleon Bonaparte who planned on living there until his army was flattened in 1814.

I walked down the palace’s wide steps to Via della Dataria into the heart of tourist hell. Trevi Fountain sits in a giant maw within a network of crisscrossing alleys. Regardless of the year, from sunup to nearly midnight it is cheek-to-jowl tourists, all preening for selfies or throwing coins in the fountain, following the age-old and silly belief that a coin in the drink means you’ll return to Rome some day.

Chiesa Santassimi Vincenzo e Anastasio holds the entrails of a dozen popes.


I was more interested in the unassuming church in the corner. Chiesa Santissimi Vincenzo e Anastasio, built in 1650, doesn’t rank high on Rome’s eye-pop meter, churches category, but it may on the gore category. Inside, urns on a narrow aisle contain the inner body parts of about a dozen popes. Two plaques near the altar make mention to paraecordia, Italian for innards. At one time, the bodies of deceased popes were on display for several days. From the 16th century to 1870, the popes lived in the nearby palace and this church became a convenient place to post the dead popes.

Before embalming came into vogue, you can imagine how the stench drove away a few pilgrims, particularly in summer. The church decided removing the intestines solved the problem.

Plaques commemorate the dead.


I walked down the aisle of the church, so quiet compared to the din outside I thought I thought it was sound proof. I walked past a nun, holding a cane, staring blankly at the altar. I wondered if she knew we were near the containers of the heart, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines, kidneys and lungs of some of the most famous men in Rome.

Oddly, I was hungry.

Leaving the church, I squeezed my way through the cell phone-toting, ball-capped mob past the endless line of souvenir stores, gelaterias and touristy restaurants. I walked past inviting Baccano Vineria e Ristorante, one of Rome’s most traditional Mediterranean bistros which has catered to the Roman aristocracy for more than a century.

Galleria Schiarra


Instead I passed through the 16th century Galleria Sciarra, a five-story, open-air building with an airy square in the middle and decorated on every wall with frescoes from the 19th century depicting sophisticated women of Rome, wearing the fashion of the day.

I ventured toward Rome’s other tourist mecca. But every time I approach the Pantheon, the rotund 126 A.D. church that remains one of the world’s architectural marvels, I stop just short on the side street of Via degli Orfani and enter Tazza d’Oro. Before I moved to Rome in 2014, The New York Times wrote this cafe has the best cappuccino in Rome. Not always genuflecting to Times hype, I was skeptical when I entered the first time.

The Times was right. After seven years in Rome over two stints, I have yet to find a bar with cappuccino that matches the creamy consistency of the milky foam and the smoothness of its coffee. Despite its proximity to the Pantheon’s mob scene and a 1.10 price tag and the massive sign on the facade, it’s never terribly crowded. I bellied up to the bar with a small group of Japanese who always seem to make up 50 percent of the clientele.

I passed through the Pantheon but while a posse of East Indian tourists posed for a photo in front of the church and tourists packed the 13 overpriced cafes and trattorias in the piazza, I stopped and stared at a plaque Klingner’s book pointed out.

This plaque in the crowded Pantheon explains why Pope Pius VII cleaned out the piazza in 1823.


It’s from 1823 and reflects Pope Pius VII and his disgust with all the low-rent restaurants in cheap, wooden huts in front of the Pantheon. Seeking a more airy look suitable for a church of this magnitude, Pius had them all demolished. The plaque reads, “In the 23rd year of his pontificate, Pope Pius VII wisely had the area in front of the Pantheon, which was occupied by in-elegant taverns, freed of its disfigurement, permitting a clear view of the place.”

I wondered how Pius would feel about the Bangladeshi hawkers tossing high in the air splotch toys splatting on the cobblestones.

In the 18th century, people were ordered to write the names of sick foreigners and place them in this mail slot on San Salvatore delle Coppelle church.


The beauty of living in Rome is after seven years I still run into piazzas and small streets I’ve never seen before. It’s like a new vacation every day. Just two blocks from the packed Pantheon down small Via delle Coppelle is Piazza delle Coppelle. Tucked away almost hidden from the street, the U-shaped piazza has been the site of a fruit and vegetable market since the Middle Ages. On San Salvatore delle Cappelle, a church built in 1195, stands a marble plaque from the mid-18th century bearing the oldest Italian inscription in Rome. As ordered by the pope, it tells people that if they know any sick foreigners, they must report it in writing to the church. The plaque still has a slot to insert the letters.

When I walked into the piazza, they were still selling fruit and vegetables but what got my attention were two little outdoor trattorias. At Osteria di Mario I took a table next to two couples from Texas, the only tourists I saw in the piazza. On a beautiful, sunny, 67-degree day, I had a lovely rigatoni carbonara, a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and coffee. Total price: 15 euros. That’s about the price of a cappuccino in front of the Pantheon.

Osteria di Mario


By the time I digested and soaked up some sun, the cafes were packed with lunching Italian businessmen in sharp suits and shiny shoes, chatting on their cell phones in between bites of pasta.

I headed south into the heart of Centro Storico. This is what separates Rome from every major city in the world, why it’s better than Paris and London and New York. No place has an historical center this big with only one main street. Corso Vittorio Manuele slices through the middle of Centro Storico. On the south side is the old vegetable market and execution ground turned party central, Campo dei Fiori, and on the north side is the majestic Piazza Navona a short stroll from the Pantheon. Along the way are oft-overlooked piazzas such as Piazza della Minerva, where a jeans-clad woman flutist played a lovely rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Nearby stands Rome’s smallest obelisk, a 19-footer on the back of an elephant. It was brought from Sais, Egypt, and placed on the site of an old Egyptian temple built to commemorate Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome in 135 A.D. Ancient Romans were huge fans of Egyptian culture. They believed they were the origins of their own culture. In fact, a 120-foot-high pyramid was erected in 76 B.C. in my old neighborhood of Testaccio.

I walked past Torre Argentina, with remains of four Republican temples and and where Julius Caesar had his last business meeting end with his colleagues stabbing him 23 times. Today, a cat sanctuary attracts cat lovers, such as myself who wandered down the steps to pet the fat, happy kitties who sun themselves and sleep on all the marble ruins. If you’re not careful, they’ll jump on your lap and fall asleep before you can alert authorities.

My home away from home.


Thirsty from walking for about five hours, I went down one of my favorite streets. Via Governo del Vecchio is a cobblestone alley that leads to Abbey Theatre Irish Pub, my home away from home. It’s my Cheers, where the international collection of bartenders and waitresses always know to serve me my Reale or My Antonio Italian craft beer when I enter. They have a room upstairs for me and my fellow Romanisti to watch our beloved A.S. Roma soccer team. Abbey also serves the best pub food outside the UK.

I looked outside at the sunshine and thought, What a great day. What a great day sit inside a pub and watch a Barcelona-Inter Milan replay with an Italian beer.

Energized, I continued down Governo del Vecchio, past the the great antipasti restaurant, Papi Prosciutteria. and Caffe Novecento, the elegant caffe with designer cakes where I’ll read the paper before Roma games.

Popes used this raised passageway to move secretly from St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo in the background.


Zigging and zagging, I made it to the Tiber River where I crossed Ponte Sant’Angelo to the entrance of Castel Sant’Angelo, the behemoth mausoleum Hadrian built in 135 A.D. The views from inside are among the best in Rome but the history is truly creepy. Castel Sant’Angelo was used first as a mausoleum then as a fortress, then later as an escape for popes from the stress of life at St. Peter’s up the street.

The papacy sexual history is rife with scandal, groupies and pedophilia. Popes would sneak their concubine down a hidden stone passageway stretching from St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo. One time inside I saw the pope’s bedroom and wanted to go take a long, hot shower. This time I walked along the stone passageway, still feeling creepy after all these years.

However, near the end of my walk came a true highlight. Off Via della Conciliazione, the huge boulevard Mussolini cleared out for a breathtaking, open-air view of St. Peter’s, is an alley called Vicolo del Campanile. The first door on the left is the former home of Giovanni Battista Bugatti (1779-1869), known as Mastro Titta. He is the legendary last executioner for the Catholic Church. From this apartment, he walked out and executed 516 people, mostly by beheading, from the early to mid-19th century.

The former home of Mastro Titta, the last executioner of the Catholic Church in the 19th century.


He wasn’t a bad guy, doing his job as “God’s will.”. According to Klingner’s book, “In quiet periods Bugatti led a modest life, happily married and painting parasols for tourists.” He often smiled and made the cross at frightened passers by. He “spoke calmly to those condemned,” Klingner wrote, and even offered some snuff before he snuffed out their lives. His ax is in the Museum of Criminology near Campo de’ Fiori.

At 4:51 p.m., I finally touched one of the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square. I walked 7.5 miles and barely heard a car horn. With the exception of a couple touristy piazzas, I spent nearly seven hours in quiet serenity. I needed a glass of wine to toast Rome’s popes and architects, its builders and thinkers, its emperors and laborers.

Grazie mille, amici. Bravi. The layout of your Eternal City truly is eternal.

My five favorite wine bars in Rome: The perfect Roman-tic evening

Photo by Marina Pascucci


I’ve always told people wanting to party in Rome that this city isn’t a bar town. It’s a restaurant town. However, it is the world’s greatest bar town in one specific genre: wine bars.

Called enotecas in Italian, they enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s and now are my preferred destination on any night out in Rome. With the world’s greatest wine (Stick it, France.), Rome’s enotecas never fail to deliver. There are few simple pleasures in life greater than sitting on a quiet Roman street, drinking good wine with good friends and staring at 2,000-year-old, back-lit monuments.

Enotecas have been around Rome a while. Despite wine pouring like water here ever since the Roman Empire, the first acknowledged bar aimed specifically at wine enthusiasts is generally considered Cavour 313, which was established in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum in 1935.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, they became gathering places for Italy’s new left who liked a little Chianti and smoked mozzarella with their Karl Marx. Other enotecas popped up but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when Italy had its biggest economic boom since World War II, did enotecas begin to flourish. Major Italian wine families such as the Antioris, the Gajas and the Fresobaldis felt they could capitalize on Italians’ extra spending money by specializing in gourmet wines. Improved technology increased wines’ quality without increasing the price.

With tourism making Italy Europe’s No. 1 destination in the ‘90s, Romans began toasting the new prosperity with wines from every corner of the country.

Today with Italians suffering through a major recession, the enoteca is still the local gathering place. Wine is not only one of Italians’ four major food groups but it is also still remarkably cheap. At the best wine bars in Rome, you can find a good, high-quality glass of wine for as little as 6 euros. You can find bottles for 13. It’s a cheap, fun night out and with Italian wine having much fewer sulfites and preservatives than American wine, you not only won’t wake up broke, you won’t wake up hung over.

After seven years in Rome over two stints, I’ve been to dozens of enotecas. This week I returned to some of my old haunts as well as tried some new ones to compile my five favorites, in order. In my research I considered wine variety, cost, atmosphere, location and history. Clip it and bring it with you on your next Roman holiday.

Salute!

Giuseppe at Il Goccetto.


1. Il Goccetto, Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14, https://www.facebook.com/Ilgoccetto/, Monday-Saturday 6:30 p.m.-midnight, Tuesday through Saturday noon-2:30 p.m., 06-9027-9201. When I first moved to Rome for my current stint in 2014, I lived in a two-room, cave-like flat for two months while looking for a permanent home. It was a short stumble from both Campo de’ Fiori, Rome’s party piazza, and Il Goccetto which became my local hangout.

Despite its close proximity to teeming Campo de’ Fiori and it creeping into recent guide books, Il Goccetto remains predominantly local. Well-dressed, beautiful people come in after work from offices and shops in the neighborhood for a glass of wine before going home. Or they return at night and join a crowd that spills onto its quiet street in Centro Storico.

Its building is so old, the sign over the door still reads a generic “VINO E OLIO.”

It’s widely been called “the coziest wine bar” in Rome. It doesn’t mean it’s too crowded. You either sit at about a dozen small tables or stand at the small bar overlooking some of the delicious antipasti dishes on display in a glass case. Try the smoked salmon with one of the white wines they have displayed on a small blackboard on the wall.

The prices are reasonable and is a good destination for gift wine. Wine bottles stack the bar from floor to ceiling.

VyTA. Wallpaper photo


2. VyTA Enoteca, Via Frattina 94, 9 a.m.-11p.m. daily, http://www.vytaenotecalazio.it/, 06-877-06018. This is my new discovery. Opened a year ago by Nicolo Marzotto, who owns the Santa Margarita wine group in Northern Italy, it is a high-end wine bar specializing in the underrated wines of Rome’s Lazio region. Located a block off tony Via del Corso, VyTA continues the area’s upscale vibe with a long, polished bar, nice high tables and a back lounge area with overstuffed couches.

It is here I discovered such great local wines as Cesanese, a deep, juicy, ruby red wine from Frascati, Lazio’s most predominant wine town southeast of Rome. I also fell in love with Malvasia, a rich, widely produced red table wine that has become highly popular in Rome. So fascinated with Lazio wines and inspired by VyTa, I toured Lazio wine country for a recent blog.

VyTA has a restaurant upstairs and a terrific antipasti menu, including arguably my favorite suppli, Rome’s famous fried rice and cheese balls.

The wines are two or three euros more expensive than in other enotecas but you’re also paying for the atmosphere and location, both of which are worth every centesimo. It is only three blocks from the Nuovo Olimpia, one of Rome’s few English-language cinemas.

Good wine and a good movie you can actually understand is a great date night in Rome.

Del Frate


3. Del Frate, Via degli Scipioni 118, 12:30 p.m.-2:45 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 6 p.m.-midnight Saturday and Monday, https://www.enotecadelfrate.it/, 06-323-67437. This is my sentimental favorite. During my first stint in Rome from 2001-03, I lived in Prati, the neighborhood next to the Vatican. Del Frate, just four blocks east of Vatican City, was my enoteca hangout. It’s my most romantic enoteca, a small room with cozy tables and blown-up displays of wine labels on the wall.

When I returned Wednesday, a cooing couple sat next to me as soft music played overhead. I upgraded and had a wonderful Brunello di Montalcino Col D’Orcia that was well worth the 10 euros. However, many of the wines on the ever-present blackboard are 6-7 euros.

Established in 1991, Del Frate has outdoor seating available at wine barrels on the quiet sidewalk and a restaurant is in an adjacent room that dates back to 1922.

Cul De Sac


4. Cul De Sac, Piazza di Pasquino 73, noon-12:30 a.m. daily, http://www.enotecaculdesacroma.it, 06-688-01094. In 2001 I did a story about Rome’s enoteca boom for the Los Angeles Times and Cul De Sac was the first wine bar I hit. Set in a bustling piazza nearly adjacent to Piazza Navona, Cul De Sac has been around since 1977 and has been a gold standard ever since.

No enoteca in Rome may have a bigger wine selection. Its wine menu is — get this — 144 pages long. It’s a book the size of an atlas. It lists 1,500 wines from all 20 regions in Italy. The Tuscany section alone is nine pages. And the selection ranges from a 16.90-euro bottle of Barbera Vegia Rampana to a Barolo La Serra for 384.30 euros.

Cul De Sac has five rows of outdoor tables where you sit elbow to elbow with strangers. It’s a good chance they’re tourists. They make up about 65 percent of the clientele. No, Cul De Sac is not where you go to meet locals but some places attract tourists for a reason. Cul De Sac is fabulous.

The inside has a single row of tables down a narrow hallway where waiters zip up and down using wire snares to pick wine bottles from the highest shelves. I had a lovely Porto Tawny from Portugal for 4.90 euro and a Primitivo di Manduria from Puglia for 5.20.

They have a full menu but I go for their antipasti plate, a large wooden cutting board covered in salamis, prosciuttos and cheeses.

Enoteca Buccone


5. Enoteca Buccone, Via di Ripetta 19/20, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, https://www.enotecabuccone.com/, 06-361-2154. Whenever I’m near Piazza del Popolo, home of three of Caravaggio’s masterpieces and the last beheading in Rome from 1826 (There’s even a plaque!), I stop by Buccone two blocks south. The ancient space started as a coach house, then became a tavern before turning into a wine bar in 1969.

It claims to be the first enoteca in Rome to serve high-quality wine and they still do. When I visited Wednesday, a man pointed out a small sign advertising a Brunello Reserva from the famed Franco Biondi Santi winery for a mere 8,800 euros. It’s under lock and key in another room.

But there is plenty of wine for the common man. The wine-by-the-glass menu has all the Italian standards such as Montepulciano, Barbera and Aglianico for 6 euros, all served with a complimentary cheese and cracker plate. You can get a Barolo, Brunello or an Amarone for 15. I saw a nice bottle of 2017 Chianti for only 13 euros and a Barolo Ca’Bianca for the fantastic price of 31.

Don’t just go to Buccone for the wine and food — they serve lunch and dinner — but go for the history. The furnishings, including a classic old cash register, date back to the early 20th century. Famed filmmaker Federico Fellini hung out here and Cameron Diaz stopped by while filming in Rome.

Abruzzo home raffle went so well, Brit is doing another not far from L’Aquila and its comeback story

The town of Santa Stefano di Sessanio shows the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside and the work still being done from the 2009 earthquake. Photo by Marina Pascucci


L’AQUILA, Italy — Jamie Abbott learned it’s pretty easy to sell a slice of heaven. Now he wants to sell another. The line has already formed to the right.

Remember my March blog on the Englishman who raffled off a house in rural Italy for 50 English pounds (about $65)? Well, he easily sold all 6,000 tickets in a heated frenzy and in the live June 29 drawing, which drew an audience on Facebook of 2,500 people, it went to a young Italian man of about 30.

The bathtub in their home they’re raffling off in Caporciano. Jamie Abbott photos

The view from the 1,290-square-foot home.


Jamie is looking to do it again. This time, for the same 50-pound ticket price, it’s the house where he, his wife Lea and their two young daughters live. It’s a 1,300-square-foot house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two large woodburners, vaulted ceilings and a huge terrace with views of the forest and mountains. It’s in the town of Caporciano, with all of 215 people, a megalopolis compared to Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90), Abruzzo’s smallest town where the raffled house sits.

The two villages, 10 miles apart, are at about 2,700 feet in the beautiful, rolling hills of Abruzzo. This is the Italian region tucked in the back pages of tour guides, the place everyone overlooks on their journey to the next Tuscan winery or Adriatic beach or Roman ruin.

Squeezed between Rome’s Lazio region and the Adriatic, Abruzzo is a land of cool mountain air, sprawling national parks, unspoiled villages, spectacular cuisine and Montepulciano wine. Sprinkle it all with hearty locals still fighting back from a devastating natural disaster and you have Old Italy, the Italy you see in romantic movies.

I know. The Abbotts hosted Marina and I one August day and we experienced all of the above in a few hours.

Marina and I took the dirt-cheap Flixbus from Rome two hours to the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila. This is the part of Central Italy that goes from green plains and walled, hill towns to thick forests and green mountains. The forested hills stretch high toward the Apennines which cut down the spine of Italy. Barely another structure is in sight.

Jamie Abbott and Lea Abbott Loft raffled off their last house for 50 pounds. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, as much as Mother Nature blessed Abruzzo, she has also been a complete bitch to it. For centuries Abruzzo has been poleaxed by earthquakes, from 1315 when 1,349 died to the 2009 quake that killed 308, injured 1,500, damaged up to 10,000 buildings and left 65,000 homeless.

As soon as Jamie picked us up in L’Aquila, we could see the lingering after effects. We looked up at empty shells of buildings, many without windows or pockmarked like honeycomb. Massive scaffolding held up others. Hovering over it all were giant cranes, their towers looking like giant praying mantises picking up the pieces. Marina and I looked at each other. It reminded us both of what we’d seen in March.

Beirut.

The long sign showing mugshots of some of the 25 students killed when their building here collapsed. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We went up one hill where a large fence blocked off an open pit. It looked similar to the surroundings of the World Trade Center after 9-11. L’Aquila, a university town, had a large student housing structure here. It collapsed during the earthquake, killing 25. Some of their mugshots adorned one of the many signs, one of which quoted noted Chilean poet Pable Neruda: “E’ prohibito piangere senza imparare (It’s not allowed to cry without learning).”

Jamie was in his home in Caporciano on that April 6 day. At 3 a.m. he was sound asleep when his bed “just danced across the room,” he said. The lights started flickering. Household items started crashing. His car alarm started ringing. Growing up in Colchester, England, and working many years in London, he’d never experienced an earthquake. He only moved to Abruzzo four years earlier.

One of the many buildings still under repair in L’Aquila. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I went and turned my car alarm off,” he said as he drove through L’Aquila’s otherwise pleasant tree-lined streets. “Everyone was out on the street. No, they said. It’s a big, big earthquake.”

No one died in Caporciano 20 miles away. Five people died in Castelnuovo, two villages over. Not knowing if the house was safe, Jamie spent a month precariously dashing in and getting supplies and sleeping either in his car, with friends outside the village or others in Pescara, Abruzzo’s major seaside town 50 miles away. Finally an inspector making the long rounds came to Caporciano and deemed the house habitable.

Jamie moved back in but the sorrow never moved out.

“I was just shocked and sad,” he said. “Everyone in this area was affected or knows someone affected majorly by the earthquake. They either died or lost their house. I felt I wanted to stay. Many people say, ‘Why are you still here? Just go back to England and carry on there.’ I really felt it was home.”

The countryside outside L’Aquila is still seeing the effects. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As he continued driving we could see why. The narrow country road climbed into the hills, occasionally passing through hamlets with only a few buildings, some with scaffolding and others still the same charming centuries-old yellow stone architecture. Small stone paths led up off the main road toward small homes. We barely saw another person.

Jamie knows these roads like his old home in England. He and Lea have an antique Italian furniture online business called Rustic Italia (https://www.etsy.com/shop/rusticitalia) and they comb these hills looking for items they ship as far away as Australia. He never tires of the drives.

“When we talk to people we compare Abruzzo with Tuscany and Umbria which are inundated with tourists and have a sense of everything been discovered,” he said. “Whereas here there’s so much to discover which is one reason we really, really love it. It’s very special.”

Climbing up to 2,775 feet, we weaved our way through the village of Prata d’Ansidonia, a town of 487 people that dates back to the 4th century BC. Heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1703, it still hasn’t recovered from the 2009 earthquake. We walked under scaffolding covering a narrow stone path where an intimidating fence kept us from continuing. The path beyond has been ruled too dangerous to walk.

The staff at Borgo dei Fumari. Photo by Marina Pascucci


No matter. The curtailed end of the path was our destination. A modest sign over a door designated Il Borgo dei Fumari. In a building more than 600 years old, the restaurant oozes as much country home charm as anywhere I’ve been in Europe. Fumari comes from fumare, the Italian word for “to smoke.” Every room of the three-story restaurant has a fireplace.

The friendly, attentive staff led us to a private room featuring stone floor and walls and featuring an elegant gold tablecloth, two wine cabinets and a door opening up to a patio with a view of the Abruzzese countryside. Flower pots lined the patio rails.

I could imagine curling up here in the winter, the yearly snow piled up on the hills outside the window, a fire roaring and a rich Montepulciano in my hand.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was built just before the 2009 quake. It suffered little damage but had to close as the damage surrounding it made it inaccessible. It reopened three years later.

Emidio Pepe is one of the most popular wines in Abruzzo. Photo by Marina Pascucci


This is where you go for a sampler of Abruzzese’s underrated cuisine. Hugging mountains with cold, wet winters, Abruzzese cuisine is hearty. Its highlights are lamb, mutton and macaroni pasta. Leading ingredients are saffron, rosemary, chili peppers and truffles, lots and lots of truffles. These are the cherished mushrooms scattered all through Central Italy and are priced all the way up to $2,700 an ounce

After Lea joined us, Jamie ordered the grande antipasto. Out came an endless parade of appetizers. First came scomorza, a Southern Italian curd cheese, with jam and almonds. Then came grilled mushrooms and zucchini, a quiche with chili peppers and truffles, bruschetta (toasted fresh bread) with truffles and lard, potato squares, polpette checci (chickpea meatballs), cheese in a marmalade sauce, sliced local salami, mozzarella with truffles and tropea cipotle (caramelized red onions) and pizza fritta (a fried ring of pizza dough).

All washed down with a bottle of Montepulciano from the local vineyard Emidio Pepe, it was the perfect setting to discuss one of the Abbotts’ favorite topics.

Raffling off a house in this countryside.

This house in Carapelle Calvisio received bids from 40 countries. Jamie Abbott photo


“We sold 6,000 tickets and that was our goal and our maximum,” he said. “We could’ve sold 2,000-3,000 more. It was crazy.”

It started last winter when Jamie saw a blog I’d written in January about an American who bought an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turned a few grape vines into a fledgling vineyard. Jamie asked if I’d be interested in an Englishman raffling off a house for the price of a good meal. I’d heard of small, struggling towns in Italy raffling off houses for as little as a euro.

This was an opportunity to get the inside of how you beat a collapsing Italian housing market. We did a phone interview and I posted the blog. The next day The Local, Italy’s only source of English-language news, reprinted it. Then so did Travel & Leisure. Then Business Insider. Then Il Messaggero, Rome’s main newspaper. Soon word spread around the world with Yahoo South America and the Eastern European press joining the publicity train.

Seeking a minimum of 4,000 tickets, he reached the 6,000 mark shortly thereafter. It raised 300,000 pounds, about 50,000 pounds more than the value of the house with the rest going to marketing costs and the 15,000-pound second-place prize. People bought them from 40 countries, from as far away as the Galapagos Islands.

Now people wanting to raffle their properties are coming to him for advice. What does he say?

“You would need to be on the bureaucratic side,” he said. “Follow the rules and make everything be honest and be transparent. Give the whole package. One of the things that certainly helped make it very successful is we linked our Facebook and Instagram and social media and included ourselves within that. Many people who do this, there’s no face to it.

Jamie and me in Carapelle Calvisio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Try to give it authenticity.”

He recalled one raffle in England that sold 700,000 pounds worth of tickets for a first prize that was only 100,000 pounds. He said they claimed the other 600,000 pounds was for marketing costs.

His transparency overcame skeptics concerned about a scam. However, I asked him how he answered those who wondered about the 6,000-1 odds.

“In terms of a lottery or a prize drive the odds are good,” he said. “Lotto is 1 in 49 million.”

The event went over so well and with the infrastructure already in place, they want to do it again. Why not? He has 4,500 people who bought tickets who are still interested in trying their luck a second time.

Don’t worry about the Abbotts. They can rent for a while until they find something to restore or buy close to their daughters’ school.

“We’ve actually developed a brand,” he said.

The houses in Carapelle Calvisio date back to the 1400s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


After lunch we drove to Carapelle Carvisio, a small collection of stone houses spread out on a hill. Their raffled house, a rustic, yellow stone building, sits unassumingly near a half a dozen multi-level structures, all dating back to at least the 1400s.

It would be ideal for a young family or someone writing a novel. While singles probably shouldn’t apply, the Italian who won is a bachelor who’s using it as an investment.

Marina and I could live here. It’s only 40 minutes from the sea and the 70 degrees we experienced that day was 20 degrees cooler than in Rome. We could live there just for the food and wine. We continued driving up into the hills. Jamie pointed up to the top of one hill where above the village of Rocca Calascio is a castle. Surrounding it is an abandoned village totally open for anyone to explore.

We drove by the village of Capestrano, home of the Capestrano Film Festival that showed 20 films from around the world last month. He pointed out Castel del Monte, the village where George Clooney, who lives on Lake Como, filmed “The American” and fell in love with the area.

For long stretches of our day we saw no other cars. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina and I then noticed something. We saw no other cars. Not one. It was August, the height of Italy’s tourist season, and we didn’t see another tourist. But it’s not like you’re alone out here.

“Sometimes you’ll see 50-60 wild boar on these roads,” Lea said.

We continued climbing past red and white barriers that close off the road during the winter snow season. We entered the Gran Sasso mountain range and Jamie pointed out Corno Grande, a 9,550-foot mountain he invited me to climb with him this fall. If the view from down below is this spectacular, I won’t find words for what I might find up there.

Arrosticini at Ristoro Mucciante. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We finally reached a huge clearing where we found the cars. They had all stopped at Ristoro Mucciante. This is prototype Abruzzese barbecue where they serve the trademark Abruzzese dish, arrosticini. Jamie and I went inside to what looks like a huge butcher shop. Inside glass containers are sausages, bacon, beef slabs, ribs and lots and lots of skewered beef. These are the arrosticini, lean mutton you cook yourself on narrow, free standing coal barbecues. Jamie bought 15 of them and we sat down on one of the plethora of picnic tables with local Marcetto cheese spread on fresh local bread and the ubiquitous bottle of Montepulciano.

I’m not crazy about mutton. I had a lot in Kyrgyzstan in May and I’m still picking bits of fat from my teeth. But these mutton morsels were so lean they nearly melted in my mouth. Barbecue is one of the few things I miss in the U.S. but nowhere in Texas or Tennessee can you eat with this backdrop.

The Abruzzese version, with the surrounding mountains, pine and fir trees and old Italian vibe, who needed a backyard in a suburban cul-de-sac?

While L’Abruzzo has returned to livability, a lot of work is still being done. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ended our day back in L’Aquila. After seeing L’Aquila’s ugly past, we saw L’Aquila’s bright present and future. We passed numerous new buildings built to replace the damaged old. High-end jewelry stores and hip fitness outlets lined Corso Federico II, part of the city’s main drag.

It emptied into Piazza Duomo where we could see seven cranes hovering in the air. The Duomo’s beautiful round tower, badly damaged, has been restored. People came in and out of Chiesa di Santa Maria di Suffragio, the aptly named church that has a plaque listing all 308 people who died. It includes 20 children.

The four of us at Ristoro Mucciante.


On the piazza, couples walked hand in hand. Teens flirted. We bought gelato and sat with locals enjoying life as if it never stops in a place this beautiful. With a black cherry gelato cone in my hand, the only signs of the earthquake was the cracked concrete on the piazza.

Santa Maria del Suffragio was badly damaged but has been mostly repaired. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I wished Jamie good luck in his next raffle, which will begin soon. You can sign up and see more photos at http://www.winahouseinitaly.co.uk. Their Instagram account is @your_italian_house.

Mamma Mia! Skopelos and Sporades Islands are specks of paradise in the Aegean Sea

The isle of Tsougrias, only four miles from Skiathos, has no inhabitants.


SKOPELOS, Greece — Three times a week for the last few years, the little Attikon Open Air Cinema on Skiathos has played “Mamma Mia!” Besides being the worst movie Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan ever made (There’s a reason none of her 21 Oscar nominations were for her singing, and James Bond DOES NOT sing.), it is a chick flick of nauseating proportions. It’s so sugary sweet, you could pour the script on pancakes. Yet the film is revered on this little Greek island as if it’s “Gone With the Wind.”

The Greek gods of Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo have been replaced by Abba.

Yet behind the schlocky script, sleazy characters and song and dance routines right out of the Des Moines Dinner Theater, the scenery is worth an Oscar. If you don’t know the 2008 movie, it’s about a young woman who’s getting married and invites three men from her mom’s past hoping she’ll meet her real father. Her mother runs a hotel in Greece and organizes the wedding on an idyllic Greek island right out of the pages of Homer.

Skopelos.

It is about 80 miles north of Athens in the Sporades Islands and about 15 miles from our hotel on Skiathos. White, sandy beaches. Dramatic cliffside scenery. Languid port lined with restaurants slinging cold beer and fresh seafood. Oh, yes. The cute white chapel where the wedding in “Mamma Mia!” takes place, one of 360 churches on the island, sits atop a cliff like an empty souvenir stand. Meryl Streep pilgrims and bored, henpecked men make the climb up for their significant others’ star Instagram posting.

The view from our fourth floor at the Esperides Beach Hotel on Skiathos. Photo by Marina Pascucci


While my girlfriend, Marina, gets weepy discussing the movie, Skopelos lured me with its other charms, such as its 36 beaches. It took a lot to get me off Skiathos. On our second straight August on Skiathos, we upgraded to the four-star Esperides Beach Resort. It has a gorgeous circular pool around a concrete island of lanais chairs. An affordable beach bar sits next to a beautiful sandy beach with nary a rock and water so clear we could identify the fish swimming around our ankles. Our balcony overlooked it all and the breakfast buffet (Marina’s one travel must by threat of garotting in my sleep.) had everything from tiropitas (Greek cheese pies) to baked beans and sausage. It seemed to cater almost entirely to Greeks, English and Italians. The hotel manager said I was not only the only American in the hotel, I was the only American they’ve ever had.

Last year we were among the many Italian residents who took advantage of the 90-minute direct flights from Rome. As I blogged last year, Skiathos has 65 beaches and a string of buses that cruise up and down the southern road linking them all. The island has a new and old port, all teeming with great tavernas where I could drink my ouzo on ice and many romantic restaurants with their own twists on the delicious Greek traditional dishes. I could live on Greek salads.

In fact, on Skiathos, I do.

The harbor on Skopelos.


But after so many days in paradise, you greedily want more. So from our beach dock we took the water taxi 15 minutes to the old port where we boarded the Kassandra Delfinous for one of its daily trips to Skopelos. The Kassandra Delfinous is a 150-foot yacht with seating areas in the open-air port and aft.

The Kassandra Delfinous is a cattle car. About 200 people poured onto the boat, giving us a dim glimpse of what a cruise would feel like. Marina and I gave blood oaths never to take a cruise vacation and fortunately this was only one day.

But unlike cruises where you go an entire day without seeing land, the views were spectacular. Coming out of Skiathos harbor we could see some of the beautiful high-end homes built along the sea. We saw the pine forests above the beaches and pleasure boats bobbing up and down on the water.

Marina and I on the Kassandra Delfinous.


It’s only 15 minutes to Skopelos, an island of 37 square miles, just slightly bigger than Mykonos. Skopelos comes into view in the form of Kastani Beach, featured in a “Mamma Mia!” scene that fortunately escaped my memory bank. Kastani is a gorgeous beach stretching about 200 meters where a rocky outcrop separates it from another stretch of sand. A hidden trail through some vegetation leads to another small, secluded beach.

Despite 200 of us invading this beach and certainly pissing off those already on it, it didn’t feel very crowded as we laid on our beach towels for a couple hours. I always say you have no idea what freedom is like unless you decide on what Greek island you want to visit on your way to a boat dock. Greece has 6,000 islands. Each one has its own history, geography, beaches.

Skopelos has a beach definitely worth the big screen.

Kastani Beach on Skopelos.


We next stopped in Skopelos town, one of two “towns” on the island. The dock is lined chock-a-block with restaurants with covered, outdoor seating at tables all looking out onto the water. Marina and I ventured up the hilly historical center of the town looking for a taverna off the well-beaten path. We passed jewelry stores, clothes stores, souvenir stores. We saw one restaurant. It was closed.

We passed a local who looked as if she was showing around some visiting friends. We asked about a restaurant off the dock.

“I’m sorry. We only have two,” she said. “And they’re closed until evening.”

Souvlaki on Skopelos.


Too hungry and thirsty to be crestfallen, we took a seat and feasted on giant shrimp, souvlaki and a mountainous Greek salad topped with that huge, gorgeous chunk of white feta cheese covered in rosemary. Along with an ice-cold beer, it didn’t feel touristy at all. It felt as if we were eating in a Greek grandmother’s seaside home.

(By the way, the Ancient Greek civilization flourished in the 8th century B.C. However, the Greeks still show evidence they have the same superior minds that gave us democracy, architecture and theater. Every beer we ordered came in a frosted mug. The Greek beer scene hasn’t advanced like the rest of the world but the country’s national Mythos beer tasted like the best in the world just the way it was served. Italy? Get on board.)

Skopelos dates back to the 8th century BC.


Ironically, Skopelos was once famous for its wine. The Cretans introduced viticulture during the Bronze Age, Sophocles even wrote a play called “Philoctetes” which includes a wine merchant on his way to “Peparethos,” the island’s first name before it was changed to Skopelos, which comes from Staphylos, the Greek word for grape.

On the way back to Skiathos, we cruised by the Al Giannis Chapel of “Mamma Mia!” fame. I think I saw a woman walking up the steep steps dragging a man wearing a birdcage around his neck. We had a long swim at sunset on beautiful Lalaria Beach on Skiathos before heading back to the port.

Our outer-island exploration wasn’t over. Every day as we took the steps down from our fourth-floor room, we looked out into the Aegean to see a small island out in the sea. It wasn’t too far, maybe four miles.

The beach on Tsougrias.


It’s the isle of Tsougrias, a natural habitat governed by Skiathos with one of the best nutshell descriptions in the Greek Islands:

It has a beach, lounge chairs and a bar. That’s it. It has no inhabitants. A small boat leaves Skiathos every morning and in 10 minutes we stopped at a tiny dock. About a dozen of us walked briskly along fine, white sand to the plethora of comfy lounge chairs, all with accompanying umbrellas.

With a backdrop of pine trees, it was the perfect paradise to while away an entire afternoon. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Well, we walked the 20 feet to the bluest waters we’ve seen in Greece. It’s the kind of blue that changes shades as you wade out 100 meters up to your neck. It went from green blue, to sky blue to royal blue, an absolute rainbow of the best the Aegean Sea has to offer.

It doesn’t get much more isolated than on Tsougrias.


In early afternoon we sat at the bar with the sandy floor and ate roast chicken off giant spits spinning slowly next to the beer spigots. Along with a big Greek salad and an ice-cold beer, we sat in the shade and wondered about the paradise we’ve discovered. From one paradise to another to another, Greece’s Sporades Islands are 90 minutes from Rome but light years from Rome’s problems. The Sporades have no garbage. They have reliable public transportation. They have no mafia. They are specks in a blue sea that make you throttle back and realize there is no such thing as wasting time doing nothing.

Marina and I have decided the Sporades will be our annual August getaway. Sandy beaches. Greek salads. Frosted beer mugs. Every day sunny, dry and in the ‘80s.

These are scenes I don’t mind seeing again.