Lazio wines rising on the Italian, international wine scenes

Antonio Benedetti, a sommelier, in his tasting room at Cantine Santa Benedetta. Photo by Marina Pascucci


FRASCATI, Italy — Daniele Cernilli remembers when he was a little boy in Rome 50 years ago, back when Italian cinema was booming and so was the economy. His father used to send him to the local osteria, a small, very traditional family run restaurant, to get a big jug of wine. Through most of the 20th century, Romans bought wine in bulk, kind of like how they buy water now except in bottles the size of small oil drums. It was quantity, not quality. Little Daniele could tell just by smelling the vinegar level.

“The color of the wine was orange, not yellow,” Cernelli wrote in an email. “A wine like that nowadays would be undrinkable.”

Cernelli, known around the world as Doctor Wine, knows more than just local wine. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine (www.doctorwine.it) every year from 2007-09. He’s an international wine judge and his five books include “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” the bible I used to navigate my new wonderful world of wines from Rome’s Lazio region.

A significant draw for me retiring to Rome five years ago was having the best wines in the world within Italy’s borders. Since moving here, one of my most pleasant surprises is some of Italy’s best wines are within the borders of Lazio.

Like Rome’s pizzas and gelato, Lazio wines are the most underrated in Italy.

Crisp white wines. Rich, bold reds. When I go out, wines like Cesanese and Trebbiano and Bellone have entered my lexicon. I’ve even found a high-end, romantic, reasonably priced wine bar in Rome devoted entirely to Lazio wines. VyTA, just off Via del Corso, has become my must stop when I go into the center.

But to get a true taste of Lazio wines, I had to go into the heart of Lazio wine country. I rented a car and in only about 30 minutes Marina and I found ourselves standing in a vineyard of 35 acres of grape vines high in the green, rolling Alban Hills southeast of Rome. This is Frascati, for years home of the only Lazio wine known outside Italy. I remember my first stint in Rome from 2001-03. I’d have picnics in this villa-laden town of 22,000 people. If there’s a better picnic wine than the crisp, cool Frascati white I always bought, I didn’t know it until now.

Showing us around the vineyard was Antonio Benedetti, a tall, suave, worldly sommelier and chef who returned last year after eight years cooking in restaurants from South Africa to London and two as a sommelier in Mazzo in Rome. He’s part of the 13th generation of Benedettis who have run Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati going on 320 years.

Antonio Benedetti in his vineyard at his Cantine Santa Benedetta, the oldest winery in Frascati at 320 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Like Daniele, Antonio, 29, knows the old Lazio wine stories. It wasn’t too long ago when this region supplied Rome’s massive population and its thirst for wine. Wine is one of Italy’s five major food groups and with a 1970 population of 2.8 million, the same as today, quality took a back seat to quantity.

“The first reason is the fact that everything that was made as a mistake, they made in this area,” he said. “Massive production. The big problem here is many, many producers used to have from 10 acres to 200 acres. They helped the big companies and their production.”

Not far away near the town of Zagarolo, Cantina del Tufaio (www.cantinadeltufaio.it) has been around since 1881. So has the big house where Marina and I visited with owner Claudio Loreti who served us a lovely Malvasia-Savignon Blanc blend and a very smooth Merlot. He said local drinking habits were hard to break. He told us a story from the 1940s when his father and father’s cousin made a batch of wine with 13 percent alcohol, high by local standards back then but normal today.

They carted it to a Rome restaurant where the owner took one taste and all but spit it out. So the pair went back to their winery and cut the wine with water, dropping the alcohol level to 10 percent.

Claudio Loreti at his Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Then they returned.

“They gave the owner the vino with water and the owner said, ‘Buono! Good! I like it!’” Loreti said.

Silvia Brannetti of Riserva della Cascina (www.reservadellacascina.it) has a winery within the Rome city limits. It sits right off Ostia Antica, the road where Spartacus’ slaves were crucified during their rebellion (See Spartacus: Failed labor movement). Her grandfather made wine when she was little.

Needless to say, it never made Decanter magazine.

“We call it Vino Scuzzo,” she said. “It’s the kind of wine you come and pick up with your barrel. It was not bad. I know it wasn’t the sort of wine I’d call quality wine. He went around the city and tried to sell it.”

Cantine Santa Benedetta’s vineyard. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In Lazio these days, “not bad” isn’t good. The whole region’s wine makers are pushing out the big wine bottles hanging in wicker baskets on farms and replacing them with elegant displays back-lit in tony Rome enotecas.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” Brannetti said.

What changed? The city of Rome for one. In 1940, Rome’s population was less than a million. People from around the country, particularly after World War II, descended on the capital for work, for glamour, for food. They didn’t come for wine.

“A lot of people prefer to drink wine from the original family’s birthplace,” Cernilli wrote. “So who came from Campania drink Campanian wines. Who come from Abruzzo prefer Montepulciano, etc. etc.”

Complexus, a Malvasia-Bellone blend, and Tre Vecchie, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, as wineries got handed down, younger minds took over. Instead of producing for bigger companies, they started making their own. It turned about 20-30 years ago, coinciding also with the increase in wine-making technology. In Tuscany, you don’t see many big bottles of Chianti in wicker baskets anymore. Technology improved without raising the production costs. Now you get excellent Chianti Riservas for very reasonable prices.

The same thing happened in Lazio.

“It’s changing,” Benedetti said. “It’s coming back in a great quality way. People have their own vineyard. They do their own wine. I mean small production for 20,000 to 100,000 bottles.”

Lazio wines have a built-in advantage. Most of the soil for the vineyards is volcanic. It’s more natural, meaning they don’t have to add the sulphites and preservatives that American wines do. Those are the ingredients that give you hangovers.

Claudio Loreti and Pino de’ Matti, owner of our Casale delle Ginestre B&B. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Lazio wines are so natural, irrigation is illegal. Actually, there is no need. The volcanic soil can absorb a lot of water and release it when the soil around it is dry.

“It’s amazing,” Benedetti said. “The minerals. The potassium. It’s so rich.”

The world is starting to discover Lazio wines. Before, Frascati was better known in Belgium and the United Kingdom than it was in Rome.

Now Lazio wines are going around the world. Thirty percent of Cantine Santa Benedetta’s wines are sold in 47 U.S. states. They also export worldwide. Brannetti travels to wine fairs around the world.

“We’re trying to make something that is good and comparable to products in the rest of Italy,” she said. “For example, I’m going to take part in a fair, the Millizine Beal in Montpellier (France). When people taste my wines, they are shocked: ‘My God, this is Rome? This is Lazio?’”

Grapes at Cantina del Tufaio. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Keep in mind, wine was invented 6,000 years ago and Lazio has only been in the serious wine retail business for about 30. Barolo from Piedmont, my favorite wine in Italy, has been around since 500 B.C. Cantina Le Macchie (www.catinalemacchie.it) in Rieti, 80 kilometers northeast of Rome, produces about 70,000 bottles a year, sells in Belgium and its marketing people hit every wine event they can in Europe.

Still, many restaurants even in Rome don’t carry Lazio wines.

“We haven’t the denomination,” said Stefano Proietti, marketing manager for Cantina Le Macchie. “Barolo is a big and strong denomination. We are young. In Lazio we need more time, but I hope one day we’ll be as renowned as Barolo.”

***

Lazio may not have the luxurious wineries of Tuscany and Piedmont, where visits are akin to country clubs with better beverages. However, they’re worth visiting for a weekend. Cantine Santa Benedetta’s tasting room is 320 years old. That’s nothing. When we arrived, Benedetti showed off a stone road that borders his vineyard. He has the only winery in Lazio with an Ancient Roman road running through it. I could imagine Julius Caesar stopping his march toward the sea to tip back a glass of red on the very stones I stood on.

Cantine Santa Benedetta served the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Too bad he didn’t have the beautiful room where Benedetti took Marina and me. The room was all polished wood with seven glass chandeliers and antique furniture. Old portraits hung on the wall. The only other guests were four New Zealand women. It was like our own private wine tasting.

He started us out with his best seller, a 2018 Complexus, a blend of Malvasia and Bellone, an intense yellow wine with hints of peach, pear, apple and lemon. (That’s Benedetti’s description. I can’t pick what fruit is in a wine unless the glass holds an apple core.)

He then gave us a 2016 Tre Vecchie (Three Old Women), a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend with tastes of mulberries, blackberries and cherries. Lazio is not known for its red wines but this would go well with any pasta in Italy.

Cantine Santa Benedetta has more than 1,000 olive trees. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Cantina Santa Benedetta has an added plus. At many wineries’ tastings, the lone food is breadsticks and cheese sticks as if their target customer is Oliver Twist. Cantina Santa Benedetta goes all out on the food. The first item that came out was a high-end bruschetta (pronounced brew-SKETT-ah, Americans, not brew-SCHETT-ah): sourdough bread refrigerated, then grilled to get out the humidity, then baked, leaving charbroiled stripes on the soft dough. Benedetti then poured over it extra virgin olive oil made from some of their 1,000 olive trees. The olive oil, oozing with flavor, soaked deep in the soft, fresh bread. The combination was so tantalizing Marina and I fought over the last piece. It was the best bruschetta of my life.

Then came a pecorino romano cheese with fresh cherry jam, perfect with the Tre Vecchie red wine. Finally, he finished with bruschetta topped with fresh sliced cherry tomatoes.

The swimming pool at Il Casale delle Ginestre B&B.


Our base for our, ahem, “research” was a beautiful bed & breakfast about 20 miles away, even higher in the hills overlooking Rome. Il Casale delle Ginestre (www.ilcasaledelleginistre.com) is a 500-square-meter, 120-year-old stone house with three two-room apartments and two apartments with shared bath.

Our room had a beautiful view of the valley below but nothing like the panoramic view from the swimming pool, the perfect place to “dry” out after an afternoon drinking wine. I spent the rest of the afternoon floating on an inflatable raft looking way down at the Lazio valley below. The only sounds we heard all weekend were the occasional mews of cats and kittens who hang out on the grounds and offer their furry bodies for petting in exchange for a little food.

Breakfast is in a big lounge near a garden. Sitting down we were served a string of biscuits, fresh yogurt with berries, cheese pie, cornettos, cappuccino and orange juice.

Cats’ meows were about the only noises we heard all weekend. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Il Casale delle Ginestre (named for the nearby 2,500-foot Mount Ginestro) is technically in the town of Castel San Pietro Romano, a 10-minute drive away that is right out of central casting for 1950s Italian cinema. The town of 870 people is a small, tightly packed collection of narrow roads all leading to a small piazza anchored by the 16th century San Pietro Apostolo church. Inside a huge cross hung over the pews, all overlooked by statues of capuchin monks.

Outside in the piazza, locals sat on stoops under plaques commemorating some of the many films shot in the town, complete with still photos from the film shoots. Ironically, Castel San Pietro Romano was a ruin after World War II and Italian directors flocked here in the mid-20th century for films about economic hardship in Italian villages. The films include “Pane, Amore e Fantasia” in 1953 which won the Silver Bear at the 1954 Berlin Film Festival and earned the best actress award, and breakout moment, for a 26-year-old Lazio gal named Gina Lollobrigida. Today, 92-year-old Lollobrigida is still alive and well in Rome and Castel San Pietro Romano is on many lists as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy.

Scenes from Bar al Caffe in Castel San Pietro Romano. Photos by Marina Pascucci


It’s easy to get a pulse of Italian villages. Just go to the local bar and you can’t get any more local, even with a name, than Bar al Caffe. Tucked at the end of a small alley up from the church, Bar al Caffe sits under a line of flower boxes of pink and red flowers. Old men sat at outside tables on plastic chairs drinking wine out of small water glasses and talking in a crude Roman accent. I went in and ordered the house white. The bartender pulled out an oversized bottle from the cooler and poured me a glass of Olevano Romano, a local white table wine.

Sitting around with old men, the sun setting on a beautiful mountain village only 22 miles from Rome, I raised my glass to Marina and said, “Salute! QUESTO e’ viaggiare! (Cheers! THIS is traveling!)”

The lights of Rome from Castel San Pietro Romano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We dined around the corner in Ristorante Gasbarri’s outdoor courtyard, featuring a menu of totally Roman cuisine including a scrumptious pasta amatriciana, the guanciale (pig’s cheek) so lean I could’ve eaten it alone. Afterward, we walked along the stone wall with a spectacular view of the lights of Rome off in the distance.

So who needs Tuscany? Why Piedmont? Veneto? Ha! Some of the best wines in Italy are only a short drive away or, in the case of VyTA and other Rome wine bars, only a tram ride away.

Photo by Marina Pascucci


For those coming to Rome and want to go local, here are the most important Lazio wine varietals to know (in alphabetic order):

* Cesanese
* Malvasia
* Montepulciano
* Sangiovese
* Trebbiano

These are the most important denominations (where the wines are from with Frascati an easy No. 1):

* Frascati
* Montefiascone
* Castelli Romani
* Cesanese del Piglio

15 tips on how to beat the heat in sweltering Rome in July and August

A tourist walks under the sun in front of the Colosseum. Temperatures are in the high 90s this week. AFP photo.


How hot is it in Rome this week? It’s so hot …

… the oracle in Julius Caesar’s hand on the statue near the Forum has been mysteriously replaced with a bottle of Gatorade.

… rats have left their piles of garbage on the streets and checked in at the Marriott.

… the Saudi Arabian Embassy just moved in a beer keg.

OK, I shouldn’t complain. My old United States is melting like gelato. Record temperatures are killing people and electrical grids. Baseball fans in Chicago’s Wrigley Field gave a standing ovation to a slight breeze. The state of Texas has melted into Mexico like dollops of pancake batter on a skillet.

Here in Rome, it’s summer as usual. Temperatures this week range from 93-97 with humidity at a relatively mild 35-50 percent. Screw relativity. Rome is still broiling. July is THE worst month to visit this city, as I wrote four years ago. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Public transportation is cut back to the age of chariots. The biggest impression with which you’ll leave Rome is how in the hell did the Roman Empire survive 900 years with these summers?

August isn’t quite so bad. Half of Rome leaves on vacation, leaving it less crowded but also with many establishments closed. August weather is about the same. If any of you are foolish enough to visit Rome in these two months, you can still enjoy it without drowning in your own pool of sweat.

Do not, however, jump into a fountain. Eight tourists were recently fined 450 euros each for jumping into the Trevi Fountain. Forget the “La Dolce Vita” reenactment. It’s no longer interesting, and it’s no longer free.

This is my seventh summer in Rome. I’ve learned a few things along the way, such as hibernating on my balcony and just eat fruit. I know you visitors can’t do that (You wouldn’t quite fit) so here are 15 tips, A Guide to Roasting Rome (with links to past blogs with more details).

Me at one of the 2,500 nasonis around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Tap water. It’s not illegal to buy bottled water in Rome, but it should be. For 2,000 years Rome has been known for its fantastic tap water. Some of its ancient aqueducts are still in use today, bringing fresh, cold water from the distant mountains to your hotel room. Along with Scandinavia, it’s the best tap water I’ve ever tasted. Instead of spending money on bottled water, go to any bar and order “acqua rubinetto con ghiaccio (tap water with ice).” It’s free and they’ll often bring you a whole pitcher of water with ice on the side. Or you can kneel next to one of the 2,500 cisterns or “nasoni,” the drinking fountains that look like a large nose. Stick your finger over the narrow nose-like opening, and out shoots a stream of fresh, cold water through a hole on top. And it’s cold even in July.

Sperlonga


2. The Beach. Few people know that Rome is on the sea. Its Ostia neighborhood is hard on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is one of many beaches accessible from the city. Ostia’s beach isn’t beautiful. It won’t make you forget Greece. However, it has perfect sand with nary a rock, its water is relatively clean and it’s the perfect temperature. A local train from the Roma Ostia Lido station in the Ostiense neighborhood goes straight to Ostia where you have a short walk to the beach. There are also cheap trains and buses to more beautiful beaches farther south at Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta.

Me at the Sheraton Roma.


3. Pools. Tired of touring? If you’ve seen one more marble statue you’ll turn into one? Find a pool. Rome’s hotels aren’t like Las Vegas’ but most are accessible to the public. A couple times a summer I go to the Sheraton Roma in l’EUR about a 10-minute walk from the EUR Fermi Metro stop. It has a beautiful pool 9 feet deep with padded lounge chairs and a pool bar where they’ll serve you free ice water all day. It’s 20 euros entry and well worth it. But bring snacks. The pool-side menu is expensive. Public pools include Acquaniene in the Parioli neighborhood (15 euros) and Piscina delle Rose (16) also in l’EUR. Here’s a detailed list: https://lolamamma.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/best-swimming-pools-in-rome/.

The world’s most popular food is even more popular now. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Fruit gelato. Everyone eats gelato in Rome, regardless of month. It’s mankind’s favorite food, right? But in summer, go heavy on the fruit flavors. They’re natural. They’re fresh. They’re cool. True Roman gelaterias only use fruit in season. Thus, this month order fragola (strawberry), melone (cantaloupe), pesca (peach), pera (pear), amarena (black cherry), fico (fig). No don’t order fig. Fig sucks. Click here for my five favorite gelaterias in Rome.
5. Museums and churches. It doesn’t matter if your idea of art is a tattoo. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devil worshipper. The one thing you’ll get out of going to Rome’s museums and churches is the cool air. Use the steaming afternoons for your culture ventures. Museums must be air-conditioned to preserve the art and churches somehow are naturally cool, remarkable considering how huge they are. Hey, maybe there is a God.
6. Wear shorts. When I lived here from 2001-03, few men wore shorts. Now it’s chic. However, they must be the right shorts. This is Rome, Italy, not Rome, Georgia. Don’t wear cutoffs. Don’t wear gym shorts. Don’t wear a swimsuit. Wear knee-length shorts with stylish shoes, preferably light shoes such as loafers. You can take advantage of the annual July sale to buy what you need when you arrive.
7. Tour in the morning. Romans get up real early. When in Rome … set your alarm. Or sleep with the drapes open and let the sun wake you up at just before 6 a.m. That’s when I wake. I go across the street to my corner bar, order a cappuccino and cornetto and read the paper in pleasant 75 degrees while the sun comes up. This is the time to hit Rome’s main sights. Go to Piazza Navona before 7 a.m. and you’ll have it nearly all to yourself. I’m a film extra and shot a scene in CBS’ “Blood & Treasure” before dawn at Trevi Fountain. The gurgling torrent of water is even more beautiful when seen without the fountain ringed with cell-snapping tourists.

Lake Nemi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


8. Castelli Romani. This is a series of 14 small towns tucked into the Alban Hills high above Rome southeast of town. Each one has its own attraction: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling, suckling pig so luscious inside fresh bread; Genzano for fresh bread sold all over Rome; Nemi for strawberries; Castel Gandolfo for the pope’s castle retreat above a gorgeous lake. Temperatures drop significantly in these towns and are easy to reach via the COTRAL bus line outside the Anagnina Metro stop or direct train from Termini station.
9. Outdoor clubs at night. I don’t like music but I hear Rome has some good outdoor bars on summer nights. Check out this website for listings and bands: https://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/top-10-outdoor-venues-in-rome-this-summer.html

Mithraeum in Basilicata di San Clemente. Tertullian.org photo


10. Rome underground. This is courtesy of Elyssa Bernard of Romewise: You don’t have to bake at the Forum to see ancient ruins. Rome also has terrific sites underground. Check out the Mithraeum under the Basilicata of San Clemente near the Colosseum. Mithraism was a cult based on Roman mythology in which the god Mithras killed a wild bull and its blood caused plants to grow. Mithraic temples, almost always underground, hosted initiation rites for the Mithraeum followers. Then walk about 500 meters to the Roman houses at Celio where, legend has it, two Roman soldiers lived in the subterranean dwelling until they were beheaded. The houses have 20 highly decorated rooms. Then walk into nearby Parco del Colle Oppio and visit Domus Aurea which Nero built after the fire of 64 AD. Reservations (39-06-3996-7700, http://www.coopculture.it) are highly recommended.
11. Pausa. This is the Italian siesta. From about 1-4:30 p.m., many businesses close. Although Italy’s economic recession has lessened this tradition, many Romans still use this period to take care of personal business, rest, have lunch or visit with friends. When the afternoon heat reaches its peak, go to your air-conditioned room and take a nap. Wake up as the sun starts to set.
11. Lunch inside. One reason I love Rome is I can eat outside about nine months a year. However, in July limit it to breakfast and dinner. Don’t even think about lunch. Even in the shade it’s miserable. The misters many restaurants in Las Vegas and Phoenix and other steaming spots haven’t made their way to Rome. Rome’s restaurants are all air-conditioned and lovely inside. Save the outdoor ambience for the evening.

Marina and me at Terrazza Barromini.


12. Rooftop bars. Speaking of evenings, after the sun sets at about 8:30, head to one of Rome’s many rooftop bars for a cocktail or glass of wine. This is the Rome you’ve read and dreamed about. My two favorites: One, Terazza Barromini atop Palazzo Pamphilj behind the Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone on Piazza Navona. You sit on overstuffed couches while an elegant wait staff whisk drinks to you as you stare out at the rooftops of the churches in Centro Storico. Reservations (39-06-6821-5459) are required. Two, Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican has a beautiful terrace with spectacular views of St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo, the castle Hadrian built and later used as a popes retreat.
13. Ice Club. This is kind of schlocky and can be found in other cities. But when I walk by it on the charming narrow road of Via della Madonna dei Monti in July, I am very tempted to enter. It’s only 15 euros. Inside is 40 tons of ice and 23 degree temperatures. You’re handed a blanket and a menu of different-flavored vodkas. It’s in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum which seems to trap summer heat like a nursery for African violets. I have never visited the Ice Club but some sweltering day I will. Reservations recommended: 39-06-978-45581 or info@iceclubroma.it.

Villa Doria Pamphilj


14. Parks. Believe it or not, Rome has more park acreage than Paris. Our parks just don’t have the cache. Still, they are great places to plop down in the shade by a lake and have a picnic or a bottle of wine. I live in Monteverde just below Villa Doria Pamphilj, a 455-square-acre park covered in Mediterranean pine trees with jogging paths, a huge lake and a 17th century palace once owned by Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. Or go to Villa Borghese and picnic before touring its museum or Villa Ada in the ‘hood of world embassies.
15. Italian craft beer. Italy is the fastest growing beer nation in the world. Twelve years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today there are more than 1,000. They are strong, smooth and varied. You can get IPAs, lagers and Belgian-style ales. My favorite birrerias are Bir & Fud, Via Benedetta 23 in Trastevere, a narrow bar with 30 beers on tap and a small patio, and Open Baladin, a beautiful, back-lit bar near Campo de’ Fiori at Via Degli Specchi 6, featuring 40 beers on tap and many more in a bottle. Here’s a link to a story I did on Rome’s beer boom for BeerAdvocate magazine in 2014. Is drinking beer healthy for beating dehydration? No but screw it. It tastes good.

Menorca: Mallorca’s little brother is the ideal birthday getaway from Rome — or anywhere else

Cala Santa Galdana is just one of the beautiful beaches on Menorca. Photo by Marina Pascucci


SAN LLUIS, Spain — For the last couple of years Marina and I have tossed around a plan to live half the year on an island and half the year in Rome. If there is a more heavenly existence than that, it’s in a religion I don’t believe in. We focused on the Caribbean. I leaned toward Tobago; she favored Antigua. We discussed doing recon missions every summer to scout new islands.

That plan got scuttled when we saw the airlines fleece Italians going to the Caribbean every August, the most extended vacation time Italians have under their society’s Soviet-era work schedule. Every flight was more than 1,000 euros. We also didn’t want to spend our half year in Rome worrying every hurricane season if our newly acquired island flat would wind up kindling in Venezuela.

Then last winter I asked Marina where she wanted me to take her for her birthday in June. We’ve gone all over. Nice. Berlin. Oslo. Her answer surprised me.

“Minorca,” she said.

Huh?

Wait, I told her. I’m not going to Mallorca. The place is a tourist trap, lined with crowded beaches and drunk Englishmen. (Does Mallorca really have fish ‘n chips shops on the beach?) I’ve never been there and don’t normally judge anyplace until visiting it first. But Mallorca sounds like tripe: I don’t need to taste it to know I probably won’t like it.

“No,” she said. “MINN-orca.”

As it turns out, Mallorca’s little sister, which had avoided my rapidly shrinking bucket list for my 63 years, is one of the true pearls of the Mediterranean. I hadn’t heard of it because the Menorcans kind of want to keep it that way.

Located 155 miles southeast of Barcelona, Menorca (English spelling) has a population of 94,000 and is about a 10th the size of Mallorca (pop. 895,000) 80 miles to the southwest. Ibiza, one of the other major islands in the Balearic Islands chain and 190 miles south of Menorca, has 133,000 people and, I hear, almost as many clubs.

A couple on the beach of Punta Prima with the Illa de l’Aire lighthouse in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Abhorring clubs and drunks with equal vitriol, I thought Menorca would be as nice a present to me as Marina. Yet when we landed — it’s only a 90-minute flight from Rome — I knew I’d made one big mistake in my homework. We walked by the car rental desks and each one had at least 10 people in line. We went to the taxi stand and the drivers were doing crossword puzzles. We were the only passengers.

You need a car on Menorca. But this isn’t like you need a car in California. With 270 square miles, Menorca is about the size of El Paso. You can drive the lone main road of ME-1 30 miles from one end to the other in about 40 minutes. Small roads snake off ME-1 to various golden sand beaches, lonely coves and quaint villages.

Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, has no scenic coast road. Instead, it has Cami de Cavalls (Bridal Path), a 115-mile walking path that circumvents the island broken into 20 handy hiking sections. Visitors don’t dance the night away in Menorca.

The walk the day away.

The view from our balcony at the PortBlue Hotel San Luis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Correcting my brain lock was no problem. Our PortBlue Hotel San Luis, part of the PortBlue Spanish chain, arranged for a car to be delivered the following morning. The 133-euro charge for three days began a trend of surprisingly cheap prices for our entire stay.

The hotel is in S’Algar, an unincorporated coastal resort area in Sant Lluis, so named for King Louis IX when France ran the island in the 18th century. The PortBlue is one of the few buildings on the island more than three stories as Menorca’s government put the kibosh on construction for a recent three-year period.

Yes, this is MEN-orca and not MY-orca.

The PortBlue Hotel pool.


The PortBlue isn’t on a beach. But we had a huge swimming pool ringed with comfy lounge chairs, a big air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean less than a mile away. The breakfast buffet, Marina’s find-or-your-life-is-over travel requirement, had more variety than Denny’s.

The PortBlue is one of those all-inclusive resorts where visitors can eat every meal and drink every drink and only leave if the grounds are invaded by cobras. One hotel source said a British couple has been coming here twice a year for the last 45 years. I wonder if they’ve ever seen a beach.

We did not do the all-inclusive. We only did breakfasts, allowing us to explore the island every day for four days. The beaches were atop our list as the island is ringed with rock-free beaches and the kind of secluded coves you dream about while working your 10th straight day at your computer.

We drove to Ferrerias, in the center of the island, and took a left down a well-paved two-lane road to a huge gravel parking lot just above the sea. We walked down a wide, dirt path through a forest for 15 minutes before it emptied out to Cala Mitjana, recommended by our hotel.

Marina and I gasped. We were astonished by the beauty of this small beach on a narrow cove lined with cliffs for diving beneath a forest of trees. The mix of turquoise and blue-green sea looked like a water color on a museum wall. We were also astonished by the crowd. It was packed, towel-to-towel flesh and not a lounge chair in sight. This is called savage where you pack in your own chair and umbrella.

Being spoiled by Italian beaches, which make up for what they lack in barren simplicity with modern comforts, we stayed only 90 minutes and returned to the car. Getting directions from a woman handing out restaurant fliers, we walked out of the parking lot and descended a steep staircase. In five minutes we were at Cala Santa Galdana.

The water at Cala Santa Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Oh, my God!” Marina said in her soft Italian accent.

We had found Spanish Nirvana.

Cala Santa Galdana is a wide, gently curving beach about a kilometer long with fine, white sand and big shady trees scattered along the beach. Each comfy lounge chair had its own thatched umbrella. A couple of restaurants serve fresh fish and beach bars sling cold mugs of underrated Spanish beer.

I was definitely at peace on Cala Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ignored the plethora of screaming children and fat, pasty English tourists and had a lovely two days on the sea. The Mediterranean was crystal clear and just cool enough to ward off dry, mid-80s temperatures. Between the comfy lounge chairs, a good English novel, the occasional cold beer and Marina under the umbrella, I think I saw a glimpse of our future part-time home.

Galdana isn’t even Menorca’s best beach. Cala en Turqueta, about three miles west as the seagull flies, is so popular a sign in the junction town of Ciutadella indicates if Turqueta’s parking lot is full. It always is by 10 a.m.

Menorca’s many outdoor cafes are perfect places for Estrella beer breaks. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The beauty of Menorca is the towns and villages all have their own individual character, fleshed out after a violent history. Formerly part of the Roman Empire, Menorca was also a target of pirates who raided rich Roman establishments. Then came the Vandals, Moors, Catalans, Turks and, presumably, Real Madrid. This is an island that over a 100-year period came under English, French and Spanish rule. The Spanish loved Menorca’s port to launch its naval wars and to begin the slave trade.

Sitting on Sant Lluis’ Carrer de Sant Lluis street, it’s hard to imagine the hardship suffered in a village so quaint. San Lluis is a collection of whitewashed buildings on quiet streets. A 40-foot flour windmill, built in 1792 and operational until 1942, dominates the landscape. An 18th century water well is nearby.

The 18th century windmill in Sant Lluis was operational until 1942. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The narrow road is cut off to cars on weekends but on weekdays not many come, either. We took an outdoor seat at Divinum, a wine bar that has five Menorcan wines in its collection from around the world. Owner Rachel Fletcher, a tall, statuesque wine connoisseur, came to Menorca when she was 9 after her father remarried and fell in love with the island on his honeymoon. He went back to England and brought the kids.

Forty years later, she’s still here. Over a glass of local Binifadet red wine with soft Spanish jazz playing in the background, I asked her what Menorca was like back when she was a kid.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was wonderful. When we came over, there were four English families. We were one of them. That’s it. The port, the harbor, was all brick. If you moved over too much you’d be in the water. And it was real narrow.”

I told her it seems like Menorca has kept its culture. The island government’s restrictions on building have worked.

Carrer de San Lluis street in San Luis.


“Yes, Ibiza and Palma (Mallorca’s capital) have grown a lot more and they’ve got more hotels,” she said. “Here we’ve tried to maintain or keep the architecture. You don’t see huge hotels everywhere.”

Some in Menorca claim they’ve kept growth down too much. Tourism this year is down 30 percent. They blame excessive airport taxes that have made flights here more expensive than to Mallorca. A sample flight from Rome to Menorca on July 26 and returning a week later was 244 euros this week. To Mallorca on the same dates is 172 and with many more times from which to choose.

That’s fine with me. We were able to stroll the lovely city of Ciutadella, Menorca’s largest town with only 29,000 people, without ever running into a tour group in headphones. On the far western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella has quiet streets lined with maple trees, plazas filled with outdoor cafes and people strolling in the summer sun.

The pastel buildings on Ciutadella’s Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat in a quiet courtyard with two facing outdoor cafes. I ordered an ice-cold Estrella from inside where old Spanish women played video poker while young women in stylish shorts walked their dogs past our table. People of all ages biked down bike lanes with palm trees providing shade in the median.

We walked down Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis, an alley lined with small houses of beige and yellow and pink and blue. Pots with blooming flowers sat on window sills. And the town was spotless. In fact, all of Menorca was clean. We nary saw a cigarette butt. Coming from Rome, the filthiest capital in Europe, I almost felt as if I should take off my shoes.

Ciutadella’s harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“They are very recycling friendly,” said Vanesa Rodriguez, our hotel manager. “Everybody on the island is very responsible with the nature.”

At the end of the alley we saw Ciutadella’s beautiful harbor, a narrow inlet lined with pleasure craft bobbing up and down on cobalt blue water.

It made us want to jump in. So we did. I got us on a 3 ½-hour catamaran cruise out of Fornells, the major port town in the north. We joined about eight others from Sweden and Germany on a 40-foot boat under cloudless skies and pleasant wind.

Marina and I in front of Ciutadella’s 19th century city hall.


Few expensive pleasures are better than a sailboat ride on a perfect day. Spray over the bouncing bow cooled us off as we sunbathed on deck. When I gathered enough energy, I raised my head 12 inches and saw the high cliffs showing the geological marks dating back to the Jurassic Period. Due to the dryness, Menorca isn’t beautiful from sea. We passed barren land mass as we skirted around the west end of the island.

Snorkeling revealed remarkable visibility of about 60 feet. That’s South Pacific level for Europe where I’ve always avoided scuba diving despite being certified for 36 years. A school of a local seabream called an oblada circled around my fins before being served up in local restaurants later that week.

I came

The 40-foot catamaran even had a windsurfing board. Photo by Marina Pascucci

aboard and the captain greeted me with a pomada, an addictingly sweet local drink made from Menorca gin and lemon soda. With a little ice, it is what a Spritz is to Italy or a martini to Manhattan.

Besides the beaches, the tranquility and the villages, our other draw to Menorca was food. While Italy has the best food in the world (Shut up, you French. Tartare sucks.), Spain is certainly in the top 10. The fresh seafood along its 3,000-mile coastline, combined with its national dish of paella, its tapas and variety of grilled meats make dining out anywhere in Spain a gastro kaleidoscope.

Our paella at La Oveja Negra on Punta Prima. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We started out with seafood paella, Spain’s big sloppy skillet filled with brown rice, clams, mussels and octopus all swimming in a thick sauce. We found it La Oveja Negra, part of the string of casual, open-air restaurants lining Punta Prima, the beach just south of S’Algar. La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) has a sign listing all its different paellas, ranging from lobster to chicken and artichokes. It’s one of the heartiest dishes in Europe and the perfect fuel for a walk along the quiet beach in the moonlight.

At Meson El Gallo.


We ventured further afield to Meson El Gallo, a long one-story converted house in a garden covered with shady tree branches along the road to Cala Santa Galdana. A giant cactus stood in the parking lot, giving it the feel of a hacienda in rural Arizona. The waiters all wore jeans and T-shirts. If it was any more casual it would be a beach bar. But I had a terrific, lean steak in cheese sauce and a glass of Rioja, Spain’s internationally famous red wine that can’t match Italy’s gems but on a Spanish island in the middle of summer no other world wine is a better match.

But if Spain doesn’t have a law requiring every visitor to try tapas, it should. Tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres. These are not chips and dip or celery sticks. These are handcrafted snacks, usually hot, using everything from fresh fish to spicy sausage.

Salud to Menorca. We will return. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We returned to Carere Sant Lluis and took an outdoor seat at S’Olivera, next door to Divinum. From an entire page of tapas, we ordered little plates of croquetas de endivia (a breadcrumbed green vegetable native to Menorca), tiras de pollo (chicken fingers with salsa curry and mango sauce), camembert con jalea de moras (goat cheese with blueberry jam) and good ol’ fashioned fish ‘n chips. It was just the right amount of food and with a glass of wine each, the total bill was all of 33 euros.

About 80 percent of Menorca’s businesses close from about Oct. 1 to April 30. Still, that leaves about five months of pure island bliss, away from Rome’s heat during the tourist season and its growing garbage all year round.

Living in Menorca is a long way off but as this long weekend proved, it’s not just the destination. It’s the journey that’s the most fun.

Almaty: Kazakhstan’s former capital a beacon of post-Soviet modernization — if only the government kept step

Almaty, a city of 1.7 million, has four ski resorts and countless hiking trails within 30 kilometers.


(Second of a four-part series on a three-week trip through Central Asia)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — I was sitting in what can only be described as an Arabic gazebo. My table sat under a pointed roof with drapes on four sides pulled back like on a square four-poster bed. It looked more like a harem tent in the Sahara than a dining table in Central Asia.

But then came the food. Then more food. And more food. From meat dumplings to cheese soup, from horse jerky to camel’s milk, I dined like a true Arab prince. After chewing laboriously on mutton in Kyrgyzstan, I had found the culinary capital of Central Asia.

Almaty represents what happens when former Soviet republics discover their own natural riches and spend them lavishly. The largest city and economic engine of the world’s ninth-largest country is awash in high-end restaurants, rollicking nightclubs, shiny shopping malls, leafy boulevards, efficient public transportation and cozy cafes. It’s what likely came to mind 30 years ago when oppressed subjects of the old USSR dreamed about a future democracy.

The national government? Well, it hasn’t caught up on the democracy scale, as 700 protesters confirmed this week when they were arrested over what they viewed as mock elections. Kazakhstan is like one of the shiny SUVs I saw cruising up tree-lined Nazarbaev, one of Almaty’s many pretty streets. The SUV looks great from the outside but inside grinds the engine of a 1965 Trabant.

Still, from the outside? Oh, that body!

I had an eight-hour layover in Almaty on my Almaty Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Thanks to Kazakhstan’s no-visa policy for Americans, I cruised right out of the airport skipping past immigration and customs and had a pleasant afternoon in one of the world’s most underrated cities.

High-rise apartment houses have popped up all over Almaty since independence in 1991.


Almaty, a city of 1.7 million people, is blessed with some of Asia’s most breathtaking urban scenery. On the ride into downtown, the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountains seemingly came right up to the road’s guardrails. If I had more time I would’ve taken a bus to the city’s outskirts and some of the country’s best hiking, some leading to 4,000-meter peaks. Or if it was winter, I could go to one of the four ski resorts within about 30 kilometers of the city.

But it was a dry, sunny 80 degrees. I had six hours before getting back to the airport. For a quick look at the city, I took a gondola up to Kok-Tobe, Almaty’s landmark playground hill that was built in 2006. Up top, I walked around restaurants with outdoor seating, crafts stores, a kiddie playground, tame carnival rides, a rollicking sled ride and a life-size bronze statue of the Beatles, the only sculpture in the world featuring all four together. Just past a small zoo where male peacocks displayed a massive spread of white feathers about three meters across, I stood under the 372-meter TV tower that can be seen from all over the region.

On Kok-Tobe, the recreational playground established atop a mountain in 2006.


However, I came up for the views. They were spectacular and showed a modern city blending new world wealth with old Soviet-style architecture. In 2016, Kazakhstan was the world’s No. 16 oil producer, pumping out 1.6 million barrels a day. Below me were what rose from seeds planted: glittery, high-rise apartment houses, the windows all sparkling in the sun. Just past them stood some trademark Soviet-era buildings like the 26-story Hotel Kazakhstan, built in 1977 with a spiked, pointy roof, like a Soviet spaceship ready to take off; the egalitarian-named Central State Museum, with its beautiful sky blue dome built in 1985; and the blockish, yellow Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, boasting of Soviet technology since 1946.

The city has the most interesting ethnic mix of any I saw through four Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan’s population of 17.8 million, by far the largest in Central Asia, is 65 percent Kazakhs whose Asian features are much more delicate than the Kyrgyz. While a Muslim country, Kazakhstan has much heavier Russian influence. Concerned about the Nazis overrunning his factories along the European borders, Joseph Stalin moved thousands of workers and factories to Kazakhstan. When old Russians talked about a prison “in the middle of nowhere,” they may not have been talking about Siberia. Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in the number of gulags.

Talk to some locals today and you think maybe the country hasn’t changed much.

This week’s massive protests and arrests that made international news centered around elections that have become comical. Like many other ex-Soviet republics that put in charge the old communist guard following independence, Kazakhstan put in place Nursultan Nazarbayev. The son of a poor laborer and growing up in the mountains, Nazarbayev had been an old Soviet hand who became Kazakhstan’s first secretary of its communist party in 1989. Still clinging on to the communist apron strings in Moscow, he did not want the USSR to collapse and, thus, Kazakhstan became the last Central Asian country to become independent.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, left, ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until he abruptly resigned in March. His hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, won Sunday’s election with 71 percent of the vote. Al Jazeera photo


Since then, he has engineered Kazakhstan into the forefront of progressive ex-Soviet republics. In 1998 he moved the capital from Almaty to the more centrally located Astana and poured money into a glittery new skyline that has attracted the world’s top architects. Using oil resources and an eye on tourism, Kazakhstan has grown into an urban paradise rivaling many Western European countries and a trendy off-the-beaten-path destination for intrepid travelers.

However, in openly admitting he favors economics over democracy, he has won a string of five-term elections that have been nothing short of formalities. In his last election in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote. The other 2 percent, apparently, voted for themselves.

Then in March, he resigned. No one knows exactly why but it came one month after he fired his entire government for economic growth that didn’t meet his expectations. In response, the capital of Astana was renamed, in his honor, Nur-Sultan.

The people hoped for true open elections for the first time since independence. Instead, interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, took 71 percent of the vote Sunday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has refused to recognize Kazakhstan’s elections as fully democratic. Police have raided homes of activists; journalists have been detained.

The people took to the streets in protests despite a law against protests. With exiled activists promising more demonstrations soon, Tokayev was sworn in Wednesday with Nazarbayev expected to wield plenty of power as head of his Nur-Otan political party

Fortunately, I caught Almaty in the calm before the storm.

The hammock and dining areas at Qamaq.


Nothing can be calmer than sitting in said makeshift tent dining on a vast array of local cuisine. Qamaq is one of the new gems on the Almaty restaurant scene. Opened just last year, it is the place to go for an introduction into Kazakh food.

Not to say Qamaq’s atmosphere is laid back but there’s a hammock by the bar, perhaps for food comas.

Thankfully in the shade, I ordered a Line, one of Kazakhstan’s fine national beers. I should’ve saved room for food. The intake was massive. First came a warm salad of green vegetables that tasted a little like chop suey. Second were little cheese balls called kurt, so dry and chewy I needed an entire Line to get one down. It was, however, quite delicious and surely should come soon to taverns in the American South.

Karta, top, and beshbarmak, two of Kazakhstan’s favorite horse meat dishes.


Later came a bowl of what looked like horse jerky. They were little round shavings of dark maroon horse meat called karta. I like horse meat and it’s naturally popular in Kazakhstan where Genghis Khan once raped, pillaged and plundered while leaving only the Mongol cuisine behind. I’m not particularly fond of horses. Thus, I had no problem devouring the entire bowl. It tastes like venison but not nearly as gamey.

Them came the main horse. The national dish of beshbarmak is a bowl filled with huge chunks of horsemeat on a bed of flat, square noodles. Next was a soup, kind of a bouillabaisse, in which I added a dollop of cream cheese. Then came the samsan, fried triangle square filled with meat.

When in Kazakhstan, pass on the fermented camel’s milk.


By this time, after snacking on fried dough in a dill dip, I was about ready to explode. What better way to wash it all down but with …

… fermented camel’s milk.

It’s called shubat and came in a small bowl that looked like something I’d give a cat — preferably a starving cat. I picked it up, took one sip and made a face that looked like I swallowed mating cockroaches. It was as sour as a lemon and room temperature. In a lifetime of eating weird foods in weird places, camel’s milk made my bottom 10.

Qamaq is one reason Almaty is the culinary capital of Central Asia.


At the end of a long layover, it was one step back after many steps forward, kind of like Kazakhstan. As the country pulls itself off the Russian steppe, let’s see if its new motor is a BMW or a Trabant.

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Director’s note: I’m traveling. Below is a re-posting of a blog from two years ago.)

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci


For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.