Georgian wine: An 8,000-year-old tradition is popping corks around the world

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union's top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union’s top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.


TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.

About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.

Wine.

Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.

Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.

During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.

Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.

“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”

***

To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Kakhuri Winery's vineyard

Kakhuri Winery’s vineyard


Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.

The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo


Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.

The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”

Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.

But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.

And that was just Friday.

Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.

“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”

Georgian toasts, called "Supra," are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo

Georgian toasts, called “Supra,” are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo


They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.

Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.

Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.

“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”

How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”

And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.

***

I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.

The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.

Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:

Kakhuri Winery

Kakhuri Winery


KAKHURI WINERY.
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.

The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.

Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.

Kakhuri's tasting room.

Kakhuri’s tasting room.


Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.

My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.


ROSTOMAANT MARANI

This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.

With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.

“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”

I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.

When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.


This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.

“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”

His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.


TELAVI WINE CELLAR

Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.

“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”

He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.

Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.

“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”

Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.

“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.

My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.

Vita Vinea's family vintage bottle.

Vita Vinea’s family vintage bottle.


VITA VINEA WINERY

Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”

It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.

“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.

He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”

My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.

Me in Vaziani Company.

Me in Vaziani Company.


VAZIANI COMPANY
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.

I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.

After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.

It was also Stalin’s favorite.

Republic of Georgia: A hike through wine’s birthplace is a yummy treat but Georgians would like a bigger bite

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.


TBILISI, Republic of Georgia — The statue of St. George stands high above Freedom Square in this charming riverside capital. Like a gold beacon, the country’s namesake sits astride his bucking horse as his sword slays a dragon beneath him. Until 2006, the statue was Vladimir Lenin, another man who slayed a few dragons then created a nation of them. He also set the stage for one of Georgia’s favorite native sons, Joseph Stalin.

Georgia could use another hero, and maybe one not so violent. A country of only 3.7 million people, its tourism is starting to boom. More than 2.7 million tourists came in 2016 bringing in $2.16 billion. However, broiling underneath its growing international reputation like molten lava is turmoil and unrest. Keep in mind Georgia was once called “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union.” Sure, that’s a little like being the best violinist in Nebraska but after nearly two weeks in Georgia I can confirm that its food and wine are planetary stalwarts. Add in some mountain scenery and spectacular hiking in the highly underrated Caucasus mountains and you have an outdoors/culinary vacation few countries its size can match.

Georgia is the gateway to Western Asia. It’s a Christian Orthodox country bordered by the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan and Turkey with Russia still looming hauntingly to the north and Armenia peacefully to the south. Despite gaining independence in 1991, Georgia has two breakaway republics under Russian control called South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mysterious and foreboding, they are like Austin and the panhandle telling the State of Texas to take a hike and do not enter.

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo


Unlike other former Soviet republics enjoying prosperity such as Czech Republic and Lithuania, Georgia can’t find its serenity, even 27 years after communism. It’s basically run by its richest man, a former Soviet oligarch named Bidzina Ivanishvili whose fortune equals one third of the country’s entire gross national product. He founded the Georgia Dream party that now rules the country with somewhat of an iron fist. Protests abound. Tents have been set up in front of the Soviet-era Parliament building, a must stop on the Tbilisi walking tour. Protests and strikes are coming as common as street construction. As recently as May 12, 4,000 people protested the overnight drug raid of two nightclubs by setting up camp in front of Parliament and dancing well past midnight. Earlier this month, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned.

On paper, Georgia seems to have escaped the post-communist economic collapse experienced in much of mother Russia. Unemployment has dropped steadily since a 2009 high of 16.9 percent to 12. Its inflation rate is only 2.4 percent, and it’s second among all former Soviet republics in foreign investment.

But talk to the people and their dreams from the early days of democracy have yet to be reached.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.


With St. George looming above and the start of a warm summer settling in on a well-lit early evening, I sat down in one of the many outdoor bars ringing Freedom Square with Nika Tsiklauri. Short, fit, with dark, wavy hair and glasses, the 34-year-old has worked in a bank’s credit card office for 10 years and makes $10,000 a year. For extra money he rents out his family’s two extra rooms up the street as an AirBnB.

“There are many poor people in Georgia,” he said as we sipped an industrial-tasting Georgian beer called Taglaura. “They’re either poor because there aren’t enough high-income jobs or there are no jobs.”

He talked about how Mikheil Saakashvili took over in 2003 at the end of communism and “built the city from ruins.” Saakashvili took a pro-tourism, pro-West slant. He expelled corrupt politicians and attracted Western investments. He reconstructed old, crumbling districts such as the area around Freedom Square which is now one of the heartbeats of Tblisi’s pulsating nightlife.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.


But in 2008 Saakashvili’s military lost a costly war with Russia over South Ossetia. Bitter and defensive, he began governing with an autocratic air and became intolerant of opposition, thus ushering in the likes of Ivanishvili. Many feel the country is regressing.

“He promised people that the development of Georgia will be much faster so everything will be much better but some promises were not kept,” Tsiklauri said. “Like many people in Georgia, like 30 percent of Georgian people think he’s a man of Russia. He’s not interested in politics. He has billions of dollars. But he still feels he maintains his power and it will continue but it comes from Russia.”

Georgia is a classic case of how politics, egos, power and crisscrossing economic systems can stain an otherwise idealistic landscape. Like blood stains on a chef’s apron, Georgia marches on touting its food and wine and mountains. They put on a happy face for travelers and dish out grub, booze and scenery that we’ll all remember much more than resigning government officials, their faces masks of shame.

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo


I became aware of Georgian cuisine on my first trip to Russia in 2005. My contacts in Moscow glowed about their nights out in the Georgian restaurants scattered around one of the world’s fastest-growing restaurant cities. I joined them and marveled at its grilled meats, semi-sweet red wine and khachapuri, Georgia’s signature thick, gooey cheese pie.

Thirteen years later, I took the recommendation of a Tbilisi friend and dined at Barbarestan, a classic old Georgian restaurant that recalls images of pre-revolutionary Russia when the wealthy bourgeoisie dined in places like this. I walked across huge throw rugs on wooden floors under a vaulted brick ceiling with lanterns holding burning candles. Waiters dashed around in white dress shirts and suspendered trousers.

A waiter came over and handed me the cookbook. I thought it was going to fall apart in my hand. It was from 1914 and the inspiration for the restaurant 2 ½ years ago after a man found the book at Dry Bridge, Tbilisi’s open air flea market. Of the 807 recipes listed, Barbarestan makes 125 of them. The original cookbook dating back to 1874 is even more fragile and is under lock and key.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.


I ordered the Lazuri khachapuri, a big, round cheese pie with double cheese on top. It looks like a small, thick, Chicago-style pizza. Instead, its filled with Georgia’s salty gouda-style cheese. I tired of the cheese during hikes but baked in a pie, to go along with another Georgia classic, its walnut salad with sunflower oil, it was a great way to jump into a gastronomic paradise. The best part? The whole meal, including two glasses of wine, was all of 60 lari (about 21 euros).

Yes, as in Italy, no matter how depressed Georgians get about the state of their country, they always have dinner to look forward to. It all starts with wine which is apropos as Georgia is where wine began. It’s true. Archaeologists have found remnants of clay pots here dating back 8,000 years. They were used to ferment wine underground, making Georgia the birthplace of wine, a handle Georgians are never too modest to point out.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.


The center of Georgian wine country is Kakheti, Georgia’s far east region where sun-splashed wine vineyards share space with beautiful churches and castles, all with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. I took a marshrutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of public transport, about two hours to Telavi, the base for wine tasting.

Wine tasting in Georgia isn’t like in Tuscany or Napa Valley. It’s smaller scale in terms of number, facilities and popularity. The Telavi area has about 20 commercial wineries, all within a cheap taxi ride of each other. Many of the wineries were built during communism, meaning you have blockish, concrete, Soviet-style architecture as opposed to the castle-like fortresses and villas of wineries in California and Italy. In two days of wine tasting, I saw only two other customers, both British expats living in Georgia.

But in terms of quality, Georgian wine can share the table with the Italian reds and California whites. Any day. Georgia concentrates on three kinds of wines: dry reds, semi-sweet reds and sparkling wines. The 2015 Okro’s Wines Mtsvano Pet-Nat was voted one of the top 10 wines in the world by Esquire, and the number of other awards I saw covered the entire wall of the Telavi Wine Cellar.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.


And yes, most still use the same methods as 8,000 years ago when mankind, dressed in animal furs, raised toasts to celebrate the end of the last Ice Age. Almost every winery had a room with round deep holes where they buried the clay pots, called qvevri, to ferment the wine six months, just as their ancestors did. The end result is an all-natural wine without the mass sulfites and preservatives of American wine. At my last wine tasting, a medium-sized winery called Vaziani Company, I tasted 10 wines, all about half a glass each. Yet the next morning, I didn’t have a headache.

I couldn’t walk, but I didn’t have a headache.

Wine production in Georgia goes beyond the commercial wineries which are exporting all over the world, thanks to a Russian embargo, improved marketing and savvy travel writers (which I’ll contribute to in next week’s blog about Georgian wine). Many families produce wine in their own back rooms.

I visited Irakli Rostomashvili who restarted the family wine business, called Rostomaant Marani, after the communists came in 1921 and took over all wine production. He has a small stone tasting room next to a room of six qvevri. Rostomashvili epitomizes the Georgian love affair with wine.

Over a glass of his best-selling Rkatsiteli, a dry white wine, he said, “I like wine. For me, everything is wine. Without wine, everything is nothing.”

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.


One of Georgia’s best attributes is after two days of drinking wine and eating cheese pie, it’s not hard to work it off. I took a five-hour marshrutka ride to the town of Kazbegi, the heart of the old Georgian Military Highway and the entry point for the spectacular Caucasus. Hiking in Georgia is hiking off the beaten path. This isn’t the Colorado Rockies where signage resembles something off an L.A. freeway. It’s not the Alps where hikers sometimes outnumber sheep.

It’s often just you — and a path, straight up and straight down.

However, the peaks are more beautiful than the Alps and Rockies, if not as high as in Colorado. But six are more than 5,000 meters and the range stretches 1,200 kilometers from the Black to the Caspian seas.

They’re covered in snow all year round and they are spectacularly beautiful. Hovering over Kazbegi, a pretty little town of 2,500 at 1,750 meters elevation near the Russian border, is Mt. Kazbek, a gorgeous 5,047-meter extinct volcano. Just below it, like a jewel on a necklace, sits Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Church. It’s a 1,000-meter climb to the church and then you can hike all the way to the Kazbek base camp with gorgeous views back to the church and town below.

Not believing it could get better, it did. After two days of hiking (which I’ll chronicle in a blog in two weeks), I flew from Tbilisi to Mestia, home of the Great Caucasus in the far north. The 45-minute flight alone, just below the mountain peaks, rivaled the 1987 flight I took past the Himalayas into Kathmandu. Jagged, individual peaks, all covered in snow, outlining green meadows with specks of villages and wind-swept flurries off mountaintops beyond.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.


In Mestia, over three days, I hiked up to a ski resort, took a chair lift back up the next day and hiked to a TV tower then hiked 1,000 meters straight up to a legendary cross that overlooks the entire town. Everywhere I went, every turn I took, every step I made, I had a panorama view of an incredible snow-covered mountain range. In few spots did I see people. It was like walking alone through the Ice Age — except for the daypack full of food.

Each night I made the nightly pilgrimage to Leila’s, a restaurant-bar where in the morning I’d beef up for hikes with khikhlinko, thick, homemade Georgian bread fried with scrambled eggs, a dish so good you wonder why U.S. ski resorts haven’t picked up on it. It’s a native dish of the Svans, the ethnic group for which the Svaneti region is named. Tall stone towers the Svans used for defense are scattered around Mestia like middle fingers.

The Svans were known for taking blood revenge but you wouldn’t know it by the marvelous native dance performances they did every night inside Leila’s. A five-man band playing native songs on drums and guitars while a young guy in long, curly black hair twirled around the floor like a Swirling Dervish. I don’t like ethnic dance performances much. They seem too fake and stilted, packaged entirely for tourists. But in this isolated town in the heart of the Great Caucasus, with so many locals hanging out, it had an air of authenticity. Watching with a big glass of Saperavi, Georgia’s most famous wine, certainly helped me get into the mood.

The nine-hour marshrutka ride back to Tbilisi revealed the old Georgia that the new Georgia has failed to modernize. We chugged down in elevation and came across crude apartment houses with peeling paint and barred windows in small towns long past their usefulness. Factories that once churned out whatever product was essential in Soviet households lay barren and abandoned. Old women bundled up like babushkas wobbled unsteadily along dusty streets.

Once back in Tbilisi I met Anna Surguladze, 22, and her friend, Demetre Nikabadze. I know Surguladze from Rome’s Language Tandem Meetup group where we all sit around and butcher each other’s languages once a week. She represents the new Georgia where everyone under 30 is fluent in English after 11 years of study and everyone over 40 can’t count to three. She is a financial analyst but unlike many of her brethren, she doesn’t want to leave Georgia to find a better life.

“I have experience living abroad for a couple of years,” she said. “I want to have some impact on my society.”

We met at Cafe Le Toit on one of the many bustling side streets off Freedom Square. A gloomy waitress, representative of the generally lousy restaurant service around the country, couldn’t put a damper on the lovely trappings. Cafe Le Toit looks like your grandmother’s living room with big, comfortable chairs, flowered wallpaper and a gaudy chandelier hanging over it all. On the quaint balcony, I asked Surguladze what was Georgia’s biggest problem.

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi


“Education and economics,” she said. “It’s an education system that’s really outdated. It’s old. Nowadays today’s youngsters are much more free than their ancestors were, than their parents were, because they were raised in the Soviet era and they were taught to think the way it was written in their books. Nowadays in the schools these people teach youngsters, youngsters who are more free and liberal.

“These people who are the teachers, who are their parents, they’re from the Soviet Union. They don’t know what freedom is. They don’t teach children how to analyze things, how to think more openly. They just expect from the children to obey the rules. They don’t teach them creative thinking or help them to become grownups and about life.”

Later, Surguladze took us on a field trip up and down the narrow cobblestone roads in Tbilisi’s old town. With a flight at 3:30 a.m., my game plan was to pull an all-nighter, an easy task in Tbilisi. We wound up in a dive underground brick bar called Zoestan where I continued my tour across Georgia’s wine map, however unsteadily.

Young Georgians seem alive. They laugh. They go out. They dream. They protest. At least, they do much more than their parents did. Surguladze said there is a lot I didn’t see in two weeks.

“Many families are almost nearly starving,” she said. “They don’t have sufficient money to provide for themselves and their kids. Youngsters want to leave Georgia mainly because they think it’ll be better in Europe, with a better perspective.”

As I carried my backpack into Freedom Square to catch a cab, I said goodbye to Georgia, to the wine stores I walked by so many times and the teetering revilers I left behind. I took a last look at St. George, high atop the horse, still shining in gold well past midnight. He slew the dragon in the statue, leaving me with one lasting thought.

Georgia still has so many dragons to slay.

Gelato wars: My five favorite gelaterias in Rome

Italy has 19,000 gelaterias. Here are my five favorite in Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Italy has 19,000 gelaterias. Here are my five favorite in Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It was my birthday Thursday and what’s a great way to spend your birthday week in Rome? How about eating gelato every day? You can do that here. Sure, you can do that in Nebraska, too, but soon you’ll look like most of the people around you. Here in Rome gelato is considered one of the four major food groups, along with wine, pasta and local politicians. Like everything else in Italy, gelato is all natural, as pure as the olives in olive oil and grapes in wine.

I’ve done this before. When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, I wrote a major tome about gelato for SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine. I roamed the city on hot summer days, tasting gelato, interviewing gelateria owners, interviewing panting customers from around the world. Hey, it beat covering Iraq.

As one English tourist told me as she ate a large tub of nocciolo (hazelnut), mirtilli (blueberry) and caramel creme, “Is gelato ice cream or a Roman god?”

Good question. So cold. So sweet. So good. Why is gelato Italy’s favorite food?

It is Italy’s lunch break, its afternoon snack, its nightcap. Softer than industrialized ice cream you find in the U.S. and harder than soft ice cream spit out from machines in restaurant chains, gelato has the perfect velvety texture. In a country built on art and driven by romance, gelato is the fuel that ignites the masses. It also unites them. Strolling the cobblestone passageways snaking off Piazza Navona or in front of the 2nd century Pantheon, romantic Romans can’t seem to hold their lover’s hand without holding a gelato in their other one.

“When you eat a cone, it is love,” said Nazzareno Giolittli, owner of Giolitti, the hugely popular gelateria near the Pantheon. “It’s not possible for American people to walk along the street because it’s too frantic. Rome, it’s more slow. It’s a tradition to walk around the city. When old people look at ice cream, they become young again.”

Gelato doesn't travel well so one must come to Italy to taste the real deal. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Gelato doesn’t travel well so one must come to Italy to taste the real deal. Photo by Marina Pascucci


And I’m old. I turned 62 Thursday. But as I licked my way across Rome this week, I felt the same as I did when I first came to Italy and had my first gelato in front of the Duomo in Milan. I was 22. I’m firmly convinced if I keep eating gelato in Rome I’ll be young forever.

I don’t have to go far to find it. According to Bloomberg Markets, Italy has 19,000 gelaterias which in 2016 sold 157 million gallons. That equates to 6.8 billion scoops. Italians eat an average of 100 scoops a year for a total annual sale of more than $1.7 billion. According to Confcommercio, the gelateria industry employs 69,000 people. Considering Italy is going through its biggest recession since World War II, the gelato industry in Italy is as important as the auto industry in Detroit, except you get more mileage out of gelato.

The key is finding the right gelateria. Gelateria owners — or gelato jockeys as I call them — I talked to and my own mouth-watering wanderings over the years estimate that only about 20 percent of the gelaterias are natural. The rest are industrialized frauds using artificial ingredients and coloring to make the flavors look more inviting. As a result, their gelato is as inviting and real as the hookers flirting behind the windows in Amsterdam.

Want a tip? It’s easy. If the gelato is big and puffy and bright, it probably has more artificial ingredients than a small jet engine. Air creates that puffiness. And if the banana flavor is bright yellow and the pistachio bright green, keep walking. Think about it. Both fruits are kind of grayish. Real gelaterias present their gelato flattened in tubs. The ingredients are concentrated, real, natural.

Even healthy.

Yes, natural gelato is not real fattening. One hundred grams of gelato, depending on whether its fruit or cream based, is between 100 and 200 calories. One hundred grams of Cherry Garcia, one of Ben & Jerry’s most popular flavors, is about 300 calories. Also, eating an American ice cream cone isn’t the same when you’re walking around a suburban strip mall.

Cream flavors consist of egg yolks, milk or cream, sugar plus whatever flavor, be it chocolate or hazelnut or whatever. Fruit flavors consist of water or milk, sugar and fresh fruit. The real gelaterias change flavors with the season. You won’t find mango in January; you won’t find pear in July. It’s spring and fragole (strawberries) and lamponi (raspberries) are starting to return.

I remember Pasquale Allongi, owner of San Crispino, which The New York Times once called the best gelateria in Rome, flew in grapes from Chile. For his coffee flavor he used Blue Mountain coffee from Kenya. For his zabaione (marsala custard), he used marsala aged 25 years.

What do the industrialized gelaterias use? Picture a gelato jockey opening a bag.

Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge near the Vatican. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge near the Vatican. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“It’s faster,” said Gianluciano Mereu, owner of Old Bridge, my first favorite gelateria dating back to 2001. “For example, to do lemon or orange gelato, I must squeeze 20 kilos of oranges and lemons to make five liters of juice. They just open a sack and pour in powder for a few seconds. That’s the problem. It’s disgusting.”

Meanwhile, American ice cream is packed with vegetable fats for longer shelf life. What results is the shelf life of Ivory soap. The vegetable fats make it so hard, you not only can serve it with a knife and fork, it’s advisable.

However, gelato does owe something to the American ice cream industry. The ice cream cone was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. At the time, ice cream had been in the U.S. since 1851 when it came to Baltimore and stabilizers were used to freeze it faster.

By that time, gelato had been in Italy for about 2,000 years. Arabian Sarazens brought to Sicily iced fruits known as sherberts which comes from the Arabic word sharba, meaning “fresh ice.” During the height of the Roman Empire, the Roman aristocracy often relaxed with a form of gelato made from fruit puree, honey and snow. They’d pack snow from Mt. Tolfa in the nearby Anti-Apennines mountains and carry it to Rome, using fresh horses every few miles.

Consequently, it was only a winter dish. Today, gelato is the Italian food of choice all year round. Emperors and paupers, senators and actors, English teachers and retired journalists.

You can't have gelato without panna. You just CAN'T! Photo by Marina Pascucci

You can’t have gelato without panna. You just CAN’T! Photo by Marina Pascucci


Another major aspect that sets apart Italian gelato is the panna (whipped cream). They all give it free, a big fat white fluffy dollop on top and it’s mostly handmade, not the Reddi Wip for which my old faux pas gelateria in Denver charged $1.50. It adds a creamy touch to the palate, not to mention a good excuse to lick your date’s nose when she misses.

Panna, however, can get you into trouble. It once got me thrown out of a gelateria. True story. Some guys get thrown out of bars in border towns. Some get thrown out of political rallies. I get thrown out of an ice cream parlor. I was at Giolitti’s first store, in my Testaccio neighborhood. An old crusty owner served me a cone and asked me if I wanted panna.

I said, “Of course. Gelato without panna is like sex without an orgasm.” I thought it was funny. Most gelato jockeys laugh, especially the women. He scowled, pointed at the door and said, “VAI VIA! (GO AWAY!). I wasn’t mad. I didn’t blame him. The guy probably hadn’t had an orgasm since Mussolini was hanging from his toes.

I recalled that story this week but something else hit me. If I’ve lived here 5 ½ years and am a regular gelato junkie, I need a top five list, one I can send to friends who need recommendations. Old Bridge is the only one that survived the test of time and never left the ranking, kind of like Duke basketball or Beyonce. For help, I blasted an email on my Expats Living in Rome Meetup website and asked for everyone’s favorite gelateria. I received more than 70 responses totaling 30 different spots. While I did my best to hit each one, I came up short before I started just injecting the black cherry gelato straight into my arm.

I used the survey as a research guide but mostly used my own past and taste for my top five gelaterias of Rome. They are all small. They are all inconspicuous. They are all authentic. And they will spoil you forever:

The dark chocolate dip at Brivido. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The dark chocolate dip at Brivido. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Brivido, (Neighborhood: Testaccio), Via Giovanni Battista Bodoni 62, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Living five minutes away, I’ve made Brivido my nightcap. It’s cheaper than another glass of wine and much healthier. Although purists can argue that getting the free dip into big vats of white and dark chocolate isn’t healthy or traditional, I’m not traditional, either. Biting into a hard, white-chocolate coating and sinking your tongue into soft, creamy flavors of all natural ingredients is my idea of ending the day.

My favorite flavor, amarena (black cherry), is especially good here as they use raw cherries. I loved the new flavor I tried this week, arachide (peanut). Brivido also has a whole line of vegan flavors.

Since 1986 it has occupied a quiet street corner in my Testaccio neighborhood just a block from legendary Piazza Testaccio where you can now find fathers and sons playing soccer around the giant fountain. Owner Mady Amodeo laments how the spread of industrialized gelaterias in Rome has contributed to the fall of mankind, pointing to her pasteurization machines behind the display window to show the work she puts in every day.

There's always a crowd at Old Bridge. Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s always a crowd at Old Bridge. Photo by Marina Pascucci


2. Old Bridge, (Prati), Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo, http://www.gelateriaoldbridge.com, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.

This is extraordinarily biased as I’ve been going here for 17 years. Even between Rome habitations, I made beelines here on vacations. It’s a tiny shop with no tables or chairs just west of massive Piazza del Risorgimento. On sunny days Old Bridge is in the shadow of the Vatican wall.

I’ve always liked Old Bridge because of its portions. They’re the largest in Rome but do not sacrifice their natural ingredients.

“Since we opened 30 years ago, we try to use two components: the quality and the quantity of the product,” Mereu said. “We always thought that these two things together are fundamental for the success of our work. So we prefer to earn a little less but we give something more to our clients. It’s our philosophy to thank them.”

Like many gelaterias, Old Bridge goes to great lengths for its natural products. For its most popular flavor, pistachio, Mereu gets pistachios from Sicily near a volcano where the earth is richest. “They’re the best pistachios in the world,” he said.

Another Old Bridge has returned to Trastevere at Via della Scala 70.

Matteo Mercolini and Pietro Smarrazzo of Grezzo.

Matteo Mercolini and Pietro Smarrazzo of Grezzo.


3. Grezzo, (Monti), Via Urbana 130, http://www.grezzoitalia.it., Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Matteo Mercolini, 28, became a vegan four years ago and did plenty of research on the health benefits and diet. Ironically, Grezzo opened four years ago in an inconspicuous shop in Monti, arguably Rome’s hippest, liveliest neighborhood today. It’s not so ironic that Mercolini took a job here slingin’ gelato two weeks ago.

“After I taste this my conception of gelato totally changed,” he told me. “I can not go to any other ice cream shops.”

Mine changed here, too. Grezzo is famous for its raw chocolate, and its display case is filled with tantalizing little chocolate chunks filled with everything from pralines to various nuts. Occasionally I’d drop by to buy my girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, who took most of these photos, a little gift box and a piece for myself. While I swooned in my own chocolate-infused sexual ecstasy, I never thought about trying the gelato. It has become Grezzo’s side venture, along with its cakes and cookies.

But Grezzo received some votes in my survey and a friend urged me to give it a chance. My friend was right. The chocolate, the raw chocolate gelato, was the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had. The chocolate beans are sun dried, not toasted like most places. So concentrated, the chocolate exploded in my mouth. I paired it with nocciola (hazelnut) which is 40 percent nuts compared to the usual 20 percent, Mercolini said.

“Keeping the process under 42 degrees, it allows us to maintain all the nutritional values and, of course, the flavor is more powerful,” he explained. “It’s more concentrated in the mouth.”

I look forward to this summer when they break out their mango, raspberry, blueberry and passion fruit, which match the chocolate in popularity.

Started in Turin, Grezzo will open a shop in Centro Storico near Largo Argentina at the beginning of May.

Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from Germany. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Neve di Latte, (Flaminio), Via Luigi Poletti 6, Monday-Friday noon 10 p.m., Saturday noon-11 p.m., Sunday noon-10 p.m.

Besides receiving multiple votes, it received the biggest vote from Alessandro Castellani, my sportswriter buddy and patron saint of Italian food and wine recommendations. Again, Castellani hit the bull’s eye. Sitting on a side street behind the MAXXI modern art museum in northern Rome, Neve di Latte looks anything but touristy. Its bland gray and white interior makes it look older than its eight years and there’s nothing fancy about the flavors.

But the gelato I had — pistachio and variegato (cocoa, hazelnut, cream) — was spectacular. You could actually taste the cream separate from the cocoa and hazelnut. How serious do gelaterias take their ingredients? Neve di Latte gets its milk and cream from a biodynamic producer in Germany where the cows graze at about 4,600 feet. Its Amadei chocolate and Parisi eggs are from Tuscany. La Stampa newspaper merely called the Parisi egg “the most delicious egg in the world.”

Underneath it all, the pistachio was as good as any I’ve ever had and I’ve tried it all over Italy.

Fatamorgana is one of the few chains I will frequent.

Fatamorgana is one of the few chains I will frequent.


5. Fatamorgana, (Trastevere), Via Roma Libera 11, http://www.gelateriafatamorgana.com, daily noon-1 a.m.

I had my top five set — until I came here on my birthday. It makes the list purely by its adventurous nature. Yes, as the sign says, it is also gluten free, egg free, milk free, nut free, sugar free. OK, we get it. But it’s also tradition free.

Fatamorgana, although part of a chain that’s always a red flag, has the most interesting flavors in Rome. On my visit I saw carrot cake, baklava, Lapsong Sonchong (a Chinese smoked tea) chocolate, blackberry and grapes. I’ve read about such flavors here as cinnamon-apple-nut, tiramisu and blueberry cheesecake. One called Bacio del Principe (Kiss of the Prince) is made of gianduja (a chocolate paste made from ground hazelnuts). Panacea is almond milk, ginseng and mint.

I had its famous banana cream with sesame brittle and the sesame’s salt adds an intoxicating flair to the sweet banana. I combined that with seadas:, pecorino cheese from Sardinia, chestnuts, honey and orange peel. You could taste every ingredient, kind of like a fine wine.

The mastermind behind all this is Maria Agnese, a country girl who made gelato as a child but never followed a recipe. She once used leaves from a local orchard’s almond tree and invented almond flowers gelato cream.

There are also stores in Monti, Re di Roma, Corso and North Rome.

Keep in mind, just like basketball rankings, gelato is a matter of taste, in more ways than one. Below is my survey results (with neighborhood in parentheses). Please note the many votes for LaRomana. It’s good but it did not make my list.

Fatamorgana (numerous locations) 8
LaRomana (numerous locations) 8
Fassi (Equilino) 6
Gracchi 4 (Prati)
Neve de Latte (Flaminio) 4
Grezzo (Monti) 4
San Crispino (Centro Storico) 4
Old Bridge (Prati, Trastevere) 3
Frigidarium (Centro Storico) 3
Giolitti (Centro Storico, Testaccio) 3
Brivido (Testaccio) 2
Guttilla (Monte Sacro) 2
Pico Gelato (Piazza Bologna) 2
Angelletto (Monti) 2
Millenium (Prati) 1
Rivareno (San Giovanni) 1
Cremeria Aurelia (Aurelia) 1
Siciliana (Prati) 1
La Strega Nocciola (Spagna) 1
Vecchi (Centro Storico) 1
Olive Dolci (Manzoni) 1
Like G (Prati) 1
Otaleg (Portuense) 1
Gelateria del Teatro (Centro Storico) 1
LaPalma (Centro Storico) 1
Ping Pong (Tuscolana) 1
Cremi (Trastevere) 1
Ciuri Ciuri (Quirinale) 1
Quinto (Centro Storico) 1
Tony (Portuense) 1

My list of the most romantic dates in Rome: A city where every day is Valentine’s Day

Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona. Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the most romantic city in the world. Maybe you’ve had a fantasy about celebrating Valentine’s Day in Rome but don’t feel sorry if you miss it today. The beauty of Rome is every day can be Valentine’s Day if you want it. It’s not just because this city is sprinkled with back-lit monuments, tree-lined palaces, narrow pedestrian alleys winding through Centro Storico and enough outdoor cafes and trattorias to feed half the population.

Valentine’s Day is a Roman holiday.

It’s named for a 3rd century saint named Valentinus who went crossways with the Roman Empire when he performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry. The Senate also wasn’t crazy about him aiding Christians getting ready to be burned at the stake and fed to starving lions. While imprisoned, his healing powers extended to a blind judge’s daughter who regained her sight. Just before he was clubbed and beheaded for not renouncing his faith, Valentinus, who became known as St. Valentine, wrote her a letter and signed it “Your Valentine.” He was 42. The date was Feb. 14, 269. His name resurfaced in the High Middle Ages when Feb. 14 became known as the day of courtly love.

Ol’ Valentinus had no idea he would launch a thousand years of opportunistic, larcenous, price-gouging restaurants. Screw you, Valentinus.

But fear not. There is no better way to experience Valentine’s Day than in a romantic city without Valentine’s Day prices. Come to Rome — on any day but today. I’ve lived here as a bachelor for more than four years and have had an Italian girlfriend for nearly three. I’ve learned a bit about romance in Rome.

And I’m here to help. So below is a list of some of my favorite romantic dates in the city.They won’t break your bank. Some take a little planning. Others take a little effort. But they all will leave you with a pitter patter in your heart and your lover in your hand.

If they don’t, well, just stay home and take her to Waffle House.

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

PIAZZA NAVONA

The views in Rome are spectacular. One look and you’ll realize why you came here or, in my case, why you retired here. It could be from a park, a hotel balcony, a walking path on a hill.

One of the best views is from the rooftop Terrazza Borromini. It sits atop the Palazzo Pamphilj just behind Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone, Francesco Borromini’s Baroque-style church that anchors one side of Piazza Navona. Marina and I went for cocktails and strolled around the roof with views of St. Peter’s, Il Vittoriano, the justice building, the dome of Sant’Agnese and, of course, spectacular Piazza Navona. Then we walked down one flight to the restaurant where we dined right above Bernini’s famed Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

On a warm summer night, we stared at the fountain’s turquoise water and dined on grilled octopus with a nice Pinot Grigio. Then we descended to the ground floor and went around the corner to the piazza and Tre Scalini for its famous tartufo: a frozen ball of rich, dark chocolate with a cherry inside and topped with a big pile of whipped cream. To digest, we strolled around the piazza looking at the local artists’ works and lost ourselves in Centro Storico’s back alleys.

Costs (all estimates for two people, phone numbers don’t include 39 country code). Drinks, Terrazza Borromini (Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima 30, 06-686-1425, http://www.eitchborromini.com), 25 euros, dinner 50. Dessert, Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28, 06-688-01996, http://www.trescalini.it), 12. Total: 87 euros.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.

VILLA BORGHESE

A picnic is more of an American custom but Italians are starting to get into them. With such great fresh, cheap food in public markets, how can they not?

Rome also has very underrated parks. Doria Pamphilj south of the Vatican and Villa Ada in north Rome aren’t known by many tourists. I take Villa Borghese near famed Via Veneto for one reason: the Borghese Museum, my favorite museum in Rome.

First, go to any public market. They’re scattered all over the city. You know those farmers markets in the States where the “organic” tomatoes cost as much as a country ham? Those are the norm in Rome’s markets. Stroll through and grab some prosciutti here, some cheese there, some grapes here, some bread there. Add some sliced salami and a bag of olives, whatever is your taste, and maybe a few sticks of chocolate biscotti. Be sure to stop off at the wine booth for a cold, crisp bottle of Frascati, from just south of Rome and excellent for picnics.

Take whatever bus goes up Veneto and find some space under a tree in Villa Borghese. It won’t be hard. It’s 200 acres. Lay out a blanket and enjoy dining on food Romans eat every day at home.

Second, time your picnic with the reservation you’ll need in advance for the Borghese Museum. They let in only a few at a time and you’ll appreciate the straddled entries. Housed in the gorgeous 18th century palace owned by the Borghese family, a long string of noblemen dating back to the 13th century, it is Rome’s most manageable collection of Renaissance and Baroque art. You’ll see Bernini, Botticelli, Raphael and Caravaggio over two floors just big enough to see comfortably in the two-hour allotted time limit.

Third, wander down Via Veneto and see the tony cafes where Rome’s glitterati and paparazzi hung out during the glory days of the 1950s. (Avoid trendy Harry’s Bar unless you think a shrimp cocktail is worth 30 euros.)

Costs. Picnic food 25 euros. Museum, Borghese Museum (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, 06-841-3979, http://galleriaborghese.beniculturali.it/it), 29.50 euros: 55 total.

Bernini designed St. Peter's Square in the 17th century.

Bernini designed St. Peter’s Square in the 17th century.

THE VATICAN

The world’s smallest country (yes, it’s an independent state) changes at night. I lived in the Prati neighborhood around the Vatican for 16 months and when the tourists leave after touring the church, the ‘hood becomes very local with lots of local hangouts.

I liked starting an evening at Del Frate, one of the most romantic enotecas (wine bars) in Rome. It’s dark, small, quiet and the wine-by-the-glass list is written on a blackboard. The helpful staff will pick out a wine to your taste and then leave you alone.

Walk down Via Scipioni three blocks to La Pratolina, which I ranked in my top five of the best pizzerias in Rome. It’s not intimate. No Rome pizzeria is. But it’s one of the few in the city that make pizzas in the pinsa style of Ancient Rome. It comes from the Latin word “pinsere,” which means “to crush.” The ancient Romans ate a crushed flat bun or pie, the precursor to the pizza. The crust, uniquely oblong, is a little thicker but the wood-fire oven still provides those luscious little spots of burnt crust.

La Pratolina has the best sausage pizza in town and save room to share a pratolina, its signature dessert: a big messy glob of chocolate, cream, sugar and thin pieces of pie crust.

After dinner, walk seven blocks back where you came from to the Vatican. Walk into St. Peter’s Square and gaze at St. Peter’s, the center of Christendom all back lit in all its glory and ringed by the statues of 140 saints and anchored by Bernini’s fountains. The crowds are gone. The priests are home. It’s just you two and one of the prettiest man-made structures on earth.

You never knew religion could be such a turn on.

Costs: Wine Del Frati (Via degli Scipioni 118/122, 06-323-6437, http://www.enotecadelfrate.it) 5-7 euros per glass, dinner La Pratolina (Via degli Scipioni 248, 06-3600-4409, pizzarialapratolina.it) 40 euros: 60 total.

AcquaMadre's tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.

AcquaMadre’s tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.

SPA

About 2,000 years ago, the citizenry of Ancient Rome bathed in public baths. Most homes were too small to have their own. One remains. Well, acquaMadre Hammam started 12 years ago but it’s designed after the thermal baths of Ancient Rome.

On a quiet back alley of the Jewish Ghetto, acquaMadre is a very sensual way to start the evening together. It’s dimly lit with only red and white candles, perfect for couples. The only sounds you hear are the quiet splashing of water and your own moans as a young woman gives you a back scrub. You then go into a steam room set at 113 degrees and 100 percent humidity and sweat out seemingly half your body fluids in five minutes.

You then step into a cool shower and pour yourself into the “cool” pool set at 82 degrees. There is no Jacuzzi but the cooler water opens up the pores better. You then take another shower with various gels provided and flop down on a comfy rattan chair where you’re served black tea with sugar.

Feeling cleaner than you’ve ever felt, try to walk five minutes past Torre Argentina to Pascucci, an all-natural juice bar where you can cool down with a coconut shake and think how good the Ancient Romans had it.

Costs: Spa, acquaMadre Hammam (Via di S. Ambrogio 17, 06-686-4272, acquamadre.it), 60 euros. Juice, Pascucci (Via di Torre Argentina 20, Pascuccifrullati.it), 7 euros: 135 total.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

IL VITTORIANO

Also known simply as Vittorio Emanuele, this is the gargantuan white monument in Piazza Venezia that looks like a giant wedding cake, which is just one of its nicknames. It’s also called Mussolini’s Typewriter as Il Duce’s balcony where he addressed his mob of fellow fascists overlooks the piazza.

Today, Il Vittoriano often houses very interesting art exhibits, usually concentrating on one master, in its Complesso del Vittoriano museum on the left side of the monument. I saw the Edward Hopper exhibit and it was fabulous. Like the Borghese Museum, it’s just big enough to give you your fill without making you numb from overload. Past exhibits have included Botero and Antonio Ligabue.

Currently showing is Monet until June 3 and Giovanni Boldini, the 19th century Italian painter, will be there from March 4-July 16.

Afterward, continue to the back of Il Vittoriano and stroll along the quiet, dark walkways. Soon you’ll come to one of the most spectacular sights of the city: the Roman Forum all lit up in soft yellow light. Linger a while and imagine the center of the most powerful civilization in history below your feet 2,000 years ago.

If you haven’t kissed your date yet in your relationship, pal, this is the time to do it.

Costs. Museum, Complesso del Vittoriano (Via di San Pietro in Carcere, 06-678-0664, ilvittoriano.com/exhibitions-leica.html),14 euros. Total: 28 euros.

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

MONTI

In a city that’s going broke, fast, this neighborhood in the shadow of the Colosseum is thriving. It’s hip. It’s fun. It’s vibrant. All kinds of cool bars, restaurants and enotecas are sprinkled around the narrow cobblestone streets — and that includes more than the Ice Club, the lounge on Via della Madonna dei Monti where they serve you cocktails in a 23-degree room.

Two years ago, they opened Madre. It’s attached to the Roma Hotel Luxus off Via Nazionale and is one of the most romantic bars I’ve visited. I took Marina there Saturday night and we sat at a small table under a roof covered in hanging vines. Potted plants ringed the entire place.

It’s also a restaurant but we grabbed a drink there before the place filled up by 7:30 p.m. They specialize in designer cocktails, the kind that includes a lot of liquors, a lot of juices, a lot of sugar and couldn’t get a kitten tipsy. But my Tiki Tango came in a cool, tall glass right out of the Caribbean and the atmosphere was worth prices so larcenous Marina declined to order.

We then made a short 10-minute walk down the quiet street of Via del Boschetto for true Roman cuisine in an old-fashioned, cozy Roman trattoria. La Taverna dei Monti is lined with oil paintings of old Rome and features a small nook with only a few tables.

It serves all the standard Roman dishes: amatriciana, carbonara, cacio e pepe. My lasagna, rare on Rome menus, was outstanding but not nearly as good as Marina’s veal saltimbocca.

For dessert, we skipped its legendary tiramisu to walk to Grezzo, a designer chocolate shop featuring all-natural, gluten-free, raw chocolates. My chocolate-covered coconut made me swoon. “This isn’t chocolate,” I told the young clerk. “This is sexual.”

Costs. Drinks, Madre (Largo Angelicum 1A, 06-678-9046, madreroma.com) 28 euros. Dinner, La Taverna dei Monti (Via del Boschetto 41, 06-481-7724, tavernadeimonti.info), 30. Dessert, Grezzo (Via Urbana 130, 06-483-443, Grezzorawchocolate.com), 6.00. Total: 64 euros.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

APPIAN WAY

All dates don’t have to be at night. Rome is gorgeous during the day, mostly all year round. If you’re an active couple, rent bikes and ride down historic Appian Way (Via Appia Antica). It’s arguably the most famous road in Europe. Built in 312 BC, it transported the Roman army to the Adriatic Sea at Brindisi.

You’ll ride along the smooth stones that were revolutionary in their construction at the time. Cruise along the tree-lined road and pass ruins of villas once owned by Roman noblemen. It’s flat, quiet and beautiful. If you want to blow the mood, just tell your date that in 71 BC along this road hanged the bodies of 6,000 slaves who were crucified for joining Spartacus’ rebel army (See: Failed Labor Revolts) in 73 BC.

You can pack a picnic lunch in a daypack or eat at Ristorante L’Archeologica, started in 1890. It’s a bit high end for a post-cycling meal but the nice outdoor seating area is casual. Lots of seafood choices starting at 14 euros.

Costs. Bike rental, Appia Antica Regional Park Information Point (Via Appia Antica 58-60, 06-512-6314, http://www.parks.it/parco.appia.antica/Eser.php), 3 euros per hour first three hours, 10 euros all day. Dinner: Ristorante L’Archeologia (Via Appia Antica 139, 06-788-0494, larcheologia.it), mains starting at 14 euros. Total: 60 euros.

That’s all for now. I hope this helps but remember, romance is found in the heart, not on the Internet. You can find your own romantic date in Rome just by showing up. I’d give you more ideas, but it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’ve got a date.

La Molisana pasta bash puts Italy’s favorite food in Rome train station

La Molisana opened a shop in Termini train station and will close Nov. 12. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana opened a shop in Termini train station and will close Nov. 12. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I remember going to grand openings in America. They were all based on bribes. They invite you into a shopping mall and give you a few items of free merchandise, most of it worthless (I think I used the martini glass sleeve as a door jam). You go to a restaurant and get delicious tastings and return the following week to find the same tastings cost the equivalent of a night’s hotel stay. I liked the openings of sports stadiums. But if your team still stinks, you wonder why they bothered.

Here in Italy, openings are different. They’re based more on the subtle than the sale. I go to openings of art galleries, enotecas, photo exhibits. But only in Italy can you experience what I did last week, an event that speaks to the heart of what is important to the Italian soul.

A pasta opening.

True. La Molisana is a 105-year-old pasta company in Molise, the small, nature-loving region on the Adriatic Sea 150 miles east of Rome. Last week La Molisana opened a shop in, of all places, Rome’s Termini train station. In the middle of the main floor with people running around to tracks in the country’s largest train station is a little shop packed with pasta of every conceivable shape.

It’s an ingenious marketing strategy and they hired Marina Pascucci, my girlfriend and uber photographer, to take photos of the opening. I tagged along to … well, eat. Sending me to a pasta opening is like giving a pothead a bus ticket through Colorado. Pasta has dominated my diet since moving here nearly four years ago.

La Molisana began in 1912 and has moved up to fifth in Italy's pasta market. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana began in 1912 and has moved up to fifth in Italy’s pasta market. Photo by Marina Pascucci


To understand the importance of La Molisana’s presence in Termini, you must understand the importance of pasta in Italy. Last year, this nation of 60 million people consumed 908,100 tons of pasta, by far the highest per capita in the world, according to Mintel, a global marketing research firm. Each Italian consumes 15.2 kilograms a year. That includes a 2 percent drop since 2011 as some Italians are joining the worldwide trend toward carb-free diets.

Their loss.

I eat pasta six days a week. Sometimes I eat it twice a day. I never tire of it. How can you when Italian recipe books are the size of Sicily’s criminal code? If a mathematician tried calculating the number of combinations you can make with the 350 different types of pasta, his mind would snap. Rome has many of those varieties on display in the National Museum of Pasta (currently closed for renovation) on the north side of town.

Casarecce

Casarecce


Each region has its own famous pasta shape. There’s the ear-shaped orecchiette in Puglie, the twisty trofie in Liguria and Emilia-Romagna has the strozzapreti which looks like a short, thin pasta that looks like part of a garroting wire and inspired the name (“strozzapreti” means “strangle priests”). Puglie has casarecce, similar to strozzapreti but shorter with a bigger fold in the middle.

La Molisana has a lovely display, although it’s temporary and closes Nov. 12. It’s a small square space, lined with boxed pasta and the opening had attractive representatives greeting people as they entered. Chefs in white smocks prepared finger food at one end while another poured Prosecco in little plastic champagne glasses.

La Molisana's temporary display is designed to get in closer touch with its customers. Photo by Marina Pascucci

La Molisana’s temporary display is designed to get in closer touch with its customers. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s not easy carving a niche in the Italian pasta world. Barilla, which is probably what you have in your cupboard now, is the world’s leading pasta company with 40 percent of the Italian market. It’s followed by De Cecco, Divella and Garofalo. La Molisana is No. 5 — with a bullet. Since 2011 when the Ferro family acquired Molisana, it has jumped from 0.3 percent of the national market share to 4.6.

La Molisana isn’t some little company that crawled from the shadows of the Apennine mountains. It reports annual revenues of $125 million, and 34 percent is exported to 80 countries. Its markets in Australia and New Zealand have exploded.

It has been around a while. It goes back four generations in Molise and boasts what the other companies can’t.

Molise.

Few people have visited. It’s one of three of 20 Italian regions I’ve never seen. But I’ve heard stories that make it sound like all of Italy’s geographical wonders are shoehorned into an area smaller than Delaware. Snowcapped Apennine mountains. Enchanting forests. Sandy beaches. Charming fishing villages. It all adds up to the perfect environment for making pasta.

“We live in an unpolluted place,” said Francesca Di Nucci, La Molisana’s marketing assistant. “Molise is a natural paradise with almost no industrial assets, no industries. With a pure water, pure mountain air. Our pasta factory is one of the most high pasta factories in the south of Italy.”

Di Nucci explained that La Molisana gets its durum wheat all the way in Arizona, where it’s one of the best in the world, and uses all the raw, natural materials around Molise. They’ve been milling pasta the same way for four generations so they have the recipe down well.

Owner Giuseppe Ferro and marketing director Rossella Ferro. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Owner Giuseppe Ferro and marketing director Rossella Ferro. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“It means we are millers before being pasta makers,” she said.

The antipasti La Molisana dished out at its opening were quite good, particularly these little tube pasta filled with cream and crispy bits of pig’s cheek. In an attempt to spread Italy’s good taste around the world — and to prove I’m secure in my manhood — below is the recipe:

PACCHERI CON FONDUTA DI PECORINO E GUANCIALE (Wide tube pasta with fonduta pecorino cheese and pig’s cheek)

INGREDIENTS
12-15 La Molisana paccheri pasta
150 grams pecorino romano cheese
30 grams cream
100 grams guanciale (pig’s cheek)

DIRECTIONS
Melt pecorino in a saucepan and stir in cream until it’s about 20 percent of the formula. Melt it all and add some water if it’s too thick. Fry guanciale until crispy. Remove it to a paper towel and let it soak up the grease. Cut away all the fat. While making sauce, boil paccheri 11 minutes until al dente (a little less than done). When ready, drain and lay individual pasta tubes individually on a tray. Fill the pasta holes with cream and top them with bacon bits.

Paccheri con fonduta di pecorino e guanciale. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Paccheri con fonduta di pecorino e guanciale. Photo by Marina Pascucci