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.

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.

Perugia: Italy’s chocolate capital a sweet spot to celebrate the dying profession of journalism

Perugia on one of the few times it didn’t rain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


PERUGIA, Italy — If Italy was a gelato cone, Perugia would be the hot chocolate syrup they dip it in.

It’s the chocolate capital of Italy. It’s home to Perugina chocolate (Baci chocolate kisses, anyone?), the annual Eurochocolate festival and more chocolate shops than Dublin has pubs. Thus, my heart — and my dentist — have huge sweet spots for this hill town in the heart of Umbria.

It’s not just chocolate that brought me here recently. The International Journalism Festival had five days of lectures and conferences, including the intriguing and newsworthy American topic, “Beyond Fake News: What’s Next for Tackling Online Misinformation.” Perugia is the capital of Umbria, pushing Sicily as my favorite region in Italy, with fantastic local cuisine and wine and an unspoiled persona. As the only one of Italy’s 20 regions not bordering an ocean or another country, Umbria has been the least vulnerable to outside influences.

Oh, I also won an award.

Perugia is the birthplace of Perugina chocolate. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The Camera di Commercio Perugia takes such great pride in its town and region it bestows awards to journalists shedding light on a place oft overlooked on tourists’ well-trodden pilgrimages across Italy. I won the Umbria del Gusto (Flavor of Umbria) award for the January blog I did about American transplant Ev Thomas buying an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turning the few grape vines into a fledgling winery. The Local, Italy’s only English-language news source, picked it up and while it didn’t go viral, it did go Umbrian.

The town put up my girlfriend and me for two nights in the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel, wined and dined us and feted us like the celebrities that we aren’t.

No, Umbria del Gusto isn’t the Pulitzer. But it’s in Perugia, and that’s award enough. Plus, it’s always fun trying to explain what “Dog-Eared Passport” means in Italian.

Perugia (pop. 165,000), 100 miles north of Rome, always gives me the early impression that I’m walking onto a science fiction set. To reach the centro storico (historical center) from the hotel, you must walk up through a complex of dark, eerily lit tunnels, lined with huge, high-ceilinged rooms used for everything from a souvenir shop to conferences. I remember sitting blindfolded in one of them during Eurochocolate 2008 and having a blind chocolate taste — run by blind people.

Rocca Paolina was built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The area is called the Rocca Paolina and built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s as a fortress over a very wealthy neighborhood. In 1983 the city conveniently outfitted it with escalators, making the steep climb into darkness a lot less taxing. Nevertheless, I still always feel like I’m in a subterranean, prehistoric cave waiting for a T-Rex to step around the corner.

Escaping from the tunnels you come across a compact centro storico that is tranquil until the hordes of university students hit the piazzas and bars at night. The town is home to the University of Perugia, founded in 1308, with 35,000 students and the University of Foreigners with 5,000 foreign students, most of whom are abroad with mommy and daddy’s money for the first time. It was this atmosphere that Perugia received its most fame in recent years.

Amanda Knox, a Seattle native studying in Perugia, was arrested and convicted of murder in 2009 when a roommate had her throat cut during what many have termed a group sex game that went bad two years previously. The attractive Knox became a media sensation. “Foxy Knoxy” spent nearly four years in jail and was eventually exonerated after evidence emerged of the police’s colossal series of screwups.

On one past trip through Umbria, some friends and I stopped by the roommates’ old house on the downslope of the hill. The long, two-story home has become as big a tourist attraction as San Lorenzo, Perugia’s 1,100-year-old cathedral. After many conversations with locals, who don’t seem to mind the persistent question, I’m firmly convinced the only people who think she’s innocent are in the city of Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, Perugia felt like it all weekend. It poured nearly the entire time. I emerged from the tunnels to a tempest making the cobblestone streets empty and slick. I walked past the Perugina outlet store and to Palazzo dei Priori, the 13th century palace that looks more like a small castle than the city’s main art gallery. I managed to find a staircase that wound down into a dark alley to a small sign reading “LA TAVERNA.”

Pappardelle with Umbrian ragu at La Taverna.


This hidden, elegant diner is THE place to try Umbrian cuisine. This region is known for four main foods: cinghiale, wild boar that so over runs Central Italy even animal lovers don’t protest its hunting season; tartufi, black truffles that are considered a delicacy all over Europe and without question the most overrated food in Italy; lenticchie, lentils made into a thick soup terrific in winter; piccione, pigeons, cooked whole and once the diet staple of locals while under attack in the Middle Ages.

While I waited for Marina to get off work and take the train up, I took a seat alone at a table with a white tablecloth and looked up at the vaulted brick ceiling. Eating inside what seems like a cave has its own romance, especially when Umbrian food is added. My pappardelle with Umbrian ragu (long, flat noodles with wild boar meat sauce) was thick, fresh and fantastic. Topped off with a glass of Umbria’s Morcinaia wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, it was a great bargain for only 23 euros.

Works by Gerardo Dottori


The award ceremony was a two-day affair beginning with an evening guided tour of the Museo Civico di Palazzo della Penna which hosted weird, haunting works of Gerardo Dottori, a Perugia artist famous for his futuristic works from the early 20th century. Later, the other seven award winners and I joined the organizing committee and judges for an aperitivo of local meats and cheeses followed by an Umbrian feast. Besides my tender manzo, I had a dish called sfornato, kind of a local polenta but much thicker and tastier than the bland polenta I’ve had in the past.

I sat next to one of the judges who read my work. Dennis Redmont is a retired former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome. Amazingly, we had met before. In 2003, nearing the end of my first 16-month stint in Rome and deeply in the throes of love with my adopted city, I went to him hat in hand opening I could land a part-time job and extend my stay. He sat down with me and said that AP was in the process of shedding about 15-20 percent of its workforce around the world. It was foreshadowing of what was to become in my news industry.

Since I returned to my old job at The Denver Post in 2003 to today, The Post’s newsroom has gone from more than 350 reporters to 60. The staff is so small the paper moved from its cool downtown location to the suburbs where it shares space — with its printing plant.

Yes, I did get out at the right time.

The award winners. (I’m the tall one.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


But events like Perugia makes me glad I keep a hand in it. I dressed up in my toned-down gray Italian suit. Marina talked me out of one of the shiny silk suits that make me look like a flunky for the Irish mob. Before the ceremony at Centro Servizi G. Alezzi conference center, we escaped the rain across the street at Caffe Perugina. It’s one of Perugia’s beautiful bars (cafes are often called “bars” in Italy), with ornate furnishings and brass tabletops. Over a cappuccino, it felt like we stepped into Perugia in 1920s. I was taken aback when the barista said Caffe Perugina began in 1997.

During my career, I was never big into awards, mainly because I didn’t win many. I was more of a grinder journalist, a sportswriter who plugged along day after day, seeking news and sprinkling my coverage with the occasional long human interest story. When I branched out into food and wine, things changed. You don’t really break food news. What, “TOMATOES SEEKING MORE RESPECT IN SUPERMARKETS”?

Instead, I wrote the weird (I tried eating a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas), the trendy (restaurant boom in Moscow) and the disgusting (animal penis restaurant in Beijing). I always tied it to the local culture. This was the second award I’ve won for food and wine writing. Maybe I missed my calling.

The conference room was packed with observers and photographers. I sat in the front row with the other winners, all of whom walked up to the dais for a question and answer period. Notified shortly beforehand that the session would be in Italian, I nearly fled the room. I can answer any question in Italian; the problem is I likely won’t understand the question in Italian.

I told Redmont my dilemma, who said he would do the Q&A in English and translate.

“It’ll be more exotic,” he said.

Most of the awards were for videos, showing Perugia at its majestic best, catching sunrises from the hilltown and the monuments glistening in the city’s soft lights at night. Two guys traveled around Umbria talking and capturing video of the region’s underrated wineries.

I felt so old school. It was merely a blog. How boring. But Redmont asked me about the theme of Dog-Eared Passport and a recent blog I wrote about my three travel stories from hell. I talked too long and talked too fast and hardly anyone understood. I had to wait for Redmont’s translation to hear any laughter about my bout with typhoid in Northern Thailand.

Later, we all gathered for group photos, standing in front of a phalanx of photographers as if we were standing on a red carpet instead of a concrete floor.

Afterward, Marina and I dashed back to the hotel to change clothes more appropriate for early flooding stages and waded back into Centro Storico. The journalism festival had 275 different conferences. We had time to choose one. Appalled by Pres. Trump’s attack at the free press and labeling every critical sentence “fake news” drew me to the lecture “Beyond Fake News.” James Ball is an English journalist and author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World.” He was part of a London School of Economics commission that did a report on misinformation.

I met him outside the Arcivescovado conference room, sharing the same piazza as Palazzo dei Priori. Late 30ish and casually dressed, he talked to me about how news coming out of Brexit is getting as scrutinized as much as it is out of Washington. Ball is a level-headed, highly intelligent journalist with a quick British wit and an analytical bent.

James Ball


One point was fake news involves more than Donald Trump. Before Trump started defecating on the First Amendment, journalists wrote wildly hilarious headlines just to get the reader “clicks,” the new media measurement for economic success. He mentioned some headlines from that day:

“BIBLE SHOCK! WHY EXPERT CLAIMS JESUS RESURRECTED THROUGH ADAM’S BODY AFTER CHURCH FIND!”

“NH370 SHOCK! DATA FROM MISSING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT SHRUGGED OFF AND IGNORED!”

“TIME TRAVEL SHOCK! TIME TRAVEL FROM 2018 SHOWS PHOTO OF DINOSAUR FROM THE PAST!”

He said they were all from that day’s edition of The Sun, the United Kingdom’s top-selling newspaper.

“So if fake news is this terrible threat to journalism then why is our biggest paper putting it out? If fake news isn’t the problem, what is? … What we have is a bullshit problem and a misinformation problem and that’s a lot harder than fake news.”

He brought up the story in Breitbart, American journalism’s equivalent of “Mein Kampf.” It wrote that a Muslim mob set fire to Germany’s oldest church. What actually happened was a protest march of recent Muslim immigrants seeking asylum. There were some fireworks and one hit a tarpaulin on a boundary wall of the church grounds. It started a small fire and the protesters helped put it out.

“There was a fire. There was a church and it was a majority Muslim crowd,” Ball said. “Is it fake news to turn it into what Breitbart did?”

And it’s not just the rags that are guilty of this, Ball said. Take Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election.

Marina and I near Palazzo dei Priori


“They put those emails by Wikileaks but that’s not where the public saw them,” Ball said. “They saw them through Fox News, through CNN, through The New York Times, The Washington Post. We don’t self search. We shout at Facebook. We shout at Twitter. We shout at the public. We shout at Russia. We ignore the fact that we’re the agents for all this.

“We’re not good at not being played.”

The heart of Umbrian wine country reveals a rising star: Sagrantino

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.


MONTEFALCO, Italy — One of my pleasant surprises after retiring to Rome with a taste for wine and no car is I never have to leave the city to taste the best wines in the world. I never even have to visit a restaurant or wine bar. All I have to do is wait for the wine tastings that come to Rome nearly every weekend. Piedmont. Puglia. Bio wines. Chianti. Nearly every theme under the massive Italian wine umbrella makes its way to Rome where I can drink my way through an entire region without ever leaving a conference room.

However, I must admit these wine tastings, called degustazioni in Italian, miss a lot of local flavor. You can hold them in the most beautiful hotels in Rome, such as the Radisson Blu, but you only get, literally, a taste. You don’t get the feel. You don’t see the vineyards shining in the sun. You don’t smell the French Oak in the storage rooms. You don’t see the sprawling winery setting in the rolling hills. Degustazioni make you feel like you’re in Rome.

Wineries make you feel like you’re in Italy. Old Italy. Where grapevines hang over picnic tables and entire villages revolve around the wine production calendar. Sometimes you have to get closer to the wine to truly taste it.

For some reason, however great Italian wine is, it tastes even better where it’s made.

After five years in Rome, I finally had that opportunity last week. My good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for the ANSA wire service and Italian food and wine connoisseur, got an invitation to attend the Anteprima Sagrantino. It’s a fair featuring the rare, delicious and little-known Umbrian wine called Sagrantino. It’s held in Montefalco, a town of about 5,800 in the heart of Umbria and the center of Sagrantino production.

It sounded like a great time: two days drinking one of the most underrated wines in the world, stay overnight in a beautiful hotel that has hosted movie stars, eat Umbria’s great local cheeses and meats and visit a couple wineries in the quiet off season.

I decided to tag along.

This was not only two days of drinking wine. It was two days of drinking wine in Umbria, which is rapidly becoming my favorite wine region in Italy. That’s a little like being the prettiest woman in Italy, too. The competition is fierce.

Alessandro picked me up near his home in northwest Rome and drove the 90 miles north to Montefalco. Driving anywhere with Alessandro is like getting a loud lesson in Romanaccio, the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. Every car is driving too slow; every truck is driving in the wrong lane. Then again, he was in a hurry. To wine lovers, Anteprima Sagrantino is like a toppled milk truck near stray cats.

I’ve often called Umbria “Tuscany Light.” It has everything Tuscany has — walled towns, mountains, vineyards — at cheaper costs and a fraction of the tourists of its northern neighbor. It’s the only region that does not border a sea or another country. Thus, it has fewer outside influences. It has remained true to itself and to the relatively fewer outsiders lucky enough to discover it.

I love driving into Umbria, on uncrowded roads, through rolling hills, past walled villages perched high on cliffs like magic kingdoms. Deeper in the heart of Umbria, I pass vineyards, olive orchards and deep, green meadows. It’s now winter. It’s cold, in the low 40s. The vines are bare. But no matter.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco's old town.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco’s old town.

You don’t have to drink wine outside under grapevines.

I tell people that to reach Montefalco, you go to Bastardo and take a right. True. Umbria has a town called Bastardo, named for the Osteria del Bastardo (Bastard’s Inn) around which the town was built in the 17th century. Montefalco has a much more romantic origin. Falcons were known to fly majestically around the foothills of the nearby Apennines mountain range.

Montefalco’s old town sits inside a 12th century wall. This once star-crossed village existed peacefully under the rule of the Papal States for 400 years before the unification of Italy in 1861. We stopped just outside the wall at Villa Pambuffetti, a four-star palace set in the middle of 10,000 square yards of gardens and century-old trees. The lobby looks like an Italian grandmother’s living room with overstuffed chairs and couches and a fireplace to warm your hands. A big jar of sugared jellies and chocolates share a coffee table with the daily papers. Tony Curtis once stayed here.

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti


But the real star of Montefalco is Sagrantino. If you’ve never heard of it, let alone tried it, don’t feel bad. Like Umbria, it’s little known and underrated. The big reason is the Sagrantino grape is only grown in Umbria. Thus, Umbria, off the beaten path, is the only place that makes the wine. It’s an Umbrian tradition for a new grandfather to buy 12 bottles of a vintage and save it for 25 years until the grandchild marries.
Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.

Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.


While the grape has been around since the 16th century, Sagrantino wine is relatively new. It was mostly used to make the sweet Passito wine used during mass in Catholic churches. Being a close proximity to Rome and its 900 churches, Montefalco did a thriving business. But in the 1970s, technology improved and the Sagrantino, made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, received the official DOC denomination in 1979 and the higher-rated DOCG in 1992. Sharing center stage here is Montefalco Rosso, using a blend with Sagrantino, Sangiovese and another grape such as Colorino.

Expansion worked. Today, 63 wineries dot the wine map around Montefalco. Most are exporting, some as much as 40 percent and to as far away as China and Japan.

I had only a passing knowledge of it. Meanwhile, Alessandro, who had lauded this festival for weeks, was panting like a thirsty dog.

We entered through the walled city’s huge arched door and up the narrow cobblestone street to a nearly hidden hallway holding a large conference room. Here was my familiar territory: a square room with 40 wineries sitting table to table all offering four or five of their best wines.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.


Sagrantino is a hard grape to grow. It needs a long, hot season and has one of the highest tannin levels. It’s twice the level of Nebbiolo, the base for my favorite Barolo wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes Sagrantino a much drier red wine. Look at the wine and it is a deep purple, with an almost black center. It just so happens purple is my favorite color.

Thus, Sagrantino is absolutely beautiful to behold — particularly in a glass, even at 11 a.m. when we started drinking.

I became a huge Sagrantino fan before lunch. Among the metropolis of Montefalco wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai is one of the best known. At wine tastings, I always start by asking for their medium wine. Not the best, not the worst. Alessandra Nobili of Arnaldo-Caprai started me with a 2015 Collepiano and it was very good, rich and full with the taste of plum and cinnamon I’d read about.

Then she graduated me up to a Sagrantino celebrating the winery’s 25-year anniversary last year. Simply called 25 Year, it was one of the best red wines I’ve ever had. No wonder. It’s 50 euros in Italy, and about $150 in the U.S. where Arnaldo-Caprai has a base in New York.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his  family's Scacciadiavoli winery.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his family’s Scacciadiavoli winery.


Another big winery here is Scacciadiavoli. It sells in 14 states in the U.S., plus Europe, United Kingdom and Japan. Iacopo Pambuffetti, a cousin of the hotel owners, is a big, jovial bearded member of the winery’s founding family. He speaks of Sagrantino as if it’s a family member, too.

“I love Sagrantino because it represents very, very well my region,” he said. “And it’s an incredible wine. If you want, you can put it among the top wines in Italy.”

He then talked about how well it goes with wild boar and lamb, goat cheese and dark chocolate. I hadn’t eaten since a cornetto on the ride up. My taste buds were hyperventilating. We were in Italy.

In Italy, wine tasting is foreplay.

Alessandro and I went to Olevm (the Latin word for “oil”), a small home-style restaurant with olive print tablecloths and a big chest of drawers holding olive and wine in the middle of the upstairs dining room. Black and white photos of Italian movie legends such as Alberto Sordi and Sophia Loren eating pasta hang on the walls.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.


We had bruschetta with olive, zucchini and potato spreads then I had pasta with greens followed by chicken in Sagrantino sauce (I’m wondering if they use Sagrantino to run their cars, too.). It’s the first time I’ve ever had purple chicken but the unique combination is something that should be exported as well.

Placated with carbs, we entered Anteprima Sagrantino’s war room: the media tasting room. Converted from the Montefalco city council chamber, it sported five long tables with nine seats each, all with six glasses, breadsticks and a spit bucket.

The place was empty.

We took our seats and the young server gave us a list of 45 wineries we could taste. Oddly, we had to try a minimum of six. Who was I to argue? We tried (gulp!) 10: six 100 percent Sagrantino and four Passito.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.


I am not a wine connoisseur. When I taste a wine I rarely can separate the cherries from the tobacco, the plums from the raspberries. Most who say they can are full of fertilizer. They’re trying to impress their date or the sommelier server, most of whom try hard not to roll their eyes. I am not a wine snob. I can tell a red from a white and that’s about it.

But I know what I like and the best of the bunch was the Moretti Omero, rich, deep and the kind of flavor that lasts in your mouth long after you swallowed. Fruits? Christ, I don’t know. Who cares? I just knew I had to buy a bottle.

The highlight of Anteprima Sagrantino is the winery dinner. About 20 journalists, wine writers and freeloaders poured into cars and headed first to Scacciadiavoli for an aperitivo. Scacciadiavoli is the area’s oldest winery, established in 1884. It sits just east of Bastardo with 86 acres anchored by two large white buildings that look like simple churches. Downstairs in the tasting room where we mingled with Montefalco’s crem della grapes while munching on fried baccala’ (cod) and bread with anchovies, washed down with the winery’s sparkling wine.

We then piled back in the cars for a short drive to Le Cimate where we sat in a large modern dining room. Bordering the room were four large tables featuring cheeses, main dishes, wines and made-to-order desserts. It was gluttony paradise.

I sat next to Giulia Goretti who has traveled all over the world promoting her Vini Goretti family winery near Perugia, Umbria’s capital about 30 miles to the north, and two around Montefalco. This winery goes back four generations dating to the early 1900s. When she talked about Umbrian wine, I listened.

“It’s something more special now,” she said. “When you are proposing an Umbrian wine you are proposing something different, something that not many people know. A lot of times it’s more interesting than other regions that are more known.”

Between bites of nearly orgasmic tortellini in cheese topped with truffle shavings, I asked her how so many wines in such a small region can compete against each other. It’s like 30 gelaterias on one block in Rome.

“The world is very big,” she said. “We export a lot. And every Sagrantino is different.”

Perticaia winery started in 2000.

Perticaia winery started in 2000.


The next morning, Alessandro and I went to the outskirts of Montefalco to the small winery of Perticaia (meaning “plow” in the Umbrian dialect and marking the transition to agriculture). Started in just 2000, it’s a split-level mustard-colored building with 123 acres of vineyards and 200 olive trees. In winter, its vegetarian is bare, making the landscape almost ghostlike in the morning fog. But inside the warm, light-filled tasting room, we tried 10 — count ‘em, 10 — wines that belie the size of the winery. I especially liked the brand new 2018 Sagrantino and the 2012 Montefalco Rosso.

We left fat and happy (me a little more as Alessandro had to drive back to Rome) and couldn’t help noticing the smiles on all the faces of the wine people we met. This truly is a wonderful business, manufacturing something you love and can share with the world in a beautiful setting. The stress of economics, competition, weather and marketing doesn’t seem to faze these people. If wine is the key to a stress-free life, maybe I should increase my intake.

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia's storage room

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia’s storage room


“We are always in front of a glass of wine,” Goretti told me. “We are always at a table with a lot of people, talking and drinking and laughing. How can you not be happy? That’s why it’s the best life ever.”

Owning a winery in Italy not as easy as toast but this couple is toasting now in the land of St. Francis

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas' and Rizza's 800-year-old house in Umbria.

Fabrizio Bizzarri, Ev Thomas and Claudia Rizza stand in front of Thomas’ and Rizza’s 800-year-old house in Umbria.


TODI, Italy — So you want to have a winery in Italy, huh?

Sit on your porch looking out at your vineyard on the hill, sipping the fruits of your labor under a warm sun, a plate of pasta in front of you as the church bells peal from a nearby village?

Getting thirsty? Getting antsy? Getting dreamy?

Here’s one reality.

You’re in sleeping bags on the floor of an 800-year-old stone house with no electricity, heat or water. It takes you seven years to get a building permit. You realize that your land really isn’t your land. You have no money and take equipment from cartoonish strangers on the promise you’ll pay them later. How?

Who knows?

Yet there’s another reality about the wine making business in Italy.

“With little money and just lots of work, you struggle but you know what? The truth is, we didn’t start off with this dream. We started off with an idea. That has turned into, honestly, a dream life.”

This sage advice comes from one Ev Thomas, a 69-year-old American artist who indeed is living the dream of many bored, overworked Americans with a fine taste for wine. We’re sitting in the living room of his stone house built in 1272, around the time Marco Polo set sail for China and St. Francis of nearby Assisi ditched his penthouse for prayers. The wood fire in the cast-iron fireplace warms the stone house like a dozy bathrobe against the 40-degree temperature outside.

Art is everywhere. Thomas’ paintings of the sea and a set of stairs hang on the walls. In the dining room is a table that once belonged to a family of Raphael art collectors from the 16th century.

“You’ll have lunch — and breakfast, what the heck? — where Raphael probably ate at this table,” Thomas tells me.

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Thomas with his Iubelo wine of 100 percent Sangiovese. Photo by Marina Pascucci


I met Thomas and his Sicilian wife, Claudia Rizza, at the Sangiovese Purosangue wine tasting event in Rome’s Radisson Blu hotel last weekend. They stood out in a room filled with dozens of wineries for two reasons: one, he’s an American; two, their Terramante winery is in Umbria. Sangiovese is a delicate grape that’s the main ingredient of such Italian wines as Chianti, Brunello and Montepulciano. All are prominent in Tuscany, the brightest star in Italy’s wine constellation.

I’ve always called Umbria, just to the south of Tuscany, as Tuscany Light. It has all the things Tuscany has (wineries, walled hill towns, lousy soccer) as its northern neighbor but with a fraction of the tourists and lower prices. Umbria is the only one of Italy’s 21 regions that does not border a sea or another country. Of all the regions with histories stretching back millenniums, Umbria may be the least influenced by outsiders.

The biggest influence remains a humble saint.

Francis Bernardone, better known as St. Francis of Assisi, was a wealthy, carousing son of a rich cloth merchant and a French noblewoman. After a year in prison and a bad illness, Francis went into the army in 1205 but a holy vision changed his life forever. He tossed away his gold, grabbed a robe and spent his life helping the poor and living in a cave.

Now enter Ev and Claudia, living in what amounted to a cave. What they discovered is neighbors and Umbrians farther afield who went out of their way to make their idea come to fruition. The people weren’t curing the sick, but they did help an American’s winery get started.

“In the U.S. you could never do this,” says Thomas, tall, fit, bearded and looking younger than 69 years. “You never could. You have to understand that this zone is unique. There is still deep underneath the Umbrians in this area are still connected deeply with St. Francis and the mentality of St. Francis.

“It’s beautiful. And it’s one of the reasons I like it so much.”

This story began in 1997. Thomas, raised on Chicago’s North Side, had gone to the University of Washington and later to San Francisco at age 25. Working as an artist and part-time at an art gallery, he met Claudia in ‘97 at a museum event. She moved back to Italy and they reconnected in 2000 when the American Academy of Rome brought him over as a visiting artist for three months. They then brought him back a year later.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.

Claudia Rizza preparing lunch.


They eventually moved to her native Marsala, Sicily, where Thomas continued to make and sell art. However, in 2004 he wanted someplace closer to Rome which he loves and has an airport for convenient shipping.

“We took a compass and drew a circle around Rome,” Thomas says. “We just started round the perimeter of Rome and out and out and out until we found something we could afford. We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t find anything and we were getting kind of desperate.”

They arrived in Todi, a charming collection of stone houses, palaces and lightly trodden windy alleys on a hill 35 miles south of Assisi. The locals, unlike Californians, were encouraging them to stay. They found this house.

Then they learned the price.

“We said, ‘Oh, well, there’s no point then. We can’t afford this place,’” Thomas says. “They said, ‘No! Just make the family an offer because you never know.’”

They offered what they could afford — two-thirds less. The owner didn’t laugh. He didn’t explode. He agreed. But then there was the matter of the geometra, the pseudo real estate agent who helped them find the place.

“They get a percentage,” Rizza says. “We were short 500 euros. We said, ‘We’re going to buy but you’re going to have to cut your fee.’ And he did. We had no excuses. He agreed so now we have to BUY THE FUCKING PLACE!”

The home, located at the end of a long dirt road on a hill on Todi’s outskirts, was once a tiny fortress and still sports the three-story stone tower used as a lookout for marauding armies during war-torn Umbria in the 13th century. At the time of purchase it looked as if it hadn’t been refurbished since then, either. What is now the dining room was outside. They lived in the tower and what is now the living room. They slept on the floor the first night. It was February and their lone heat was each others’ bodies. The fireplace was gutted. Thomas tried to make a fire and the whole room filled with smoke.

“It was kind of a hole,” Rizza says.

They returned to Sicily to regroup and came back in the summer. They hooked up a shower in the back and used the sun to heat plastic bags of water. Things were looking up. At least they were clean.

Then the good samaritan Umbrians, all seemingly came from St. Francis’ family tree, offered help. The couple met a “crazy” builder fishing on the neighboring Tiber. Ol’ Italo, “Mr. Italy” as Thomas calls him, rarely wore shoes and walked with a gait of Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But he was pretty handy with his hands and offered to fix the entire house to their liking for 10,000 euros. They borrowed the money from Rizza’s brother and Italo moved in.

Italo noticed nearby an old vineyard, a throw-in during the purchase. He asked if he could take the grapes. Sure, they said. Why not? They weren’t going to do anything with them.

What do they know about making wine?

“The next spring I came up to check on things and he was here,” Thomas says. “We agreed to meet, He said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to try the wine!’

“‘What, the wine is ready already?’”

“‘Oh, yeah! It’s much better this way. It’s fresh.’”

“Oh, it was the worst wine I’ve ever tasted,” Thomas tells me. “But I couldn’t tell him this. When I went back home to Sicily, I told Claudia, ‘Jesus, that was the worst wine I’ve ever had. We can make better wine than that.’ So we started making plans.”

Thomas dug into research like he’d soon dig into the soil to plant vines. He connected with friends in the California wine industry for advice. He went to California to take weekend classes.

They returned to Umbria popping their corks about someday popping real corks. Then they ran into the biggest roadblock, bigger than money or weather or vine disease.

Italy’s bureaucratic red tape.

Turns out, landowners own only one meter of land underneath the surface. In Umbria, which has very strict rules for planting grapes, you must buy the rights to plant and then wait for permission before planting vines. For an American, that’s as foreign a concept as the Italian language.

“He was like, ‘This is my land!’” Rizza says. “‘And I do whatever I want to with my land!’

“‘No you can’t.’”

“‘You and your stupid Italian mentality! You’ll never go anywhere!’

“He was planting and I was chasing after him to comply with everything.”

The couple are laughing now. We’re eating ribollita, a hearty farmer’s vegetable stew, and ossobuco, the famed Lombard dish of veal shanks braised with fresh vegetables, white wine and broth. We’re sopping up the sauce with fresh Italian bread and washing it down with their lovely Sangiovese wine on Raphael’s old table.

You couldn’t have a better Italian winter afternoon if Paolo Sorrentino directed it. Suddenly, the red tape and labor and worries seem a lifetime ago.

“You have to go through somersaults,” Rizza says. “We did it the first portion because we planted a half hectare at a time. We decided to put up the money ourselves just so we didn’t have to go through the bureaucracy.”

Expansion and equipment were other matters. They applied for a building permit in 2008 and didn’t receive it until 2015 and they had to rebuild the living room and veranda area. Equipment for making wine? What equipment? Where would they find it? Where would they get the money? Turns out they had a neighbor named Fabrizio who sold farm equipment and was, obviously, another descendant of St. Francis. He had a duster. It cost 1,500. They didn’t have 1,500.

Fabrizio said, “OK, I trust you guys. Don’t you worry. Take the duster. Pay me when you can.”

They later bought a sprayer from him and every month, the couple paid him a little bit, borrowing money from Rizza’s mother, using Thomas’ pension with Rizza selling some ceramics and working at B&B in Magione 40 miles to the north.

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo

Luigi, left, Hermiti, far right, and Renzo, next to Hermiti, helped son Lorenzo and Claudia build the home. Ev Thomas photo


In 2007, they were ready to make wine. Again, the neighbors came to help. Three jovial elderly men came by to help collect the grapes. They brought a plastic vat that was bigger than the Fiat Panda it rode upon and dragging a destemmer behind it. All five went to work.

However, it wasn’t really work.

“They’re really old guys,” Thomas says. “They’re between 85 and 90. But they’re spry and smoking cigarettes like fiends. By the end of the night, after doing all this stuff and getting it into the vat, I never had so much fun in my life. I laughed so hard because these guys were great. They loved life.

“That got me hooked.”

Thomas made two barrels of what he thought were two pretty good wines, made with 100 percent Sangiovese grapes. Terramante (www.terramante.com, info@terramante.com), a combination of the Italian words “terra” (land) and “amante” (lover), was born. So were Iubelo and Laudatus, his two wines named with local ties. Iubelo was the name of a poem written by Umbrian friar Jacopone da Todi, who following St. Francis’ lead, gave away all his possessions. He also wrote “Stabat Mater,” which remains one of the great hymns in the Catholic Church. Laudatus, a Sangiovese-Sagrantino blend, comes from a Latin word, laudato, which means “praised” and is all through St. Francis’ religious song, “Canticle of the Sun.”

Cute names, but the true test was taking it to California where his friends would judge.

“They said, ‘This is great wine. You should actually try to sell this stuff,’” Thomas says. “‘You should really think about making wine.’”

His research continued. He looking into the best clones, the best planting materials, the best harvesting strategy. He became a sponge of wine knowledge.

He only had five rows of grapes but little by little the plot grew. He now has five acres and through 12 years of trial and error, has produced a wine that is starting to sell and get recognition. One Belgian passing by loved the wine and bought a couple of cases. What Thomas and Rizza didn’t know was that man’s wine club was voted as the best wine-tasting club in Europe. The club returned and bought 50 cases more.

Then wine writer Jane Hunt, a master sommelier, liked the Iubelo and asked Decanter magazine to consider it for its list of top 100 wines in the world under 50 euros for 2017.

The winery

The winery


We get in their car and go farther up the hill to their winery. The three-story stone building overlooks the gorgeous green Umbrian valley. The small building, where friars also made wine in Medieval times, holds 14 barrels and two tanks. He takes a plunger and squeezes out enough from a tank to fill half a wine glass. It’s their best vintage yet, he tells me.

It’s cold. It could use some time on a kitchen counter. But it’s fantastic, rich and fruity and clean.

We walk back outside and I look out at the hills beyond. The farmland is partitioned off like a quilt with olive orchards on top, vineyards in the middle and grains and sunflower plantings in the bottom. I made a mental note to return for some fall colors that might make New England look like Cleveland. It’s noon. I hear church bells peal.

Beauty isn’t the only advantage an Italian winery has over California. After all, have you seen Napa County in summer? No, the biggest reason is economics. Thomas and Rizza struggled early but in California owning a winery is something you only see in movies, which is about the only type of people who can afford it.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.

Claudia and Ev in their barrel room.


A winery in Napa or Sonoma is cool. It’s sexy. Yes, it’s expensive but the tax write-offs are great. The California wine scene has gone corporate. You don’t find wineries in former friars quarters.

“What is happening in California, particularly in the Napa Valley, is land values have gone up tremendously,” Thomas says. “In part this is a result of large international investors as well as, in some cases, personalities. Multimillionaires who go in and buy something because it’s always been their dream to have a winery.”

Thomas says an acre of land in California goes for between $250,000-$750,000. For a minimum five acres, that’s more than $1 million. Thus, that section of Bay Area real estate is outrageously expensive. So, frankly, are the wines.

“As a consequence, it’s difficult for a lot of the original family wineries and they’ve been sold,” he says. “That name may still exist on the winery but they’ve been bought by a large corporation or a group of wealthy investors. So if you’ve invested that much money, it’s not possible to get a profit even if you’re selling your wine at $85-$90 a bottle.”

Their California friend in the family wine business recently sold his winery and moved to Umbria and is starting a small winery to make Cabernet and rose’. In Umbria land goes for about $4,000-$5,000 an acre and in Tuscany, except for the over-the-top Bolgheri region, it’s about $30,000.

“If he sells a bottle here for $15-$20 he’ll end up with a larger profit margin.”

Thomas and Rizza don’t have aspirations of getting rich. They hope to break even next year and maybe if they acquire more land some day they’ll make a profit. They should. I was never a huge Sangiovese fan. I’m a Barolo, Piedmont guy. But his Iubelo is the best Sangiovese I’ve ever had. It’s rich with clean acidity and a bushel of red fruit. It’s great with cheeses, pasta or a Florentine steak. I’m taking home a bottle to make my pasta amatriciana even tastier.

“Sangiovese, when you take it into your mouth and it’s the right temperature,” Thomas says, “it has this quality of blood.”

Now that he’s up to his taste buds in Italian grapes, he may become the touchstone for Americans with similar ambitions of starting a winery in Umbria. I ask him what advice he’d give.

“Decide what part of Italy,” he says. “Take some time. Drive around Italy. Make sure this region is what you’re interested in. What does this region have to offer you that fits into what’s important to you. Maybe the Piemonte is more you. Maybe Puglia is for you. Then of course, are you an urban person or are you a rural person? Very basic life decisions like that to begin with.”

Living in Italy I’ve noticed some of the happiest people living here are wine people. I can see why. They’re outside in beautiful country. The weather often reminds them of heaven. They’re making a product that is not only delicious but healthy. They meet interesting like-minded people.

For me, a glass of wine always represents a celebration of a good day’s work even for someone like me who doesn’t work. But here in Umbria, it’s deeper than that. As Rizza quotes St. Francis:

“If you work with your hands you are a worker. If you work with your hands and your head you are an artisan. And if you work with your hands, your head and your heart you are an artist.”

Responded Thomas: “I still think of myself as an artist, even with what I’m doing.“

Salute.