Under the Lazio Sun: Finding a home in the Italian countryside isn’t easy but here are some tips how

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.


BAGNOREGIO, Italy — It didn’t all start with Frances Mayes.

Yes, her 1996 blockbuster “Under the Tuscan Sun” made owning a house in the Italian countryside seem like Nirvana with better food. But mankind has sought Italy’s rolling green hills, vast meadows and sunny skies ever since the Ancient Roman aristocracy built villas in the Alban Hills outside Rome. Hadrian, the famous Roman emperor from the 2nd century, had a villa in Tivoli east of the city. Mussolini? When he wasn’t stomping human rights he was sipping wine near his summer home near Rimini on the Adriatic Coast.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.


So the idea of rural Italy has passed through the minds of anyone who is overworked, under loved and out of breath. For those blessed to visit the gorgeous nation of Italy, love for this country sometimes turns dreams into plans.

For Gretchen, 75, and Peter Bloom, 79, for Beth Blosser, 59, and Stefano Carta, 58, their dreams have become reality. I know. I’m standing in the middle of that dream. I’m in the spacious living room — I think. Wait, maybe it’s the sun room. The guest apartment? I can’t really tell. Their renovated home in the Italian countryside is an 800-square-meter (8,600-square-foot), 29-room palace with seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms. It has more balconies than St. Peter’s.

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo

It has four kitchens, two spiral staircases, a conference room, an office, four fireplaces and three floors — not counting a loft that can sleep 10. It has separate structures to make wine and pizza, for God’s sake. All that’s missing is a swimming pool.

That’s next.

Technically speaking, it’s called a casale. That’s Italian for farmhouse. Built in the mid-1800s, this place is to farming what the Pentagon is to a gun case. Christened Festina Lente (Make haste slowly), it was used for farming livestock until the 1950s.

Today, it is the stone, mortar and tile love child of two couples who lived for years in the same building in Rome near the Colosseum. If your daily monotony has been invaded by thoughts of sipping Chianti on your own sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow, listen to their story.

It’s a tale that has taken 10 years of broken promises, laughable cost estimates, falling walls and hemorrhaging money. They’ve experienced tears, screams, sweat and endless sleepless nights. But today, 10 years later?

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom


They’re sipping Chianti on their sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow.

Their goals and barriers are similar to those of all dreamers. Just keep in mind this project is a gross exaggeration of the average house in the Italian countryside. The foursome bought the house in 2008 for 400,000 euros. How much have they put into it?

At least 1 million euros.

“If you want to ask if this was rational? Absolutely not,” Peter Bloom says. “No way. I don’t think we had an idea how big this was. There were times three or four years in when I didn’t know what floor I was on or what room I was in.”

The view from the front door.

The view from the front door.


I’ve known Peter since I moved to Rome the first time in 2001. He helped organize Rome’s chapter of an international running club called the Hash House Harriers (“A Drinking Club with a Running Problem”). We spent many a day drinking wine and talking sports, American politics and Italian culture while sitting on their spacious rooftop balcony. He spent most of his career with USAID, traveling to 123 countries and some of the most backwoods hell holes on earth. Gretchen worked for World Food Program, traveling to 100 countries and places ranging from Haiti to Afghanistan helping the needy. We went through many a bottle of wine swapping travel tales from hell although, in comparison, my stories were more like from heck.

When I decided to retire to Rome in 2014, he became my advisor, telling me how to navigate Italy’s bureaucratic blackberry bush. When I arrived that January and butted heads with Rome’s Third World banking system, he loaned me enough cash to help pay my first month’s rent, security deposit and rental agent fee. He and Gretchen are the most generous people I’ve ever known.

This is why they’ve had an open invitation for me to visit their casale ever since I retired here. Last week I took them up on it. I took the train from Rome an hour and 15 minutes to the lovely town of Orvieto, a walled city high atop a volcanic rock and home every winter to one of the best jazz festivals in Europe.

The Blooms and their other guest, Alessandra Narciso, picked me up in their rental car and whisked us into the countryside of rural Lazio. The countryside of Rome’s region is one of the most underrated destinations in Italy. It features two of the prettiest lakes in a country full of them: Bracciano and Bolsena. The Apennine Mountains cross into Lazio which, of course, is also peppered with endless green vineyards and majestic walled villages.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.


On the way to the casale we stopped for a bruschetta lunch at Civita di Bagnoregio, a walled village eroded away by landslides and now home to only seven residents in the winter (though it swells to 100 in summer). Its peculiar perch, more peculiar residents and a bridge UNESCO built to stop sure death has made it the subject of travel stories from New York to New Zealand.

Festina Lente is located between the separate town of Bagnoregio and the pretty medieval lakeside town of Bolsena near the lightly troddened Lazio-Umbria border. Just 90 minutes from Rome, it seems like 90 years from Rome’s problems.

“All they wanted was a little house in the country,” Bloom says. “The origin of this is just a classic Italian couple. Everybody wants just a little place in the country. I mean little.”

How this happened is a combination of one couple’s dream and another’s generosity. It all started more than 10 years ago when Beth and Stefano had a 150-square-meter country house sold out from under them. Seeing their friends devastated, the Blooms offered to go in with them on another search.

They found a 200-square-meter place near Todi, across the border in Umbria, but the Blooms didn’t like the long dirt road in or the 67 acres of fields and woods on the property. In the meantime, Beth’s and Stefano’s 10-year-old daughter, Emma, was surfing the Internet. She came across this big stone house on seven acres of land in northern Lazio.

Perfect. The deal was signed. Now all they had to do was renovate.

Ahem, this is when dream becomes reality, the wrong kind of reality, when nightmares don’t only come when you’re sleeping. They received some horribly bad advice. A Rome architect told them the roofs were fine and sturdy. They weren’t. They had to be replaced.

The kitchen

The kitchen


All four roofs cost $40,000 each.

The roofs also needed chimneys. They had to drill a well 130 meters into the ground to get water. That was 8,000 euros. The original stone structure may have looked classic but it was faulty. It had to be plastered over and painted. The ground floor was rubble. There was no staircase connecting it to the first floor. Rusting, old farm equipment was strewn around the lawn like left over from a fire. Only the top floor was livable.

“You can’t imagine what wasn’t here,” Bloom says.

And in the winter, at 600 meters (1,970 feet), it is freezing. Stefano found out the hard way how heat is exasperated in huge stone houses. He stayed 10 days one winter and the heating bill came out to 500 euros.

It got worse. In 2008 the U.S. banking crisis also hit. The Blooms had all their money in the stock market and at one time were tempted to leave Rome for the U.S. But instead of bailing, Peter took out loans and the foursome continued hammering away. Stefano made countless trips north to monitor the progress.

All the time, the Blooms rejected sanity. They weren’t scared of investing in an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse in the midst of a financial crisis that nearly crippled their country.

The living room

The living room


“Eh!” Gretchen says. “We were concerned. We might have to leave Italy, but we were already committed.”

The Blooms split half of every year in their condos in Newport, Rhode Island, and on DuPont Circle in Washington. While the Blooms were in the States, Stefano and Beth kept rolling with the major renovations while traveling around putting their own personal touches on the place.

They found bathroom tiles from Morocco and kitchen tiles from Sicily. They found a parquet floor from Croatia. They worked with an Umbrian artist to design a mosaic floor tile of clouds and a snail. They found a blacksmith in Caserta in Southern Italy who made the towel racks with a Tuscan design. They ordered another standing towel rack from the United Kingdom. They had the new chimneys made in the same ancient style as seen around the region. Beth, who does garden tours of Rome’s Villa Borghese park, planted 60 ancient fruit trees on the grounds.

I ask Beth, a Kent, Ohio, native who has lived in Rome since 1987 and is a graduate of John Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, if it was worth it.

The master bedroom.

The master bedroom.


“If you asked me a year ago, I might not have been so much,” she says. “Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel? Absolutely.”

Peter gives me a tour of the place. It is a long tour. The kitchen has a fireplace — for cooking. The dining table is solid marble. “Four people couldn’t lift that table,” Bloom says. The kitchen cabinets are antique with wrought-iron handles, found on eBay, to hang pots and pans. An antique clock hangs on the wall.

The living room is made up of the Blooms’ old furniture which came amongst the 84 boxes they sent up from Rome. A rocking chair sits on the yellow brick floor.

The hallway has Stefano and Beth’s bedroom which looks like a honeymoon suite at a Four Seasons. A king-size bed opposite a fireplace with a big balcony that looks out at the farmland beyond. While the whole place looks pulled from a 19th century romance novel, the bathrooms are all modern with bathtubs and walk-in showers.

Every room I enter, even my modest guest room with two twin beds and romantic reading lamp, has great views.

“Every view is beautiful,” Bloom says, “and every view sees nothing.”

We walk down into a long airy room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. We look at the vast farmland beyond. We don’t see another structure. The sun on a day in the high 60s is shining. This is their sun room, perfect for sipping wine, brandy or a good book in winter. The windows can fold open in summer.

“This was an old crummy garage full of nothing,” he says. “We were here in April 2017 and it was a little cool. The sun was coming in and you could’ve been in your underwear.”

The apartment

The apartment


We go down to the ground floor which has an entire apartment, complete with couch, love seat, dining room and coffee kitchen — which all can serve the adjacent massive conference room through a window in the wall. A bigger kitchen is planned.

We walk outside where he shows me the wine press and the small hut where they hope to make pizzas some day. There’s a fountain “for no good reason,” he says. He stops talking. We listen. We can’t hear a thing. The only sound is an odd rhythmic whacking of what may be a piece of farm equipment far away.

“This is in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I’ve stayed in a number of agroturismos in Italy and other places and I’ve never been anywhere where you can’t hear something. Some road, somewhere. Or some factory, somewhere. Here …?

We walk up to the second floor where the Blooms were sequestered for 8 ½ years of visits while the rest of the house caught up. It’s another entire apartment with a cast-iron fireplace, decorative couch, a dining room table and rustic wooden floor. Upstairs is an open loft, perfect to flop a dozen mattresses for all the grandkids.

The upstairs

The upstairs


That was much of the Blooms’ motivation in this project. They will leave it to their children, who have already had longish stays, at least long enough to know one floor from another, something I couldn’t accomplish in two days.

“My hope is them and their grandkids will come here and spend summers,” Bloom says. “Will they? I may never know. My hope is, as this went on, wouldn’t our kids rather have this lovely place in the countryside of Italy rather than just being left some money?”

OK, so who can relate to an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse? It doesn’t matter. This foursome can relate to you. Anyone who searches for their dream home in Italy has the same guidelines, regardless of need. So if you haven’t lost hope, here are their five best pieces of advice in finding a country home in Italy.

1. “Don’t do it without an Italian partner,” Bloom says. “Don’t even think about it. You’ll get ripped off six different ways and you won’t know what you’re doing and, unless your Italian is perfect and you know building and land and you’ve done this somewhere else, you’ll get screwed.” Stefano filled the bill here.

2. Ask yourself serious questions. Says Bloom: “Why do you want it? How often will you use it? Is it for you or your family? How often would you come? Is it really worth it to you? They need to know why they’re doing it.”

3. Make sure you can renovate it. The Italian bureaucracy is beyond confusing. It’s easier to build a stadium in the U.S. than a newsstand in Italy. The building restrictions are mind numbing. Also, different regions have different restrictions. Lazio’s are more lax. If this casale was a pizza toss away across the border in Umbria, half the renovations could not have happened.

4. You’d better be able to afford it. As the Blooms learned, prices can be four times more than you expected. In the U.S., Bloom says, builders “are realistic.”

5. When you get an estimate, get it from a local. Their first architect who came up from Rome gave them costs that were ridiculously low. No, the roofs were not fine. “No question, had we gotten an estimate from the local builder we now have, we would not have bought it,” Bloom says.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.


However, they’re glad they did. The commitment took 10 years but now they have many years to enjoy it. And they have plans. Beth already has a group of 24 guests lined up sometime next year for their trial rental run. Bloom said if they take four couples, each with their own room, “You could easily rent that floor for 5,000 euros a week. That’s cheap. That’s just a thought.” That comes out to less than 90 euros per person per night, much less than your average agroturismo.

But the biggest event is already planned. In June 2020 the casale will host the Blooms’ 50th wedding anniversary. They are inviting half of Washington and half of Rome. I’ll be among the mob.

I think they’ll have room.

Sexual harassment in Italy: So if you think it’s real awful in the United States …

Italian actress Asia Argento came forward against Harvey Weinstein and the Italian media ran her out of the country. (Photo by Misunderstood)

Italian actress Asia Argento came forward against Harvey Weinstein and the Italian media ran her out of the country. (Photo by Misunderstood)

(I’m on assignment this week and wanted to address the sexual harassment issue that once again is all over the world thanks to accused sexual assailant Brett Kavanaugh trying to snivel his way onto the Supreme Court. However, I reread my blog from last fall on sexual harassment in Italy and many of the points are still fresh. Below is a look at it again.)

I remember my first trip to Rome. It was 1978. I was 22 years old and backpacking around the world. It was at night and I sat outside the Termini train station writing in my journal. I looked up. I saw two young women sprinting toward me, their backpacks bobbing up and down behind their long hair.

“CAN YOU PLEASE WALK US TO OUR HOTEL?” one yelled in American English.

“Why? Are you lost?”

“NO!” Then she pointed behind them.

Three men were running toward us. They’d followed them from the time they disembarked their train and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I didn’t have to ask what was the question. I walked them to their nearby hotel without incident. They were visibly shaken. Even I was, and I had just spent three years in a randy college fraternity.

The sexual harassment epidemic that is encompassing the United States like a new STD isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2014 the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights surveyed 42,000 women encompassing every EU country. It reported that one out of every three women had experienced some kind of sexual violence. That includes sexual harassment.

What’s true in the U.S. is true all over the world: Men are pigs. The stories I’ve heard, I’m surprised universal courtship isn’t club her in the head, drag her into a cave, shtoink her and then go draw on a wall.

Here in Italy, local elements complicate the issue. The Catholic Church. The media. The government. Sexual mores are steeped in tradition of a strong mother figure. A male population is weaned on female stereotypes that haven’t changed while women’s independence has. It’s a petri dish of sexual ambiguity where society is not accommodating a growingly angry female population.

How much sexual harassment goes on in Italy?

“A lot. Too much,” Cinzia Mammoliti, a law graduate specializing in criminology, forensic psychopathology and criminal psychology who counsels women victims of violence, wrote me in an email. “There always was, especially inside the home and on the workplace. Italy is a nation where chauvinism still reigns and no matter how much progress there is with equal opportunity there is still a lot to do.”

A 2015-16 survey conducted by Italy’s National Institute for Statistics (ISTAT) revealed that one million Italian women have been victims of sexual blackmail. This isn’t, “Heeeey! Want to go get a glass of wine after work?” This is hanging sex over their heads during a job interview in a country with 11.3 percent unemployment. It’s threatening their current job in exchange for sex. Italy even has a phrase for it.

Molestia sessuale. No translation necessary.

Carlo Tavecchio (Photo by SportCafe 24)

Carlo Tavecchio (Photo by SportCafe 24)


This came to mind this week as I read about the fallout from the Italian national soccer team’s inexcusable pratfall in World Cup qualifying. Carlo Tavecchio, the 74-year-old troll and head of the Italian soccer federation, had just resigned in disgrace.

Then the disgrace got worse.

A former federation executive told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, that one time Tavecchio called her into his office.

“I went into his office to talk about football,” said the woman, who used the pseudonym Mary. “He did not even give me time to ask, ‘President, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You look well. I can see you have an active sex life.’ Then, ‘Come here and let me touch your breasts.’

“I was embarrassed. I tried to tell him to stop. But his only answer was to close the curtains of the office.”

She told the paper he continually harassed her and she finally quit. She came forward only when she learned he’d resigned — not fired — and could still take a job elsewhere in the federation.

Harvey Weinstein (Photo by Rolling Stone)

Harvey Weinstein (Photo by Rolling Stone)


American women’s public bull rush atop their #metoo platform has transformed into Italy’s #quellavoltache (#thattimewhen…). Italian actress Asia Argento and Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez were among the 100-plus women accusing disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein of locomotive libido. Fabrizio Lombardo, head of Italian operations for Weinstein’s Miramax company, allegedly sent women to Weinstein’s hotel and then sent intimidating messages, according to La Stampa newspaper. Lombardo denied it and Weinstein claims all the sex was consensual. That’s understandable. All women want sex with a guy who looks like a fat mob goon after a three-day binge and a train wreck.

Weinstein wasn’t the only one.

Argento told La Stampa that an Italian actor-director once told her to come discuss something in his trailer where he pulled out his penis. She was 16.

Italian showgirl Miriana Trevisan recently came forward about an incident 20 years ago in the office of director Giuseppe Tornatore. She told Claudia Torrisi of 50 50, an Italian gender and human rights blog, that he “put me against the wall and started to kiss my neck and my ears and touched my breast aggressively. He may not recall it, but I do.”

Miriam Trevisan (Photo by Blasting News)

Miriam Trevisan (Photo by Blasting News)


She once went into the office of an unnamed Italian TV personality and discussed a potential job. She told Torrisi, “He said I had to be nice to him because we could only talk about work if we were close.” He tried to kiss her but she said no and left the office. On the way out, she saw his assistant who said, “You still have your lipstick on. I think we will never see you again.”

Italian men, however, aren’t nearly as aggressive as they were when I lived off pizza by the slice here nearly 40 years ago. Women say they leer more than touch. However, I still hear horror stories. My American friend, Loren, 38, has had it.

“I saw one of those freaky guys who decides to whip it out,” she told me. “The first time was five years ago. He just whipped it out near Largo Argentina. He purposely looked at me like he was getting off on it.

“Talking about touching you inappropriately, that happens a lot in buses. I told you about the bus experience where some guy rubbed it against me. It was a hardon. You could feel it. It was just disgusting.”

My girlfriend, Marina, said she’s never experienced sexual harassment at her travel magazine but she walks around practically with a STOP sign hanging over her neck. However, what has happened to Loren has happened to her. She won’t get on a public bus in Rome without me.

In many ways it’s worse for American women in Rome than Italian. Some American women come over with the fantasy of, as my actor-friend and fellow-expat Tom Shaker once described, “falling in love with Francesco at Trattoria Yo Mama’s Ass” and then go home and tell their cubicle mate in Anaheim about it.

“Some,” however, doesn’t mean “a lot.” Still, some Italian men see American women more approachable than their Italian brethren who aren’t nearly as sexual as they dress. One frustrated Italian guy once told me at an aperitivo, “The problem with Italian women is they just don’t drink enough.”

“What I find abusive is I’ll find an Italian man will talk differently to an Italian woman rather than an American woman,” Loren said, “thinking the American woman is eager and willing and available for sex.”

Past laws, since improved, haven’t helped much and today the media still doesn’t. After Argento came forward, she became the villain rather than Weinstein. Libero, a Milan-based newspaper, lambasted the accusers, writing, “First they give it away, then they whine and pretend to repent.” On Argento, Libero wrote, “Surrendering to a boss’ advances is prostitution, not rape,” going on to say that sexual blackmail is “a rite of passage for actresses.” During a radio interview, Libero editor Vittorio Feltri went even further.

“Because there was no physical assault, it had to be consensual,” he said. “Besides, she should be thankful he forcibly performed oral sex on her.”

Sure, Vittorio. Lick this.

Keep in mind Italy’s history. It has sucked on a mother’s breast since Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, fed off the wolf’s teat. Women have been treated like third-class citizens — behind men and men’s pets — in every walk of life. Women weren’t even allowed to vote in Italy until 1946. Until the 1960s a man could kill his wife and call it murder of honor. Rape was considered a crime against morals, not against a person, until 1996. Sexual violence didn’t even used to cover harassment.

“Italian women are still suffering from an old point of view and an equally outdated education that still sees them as just brides without an income, who can be supported and happy only if married with children,” Mammoliti wrote. “There (is) just a small number of women that feel they are more than this and that feel accomplished even if they do not have a family depend on them. This way of thinking, in turn, makes women more fragile and easily attackable.”

Then came Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump without a nuclear weapon, who was charged with having affairs with everyone from a teenage belly dancer to underaged prostitutes. He introduced the term “bunga bunga” into the Italian language.

“We have 20 years of a government who basically sexualized every aspect of life,” said Loretta Bondi, a board member of Casa delle Donne (House of Women), a political, social and cultural space for women in Rome. “It’s difficult to basically uproot those kinds of perceptions.”

The Italian woman isn’t as passive and subservient as you think. Bondi, 60, joined her first women’s movement at 16. More women are earning college degrees than men. In more than five years over two stints in Rome, I’ve yet to meet an Italian woman who dreams of staying home and raising kids.

“Let me assure you that women, Italian women, have managed throughout these years to turn perception, turn legislation that would’ve remained stagnant without women’s actions,” Bondi said. “There are a lot of ways you perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. It’s not just devising very good laws. If you don’t start from the very roots of this phenomenon, chances are that the struggle will continue to be uphill.”

What must change in Italy is women should start idolizing people like Argento. The media onslaught made her flee to Berlin but she struck a blow for Italian women everywhere. They need a guiding light. According to La Stampa, only 20 percent of women talk about sexual harassment. Only 0.7 percent come forward. Who can risk losing a job when they’re so hard to find?

“Sex is still a taboo topic,” Mammoliti wrote, “and in Italy a lot of women are afraid to come forward because of the shame that is attached to it and also because they are afraid to be blamed, which is not such an improbable outcome.”

I asked Bondi her thoughts on the theory that women like Argento have no right to scream foul after a five-year sexual relationship.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Violence can happen at any time of a relationship, even before a relationship is formed. How many women have been killed by their own husband? The fact that you have had any relationship with a partner or a boss doesn’t justify any form of violence.”

This flood of anecdotes figuratively castrating public figures has done more good than any law. It has made men reflect. I looked back on my past and asked myself … was I ever guilty? Fortunately, I have a lifetime fear of rejection. A bachelor my whole life, I always waited for a sign from the woman, even in college. I am terrible at picking up women. I sought phone numbers, not one-night stands. I always had a policy never to date anyone from work. The reason is a simple one that strikes at the heart: mine. If it doesn’t work, you have to look at them every day. Work is tense enough.

That’s why the lack of shame of the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world baffles me. Rejection to them is no more than lint from a dry cleaner. Well, look where that got them. Two stellar show business careers are over, their legacies a disgrace.

Strong women are the reason. And men? It’s not over for us. You’d better think twice before you touch.

“It’s an excellent thing that’s coming out,” Bondi said. “Nothing will help if these issues are wrapped in silence. It does take a lot of courage to come forward, to press charges against a boss, a friend, or somebody who exercises that kind of power. I admire the women who came forward and should not only be encouraged but supported.

“And certainly not degraded.”

Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it's my website's lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it’s my website’s lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo


As a sportswriter for 40 years, one of my favorite themes was things that were too hyped or overlooked. Nothing burned the bottom of sports fans’ shorts more than reading that their quarterback is overrated. Nothing made them smile more to know their stadium is underrated. One man’s opinion is another fan’s scorn. It could be anything. Overrated? Jose Canseco. Underrated? Stanford football. Overrated? Dodger Stadium. Underrated? Annapolis, Maryland.

Italy gets more publicity than all of American sports combined. What doesn’t the average traveler know about my adopted country? A lot. Italy isn’t all quiet canals, Dolomites and cappuccinos in dreamy piazzas, ancient islands in an azure sea and endless vineyards in the Tuscan countryside.

It has its sore spots. It doesn’t have many. I struggled to find five overrated places in Italy. But they are there and as you all plan vacations for 2019, here’s a tip sheet: Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations. I’ve been to all of them. Use it as a warning; use it as an insider’s tip. But use it. (They’re in the order of my rage and praise). Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts in the comments section. Those threatening my life please form a line to the right.

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo


MOST OVERRATED
1. Milan.
It’s Newark with a big church. The Duomo is worth a visit. The white facade with 135 spires looks like a birthday cake. But once you get past that, Milan visually pales compared to other Italian cities. Don’t blame the Milanese. It’s not their fault Allied forces bombed the place back to the Stone Age in World War II. But what’s built in its place is too modern to look historical, too old to look clean. The weather is usually awful. Yes, you can see the Alps from there — on July 15, about the only day there’s good enough weather to see past architecture as dull as Milanese cuisine. When your headlining dish is osso buco, a sloppy veal stew, you don’t deserve to be called Italian. The women are attractive if you like anorexics with attitudes and La Scala is nice but who likes opera? Plus, their soccer teams suck. (Forza Roma!)
Cortona. AikrPano photo

Cortona. AirPano photo


2. Cortona. Ever read “Under the Tuscan Sun”? If you didn’t, you’ve never wanted to visit Italy or don’t like self-obsessed chick lit. It’s about a woman building a new life in a fixer-upper in Tuscany, interspersed with Italian recipes. The 1996 blockbuster made Cortona, where author Frances Mayes lived, a must stop on the American tourist’s beaten path in Italy. Americans walk around town carrying her book, trying to identify her butcher, her vegetable stand and florist. Cortonese told me they felt like zoo animals. The truth is, Italy has dozens of quaint, walled cities like Cortona. You don’t need to fight tour buses to see one.
Trieste's Piazza dell'Unita.  Turismo FVG photo

Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita.
Turismo FVG photo


3. Trieste. It figures that James Joyce would live in a town like Trieste for 10 years. I disliked them both. It’s a good debate which one is more boring. Trieste has the biggest seaside piazza in the world. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many. Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia is a massive 130,000-square-foot expanse weighed down like anchors by gray government buildings and two overpriced cafes. There is no brilliant architectural treasure as you’d find in lesser-known piazzas such as Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno or Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo. Also, tucked into Italy’s northeast corner on the north end of the Adriatic, Trieste is constantly plagued by the Bora, the cold wind that sweeps down from the hills surrounding the town.
Capri. Capri photo

Capri. Capri photo


4. Capri. Come here if you want to see or be seen — or stand in line for 30 minutes waiting for a bus to take you zigzagging up the hill. Granted, the hill’s view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea is one of the best in Europe. It’s a lot better than the views of elbows and asses that squeeze past you in the impossibly crowded Piazza Umberto I. The piazza is in Capri town which I wrote in a blog four years ago was “like a playground for millionaire yacht captains.” Capri is “an Italian theme park with better wine.” While the island is beautiful and the sea is inviting, Capri has no beach. None. At one spot I had to pay 21 euros to lay a towel on a rock. Without 500-euro loafers and a 300-euro sweater wrapped strategically around my shoulders I felt like Oliver Twist scavenging for more gruel.
Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo

Costa Smeralda. Criservice.net photo


5. Costa Smeralda. See above but spread it out for 55 kilometers across the northeast corner of Sardinia without Capri’s views. Costa Smeralda is the epicenter for Italians’ August exodus. It’s lined with stuffy hotels, private marinas and tricked-out yachts. Beautiful, tanned Italians with sunglasses that cost more than their weekly food budget sit on yachts and drink Spritz and wine on the bows of beautiful boats. It’s the height of Italian stuffiness and a magnet for Italians wanting to join the A-list celebs for a glass of Campari. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda’s main town, is as phony as an aging Italian actress’ face. And the prices in August make you wonder if Italy invented price gouging.
Me and Marina at Procida's Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Procida’s Chalet Vicidomini.


MOST UNDERRATED
1. Procida.
I’ve written about this idyllic little island before and I will the rest of my life. It’s right out of a movie set — which it was in 1994 when it was the setting for “Il Postino,” the classic love story about a postman in 1950s Italy who falls in love with a fellow islander. You can relive old Italy here. Just sit on one of the dockside restaurants with a Neapolitan pizza or dine at the heart-throbbing romantic La Lampara above the idyllic harbor and fall in love all over again. Then the next day go to the white sand beach on the north side of the island. Procida is only 10 miles north of Capri but a million miles away in authenticity.
Turin doesn't get the hype of other Italian cities but it's not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

Turin doesn’t get the hype of other Italian cities but it’s not Detroit, either. The Independent photo


2. Turin. Italians used to call Turin the Detroit of Italy. These Italians have never been to Detroit. The only thing Turin and Detroit have in common is car manufacturing except the cars out of Turin actually work. Turin, the gateway to the Italian Alps, is speckled with beautiful piazzas, tree-lined boulevards and long porticoed walkways. The 2006 Winter Olympics gave it a bit of a facelift but two things I love here stayed the same: The Mole, the spired museum dedicated to Italian film, and Barolo, Italy’s best wine and my favorite in the world.
Lake Nemi in Castelli Romani.

Castel Gandolfo in Castelli Romani. Like a Local Guide photo


3. Castelli Romani. One of Rome’s best secrets, Castelli Romani is a series of 14 small towns, many sporting castles, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Each one has its own distinct draw, like gelato has different flavors: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling roast pork eaten at a string of outdoor restaurants; Nemi, on the beautiful volcanic Lago di Nemi, home to great views and some of the best strawberries in the world; Genzano, where many wealthy Romans lived during Ancient Rome and now where Romans go for the best bread around; Castel Gandolfo, on Lago di Albano, so beautiful you’ll see why the popes have their summer residence here; Frascati, blessed with a beautiful park, perfect for a picnic with the town’s trademark refreshing white wine.
Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo


4. Arcipelago di La Magdellena. If you see Costa Smeralda, keep right on going to the point town of Palau and take the 15-minute boat ride to Magdellena. It’s a national park consisting of seven small islands all lined with gorgeous white sand beaches on romantic, individually carved bays. Don’t let the U.S. naval base scare you. The personnel are well behaved and blend in with the kind locals. You need a car and a camera. You’ll want to stop around every curve for a photo.
Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo

Urbino Smartraveltoitaly.com photo


5. Urbino. I call Le Marche Tuscany Light. Le Marche has everything its more famous neighbor has but with a third the tourists and cheaper prices. Urbino is the jewel of Le Marche. High atop a hill, the walled city of 15,000 people is so beautiful UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. The home of the great Renaissance artist Raphael has kept its artsy rep after 600 years. Eat Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta in the dimly lit Palazzo Ducale or just settle in with a glass of Le Marche’s trademark Verdicchio white wine.

Why Rome? From loathing to loving, the long, twisting journey to my dream retirement spot

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Italians are very curious people, like anthropologists but better dressed. They ask you a lot of questions. Where are you from? Where are you going on vacation? Where did you buy your shoes? Things that matter to Italians.

As a subject, I’m different. I’m a novelty. I’m retired. Four and a half years ago, at age 57, I left the U.S. to start a new life in Rome where I plan to end my life as well. It was a colossal leap of faith, a major risk with a downside of winding up dead broke in a foreign land with no family or friends. So Italians, most of whom work until they die, always raise a coiffed eyebrow when I tell them my situation. And they, as well as tourists, all ask me the same question.

Why Rome?

It’s a long story, one made longer by the many twists and turns the journey took since I first visited here in 1978. The political and economic climate changes in Italy like its fashion scene. That made each visit unique and challenging in its own way. Most expats here all have the same story. They came to Rome for the first time and fell in love, either with the land, with the food, with a man or with a woman. The beginning of my tale is different.

I hated this place.

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo


In 1978 it was particularly bad. Inflation and unemployment poleaxed Italians, exhausted from a decade of economic chaos. The right-wing fascists, left-wing Red Brigades and Mafia all fought over the ugly daily headlines. On May 9, it suffered a particularly gruesome one-two punch. Ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, the leading figure in the dominant Christian Democracy party and who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks before, was found murdered in the trunk of a car.

On May 1, Peppino Impastato, a noted leftist and outspoken critic of the Mafia, was kidnapped by his hometown Cosa Nostra in Cinisi, Sicily. On May 2 he was dumped on the railroad tracks with sticks of dynamite tied to his torso. Later that day, his body parts were found over a 300-meter radius. He was 30.

So this was the romantic Italian landscape I came skipping through as a skinny 22-year-old with a beat-up duffel bag and a dog-eared Youth Hostel card. I arrived in Italy a frazzled, filthy mess. I took a 27-hour train ride from the flaming shithole port town of Algeciras, Spain, to Milan. I stopped only in Barcelona just long enough to take a shower in what turned out to be the home of a screaming homosexual with gay porn spread around his bathroom. I blame only youthful naivete for not picking up that his Peter Pan slippers were a telltale sign. Fortunately, his shower didn’t work — or the lock — and I excused myself out his door before he could show me his paella.

In Italy I followed the American tourist path more beaten than the Atlantic City Boardwalk: Milan (Newark with a big church), Venice (too impossibly romantic to visit alone which I didn’t — if you count the 20 snoring, drunk backpackers with whom I shared a Youth Hostel dorm) and Florence (more excited about the John Travolta disco leather boots I bought for $25 in the flea market than Michelangelo’s David.)

Then, tired, hot and thirsty, I reached Rome. At the end of a two-week Italian run, I was arted out. I could suddenly understand why that mad Turk vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in 1972. He’d seen too many damn Michelangelo statues. He went crazy. So did I.

More than Renaissance art, I wanted a glass of ice. At the time in Rome, ice was distributed with the frequency of winning lottery tickets. Rome, even at that time in early October, seemed as hot as the inside of a Ferrari engine. Living in Oregon my whole life, I never felt humidity that was more appropriate for African violets. Also, the Italian language apparently didn’t have a phrase for “emissions control standards” and Rome’s smog baked me in the inside of a gray, smoky coffin. The Italian sun, the one I dreamed of growing up, was nothing more than a blotted, filtered orange ball.

Never a coffee or water drinker, I survived on room-temperature Coke, citrus fruit and a vile swill called Peroni beer. I was miserable.

I hit all the tourist sites and remembered being so exhausted at the end of the Vatican museums that I laid down on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, not for a better view of the ceiling but merely to rest. My highlight was jumping the fence at night with two Englishmen I met at the Youth Hostel near Olympic Stadium. We roamed the Colosseum’s corridors sans even small floor lights until a growl of a distant dog chased us back over the fence like the miserable, dirty degenerates that we were.

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo


I also saw history. On Oct. 4, I was one of 60,000 people who crammed into St. Peter’s Square to see the funeral of Pope John Paul I, who died Sept. 28 after only 33 days in office, launching a cottage industry of conspiracies that have lasted to this day. He died the night neo fascists shot at a group reading L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, killing one boy.

My memories of food in Rome were no better than of the food in my elementary school cafeteria. I lived on $15 a day. I ate salami and cheese out of grocery stores and pizza slices from the portable carts in the overrun piazzas. The pizza crust was as sharp as shrapnel. And what’s with only one ingredient? The combo pizza at my old Pietro’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield, Oregon, was better.

And during this year-long solo trip around the world encompassing 24 countries, nowhere, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, not communist Hungary, did I find a population that spoke less English than the Italians. I met no one.

On my way out of Italy, I found it absolutely no coincidence that fascists blew up the railroad track near Bologna and I had to change trains and stand the last two hours of the trip. It symbolized my entire Italian adventure. It bombed.

I didn’t return to Italy for 20 years.

I may never had if not for one chance encounter. I was covering Major League Baseball for The Denver Post and one day in 1998 in the Coors Field press box lounge I talked travel with Mike Littwin, at the time with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He said he loved Rome.

“Rome?” I spat, as if he said he loved Karachi. “It’s a shithole. I hated the place. I’ve had better pizza in frozen food sections.”

But he went on about the Pantheon, the food, the wine, the art. I walked away thinking, Hmm. Maybe I should give Rome another shot.

That weekend while reading my Sunday Post by my pool, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, heard my private message to myself. There in the travel section was an ad offering a dirt-cheap round-trip flight from Denver to London plus one other European city. The list included Rome. I left my lounge chair, went up to my apartment and made a phone call. I was leaving at the end of baseball season.

Single and wanting to explore Rome’s romantic side, I thought, who could I invite? How about a Brazilian lingerie saleswoman in Zurich? That’s right. I had met her in Rio two years before while she was on business and we had recently lost touch. I sent an email and the timing could not have been better. She wrote that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and would meet me in Rome.

Thank you, St. Christopher.

Suddenly, Rome didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, a 24-hour romance one could read in a dirty novel ended abruptly on Day 2 when I returned to the room. She told me her rich ex-boyfriend was flying to Rome that afternoon and if she doesn’t meet him, he’d kill himself.

“So let him,” I said compassionately.

“No. He’ll do it. I’m going.”

“Are you serious? You’re falling for this? He’s bluffing.”

She packed her bags and left. I never heard from her the rest of the year. This was problematic. We had agreed to meet in her hometown of Natal, Brazil, that spring for a travel story assignment I received on dune buggies. The last thing I wanted in a sultry, sexy Brazilian beach town was a mere roommate.

As she walked out the door for the airport, she told me to wait by the phone and she’d call me. She spoke excellent English and I’m assuming she clearly understood my American idiomatic expression, “Fuck that!”

I explored Rome.

At the time in 1998, Italy was on an economic upturn. Investments and exports were rising. Economic growth was at 3 percent. The Red Brigade was all but dissolved. Romans were going out again. Chic wine bars, known as enotecas, were surfacing. Even the air was breathable.

I was out all day and night. Rome seemed cheaper than most American cities I visited on assignment. I could get a glass of wine for less than a Coke, and I discovered a wine that remains my favorite to this day: Barolo. I learned pizzas in traditional pizzerias have as much to do with the crap served on the piazzas as the Sistine Chapel has to do with a 7-Eleven.

I researched a travel story about day trips from Rome. Every day I went somewhere new: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port; Tivoli, the town filled with old villas of Ancient Rome’s aristocracy; Frascati, where I had a lovely picnic with porchetta, the sizzling suckling pig famous around Rome, and Frascati’s trademark crisp white wine; Nettuno, a beach town only an hour away with water swimmable in November.

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. 123RF.com photo


The lone problem came at night. After the Brazilian dropped me like so much rancid pepperoni, I drank in a new cafe every night, alone. Looking around I could tell Romans invented the term “public display of affection,” known during Ancient Rome, I believe, as “coitus minimus.” Everywhere I went, Roman couples were wildly making out. If I saw one more swarthy Roman bend a woman over a fruit cart, I swore I’d get one of those cat scratching poles.

I tucked Rome away as a regular destination in the future. Flash forward to fall 2000. I found myself in full burnout of sportswriting. Baseball bored me. My girlfriend at the time, a public radio reporter in San Diego, was equally burned out. We both needed new challenges, an adventure, a different direction in life, not to mention live in the same time zone for a change.

The Denver Post union contract allowed year-long sabbaticals. We could do anything we wanted during the year — write, travel, rob banks, whatever — and were guaranteed our jobs back. Maybe not our beats, but we’d have a job waiting. A Post news reporter friend named Joe Sinisi, an Italian-American, had just spent half his year in Italy. One 10-minute discussion hearing of the food, the landscape and the people convinced me.

I’d be a travel writer in Rome for a year. Rome would be perfect. It overflowed with travel stories and is centrally located. I could fly anywhere from Great Britain to North Africa within a couple hours. It was relatively cheap. Italian would be easier to learn than French or German (HA!) and sexier than Spanish. It was warm, a major consideration with a woman coming from San Diego.

So that November I took my girlfriend, Nancy, to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas and on the first night gave her a wrapped present. It was a long narrow tube with a bow around it.

“What is this, a feather boa?” she said.

“Just open it.”

It was a rolled-up poster of St. Peter’s at night. I said, “Want to move to Rome for a year?”

(Guys, take a tip: If you want to score some points with a woman, try the above.)

After the shock wore off, she agreed but first we felt we should go on a recon mission. So that February 2001 we flew to Rome with backpacks, pens and paper. We took notes on every cost an expat would incur: public market food, public transportation, Italian lessons, utilities, wine, restaurants, apartments. We looked at neighborhoods with vacancies. She wasn’t impressed.

During one trip to the scruffy part of Trastevere, she said, “This place looks like Queens.”

However, after a week of wining, dining and exploring without a jacket in February, she turned to me as we sat over the best homemade pasta of our lives and said, “I’ll sell everything.”

We set our departure for that November. That’s November 2001. Yes, what better time to launch a career as a full-time travel writer than two months after 9-11? In one of the savvy career moves of my life, I tried selling travel stories when some newspapers weren’t running stories on destinations to which you couldn’t drive.

In the aftermath, 25,000 Americans cancelled their flights to Rome, which Homeland Security put on Yellow Alert, meaning there was a “significant risk” of terrorist attack. We went anyway and had the best 16 months of our lives. They were also the hardest. We moved to a foreign city where we had no home, no friends, no language skills and no job. We were living together without ever before living within 1,000 miles of each other.

Moving to Neptune may have been easier. The language seemed impossible; so did some of the kitchen appliances. She struggled to find a new line of work; I struggled with Italian school. The tension was palpable. At one point we were exchanging gunfire daily.

But, like an aging actress who gets herself back in shape, Rome slowly revealed herself as the great city it remains to this day in my heart. We found a beautiful, spacious apartment near the Vatican. We had all kinds of adventures. I spent two months in Rome’s gladiator school. (Yes, there is one.) I did a story on Solo Per Due, the world’s smallest restaurant, featuring only one table for one couple per night in the most romantic setting in Lazio. I made more friends than I ever had in Denver. I traveled all over, from Tunisia to Latvia. She joined me to London and all over Italy.

And the biggest discovery of all came from the realization that no matter how confused you get with the Italian bureaucracy, how frustrated you get with the language, how worried you get about money, one thing in Rome is certain.

You always have dinner to look forward to.

Unfortunately, my sabbatical ended — at about the same time our money did. We returned to Denver in April 2003 with the commitment to return some day. For ever. I became The Post’s national college football writer; Nancy took a job at a public radio station in Greeley, a small agricultural town 60 miles north of Denver.

The return was a quasi disaster. I had one of the best jobs in American journalism; she disliked her job in Greeley, a long commute to a town of slaughterhouses and air constantly smelling of cow pies. She hated the cold. She had few friends. For her, Denver was Karachi.

After four years, she had enough. She moved back to Rome in 2007 with the idea that I’d join her. I didn’t. I came close three times but each time jobs fell through, twice after I acquired work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago.

While long-distance relationship are trying, try one from 7,000 miles away. We saw each other twice a year, one time rendezvousing in Kuala Lumpur for a backpacking trip in Borneo. We swapped limoncello for leeches.

We finally set a deadline. I’d return to Rome by fall 2010 or we’d break up. I didn’t make it. I failed. An 11-year relationship ended because I couldn’t reinvent myself in Italy.

However, I reinvented my means to move. Unable to find a job, I decided to save my money and retire. I went back to Rome in 2011, again with pen and paper. I came up with a financial figure I needed to reach and met with my genius Denver broker, Stephanie Gudka. We strategized.

I reached the figure in August 2013, I spent that fall football season working on my visa and announced my resignation Dec. 26 in a crisp one-line text sent from the Palm Springs airport. I flew to Rome Jan. 10. It was a one-way ticket.

It’s 4 ½ years later and the thought of hating Rome seems as distant as my first words at 3 years old. Rome has given me a joy, at 62, that few can comprehend , a garden of adventure that never ceases to deliver. The sights. The tastes. The sounds. The smells. Rome is a kaleidoscope of pleasure that surprises me every day. I would never live anywhere else and I’ll never leave.

Nancy and I both found new life partners, and I truly hope she’s as happy here as I am. Rome is home. A rocky, tumultuous trail has led me to this lovely corner of the world, a place I could write about forever. I could write more now but I must go.

I have dinner to look forward to.

Lunch with Doctor Wine: One of world’s top wine experts, Daniele Cernilli uncorks his knowledge

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.


There are few things better in life than sitting in an historic Roman trattoria and drinking good wine and eating good food all afternoon. One thing that is better is doing it with one of the leading wine authorities in the world.

Daniele Cernilli is to Italian wine what Tom Brady is to American football. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Known as Doctor Wine (www.doctorwine.it), he has authored five books, including his most recent, “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” a massive 615-page tome that breaks down every wine and winery in all 21 regions of Italy.

In 1986 he co-founded Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian restaurants which adorned every kitchen of every Italy resident who cares about food. A philosophy graduate and former journalist and teacher of history and literature, the 63-year-old Rome native has traveled all over the world and is an international wine judge. He has been to the U.S. 30 times.

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo


We met for lunch at Checchino dal 1887 in my old neighborhood of Testaccio. Checchino sits near Monte Testaccio where in Ancient Rome they piled broken shards of terracotta pots used to store wine, olive oil and grain in the nearby warehouse, the ruins of which still stand. Started in, yes, 1887, Checchino has been in the Mariani family for six generations and once received a Michelin star.

It’s tastefully decorated with white tablecloths and drawings of old Rome on the walls. Sharp-dressed waiters bring out all the famous Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinava (oxtail), rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with sheep intestine) and trippa alla romana (interior of a cow’s stomach). Yes, real Romans, such as Cernilli, still eat this stuff.

I wimped out and had the bucatini alla gricia (long pasta with pig’s cheek and pecorino romano cheese). Cernilli ordered us bottles of 2015 Chianti Classico from Brolio-Bettino and a Frascati Superiore from Vigneto Filonardi just down the road about 20 miles.

The food and wine were superb and so was the conversation. I sat down with Cernilli and Robert Della Vedova, my Australian friend and Cernilli’s English instructor:

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.


Me:: How does a wine expert from Italy get started in the wine business? Do you remember the first time wine became special to you?

Cernelli: Yes, of course. Imagine I was passionate for geography when I was a baby and I discovered that wine is a geography of taste. Every place, every wine region, has a particular taste, a particular scent. The wine is the marker of that. It’s very interesting. When I discovered this I was very interested in discovering more and more. Probably the first wine I had in my life that I remember was the wine that my father bought for the family. It was from Castelli Romani. It was a Frascati, probably. But also a Chianti Classico I remember from Carpineto, a very famous estate. I remember, for example, the ‘64 of Caponetto, I was 10 years old, probably 12, the wine was on the market two years later. Probably I had a little touch of wine when I was 12. I remember during the New Year’s Eve celebration, I remember some champagne, Cardon Rouge, with the label of the red cotton inside. I remember I was 10 or 12 years old but just to try because
it’s not good for a 12-year-old person to drink alcohol but the times were different then.

Me: So you’re 10 or 12 when you first got interested?

Cernilli: Just a touch. But the idea of the wine for an Italian family is like bread and olive oil. It’s not a great shape, especially 50 years ago, to have 12 years old person to drink a little bit of wine. Nowadays it’s normal.

Me: So your first wine was from Lazio. How’d that get you interested in geography?

Cernilli: It’s a good region for some wines like this but it’s not Piemonte. It’s not Tuscany. It’s not Burgundy. It’s not Napa Valley. It’s a region for wine that comes simply and for fragrant wines. It’s wine to be drunk not to be philosophered.

Me: But how’d that get you into geography?

Cernilli's last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli’s last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.


Cernilli: Then I discovered that the wine is very good. I attended the sommelier school and I became a teacher of sommelier after two years. In 1983 when I was 29 years old. I became a professional, then journalist. I founded a magazine that became very famous in Italy, the title was Gambero Rosso.

Me: What inspired you to do the magazine?

Cernilli: I was one of two founders. The other founder passed away, unfortunately, Stefano Bonilli. He was a professional journalist before me and had the idea. I wrote a lot for wine magazines. We started as an insert of The Manifesto, a communist newspaper. I was not a communist. I am not communist. The Gambero Rosso is the name of the osteria where Pinocchio was robbed by the cat and the fox. It’s a masonic history. Carlo Collodi was the first writer who invented Pinocchio and was a master mason. Walt Disney the same. The story of a piece of wood becoming a human person is a masonic story. This is the reason Walt Disney made the Pinocchio pictures.

Me: Has your appreciation of wine changed over the years now that you know it better?

Cernilli: You probably don’t listen to the same music. You don’t read the same books. You don’t watch the same films. It’s the same with the wine. Wine is something that’s a live drink. The wine is also a marker of the moment of the history of the technique of the spirit of the world. The technique is incredibly improved over the last 20 years. But there are other topics. For example, ecology, the sustainability of the production. Not to use sulfites of natural wine. Many people are very interested in that. A lot of people don’t care. Some people have great sensibility in this topic. It’s a new technique. Sustainability is very important. There are many ways to reach these kinds of results. There is no doubt it’s important to respect the nature and make wine with the least preservatives possible.

Me: Just philosophically, what do you like about wine?

Cernilli: Because it’s a great tradition of our Mediterranean area. Wine was born in this area, Greece, Middle East.

Me: Actually Georgia. I was just there.

My bucatini alla gricia.

My bucatini alla gricia.


Cernilli: There’s another birthplace that is Greece. It’s not just Georgia. It’s Armenia. Modern Turkey. Sicily and Greece. It’s something we drink for 3,000 years. This is important for us. It’s a great tradition. I feel in this my roots. The roots of the Mediterranean person is in the wine. It’s in the olive oil. It’s in the pizza.

Me: What makes Italian wine special?

Cernelli: Italian wines we have 500 denominations. We have about 5,000 wineries in Italy. No, 50,000 wineries. We have 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of vineyards. So that means 6,000 square kilometers. All the Italian vineyards if you put together, are the coast. Every little town, little situations can change. You can have the same grapes and very different wines because of the soil, because of the weather, because of the vintage. This year is a very wet vintage. Last year was a very dry vintage. If you tried a 2017 of this wine in the future and 2018 of this wine in the future it would be different. One more bigger, more alcoholic; the other more acid, lighter. So it’s a functional concept.

Me: French wine is the same.

Cernilli: The only difference is the French have less varieties, 20-25 main varieties. We have 1,000 varieties. Every region, every little area has a local variety. France does not have that. They abandoned a lot of local wines to make more modern-style wines. Bordeaux influenced the style of the wine all over the world. All the world from the New World, from California, from Australia, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc come from Bordeaux. The Burgundy wines are part of the New World: Oregon, some parts of South Africa. The French dominated, colonized the world of wine for many years. Now there are the Italians. And Italians are only in Italy. If you take the Nebbiolo or Sangiovese and put them in Napa Valley it’s not the same. It’s very different. There is not stability in the expression of the wines. So Nebbiolo can only be made in the part of Piedmont. If you put Nebbiolo in a different part you won’t recognize it. This is the particularity of the Italian wine.

Cernilli's coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Cernilli’s coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.


Me: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. Give me your opinion of Barolo.

Cernilli: Barolo is the best wine in Italy. Barolo is fantastic. But Barbaresco is not very far from Barolo. They are made from Nebbiolo so they are in the region and are very close. Barbaresco is a little lighter, normally. It depends on the producer.

Me: I always tell people, Americans, because you can rarely get a Barolo for under $50 in the U.S., get a Barbaresco because it’s released a year earlier and it’s about half the price. It’s not as good but close enough to fake it.

Cernilli: From Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside the area of Barolo, you can see the bell tower of Barbaresco. It’s only 20 kilometers.

Me: I see you teach wine tasting. How long does it take to develop your palate to where you can determine the fruits in a wine?

Cernilli: There is a technique approach to the tasting, a sommelier approach. They want to let us dream about the wine but not explain technically what’s in the wine. If you tell me that you feel the smell of the running horse in the wine, it is not possible.

Me: I went to a wine tasting once and some clown said he could taste the mushrooms of Toscana. We were in suburban Denver. Come on!

Cernilli: You look at the color of the red wine. You can compare the color of the wine with the color of some berries. It’s very simple. The wine takes from the wood spices and vanilla or pepper or cinnamon or something like that. Not more. Then you check the balance of the wine between the tannins, the stringents and the acidity that make you salivate. The matching is very important for the Italians. Matching for the food is very important for us because we drink to eat. Less for the French. Less for the British. For the British they want to drink then to eat. Or they eat then they drink.

Me: It’s interesting you say that because when I have aperitivos, if I just have wine, the Italians need food with it.

Cernilli: For example, you can’t have a Cabernet with an aperitivo. That’s incredible for us to have a big red wine for an aperitivo. It is not possible. I can have spaghetti amatriciana with a Cabernet, not an aperitivo. An aperitivo is a Frascati. Or a sparkling or a light wine, a Riesling, or a light red. Not a Cabernet, not a Brunello, not a Barolo. We have to have to some meat with a Barolo.

Me: I like Barolo with amatriciana. It’s a heavy taste and Barolo has big flavor.

Cernilli: When you have fat added during the cooking, you need tannins so the Barolo is very good. If you have fat inside like the cotechino or a very fat salami, you need acidity. You can choose a sparkling or a big white wine with good acidity. Gorgonzola with a sweet wine.

Me: What do you think of this Chianti?

Cernilli: In this wine you can taste wild cherries and probably some smokiness because of the barrels.

Me: Are you getting that from looking at it or tasting it?

Cernilli: Both. After 40 years of tasting wine, I can understand something when I see something into the glass. Because I can hear the noise and how the wine goes into the glass. I can understand the alcoholic level. Because the more alcohol you have, the more grisarol you have. The grisarol is like the oil. You can see. If you put a Palo Cortado, a big sweet wine from the Sherry region, it’s like an oil in the glass because there are so many sugars inside that it’s solid.

This is a real Chianti Classico. This is the most Chianti Classico you can have. In order to make the barrels, you must work with the fire and toast the inside the wood because you have to curve the wood in order to make the barrel. You have to burn inside. The smell of burning is in the wine.

Della Vedova: When I was growing up, we’re talking 50 years ago, Chianti was considered the cheap wine.

Cernilli: Chianti is a wine. Chianti Classico is atop the list of the Chiantis. There’s the Chianti Reserva. Now they have the great selection that is more than the Chianti Reserva. It’s like a Brunello.

Me: I noticed you wrote a book called “Memories of a Wine Taster.” Give me your best anecdote.

Cernilli: If you know the wine producer, they are characters. There was a lot of memories. For example, in Burgundy, Dugat Py, a very famous producer, it’s a farmer, it’s a simple person. We were 3-4 people to visit the estate, a very, very little estate in Burgundy. We asked for a taste of a very important wine. Chambertin, a very important wine. Very expensive. But he disappeared and came back with a tuxedo. Because to open a Chambertin he changed his dress for the respect he had for the wine.

I wrote about a Champagne producer, Ricotan. It was a man so he went in a nightclub, a lap dance and strip tease. The girl in the strip tease was not so involved in the strip tease. He said, “You don’t know your work. Now I will show you what you have to do.” He began to make a strip tease.

Me: Ever think Gambero Rosso would get this popular? It’s kind of the bible now.

Cernilli: No. It was the bible. Now they lose a lot of power. Not only power but, I don’t know, respect. In the last year they are very commercial. They are a big company and they need money to pay. They are in the stock exchange. They have to sustain the level of the value and options. The change was a big change. Because Stefano Bonilli passed away. I left the company (in 2011). A lot of people left after us. Now I don’t recognize it. It’s different. Very different. I don’t want to criticize. Probably they must do that but I don’t agree. So I went another direction. I do this new wine guide which has a lot of information and honesty, intellectual honesty.

Me: I find people in the wine industry — in enotecas, vineyards, wine journalists — very happy. You seem very happy. Are there any negatives about your job?

Cernilli: Two things: Corruption of some people and the alcoholism. Many people involved in wine drink too much. There are some people that destroyed themselves by the wine. It’s like a gynecologist who becomes a sexual maniac. People that eat in restaurant or go around the world, in order to sell the wine, to present the wine every day if you are not very secure of yourself and rational, the risk is very, very high. Because this could be a nice thing or can destroy you. It’s a soft drug.

Me: With whisky it’s more the feeling. With wine it’s the taste. If I get addicted it would be to the taste.

Cernilli: Yes, but the level of alcohol is very different. Whisky is 43, 44 and more. Wine is 14 or one third. I don’t drink any liquor. For me it’s too much.

Me: Beer?

Cernilli: I drink beer if I’m thirsty. It’s not something to think about.

Me: I drink white wine when I’m thirsty.

Cernilli: I drink white wine or water with lemon.

John: I have a very important question. Tell me why you get more headaches when you drink wine in the U.S. than you do in Italy? I say there are fewer sulfites and preservatives here.

Cernilli: I don’t think so. The Italian wine making is more safe wine making and more ecological.

Me: It’s more natural?

Cernilli: Natural is a strange word. Wine is not natural. Wine is human. Winemaking in Italy respects the nature because we don’t need, for example, irrigation. If you want to make wine in the States, you have to irrigate. Because you don’t have rain enough.

Me: There’s more rain in Tuscany than Napa Valley?

Cernilli: Yes. Much more. For us it’s impossible, it’s not legal to irrigate if there is not a big drought. This is one of the main topics. The second, the system of wine growing there are many changes in Italy. The use of pesticides is incredibly less in the last 10 years. Consider that 15 percent of the wine growing in Italy is organic. Fifteen percent is a lot compared to other parts of the world. Then probably we are auto criticism. We think to be worse than others. The image is probably not so positive. I’m very sure now, I saw a lot of vineyards in the States, Napa Valley, Central Coast, Columbia Valley in Washington state — and they are not so organic.

Me: Here’s the key question. I ask all wine experts this and I love the answers. I’ve had such a variety. Pretend you’re going to be executed in the morning. What bottle of wine do you drink tonight?

Cernilli: Probably the Monfortino ‘61, a Barolo. It’s one of the best wines I ever had. I don’t find now a ‘61 Monfortino.

Me: What makes it better?

Cernilli: It’s the emotion. It makes you remember. I remember when I had my Monfortino ‘61. I remember where I was. I know I can’t have another time with this wine because they finished the bottles. It’s not possible to buy. There were very few in production and it’s very famous. Now you can have the 2001, not the ‘61.

Me: How much was it retail?

Cernilli: I don’t know. Maybe 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 euro.

Me: It’s interesting because I ask a lot of sommeliers this and they often say very simple wines.

Cernilli: Simple wines are very important.