Christmas gifts for 2018: The list to all those naughty and truly evil


Italians don’t give many Christmas gifts. They have this weird concept of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas, of family, religion and a lot of food thrown in. A lot of food. They don’t need Santas parading through pizzerias or Christmas lights on the Colosseum.

However, I’m still an American. Even living in Rome I still love American generosity, if not commercialism, of showering people with presents, of enjoying shopping malls and public markets. I Christmas shop all year, even when I travel. I bought my family gifts from four different countries. Italy doesn’t make a car big enough to haul all my presents to Marina’s Monday.

And being the generous capitalist that I am, I now give gifts to newsmakers around the world, both near and far. I’m a little different than Santa. I give gifts mostly to those who’ve been bad instead of good. It’s why my biggest box is headed to Washington, to the Dehydrated Orange Peel denigrating the world every day from the White House. Not that the box will get there on time. That’s another gift I’m giving in Rome.

So look at this annual edition of Dog-Eared Passport not as a blog but as a satirical, tongue-in-cheek gift bag to the evil and incompetent. Which leads us to the first gift I’m delivering …

Business Insider photo

Business Insider photo


To the Cowardly Lyin’. A cage. It only seems fair. If Donald Trump put immigrant children in cages, shouldn’t we give a cage to the most petulant child who ever served as president?

To Italian TV. HBO. The only country in the world with more boring TV is maybe — maybe — North Korea. Italian television is made up of panel discussions with people screaming at each other in studio, bad American TV shows such as the new “Hawaii Five-O” and old Italian films not made by Federico Fellini. Even if I was fluent this would be torture.

To Monteverde — A song. So many great songs have been written about places in Italy. Someone should write one about my new neighborhood. It’s the one on the hill, the one with trees always providing shade in the summer and corner cafes providing warmth in the winter. This is a special place in a special city. I have found a new home within a home.

Daily Express photo

Daily Express photo


To Atac. Fire extinguishers. Not that Rome’s buses are old, but they are developing a nasty habit of suddenly bursting into flames. At least the ones who actually show up do.

To Scandinavia — Beer loans. After visiting Norway, Sweden and Iceland over the past two years, I spent more money on beer than maybe on rent. Every bar up there should have a banker at the door offering attractive terms on 13-euro beers, including the “special” $37 craft beer I saw in the Scotsman pub in Oslo.

To Moneydiaper McStupid — A cellmate named Honey Buns. After Robert Mueller finishes with him, Trump will face so many charges ranging from illegal payments during a campaign to treason, he’ll land in jail before he’ll ever pick up another sand wedge.

To Eusebio Di Francesco — A timeshare on the Amalfi. The embattled coach of my beloved AS Roma has been about one loss away from losing his job the entire month. The papers say the owner wants him out; the sporting director wants him to stay. Roma is in seventh place, not high enough to even qualify for any continental tournament next season. Roma plays tonight at Juventus which seemingly hasn’t lost a league game in four years. The decision seems inevitable. Here’s hoping the man who led us to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A last season has a soft landing.

To Bar Marcucci. A Michelin star. I have developed an unhealthy addiction to its homemade conchiglias. That’s “seashell” in Italian and the seashell-shaped pastry filled with chocolate and dusted with hard sugar, along with its killer cappuccino bencaldo (extra hot) is the perfect way to start a day in Italy.

To Willie Taggart — A bowl game against Oregon. After he ditched my Ducks after one year, he led Florida State to its worst football season in 43 years. Under first-year coach Mario Cristobal, Oregon went 8-4 and has the fifth-ranked recruiting class in America. Bring blindfolds, Seminole fans.

To PosteItaliane — A stamp showing a post office employee shrugging. That’s exactly the response I get every time I ask why a package wasn’t delivered. This year’s problem occurred when I mailed my box of Christmas presents to California on Nov. 20. On Dec. 4 I received a notice saying they couldn’t deliver it because I wrote “Regali (Gifts)” on the customs form instead of itemizing each present. I asked the drone why did they wait two weeks to notify me? He shrugged. Too bad I couldn’t translate into Italian, “Shrug this.”

ASRoma.com photo

ASRoma.com photo


To AS Roma fans — A deep Champions League run. I’m inspired by the passion of my fellow Romanisti in the face of a disappointing season. They still fill Olympic Stadium’s Curva Sud — except in an organized protest — and travel passionately to away games. They now show their frustration through whistles, not empty seats, the way it should be.

To Brett Kavanaugh. Impotence. He made himself out to be a victim during a sexual assault hearing while the woman who accused him had to quit her job and has been on the run from redneck Trump supporters ever since. A man with 83 ethics complaints against him is now serving on the highest court in the U.S.

Observer photo

Observer photo


To Ama. Cats. Lots of them. You’ll need them for the army of rats that will soon be crawling around the piles of garbage gathering on Rome streets. Lunar eclipses come around more than Ama, Rome’s sanitation service, picks up garbage. Part of the street in front of my building looks like an alley in rural India.

Matteo Salvini. A Donald Trump statue. Why not? He’s following in his racist footsteps over immigration. Italy’s deputy prime minister backed a program in the Northern Italian city of Lodi, ordered by mayor and fellow League party member Sara Casanova, in which immigrant parents must show proof of financial hardship from their native countries in order for their children to eat in the school lunch program. Otherwise they pay 5 euros, not to mention 210 for the school bus every quarter. Salvini, however, to his credit, heard the cries of 300 children and dropped his support.

To Juventus. A match-fixing scandal. It seems that’s the only thing that has ever stopped it from winning the Serie A title. It’s a record seven straight scudettos and counting and it has already almost lapped the field. It has 15 wins, 1 draw, 0 defeats. It’s eight points up on Napoli, 14 on Inter Milan. Italian soccer has gotten as boring as the Scottish League.

To the Man of Steal. Mandarin lessons. Trump needs to communicate with the Chinese, not threaten them. His mangling of the trade talks with China has been a huge contributor to the market losing 15 percent this year, mostly in the last 2 ½ months. It’s why I’m wondering if my fifth floor apartment balcony is high enough to do the job if it gets much worse.

Crux Now photo

Crux Now photo


Genoa. A bridge. In fact, Mayor Marco Bucci promised a new bridge by Christmas 2019 after the Morandi bridge collapsed in August, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

Italian public transportation. Engineers. That way they won’t build bridges that collapse, killing 43 people and injuring dozens.

To Silvio Berlusconi. A seat in the European Parliament. Yes, he’s thinking about running for office again, at age 82. Why not? Compared to Salvini and Fuckface von Clownstick, Berlusconi looks like Caesar Augustus.

To the National Rifle Association. A scoreboard. That way, it can keep a yearly tally of all the people in America who die in mass shootings. The 2018 tally, according to the Gun Violence Archive, is 334 mass shootings (defined by four people shot or killed in the same incident) with 14,080 dead and 27,119 wounded. That’s one mass shooting nearly every day. Take a bow, NRA.

To Marina Pascucci. Vatican sainthood. For having the Job-like patience with my lousy comprehension of her crazy language, for her understanding of the oft-difficult life of the American expat, for her putting up with my anti-Trump rages. May I fly to every corner of the earth with you. May I share every bottle of wine with you. May you continue to bend my passport. Ti amo, dea.

Buon natale, everyone. Try not to get shot, torched or go broke.

My neighborhood ASD Trastevere chases soccer glory in ancestral land of Tony Soprano

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.


AVELLINO, Italy — My long-awaited transition from sportswriter to sports fan has had its drawbacks. It’s kind of like leaving a long-time marriage then stumbling through the dating world again, getting in touch with heartbreak you haven’t experienced since high school.

My love for AS Roma has transformed my stylish penthouse apartment in Rome into a not-so-trendy red-and-yellow theme. I have AS Roma pennants, AS Roma flags, AS Roma couch pillows. I have AS Roma pot holders, for God’s sake. I even have two AS Roma boxes in my windowed cabinet just because, well, they say “AS Roma.” They’re even empty. I could wear AS Roma gear every day for a month and never wear the same thing twice.

My entire apartment looks like the bedroom of a teenage boy.

Every year I give Roma’s schedule to my girlfriend so she knows she’s free during that three-hour time period every week. I long ago free kicked my professional objectivity. When I watch my team gag like rabid dogs I want to execute the entire roster.

Now into my sixth soccer season in Rome, I’m experiencing something new, one few American sports fans ever feel.

Split loyalties.

Can a true sports fan give his heart to two teams in the same sport? I am. I find myself drifting up my hill to a small soccer field with a grandstand on only one side. Here I have become one of the growing number of fans following ASD Trastevere, a team in the bowels of the Italian soccer’s long hierarchy.

It’s in Serie D. That’s fourth division. That’s not even professional. It’s semi-pro. It’s like being a Yankees fan yet having season tickets to the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones.

I first wrote about Trastevere when I discovered it three seasons ago but now the love affair has advanced from a cheap fling to genuine feelings. Part of it is in April I moved to Monteverde, the neighborhood where Trastevere Stadium sits just a 15-minute walk away. I’m a one-stop tram ride down the hill to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood where the team was founded in 1925.

Also, ASD Trastevere is on pace to make history.

Me posing in front of Avellino's wolf mascot inside the stadium.

Me posing in front of Avellino’s wolf mascot inside the stadium.


It’s in first place. If it finishes first, it will advance to Serie C for the first time since 1947-48. That’s Serie C as in third division, as in TV coverage, salaries, league money, legitimacy.

Then consider this: As recently as six years ago, ASD Trastevere did not exist. In seven seasons it has gone from Terza Categoria, the sixth division of the amateur ranks, to the brink of Italian pro soccer. While A.S. Roma has vacillated between Champions League fame and the coach hopping on and off the hot seat, I’ve watched ASD Trastevere slowly rise in my backyard.

On Sunday I went along for part of the ride.

I joined the team’s braintrust, president Pier Luigi Betturri and vice-president Bruno D’Alessio, along with friend and ANSA sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, on a 155-mile road trip against second-place US Avellino. Avellino, about 40 miles northeast of Naples, has two claims to fame: One, it hosted the greats of Italian soccer as a Serie A member from 1978-88; two, it served as the ancestral home of Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.” The show is dead but the Camorra crime syndicate remains alive in the Campania region.

Betturri owns Carlo Menta, the wildly popular Trastevere restaurant where photos of Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra share wall space with ASD Trastevere strikers. I could tell business was good when we met at the restaurant and hopped in his silver 2016 Maserati Ghibli.

“It has a Ferrari engine,” Betturri told me.

That explains why we tore down the autostrade at about 155 kilometers (95 miles) an hour. I’ve gone on a Trastevere road trip before but this was the first time with the president. Betturri, trim, always sharply dressed and looking much younger than his 65 years, was raised in Trastevere, back before it became Rome’s party central. Once slave quarters and a Jewish neighborhood, it evolved into a fish market and a close-knit home to many true Romans. It was considered the Brooklyn of Rome.

“It was populated by the neighborhood people,” Betturri said as I tied my seat belt into a double knot. “Then in the ‘70s came the artists, the painters, the actors, the journalists, the communists.

“It’s changed a lot. But its soul still remains.”

Financial problems sidelined Trastevere soccer from 2002-12 but since he took over in 2012 the club has expanded its footprint past the ‘hood’s birrerias, trattorias and pizzerias and gone across the bordering Tiber River. Two weeks ago Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based national sports daily, did a double-page spread on the club’s success. I’m seeing more people around Rome wearing red Trastevere gear, much of it sold from the Trastevere Store that opened two years ago near his restaurant.

But while nirvana may be on the horizon, demons await. Moving to Serie C would require a different stadium. Trastevere Stadium is as picturesque as an Italian model with the greenery of Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s largest park, forming the backdrop behind the team benches. But it seats only 800 and has only one entrance. It can not be expanded.

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo


Betturri told Corriere dello Sport that one alternative could’ve been 30,000-seat Stadio Flaminio, built in 1959 and the site of Michael Jackson concerts, Italy’s national rugby team and the 1989-90 season for AS Roma and Lazio, its inner-city rival, while Olympic Stadium was being renovated. But the rugby team left for Olympic Stadium in 2011 and Flaminio is in full-fledged post-apocalyptic decay, an empty shell overtaken by weeds and civic neglect. It would be easier to renovate the Colosseum.

He told me two viable options are Stadio Casal del Marmo, a 2,250-seat facility in northern Rome which has been home to other Serie D clubs, and 9,980-seat Stadio Raul Guidobaldi, home to Serie C FC Rieti. But it’s in Rieti, 80 kilometers north of Rome. Trastevere’s one “in” is D’Alessio is friends with the Rieti mayor.

Also, Betturri’s expenses would explode. Serie D is semi-pro, meaning some players don’t get paid; others get some. Few get enough to live on. Serie C payrolls are about 500,000 euros. He’ll need to sell a lot of pasta carbonara.

However, the Serie C federation gives each club from 400,000-1 million euros, depending on the team, compared to the 20,000-30,000 Serie D receives. Betturri admitted a far-flung idea that maybe Serie C will let Trastevere compete as a semi-pro team and remain at Trastevere Stadium.

Of course, this is all so much wine talk until they actually win their Girone G, one of nine Serie D groups, the winners of which get promoted to Serie C. Betturri remembers two seasons ago when Trastevere had a comfortable lead going into the last month of May and lost the title by one point.

“I guess we weren’t ready to move onto the professionals,” he said.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.


Maybe in Avellino, the biggest game of the season, they’d be more professional.

The town of Avellino has 56,000 people right smack dab in the middle of Campania. You won’t see Avellino in any guidebooks or in the pages of Architectural Digest. It has that drab uniform feel of a quick rebuild. It’s the result of an Allied Forces bombing raid that cut off a German Panzer division in 1943 and compounded by earthquakes in 1980 and ’81.

The stadium, Stadio Partenio Lombardi, was built in 1971 but looks like it got bombed in ‘43, too, and never rebuilt. Its green, yellow and white paint is peeling. About half the double-deck stadium is closed off, leaving most of the grounds holding 26,000 looking empty and cold.

But during those Serie A glory years of the ‘80s, Avellino packed in more than 40,000 for games. Then began a slow slide into irrelevance, dropping to Serie B then C then bankruptcy in 2009. After resurfacing and climbing back to Serie B, the federation booted it last spring due to incomplete paperwork concerning a bank guarantee. The penalty?

Serie D.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.


As we arrived at the stadium well early of game time, we sat in a circle with some disgruntled Avellino fans, including Pasqualino Vuolo, Avellino’s accountant last season. He left the team after the controversy, through no fault of his own, making him the perfect source for an objective opinion. I asked him what he thought of those responsible, mainly Cosimo Sibilia, the federation vice-president who’s from Avellino and didn’t lift a finger for the club.

Vuolo gave me the two-fingered “cornuto” sign, the Italian hand gesture meaning, roughly, someone is fucking your wife. In other words, I curse you.

“I don’t like people who don’t help the team,” Vuolo said. “They’ll come today but they didn’t help us when we needed them.”

Luigi Fossacreta has been an Avellino fan for 50 years. He’s seen it all, from visits by Juventus and Inter Milan to now: a visit from a Rome neighborhood team. I asked him what’s the difference in play between Serie D and B. He turned me around and pointed at Betturri’s Maserati.

“The same difference with a Maserati and a Fiat 500,” he said.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.


The game started and about 7,000 fans crowded two sides of the stadium. The green and black flags, one with a skull and crossbones, and roaring songs gave this a Serie A feel in passion if not in play. Avellino isn’t a shadow of its former self. Players, unchallenged, kicked the ball out of bounds. They lost simple passes off their foot. They looked slow and uninspired.

Trastevere seemed jacked up by maybe the biggest crowd they’ll see all season and making a giant leap toward history. Stefano Tajarol, arguably the face of the club at 37 years old, scored in only the seventh minute when a free kick inexplicable scooted through the goal box.

Seven minutes later, Daniel Sannipoli, one of Trastevere’s teenage prospects at 18, headed in another free kick to make it 2-0.

Avellino never threatened. Sannipoli scored again off a deflected free kick and Davide Lorusso made it 4-0 on a penalty kick, causing Partenio Lombardi to erupt in vicious whistles, the European boo. Fans chanted “TIRATE FUORI LE PALLE!” (TEAR OUT THEIR BALLS!)

Flags stopped waving and fans screamed, “DOVE SONO I GIOCATORI? MERITIAMO DI PIU! (WHERE ARE THE PLAYERS? WE DESERVE MORE!) Two fans below us started screaming at each other in the indecipherable local Irpinian dialect, obviously in agreement about the team’s suddenly embattled manager. Maybe they said something about cement and the Bay of Naples. I couldn’t tell.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.


This is what I missed in 40 years as a sportswriter? I wonder when I will reach that level of bitterness, where I react to defeat with threats of bodily dismemberment.

After the game, a 4-1 Trastevere rout, Avellino’s players walked to the stands and acknowledged their ultras as is tradition. The whistles became so loud, nary a player raised their hand in thanks. They merely trudged back to a depressing, dank locker room.

Darkness had descended on Campania but a bright glow appeared around Betturri as he landed the Maserati back on the autostrade.

“They were great!” he said. “They were fantastic against Avellino, against a team that’s second.”

The season is only at the halfway point but Trastevere is 10-2-2 for 32 points, two ahead of second-place — and oddly named — Latte Dolce (Sweet Milk), a club named for a neighborhood in Sassari, Sardinia. (As I said, the Premiership this is not.) I asked Betturri how optimistic he is about promotion.

“In soccer,” he said, “you should never be optimistic.”

He does see one area he can count on more than the great collapse of 2017. This team is older. Sunday’s starting lineup averaged 24 years of age, a year older than two years ago. It has only six teenagers instead of seven.

They have a rising young star in Lorusso, 22. Parma, in Serie A, wanted to buy him near the end of last season but a foul up in red tape botched the deal. That sent him into a funk that extended to the start of this season. But he’s broken out of it, leading the team with six goals.

The leader remains Tajarol, a scruffy-bearded striker who has toiled for 15 seasons in soccer’s lower echelons, including Trastevere two seasons ago during the collapse. Along the way he’s been a truck driver and a factory worker to make ends meet. However, he tasted Serie C with Lupa Roma from 2014-16 and appears set on sticking around until he does it at Trastevere, too.

“That would be the ultimate,” said Tajarol he said. “I was 33 and if I go back it would be a dream. I’d be really happy above all for the younger guys. For me it’s important but for the younger guys more.”

And for me, too. I’m 62. I likely won’t live long enough to see AS Roma bring home a title to my adopted city. However, I may only wait a few months to see ASD Trastevere bring one to my adopted neighborhood.

Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.


I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj


While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare


Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo


I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo


Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo


Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo


Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo


He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”

Cefalu'

Cefalu’


We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.

Democrats Abroad did its part in victorious U.S. elections

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night's potluck.

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night’s potluck.


About 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood served as a storage area for all the grain, wine and olive oil that came in on the Tiber River. They all arrived in large terracotta vases which, when disgorged, were broken up into little pieces and discarded onto a big pile. The mound, which stands more than 150 feet high, still exists today and is dubbed Monte Testaccio.

Friday night, on Via di Monte Testaccio, the Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter held a potluck, celebrating the Democratic Party’s take over of the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the Republican Party’s stronghold into little pieces.

The irony was not lost on me.

Being an American expat can be lonely at times. Here in Rome, most of my friends are Italian. I have few to vent with about the U.S. circling the drain into the bowels of fascist and racist hell. My rants are mostly limited to unbridled torrents on Facebook, sitting in bed, pissed off at 2 in the morning.

I’d go out with my Roman girlfriend after our Pres. Rancid Velveeta would call an entire ethnic group worthless protoplasm or something earlier that day. She’d see me visibly agitated. I’d fidget. I’d frown. I wouldn’t have to say a thing and Marina would say, “You’re thinking about Trump, aren’t you?”

She knows me all too well.

Democrats Abroad gives me an escape. It’s the one place in Rome where I can meet like-minded, pissed-off people and unleash pent-up anger in an arena where everyone understands and everyone has all their teeth. Friday night wasn’t just a receptacle for hate. It was a victory bash. The Democratic Party took over the House. We have put a blockade on the Republicans’ charge toward a fascist state for the next two years.

We expats made a difference. I made a difference, however small.

According to Julia Bryan, international chairperson of Democrats Abroad, voting among expats around the world increased — get this — 800 percent since the last midterms in 2014. She said she won’t know the total numbers until all the votes are counted but she said we helped flip seats in Florida and New Mexico and may end up helping flip another in Arizona.

“The Florida agricultural commissioner won by a little under 600 votes,” Bryan said from her home in Prague. “We definitely sent more than 600 votes to Florida.”

Democrats Abroad is a feisty, underrated organization that has 150,000 members in 190 countries. There are Dems Abroad committees in 45 nations. Italy has nearly 3,000 members.

We all came to Rome for different reasons. Job. Heritage. Love. Or, in my case, retirement. But we have one thing in common: We hate Putin’s Papaya-Flavored Pawn. Trump has united us. Misery loves company. Despite being 4,500 miles from Washington, despite being that far away from the nearest Trumpeteer, we think of our country’s direction and are miserable.

“I like the word ‘indignant,’” said Neal Huddon-Cossar, the chairman of the Dems Abroad’s Rome chapter. “We’re extremely concerned about the direction the country’s going. People are indignant. That’s why I personally have seen so many people in my social circle who are Americans become more active in political organizing and activism.”

The potluck was a celebration of last week's Democratic victories.

The potluck was a celebration of last week’s Democratic victories.


Take Huddon-Cossar. The day after the Halfwit Tweet Twit won the election in 2016, Huddon-Cossar, started a Facebook group. Using the hashtag #notmypresident, he invited all his friends then learned about Rome’s own involvement in protests such as the Women’s March and Indivisible Movement. More local chapters formed in Italy, and he got in touch with those people.

In two years, this 30-year-old grad student in global energy and climate policy became chairman of Rome’s Dems Abroad chapter. Talking to other Yanks, he learned we were as appalled at what was happening across the Atlantic as the people in the trenches.

“Americans abroad are shocked at what the politics are in the U.S. at the moment,” he said. “It was all driven by the election of Trump. Just the Trumpian direction of the Republican Party has taken over the past few years. A lot of people were complacent under (Pres.) Obama and didn’t think it was necessary to vote or stay engaged.

“But this (2016) election was a real reality check.”

So Huddon-Cossar went out and set up about a dozen get-out-the-vote events, mostly at Rome’s various universities specializing in American abroad students. He set up sign-up desks in expat events such as Expats Living in Rome of which I’m a member and set up a website, votefromabroad.org. He established a ballot drop off at a local school, hosted by a cultural center and supported by the U.S. Embassy. That three-hour event alone signed up 90 people.

It’s not easy voting from abroad. Rules are confusing. They vary from state to state. I vote in Colorado, where I worked from 1990-2014, and twice had to call Denver to make sure they’d send me an email ballot. I voted in October. Filling it out was easier than a to-do list.

I voted Democrat all the way down the line. I didn’t look at a single name. I didn’t do one second of research. If I saw a “D” next to the name I voted for it. I’m furious. I want change. Democrats Abroad provided me that avenue. As it turns out, Democrats in Colorado, a battleground state, won four of seven House seats, nine of 17 Senate seats, 37 of 60 State House seats, the attorney general’s race and the governor’s race. I learned the Democrat who won the Colorado governor’s race, Jared Polis, is gay.

I had no idea, nor did I care.

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo


I wasn’t alone.

“We are the bluest state,” Bryan said. “We’re the only Democratic state that had a growth in the primaries in 2016. We had 50 percent growth over 2008. That’s huge.”

How blue? Bryan said two years ago 69 percent of Dems Abroad members voted for Bernie Sanders. (“We are very progressive,” she said.) I didn’t. Bernie was a liberal’s wet dream: He had all the right ideas but no convincing path to achieve them. I voted for Hillary Clinton. If more Democrats had done that, I’d be writing about AS Roma today.

Sometimes I wish I retired to Rome in the ‘90s. That was before Internet, before social media. Our only American political news would come from whatever the old International Herald-Tribune would print. Today with cable TV and every American newspaper and wire service available on your cell phone, I could just as well be in Washington’s Dupont Circle as my leafy neighborhood in Rome. The U.S. government is a train wreck. You don’t want to watch but once you start you can’t pull away.

Italians are up on it, too. When they meet an American, they all have one question.

“They want me to explain how the hell this could happen,” said Jim Sawitzke, a Dems Abroad member at the potluck. “They used to have so much respect for the U.S. What’s happened to us? Like, I’m an American, I have the answers.”

Sawitzke, 55, is an interesting expat story. Raised in Helena, Montana, he went up through the educational and professional ranks as a scientist when three years ago he moved to Rome to work for the European Molecular Biology Laboratories. Like all Dems Abroad members, he and I bonded — and not just because he got his doctorate at the University of Oregon, my alma mater in the knee-jerk liberal town where I was raised. Sawitzke spent 21 years in suburban Frederick, Maryland, where he lived near the apex of American politics.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.


Like me, Dems Abroad has become a safe haven of vent. The potluck was just one example. It was held in the Associazione Rigatteria, a cultural center built in a stone cave that once also served as a storage area for food and wine. Glass squares on the floor illuminate dark tunnels that snake through the area.

A table was filled with finger food, from salami to breads to the one thing you’ll never find at a Trump rally: hummus. We clinked wine glasses toasting the victory. We talked about who we want running against Dingbat Donald in 2020. Huddon-Cossar gave a presentation summarizing all the Democratic victories.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Sawitzki said. “It’s nice to talk freely with like-minded people. I felt comfortable. It reminded me of people I’d speak with in similar events in the U.S.”

Dems Abroad isn’t stopping. Bryan and Huddon-Cossar have reached out to expats for stories about their health care overseas. We all have our frustrations living over here. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. The government is rife with corruption. But Italy’s health care system, like many in Europe, is fabulous.

Bryan will soon take to Congress her stories, including my story of going blind in my right eye in the summer of 2017. The total cost of my treatment, including tests, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery was only 525 euros. In the U.S. it would’ve been nearly $7,000.

The Rome chapter did the same.

“The idea was to share our stories as American citizens living in these countries and what it’s like to live in a country that guarantees health care,” Huddon-Cossar said. “We had a huge, huge response.”

He received more than 300 stories, including his own. Last year he had to get an endoscopic gastrostomy exam after a series of stomach problems. He went to the ASL, Italy’s state health service, and they gave him an appointment in Frosinone, a town 55 miles southeast of Rome. Instead, he went to the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, a private care hospital, on Rome’s Tiberina Island. They had him in the following week. His total cost?

One hundred fifty euros.

Besides health care, the other advantage all expats agree on is the streets in Europe are safe. Rome, a city of 2.8 million people, averages only 30 murders a year, hardly any by guns. Last fall gun nuts barbecued me online after I reacted to the slaughter in Las Vegas by pointing out that Italy’s tougher gun laws were reasons for the low murder rate. The critics pointed out the Czech Republic, which has the most open gun laws in the world behind the U.S., is proof that more guns mean safer streets.

Bryan, who grew up in a liberal family in Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Prague 20 years ago to head up a design section of a startup and now has a software company. She said guns nuts are missing the point.

“The thing to understand is the Czechs don’t have open gun laws,” she said. “They have really intelligent gun laws. They’re really strict about who can have a gun. If you have any mental problems you’re not allowed to have a gun.

“The Czechs take away guns. You can lose your reliability status if you are deemed to have excessive use of alcohol, if you commit a crime, if you commit misdemeanors. The health clearance is an important part of the license process.”

I left the potluck early and went to Marina’s. I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. She didn’t ask me a thing about the Decomposing Jack-o-Lantern.

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.

“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.