Rome’s beer boom part of fastest growing beer nation in the world: Italy

Open Baladin is one of about three dozen beer bars that have opened in Rome. There are 650 craft breweries in Italy. Eight years ago there were 70.

Open Baladin is one of about three dozen beer bars that have opened in Rome. There are 650 craft breweries in Italy. Eight years ago there were 70.

During my 40 years in journalism covering sports, food and travel, I’ve had some amazing assignments, jobs that sound more like dream vacations: six Olympics, Texas barbecue, exotic adventures ranging from shark diving in French Polynesia to trekking in Nepal. But last summer, I may have topped them all in terms of comfort and, well, good taste.

Rome’s beer boom.

In July. Think about it. What better way to earn beer money than to travel around Rome during its hottest month and research beer? I wrote it for BeerAdvocate (, a terrific beer magazine out of Massachusetts. This past weekend I decided to revisit all the places I wrote about last summer. It just so happens it came during one of Rome’s longest heat waves in recent memory.

Beer in Rome? Yes, there is some. There’s a lot, actually. Thanks to Agostino Arioli and Teo Musso, two Northern Italians tired of Italy’s backwater beer scene, beer bars in Rome have exploded. Eight years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today it has 650. Rome has more than three dozen craft beer bars, known as birrerias, and just as many “bottle shops” selling nothing but bottled beer.

Johnny's Off License sells bottles of beer from all over Europe.

Johnny’s Off License sells bottles of beer from all over Europe.

“Nowadays, after the U.S., I think the most interesting, exciting craft beer scene is Italy,” said Arioli, who founded Birrificio Italiano, one of the top craft beer breweries in the country, in 1996.

Italy desperately needed it. If you’ve ever been to an American beer bar selling beers from around the world, you’ve seen the word “Peroni” under “Italy.” American pubs sell it for the larcenous price of $6.50 because, hey, it’s from Italy. It must be good. Peroni is the Budweiser of Italy. It is mass produced, gutless and tasteless. But it is cold and it is cheap. If you ever see a man passed out on a sidewalk in Rome, there is inevitably an empty liter bottle of Peroni next to him. Thus, I have christened Peroni “La birra del senza tetto” (The beer of the homeless.)

This may be one reason Italy had in 2011, according to Breweries of Europe, Europe’s lowest beer consumption per capita at 29 liters per year. My fraternity drank that much. Czech Republic was No. 1 at 145.

Italy remained, pardon the expression, an untapped market. Here’s why: Italians love fine taste. Look at their food, their wine. They’re into quality, not quantity. You rarely see Italian college kids getting a case of Peroni and drinking it in one night. The Italian beer pioneers figured if you improve the taste of Italian beer, Italians would drink more beer.

Some taps at Luppolo 12 near Roma Sapienza, the largest university in Europe.

Some taps at Luppolo 12 near Roma Sapienza, the largest university in Europe.

“We started from zero,” said Manuele Calonna, considered the godfather of Rome’s craft beer explosion as his Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa was the first in Rome to sell Italian craft beer in 2001. “There was no culture. Just Peroni and it’s easy to win against Peroni.”

Consequently, more Italians are talking to bartenders about the makeup of the beer, the ingredients. Why does it taste so good, so smooth, so strong? It’s like Italians going to wineries. They ask the same types of questions. The answers can be fascinating. What separates Italian craft beer from the rest of the world is many include special ingredients found only in the area of the brewery. Thus, Italian beers have such flavors as honey, Sambuca, licorice, ginseng, tobacco and oyster. Even Barbera grapes find their way into beers in Veneto, the northeast Italian region where the wine is produced.

The styles, however, traverse the globe. Italian breweries are making IPAs, Pilsners, Belgian ales, American-style lagers. And the alcohol content makes Peroni’s 4.7 percent taste like Gatorade. Some are as high as 12 percent.

The beer menu, part of the 1,500 brands sold at Birra Piu.

The beer menu, part of the 1,500 brands sold at Birra Piu.

“Italians drink strong beer,” said Johnny Nolan, whose Johnny’s Off-License became Rome’s first bottle shop when it opened in 2004. “A lot of clients, especially the Romans, come and drink heavy duty Belgian ales, double IPAs, anything over 7 percent. It’s very difficult to sell beers here that are lower.”

Of course, the explosion sometimes backfires. When you have 650 craft breweries, a lot will taste like they were brewed in the trunk of someone’s Fiat. Italy had no beer culture. In Germany you need a degree to brew beer. In Italy you need a pulse.

“They think it’s easy money and they know nothing about brewing,” said Alex Liberati, whose Brasserie 4:20 may be the classiest birreria in Rome. “A guy has a bar for 20 years. He’s been serving Super Tennent’s and Guinness for 20 years. All of a sudden, a rep of a brewery manufacture says, ‘Dude, you’ve been selling beer for 20 years. How much beer have you sold?’ The guy tells him the number. He says, ‘You know, if you bought a brewery 20 years ago, our brewery that we sell, and you brewed beer for yourself, you’d be this million euros richer.’ The bar owner says, ‘Well, OK. That makes a lot of sense.

“‘But the only problem is I know nothing about brewing, dude.’”

Last summer I learned a lot. I drank a lot. I wanted to do it again. I wanted a real authentic Rome beer crawl worthy of any pub-clogged downtown in the U.S. I thought about revisiting all 10 birrerias in one night. But then, I haven’t had 10 pints of beer in one night since college. I don’t think crowded subways take too kindly to projectile vomiting. Instead, I split it into two nights and two blogs. The second blog will appear soon. So have a seat. Come with me on a beer tour of Rome. By the end, I’ll bet you’ll be thirsty. (Neighborhoods are in parentheses.)


Corrado Sassi, the artist who did the paintings in Hopside.

Corrado Sassi, the artist who did the paintings in Hopside.

Via Francesco Negri, 39 (Ostiense)

Ostiense is just north of my Testaccio neighborhood and is marked by one of the ugliest ruins in Europe. This Roman ruin isn’t 2,000 years old. It’s 10. An abandoned public market, covering the equivalent of about three city blocks, lays waste with crumbling concrete walls, blown-out windows and rubble. It looks like the movie set of a post-apocalyptic horror film where daily life means survival and desperation. Across the street from this monstrosity is Hopside, offering an upbeat futuristic look in contrast to the market’s ruined past.

It’s one of the newest birrerias in Rome, only a year old when I visited last summer. They don’t have the volume of beers as its older brethren but it has one of the best I’ve ever had. Vudu is a Dunkelweizen made by Arioli’s Birrificio Italiano with 6 percent alcohol and a strong, smooth taste. I remember getting a tour of its basement where I saw a vast network of brewing equipment. People from around the neighborhood can come in and make their own beer.

Hopside's Vudu, one of the best beers I've ever tasted.

Hopside’s Vudu, one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted.

One of their primary markets is nearby Roma Tre University. The abandoned market will never be a market. It’s too expensive and too big to become a mall.

I asked the bartender about the wild art pieces. They looked like animals and human skulls that had melted on canvas. He pointed to the artist who happened to be having a beer. Corrado Sassi, 50, is a shaggy-haired photographer who sells to galleries in Naples and London and dabbles in painting. I asked him what inspires him.

“Rage and emotions,” he said. Funny, that’s what inspired Rome’s beer boom.

The crowd drinking outside Johnny's Off License, one of Rome's growing number of bottle shops.

The crowd drinking outside Johnny’s Off License, one of Rome’s growing number of bottle shops.

Via Veio, 4 (San Giovanni)

Nolan came from Dublin so he knows a little about beer. He also knew when he first lived here in the late ‘90s that he got tired of having to go to a bar to buy beer after 8 p.m. when the supermarkets closed. Why doesn’t Rome have a place to buy good beer and take it home? So he opened Johnny’s Off License in the shadow of Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano, a 1,000-year-old cathedral that takes rightful claim as the true cathedral of Rome, not St. Peter’s.

The name Off License comes from not having a license to serve beer inside the small shop. Instead, I noticed it a block away when I saw the perpetual crowd standing outside on the quiet side street drinking bottled beer out of plastic cups.

Johnny’s has some of the weirdest beers in Europe. My favorite may be one from Denmark with the too-long but oh, so descriptive name “Fuck Art. This is Religion.” I asked his Irish assistant for their current leading seller and he gave me a bottle of Ritual Pils, a classic pilsner of relatively modest 4.9 percent alcohol but rich in flavor with no aftertaste. Ah, what the hell. In 83-degree heat, any cold beer tastes good.

Ritual Pils, a classic pilsner from Johnny's.

Ritual Pils, a classic pilsner from Johnny’s.

1792″ /> My friend, Robert Della Vedova with one of Johnny’s prized Danish beers. (Read the label.)[/caption]
And, of course, it always tastes better outside.

“In Rome, people live on the streets,” Nolan told me. “They don’t like going into places, especially in the summer. They like being outside in the squares and talk. This is part of the culture here. I didn’t understand it until it actually happened.”

Tom Leitner, Ilaria, Robert and myself at Luppolo 12.

Tom Leitner, Ilaria, Robert and myself at Luppolo 12.

Via del Marrucini, 12 (San Lorenzo)

As I was walking in, my friend Tom Leitner and his wife, Ilaria, were walking out. Tom is a Bay Area native whose wild long hair and happy, laid-back persona make him look as if he was born with a Frisbee in his hand. Maybe he was. He’s a seven-time world freestyle champion. But he’s also a craft beer exper and is why he comes to Luppolo 12.

If you’re going to open a beer bar, what better location than near the largest university in Europe? Roma Sapienza Universita’ has more than 100,000 students, nearly all living in the San Lorenzo neighborhood just southeast of the Termini train station. Luppolo (Italian for “hops”) has 150 different bottled beers, about half Italian, with 16 taps. They didn’t have my favorite Saison Wild Lady but Leitner and Ilaria had been drinking Drago Verde. They joined me for another. Then another.

Of course, in a university area, you need bar food. Luppolo 12 has foccacce, a gooey, cheesy snack on thick focaccia bread. Mine was split into four parts covered in prosciutto, salami, a spreadable salami called ciauscolo and nduja, a salami from Puglia (heel of Italy’s boot) so spicy you need four Drago Verdes to get through one slice.

Bartender Massimiliano Vichi displays the hops tattoed on his arm at Birra Piu.

Bartender Massimiliano Vichi displays the hops tattoed on his arm at Birra Piu.

Via del Pigneto, 105 (Pigneto)

Pigneto is Rome’s drug center. If you want anything from a joint to a pop of heroin, you come to Pigneto. It’s southeast of San Lorenzo, bordering railroad tracks. Walk through it and it doesn’t remind you of any American ghetto. The apartments are decent. Jazz clubs, bars and restaurants line the main pedestrian drag of Via Pigneto. But locals have told me that after midnight the pushers come out and so do some addicts, a few VERY desperate.

When I interviewed the owner, Valerio Munzi, about it last summer, I had to ask him. What’s the most dangerous area of Pigneto?

“This street,” he said, waving his hand up Via Pigneto, a relatively bustling street closed off to traffic. “It’s the best street, but it’s also the most violent. There are no problems with you or me. The problem is between drug dealers and all the people who are drunk. You see rumbles. But in this place in five years I’ve seen one rumble.”

Twenty years ago, he said, Pigneto was like South-Central Los Angeles. However, artists moved in and gentrified the place. He opened Birra Piu as one of Rome’s first bottle shops six years ago and today sports 1,500 different brands. One is called Superanale. I don’t know who the marketing genius was but the label of a man with his finger up his arse didn’t make me any more thirsty.

Birra Piu is in Pigneto, the gentrified drug center of Rome.

Birra Piu is in Pigneto, the gentrified drug center of Rome.

This trip, I had a Summer Plus, a hoppy IPA with 4.8-percent alcohol they get from Eataly, the Italian-based food emporium chain that also has a brewery. Serving me was Massimiliano Vichi, who wears his dedication on his wrist. And forearm. And bicep. His whole arm is covered in tattoos of hops.

“We want to make beer fun to drink,” he said.

I left after the witching midnight hour. Via Pigneto was packed with partiers. But as I turned a corner to return to the bus stop, a West African immigrant whispered to me, “Prostituta?”

“Non pago per niente,” (I pay for nothing.) I said. Except good beer.


Baladin bartenders Alessandro, left, and Matteo.

Baladin bartenders Alessandro, left, and Matteo.

Via degli Specchi, 6 (Centro Storico)

Just down the street from this classy, sprawling bar is Campo dei Fiori. Rome’s party piazza is ringed with bars featuring cheap beer, cheap North American students and cheap Italian men waiting patiently for said female students to get too hammered to walk home. (“Would you like to see the Leaning Tower of Pietro?”)

Open Baladin offers an alternative to the beer gourmet. The bar back lights floor to ceiling beer bottles, giving it more of a museum feel than a bar. About 90 of the bottles come from Italy and 40 are on tap. It’s almost always packed, about 75 percent local. On this night, it was only half full which is why I noticed the two priests sitting behind me. Yes, maybe they were thanking God for bringing good beer to Italy.

As good as the beer is — try the Isaac, Baladin’s popular spiced Wibier — the food is even better. One obvious junk food junkie studying abroad from the U.S. once looked up from his plate and told me this was the best hamburger he’d ever had. The chef, Gabriele Bonci, is famous around Rome for his pizza dough. He uses the same recipe in the homemade buns. I had l’Intoccabile, made from Sicilian bread with salsa, ricotta, almonds and olives.

I walked out of the dark bar at midnight remarkably sober. Seven beers over six hours doesn’t take much effect, especially when you spend half the time waiting at bus stops in Rome’s bus system that hasn’t really changed since the Middle Ages.

I wasn’t drunk, but I also wasn’t thirsty. Welcome to Italy, folks. The world’s newest beer nation.

Arco degli Acetari a slice of Rome preserved from Middle Ages

This little square near Campo dei Fiori has not changed much for more than 500 years.

This little square near Campo dei Fiori has not changed much for more than 500 years.

I have traveled so much in 2015, I may have forgotten my roots. No, not Eugene, Ore. I mean Rome. I’ve put roots down in the mosh bog that is the banks of the Tiber River and I must let them grow. So I am making a point to start blogging more about my favorite city in the world and not fill this space by dashing off to Sri Lanka.

The rest of this summer and fall I will make periodic trips to little pockets of Rome few know about. This is a city of 4 million people that’s nearly 3,000 years old. Every day I discover something new. Not all of it is good. I just learned I need to buy three 80-centesimi stamps to send a postcard anywhere in the Western Hemisphere even though it only costs 2.30 euros. Rome, in its Third World wisdom, has no 2.30 stamp.

However, Rome also has little charming unknown corners like the one a corner kick from my old apartment near Campo dei Fiori. It’s a small square that has not changed much since the Middle Ages after the Roman Empire had collapsed and the city went through a roller coaster of facelifts. It’s on Via del Pellegrino, a narrow street one block south of Centro Storico’s main drag, Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

At the end of Pellegrino is an inconspicuous archway. When I walked through I felt like I walked onto a set of a Shakespearean theater. The square was ringed by two-story orange apartments. The view of each one was nearly blocked by small trees, ferns and planters on the iron-trussed balconies. A two-wheeled cart, the kind you might see in a Renaissance festival, sat next to a front door. The cobblestone pavement led to little windy staircases. The square even has a name: the Arco degli Acetari, named for the dealers of acetato, the mineral water that came from a spring north of Rome during the Middle Ages.

These houses have essentially not changed since the Middle Ages, from the 5th to 15th century AD. Some alterations were made in the 16th century and balconies were added. These squares were all over Rome until the end of the 19th century when Centro Storico was a main residential area and not the tourist trap that it has become.

During the Middle Ages, Rome’s population dropped from 1 million people at the height of the Roman Empire to about 20,000 during its decline. It’s hard to believe, but life around Centro Storico during the Middle Ages gave Rome a feel of a very large village. Squares like this gave me a glimpse of how quaint and simple life it may have been but also hide the violence, corruption and poverty that also marked those times.

When the Italian nation formed in 1871, Rome’s population exploded. Many buildings and courtyards were leveled for the sake of tourism. However, this little square near my old home is preserved. I’m glad I was able to share this little corner of Rome with my readers.

That’s because I’m leaving for work in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday.

Tyrrhenian Sea hard to spell but hard to beat for beaches in steaming Rome

The Tyrrhenian Sea is overshadowed by the Adriatic in Italy but it does have its moments, such as this sunset in Sabaudia.

The Tyrrhenian Sea is overshadowed by the Adriatic in Italy but it does have its moments, such as this sunset in Sabaudia.

SABAUDIA, Italy — On a planet that is two-thirds covered by water, the Tyrrhenian Sea is so far down the list of majestic seas that you’d need Jacques Cousteau to find it. It can’t even hold claim as the most famous sea in a country. On Italy’s east coast is the Adriatic Sea. The Adriatic sparks images of Greeks and goddesses, yachts and islands, myths and legends. To the south is the Mediterranean. It’s mighty in its own right. It borders three continents. Its history dates to the time of the Phoenicians when Rome was more than 1,000 years from its first emperor.

Meanwhile, the Tyrrhenian Sea can’t even be spelled. No, that’s not a typo. It really does have two Rs, one of which should stand for “redundant.” It reads like someone had a key get stuck. Its anonymity doesn’t make much sense, really. It is huge. It stretches from Tuscany all the way along the northern coast of Sicily. Like the Adriatic it has islands. Ever hear of Sardinia? Like the Mediterranean (which also has two R’s but the second one just looks like it belongs), it has history. Monte Circeo, overlooking the beach, is believed to be where the Sirens’ sweet music lured Odysseus’ sailors to their watery deaths in “The Iliad.”

Sabaudia's beach is 60 miles south of Rome and the sea is as clear as the Caribbean.

Sabaudia’s beach is 60 miles south of Rome and the sea is as clear as the Caribbean.

And, like them all, the Tyrrhenian has beaches. That is why this sea is so important to 4 million Romans. It is why it is so important to me. Now. Temperatures here in Rome remain in the mid-90s with 50-percent humidity and the only escape is your shower. The Tiber River is so filthy, I read where a man swam in the river and died from an ear infection produced from — get this — rat urine.

So this month, like a turtle to his nesting ground, I have made numerous trips to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s beaches near Rome. In my world travels, beaches are huge. They symbolize relaxation like thrones symbolize wealth. What comes to mind when you think of words like solitude, languish, bliss, sun, warmth? A beach comes to mind, right?

I have kept a list of my top five beaches and have memorized them better than my family’s birthdays. Feel free to clip and save and pull out when you get the courage to venture away from the safe American confines of Hawaii:

1. Mahe, Seychelles Islands. A perfect half-moon bay filled with water the color of a robin’s egg and lined with leaf to leaf palm trees. I asked a local in a bar why the beach was empty. He said, “Because it’s awful.” Awful? I told him it’s the best beach I’d ever seen. “You should see the outer islands,” he said.

2. Seven-Mile Beach, Palawan, Philippines. Conde Nast magazine picked El Nido, just north of Seven-Mile Beach, as its No.1 beach in the world for 2014. Sorry, Conde. Seven-Mile tops it. It is seven miles long of white sugar sand without a rock on it or in the water.

3. Englishman’s Bay, Tobago. The smaller brother in Trinidad & Tobago, Tobago is lined with individual beaches cut off from each other by outcroppings and jetties. I reached Englishman’s by driving through 100 feet of mud and parking under a clearing of palm trees. The only structure on the 100 yards of curved beach was a small snack shack.

4. Beachcomber Island, Fiji. It’s only about a half mile around the island lined by white sand and encircling thick foliage with a few guesthouses. It’s right out of a Far Side cartoon. All there is to do is lie on the beach, drink and dance.

I rank Sri Lanka's Goyambokka Beach has the No. 5 beach in the world.

I rank Sri Lanka’s Goyambokka Beach has the No. 5 beach in the world.

5. Goyambokka, Sri Lanka. I visited in March and it puts the capital “E” in Exotic. On the southern tip of the island, it’s a stretch of fine white sand, lined with palm trees and a water that is as warm as a birdbath.

No beach on the Tyrrhennian will make this list.

However, it’s what we’ve got. Romans joke about the one neighborhood that is on the sea, Ostia. People don’t realize that Rome’s city center is only 25 miles from the Tyrrhenian and Ostia, which dropped its independence to be part of Rome in 1976, technically means Rome is on the sea. But people joke about Ostia for a reason. The sea at Ostia, just south of the airport, is the color of a rusted battleship. It’s kind of gray-green with the visibility of minestrone. It doesn’t seem as dirty as some say. You don’t see bubbles or beer bottles floating on the surface as I’ve seen in Asia. But it doesn’t inspire images of floating under a brilliant sun or Campari on ice under a little beach umbrella. The beach is lined chock-a-block with restaurants and bars and changing stations. On weekends when Romans flee to the nearest beach, Ostia looks like the Jersey Shore. But the sand has no rocks, the water temperature is good and it’s a 35-minute train ride from Rome. It works. But that’s it. It’s like walking into an artisanal brew pub and ordering a Schlitz.

You're always reminded that you're not too far from Rome as indicated by these ruins of 1st century AD thermal baths.

You’re always reminded that you’re not too far from Rome as indicated by these ruins of 1st century AD thermal baths.

Terme sign
The farther you get from Rome the nicer the beaches. Fregene, north of Ostia about 15 miles, is harder to reach by public transport. Thus, it’s less crowded. The water is more green than gray. But the long line of food establishments gives it a county fair feel.

Maccarese, just north of Fregene, has comfy lanais chairs for the reasonable price of 10 euros and water cleaner and even more void of rocks.

Twice I have been to Santa Severa, a black sand beach 35 miles north of Rome just south of the port city of Civitavecchia. Santa Severa is vastly underrated, underpopulated and underpublicized. Good. I will return. Despite the lack of palm trees and any amenities, it is the one beach that makes you feel away from it all. But you’re reminded you’re in Rome by the 9th century castle that juts out into the sea and the Etruscan temple you walk past to reach the beach.

This lanais chairs on Sabaudia are not cheap.

This lanais chairs on Sabaudia are not cheap.

This week I went farther afield. About 60 miles south of Rome, past the pope’s residence of Castel Gandolfo and apartment house ghetto that is Latina, lies a town where the Tyrrhenian mirrors the Caribbean. It’s where the Tyrrhenian is so clear you see fish swirling around your ankles as you wade endlessly into the gentle blue-green surf. It’s where the sand is the color of gold dust, where the sun is so huge as it sets on the horizon, you feel you can swim to the end of the earth.
Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia.

Mussolini turned the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome into beach towns such as Sabaudia.

The town of Sabaudia was developed in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini and his band of beach fascists. In one of the positives Mussolini did while in power, he drained the malaria-infested marshland south of Rome and developed industry and communities. One of those was Sabaudia. While Mussolini’s little achievement was overshadowed somewhat by befriending Adolf Hitler, Sabaudia today is one of the nicest beach towns in Italy. Many of the rich and famous come to Sabaudia to work on their tans and drink cool white wine in the shade. Francesco Totti, A.S. Roma’s soccer hero, owns a house here and is often seen playing beach soccer with random children.

I walked along the beach that is long and wide with nary a rock in sight. A huge rock outcropping at one end reminded me of Diamond Head at the end of Waikiki Beach. However, Waikiki doesn’t have the remains of an ancient villa belonging to Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). I eschewed the larcenously priced lanais chairs to lay on my Sri Lankan sarong and read my terrific Roland Merullo book, “Breakfast With Buddha.”

I knew it would be crowded when I picked up the bus in Rome. Three buses left for Sabaudia and points south at 8:45 a.m. All three were packed. I arrived in early afternoon and by 2 p.m., nearly every lanais chair was rented. It no longer looked like the Jersey Shore. Let’s be honest. It looked like Italy in July. Italy in July, as I wrote before, sucks. Children screamed. Teen-agers preened. The elderly baked under umbrellas. They didn’t move except to move their seat with the sun.

Let me amend something I’ve written often in this blog. After several trips to Rome’s beaches, I conclude that not all Romans are beautiful. The collection of fat, rolly pot bellies and cottage-cheesed legs could pass on bodies on any lake in Nebraska. I wondered if some of these people actually undressed in front of their spouses.

However, the sea is never crowded. Shedding temperatures in the mid-90s and 50-percent humidity, I peeled myself off my sarong and walked gingerly over the coal-hot sand into the sea. The water temperature is in the high 70s, the perfect temperature to wipe off the sweat without putting your heart into temporary spasms. Even in the sandy depths I could see the ocean floor. Suddenly, I wondered where I put my scuba diving C-card.

The beach of Sperlonga with the charming old town hovering in the distance.

The beach of Sperlonga with the charming old town hovering in the distance.

The next day I went farther south to Sperlonga, just north of Campania, the region where Naples and the Amalfi Coast tend anchor. Sperlonga was developed well before Mussolini. In fact, Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) had a villa built overlooking the beach. The villa’s remains can be still seen at one end.
Sperlonga's central business district.

Sperlonga’s central business district.

If Tiberius saw all the lanais chairs and umbrellas covering his beach today, this beach would be the site of mass beheadings. From some spots on the road above, sand can barely be seen. However, the Tyrrhenian is even bluer and cleaner and warmer here. My swims were longer. My mind was clearer. For 10-15-minute stretches, the humidity and the crowded buses and the packaged tourists were on another planet as I laid on my back on the cool, clean Tyrrhenian Sea.

L'Ancora's seafood spaghetti special.

L’Ancora’s seafood spaghetti special.

Even pizza by the slice is good in Sabaudia.

Even pizza by the slice is good in Sabaudia.

Italy may not have the beaches, but the beach food may rival anywhere in the world. At L’Ancora, in the nearby town of Formia, I sat on the patio with a distant view of the sea and had its famed seafood pasta: spaghetti packed with a generous tossing of oysters, clams, mussels, crab, hermit crabs, octopus, calamari, olives and basil. Topped with an appetizer of fresh cantaloupe and lean prosciutto and an ice cold beer, few beaches in the Caribbean, Asia or South Pacific could top it.

Your table at Saporetti in Sabaudia.

Your table at Saporetti in Sabaudia.

But I managed to. On my second night I ventured down to Saporetti, a white-table clothed restaurant with a lowbrow bar and tables facing the sea. I had two glasses of the house white, a Chardonnay made right here in Sabaudia, and watched the blood red sun set on the sea. It was 8:30 p.m. Humidity in Italy drops at night. I no longer felt sweaty. My wine tasted like champagne after a day in the desert. I found myself smiling for no apparently reason.

Yes, I'm smiling for a reason. Sperlunga's cool, clean, clear water washes away all the sweat from Rome on another sweltering July day.

Yes, I’m smiling for a reason. Sperlunga’s cool, clean, clear water washes away all the sweat from Rome on another sweltering July day.

No, Rome’s beaches won’t make Islands magazine. I won’t enlarge any of my photos for my wall. But for Rome, a 3,000-year-old city that in July seems to melt like pistachio gelato in the sun, these beaches make me feel like an emperor.

UNO. DUE. TRE STRIKES you’re out — way out — in baseball in Italy

A young fan gets a fist bump from a member of the Italian Baseball League All-Star Team.

A young fan gets a fist bump from a member of the Italian Baseball League All-Star Team.

BOLOGNA, Italy — “FUORI CAMPO!” yelled the tall, curvy blonde with the microphone. “QUATTRO OUTS! DUE FUORI CAMPO!” (FOUR OUTS! TWO HOME RUNS!) A baseball player the size of your average second baseman digs back in and tries cranking another one over the 101-meter (333-foot) left-field fence. Instead, he dribbles one to the left side of the infield.

It’s home run derby Italian style. It’s where the players aren’t very big and neither are the crowds. But it’s where the best in a country that has had baseball since World War II have gathered to show why Italy is one of the up and coming baseball nations in the world.
Italia player beard
I’m attending the Italian Baseball League All-Star Game and if this event escaped you last weekend, don’t kick yourself. On Italy’s sports radar, baseball hovers somewhere off the dark side of Neptune. My best friend, Alessandro Castellani, is an esteemed sportswriter for ANSA, Italy’s national wire service. Raised in Rome, he regularly covers soccer and rugby. He’s covered numerous Olympic Games. Yet he unabashedly says of baseball, “I don’t even know the rules.”

Marco Landi is the marketing director for FIBS, Italy’s baseball federation. I had lunch with him in Rome before last weekend’s All-Star Game and asked him about Italians’ reaction to baseball.

“They say, ‘Too many rules. I don’t understand. I saw the movie with Robert Redford,’” he tells me.
Italia cap
I had not seen a baseball game since the 2013 World Series. I’d gone nearly two years without even a popup. For a guy who played the game for 10 years and covered the major leagues as a journalist for seven, I felt in need of a baseball fix. I wanted to smell popcorn in the concession stands, pine tar around the batting cage. Baseball has smells no other sport has. Unlike most sports, these smells are pleasant.

So I go to the Italian Baseball League’s All-Star Game in Bologna. This city smack dab in the middle of Italy is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, the region best known for the greatest cuisine in Italy. It is known for culatello ham cured for 36 months and Parmigiano cheese the locals eat like giant gum drops. It is not known for hulking first basemen or 95 mph fastballs. But Italy does have its pockets of interest. Bologna is one of them. I learn fast after my train from the city center drops me off in the southwest part of town. I was three kilometers from Stadio Gianni Falchi. I wonder if anyone knows what the hell Falchi is, let alone where it is. I walk into a Tabacchi shop and ask to call a taxi. The man behind the counter not only knows where the stadium is, he knows the all-star game is in town.

“I love baseball,” says Claudio, standing a husky 6-foot-1. “I played from 6 to 16 years old.”

Eschewing a taxi, Claudio gives me a ride to the stadium and tells me he was a first baseman-pitcher for club teams growing up. However, like a lot of Italian youth who love the game, he never developed enough to get past the recreational level. The players I’m about to watch, made it, relatively speaking.

Stadio Gianni Falchi was built in 1969 and holds 2,500 people.

Stadio Gianni Falchi was built in 1969 and holds 2,500 people.

Franchi is a small, concrete, pillbox of a stadium in a wooded area that also envelops a couple of small diamonds. A youth game with boys and girls on the same team is playing on one of them. Franchi has big beams holding up a tiny roof that covers a grandstand holding 2,500 people. Built in 1969, it looks like a Class A stadium in a small Deep South or Iron Belt town that has fallen on hard times. It has the usual trappings of U.S. stadiums. It has a souvenir truck selling blue Italian national team caps and jerseys with “ITALIA” written in script across the front. One truck sells nothing but baseball equipment. Come to think of it, it’s the first baseball equipment I’ve ever seen sold in Italy.
Baseball truck
However, I knew I wasn’t in the U.S. when I passed the concession stands. Here they sell porchetta, the sizzling, suckling pork chunks, served in homemade buns, that tastes as good as it sounds. Also, another stand sells Nutella waffles. Nutella is the Italian chocolate spread institution every Italian from Sicily to the Dolomites grew up on and takes a hidden addiction into old age. Picture rich, deep chocolate you spread like peanut butter between two crisp waffles and you have a snack that could wipe out Dodger Dogs from Dodger Stadium.
Italian stadium food: porchetta and a beer.

Italian stadium food: porchetta and a beer.

Nutella is Italy's chocolate equivalent to peanut butter.

Nutella is Italy’s chocolate equivalent to peanut butter.

Behind the stands I meet Landi who shepherds me onto the field where the players are taking batting practice. This game pits the Italian national team against the Italian Baseball League All-Star team. Since nearly the entire national team is made up of IBL players, half the IBL all-star roster is Latin Americans, among the four foreign-born players each Italian team is allowed. The Italian players look like any other group of baseball players you’d see in the U.S. Nearly all wear their pant cuffs down by their ankles. Their shades rest atop their cap bills. Lumps of tobacco can be seen protruding from some of their lower lips. They scratch a lot. Yes, they are baseball players, all right. (True confession: The one thing I miss most about playing baseball, besides the camaraderie and the smell of the grass on a warm Saturday afternoon, was the freedom — and expectation per baseball’s social mores — to scratch my dick in public.)
Yes, Italy has picked up the American custom of annoying mascots.

Yes, Italy has picked up the American custom of annoying mascots.

Baseball is not a novelty in Italy. An esteemed Major League Baseball writer and obvious zenophobe who loathes soccer said the only reason Italians love soccer is because they don’t have a choice.

WRONG! An American all-star team put together by Chicago White Stockings owner Albert Spalding came through Italy in 1889. The terrific book on Italian baseball history, “Azzurri on the Diamond,” even has a picture of American players in full 19th century uniforms inside the Roman Colosseum. U.S. troops brought baseball to Italy in World War II and the Italian Baseball League began in 1948. Italy played its first national game in 1952 in Rome against Spain. There’s even a picture of Gregory Peck, in Rome to film “Vacanze Romane,” throwing out the first pitch in coat and tie.
Born to play baseballOriolesReds 69
So baseball has been played in Italy for about 70 years yet its impact on the national level doesn’t go much beyond the names of DiMaggio, Berra, Rizzuto, Torre and Piazza, Major League Baseball Hall of Famers who could barely pronounce “gelato.” Only seven Italian-born players have made the major leagues. Only one has made it after growing up playing in Italy: San Remo’s Alex Liddi who played with the Seattle Mariners in 2011 and is now with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A team. Six play in the minor leagues today.

There are sound cultural reasons. Italian boys only play about two games a week. Their summer season ends at the end of June. It has nothing to do with weather. Have you ever been to Italy in summer?

A youth game plays next door but Italian boys play only twice a week.

A youth game plays next door but Italian boys play only twice a week.

“Italians don’t want anything that binds you to a schedule,” said Landi, a Bologna native who played as a youth. “Families don’t want anything to affect their weekends. The majority of kids get kidnapped by grandma and taken to the seaside.”

I chat with All-Star outfielder Claudio Liverziani, one of the patron saints of the Italian Baseball League. His dark, swarthy looks belie his 40 years, half of which have been played in the IBL. Today he’s a married father. He said his parents dragged him to the sea every summer.

Claudio Liverziani has played 20 years in the Italian League after two years in the Seattle Mariners' minor league system.

Claudio Liverziani has played 20 years in the Italian League after two years in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system.

“I’m going to do the same,” he says. “I have no choice. Otherwise, I’d have to hire a babysitter for two months.”

Also, drive around Italy anywhere — cities, countryside, seaside resorts — none of the schools have sports facilities. School sports are more of an American institution but in Italy, sports in schools were discouraged and sports facilities were never even considered. It was a post-Mussolini reaction to fascism. While he was still hanging by his toes in Milan, war-weary Italians felt sports were too much of a priority under fascism — along with, of course, oppression, racism and murder.

“Yet when kids get introduced to baseball,” Landi says, “they say, ‘Give me a ball and bat! Let’s hit!’”

Italy has 18,000 registered youth and senior players.

Italy has 18,000 registered youth and senior players.

The numbers are surprisingly high. Italy has 18,000 registered youth and senior players playing on 800 teams in 300 clubs. There are 200 fields, 16 at the international level. Not that kids know any real players. They don’t see baseball on TV and they don’t see it in the newspapers. Baseball in Italy today gets about as much press coverage as bridge. My Corriere dello Sport, one of Italy’s three national sports dailies, will run scores and standings on the last of its 28 or 32 pages. That’s it. In a year and a half of reading sports pages in Rome, I have never read a baseball feature. Nothing would shed light on a sport that nevertheless is gaining street cred at the international level.

Landi remembers regular coverage of the league until 1982. That’s when Italy won soccer’s World Cup in Spain and soccer knocked everything else off the sports radar. It’s currently soccer’s off season yet 18 of the 40 pages in Saturday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport are devoted to soccer and its free-agent market. Another six are full-page ads. The IBL has begun its playoffs and La Gazzetta ran two paragraphs.

Yet baseball thrives in some Italian towns. Alessandro Grimaldo, a graduate of Italy’s esteemed baseball academy in the Tuscan town of Tirrenia, grew up in Nettuno. A beach town about 40 miles south of Rome, Nettuno has one of the world’s biggest American war cemeteries, holding the graves of 7,861 soldiers who died defending Italy in World War II. Nettuno’s baseball museum today shows GIs wielding bats in the streets near the sea, the same streets where kids like Grimaldo played. It’s Italy’s version of stickball in Brooklyn. Nettuno even has two IBL teams.

Baseball is big in the Adriatic Coast city of Rimini and in Padua, just west of Venice. Even San Marino, the world’s oldest continuously independent republic, has a long-standing tradition. But there’s a problem in player development.

“We don’t play enough,” Liverziani says. “We don’t have the confidence with the ball like an American kid who plays right out of kindergarten and plays almost every day. Here you play 20 games a year.”

Still, Italy is rising internationally. It reached the second round of the last World Baseball Classic in 2013 before losing to Dominican Republic, 5-4, and Puerto Rico, 4-3, both after leading in the eighth inning. They split two games with a Japanese all-star team that played a Major League all-star team. They’ve won 10 European Championships. Mike Piazza is their batting coach.

Marco Mazzieri, the national team coach, was introduced to the game as a batboy for a neighbor who played. He wound up playing center field for 21 seasons in the IBL and 73 games with the national team. Back in the ‘80s, he remembers his hometown of Grosseto drew 5,000-6,000 a game.

“At the youth level we’re doing pretty good,” he says. “The real big problem is when they get older they don’t play enough games. This game, if you don’t play games, it’s hard to develop. You can train as much as you want but it doesn’t give you as much as a game will give you.”

It doesn’t help that Italians are built more for corner kicks than three-run homers. The all-star game’s home run derby turns into a feeble display of line drives and hard-hit ground balls. Palino Ambrozzino hits the most out with only seven. (In an excessive case of rubbing it in the face of an entire culture, I obscenely point out that in the 2008 Major League All-Star Game, Josh Hamilton jacked 35 out of Yankee Stadium.)

As the game begins, I settle into the press box behind windows that haven’t been washed since the invention of the aluminum bat. I last an inning before I sit in stands that have slowly filled to capacity. I sit next to an entire group of fans wearing uniforms reading “Ferrara,” the lovely Emilia-Romagna town north of here.

Major League scouts are nowhere to be seen. The quality of play is close to high Class-A in pitching and lower A in hitting. That’s not my slam. That’s the analysis of Liverziani, who played two seasons for the Seattle Mariners’ Class A team, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, where he had as much trouble adjusting to the language as playing every day.

But if you airlifted this game to any minor league in the U.S., it would pass muster. I see the All-Stars execute a perfect hit and run. Ground balls in the hole are backhanded and bullets fired to first. The swings are strong. The pitchers are around the plate. Then I see a guy try going from first to third on a single to left field and is thrown out from here to Sicily. A shortstop lobs a double-play ball high to a second baseman who tries catching it with his bare hand and it pops away as if it a waffle iron. All the Latin players look like they ate their way out of North America.

The All-Star Game featured Italian cheerleaders.

The All-Star Game featured Italian cheerleaders.

Between innings a live band behind the first-base line plays American hits like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Breakout” while young, slim cheerleaders gyrate with pompons. (Note to Italians: Cheerleaders are Americans’ contribution to world sexism but they’re not everywhere.)

After five innings, I have my baseball fix for a couple of years. The score is 3-3 and ends that way. Some of these young players, such as Grimaldo, are still chasing dreams. Others are merely hanging around for one last feel of camaraderie, of the smell of pine tar and porchetta.

As I wait at a bus stop past the left fence, I hear a noise coming from the stadium. It’s a familiar sound. It’s not the crack of a wooden bat or a cheer from the crowd. It is something else that makes me think about America and about a sport that can make you homesick, if just for a few moments. I strain to hear. Yes, it’s unmistakable.

Over the loudspeaker, I hear the distinct tune, in English, of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

In the steambath that is Rome in July, mornings on my terrace are paradise

Me on my terrace, my usual perch every morning with my laptop and perfect cappuccino.

Me on my terrace, my usual perch every morning with my laptop and perfect cappuccino.

It’s 9 in the morning in Rome. It’s the spark before the fire. The searing sun that will reach 99 degrees this weekend has yet to pour over my rooftop. It has left my fourth-floor penthouse terrace in an embracingly cool shadow of 79 degrees. Seagulls floating in from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea squawk over my head. If the Tiber River below me was the ocean, I’d feel as if I was on Capri instead of in Testaccio, my neighborhood I’ve grown to love like my hometown. My perfect cappuccino is next to this laptop as I peck away in complete solitude.

Yes, Rome in July is awful as I wrote last week However, in the mornings it is tolerable. On my terrace, it is spectacular. On my terrace is when Rome becomes the city of my dreams. It’s where I feel like this isn’t 2015. It’s 15 AD and I’m a member of the Roman Senate, sitting above the city in obscene luxury, lounging above the great unwashed. I keep looking around for curvy peasant women in togas to feed me grapes. Alas, I feed myself cereal and eggs.

My terrace has become my sanctuary, my home in my home. It’s where I write in the mornings and entertain in the evenings. It’s where the Tiber River transforms from one of the filthiest rivers in Europe to the Seine in spring. I never tire of climbing my 90 steps and cooling off at night, looking out over my balcony and watching the 19th century street lamps reflect off the gently flowing river. (It also helped that the gypsy camp on the river bank got mowed outta town.)

My terrace is 35 square meters, as big as some apartments in Rome.

My terrace is 35 square meters, as big as some apartments in Rome.

My terrace is 35 square meters or 377 square feet. That’s huge by Rome standards. It’s big enough to be lined with plants of all sizes and shapes. I’m surrounded by green. I remember reading a long story in The New York Times in 2008 about an expat couple. She spent four years looking for an apartment with a terrace big enough for a garden. At the end of the story she finally found one. In about the second to last paragraph, The Times added that the going rate for a 180-square-meter apartment with a balcony went for 5,000-5,600 euros ($5,555-$6,216). I took it as a sign that terraces are as rare in Rome as elevators. (This is nearly a 3,000-year-old city. And you wonder why Romans aren’t fat?) I pay 950 euros for my flat, the inside itself is 45 square meters or 484 square feet. My terrace is like another giant room.

My furniture is all 21st century IKEA, Sweden’s greatest gift to the world besides its women. It’s all waterproof and the cushions on the wooden chairs make you want to stay all day. I sometimes brave the afternoon elements and sun myself on my lanais chair, something I haven’t done at home since my days atop the Phi Psi roof at the University of Oregon. (By the way, ever see “National Lampoon’s Animal House”? That was filmed in my fraternity while I was living there fall term 1977. I had breakfast with John Belushi for six weeks. Feel free to bow.) And in Rome, I’m no longer worried about getting pelted by water balloons from the nearby Sigma Nu house. I put a big liter bottle of cold water next to me and read my Corriere dello Sport newspaper. No cafe in Rome or North American can beat this solitude.

The colors on Roman mornings are wonderful. Despite a reputation for dirty air, Rome’s sky from within Rome looks as clean as San Diego’s coast. The turquoise sky is void of clouds. It’s brutal in the afternoon when there is no escaping the sun but in the mornings it has the prettiest landscape for breakfast. Below is my lovely street, Lungotevere Testaccio, lined with huge, billowy Sycamore trees that cover the walkway in shade. You can walk from the southern tip of Rome to the northern with hardly ever setting foot in the sun.

Mostly, I love my terrace for entertaining at night. When the sun drops in Rome, so does the humidity. Unlike Texas or Florida, where you must take as many showers at night as in the day, Rome’s evenings in July are as comfortable as anywhere in the world. I invite friends over for a typical Roman aperitivo: big trays full or prosciutto, salami, cheeses and olives, bread and spreads of olive and pesto. Fresh fruit fill another tray next to big chilled bottles of white wine. Somehow a fresh Pinot Grigio from Veneto tastes better when looking down upon Rome. Conversations are livelier. Laughter is louder. Dreams are bigger.

So is life. I must go. The sun is starting to creep over my roof. In an hour, Rome is going to turn into a greenhouse. I think I’ll feed myself some grapes.