Coffee in Italy is a culture you must taste to understand

How I start my day: a cappuccino and perfect chocolate cornetto at Linari, my neighborhood cafe.

How I start my day: a cappuccino and perfect chocolate cornetto at Linari, my neighborhood cafe.

I once had a friend who worked for Vatican Radio and had one of the greatest handicaps for living in Rome. She was allergic to dairy products. Think about it. She couldn’t eat cheese. She couldn’t eat gelato. How can you live in Rome and not eat cheese or gelato? It’s like moving to the Caribbean and not being able to swim. I mean, what’s the point? Then again, when I moved to Rome, I had a big handicap, too, one that made Italians look at me as if I had a third eye.

I didn’t drink coffee.

I wasn’t allergic to it. I hated it. I loathed it. I didn’t like any hot liquids. Hot chocolate. Saki. Hot spiced wine. But coffee topped the list of disgusting beverages. Bitter and drab, it did nothing but make me thirsty. And I viewed all fluids as a means to quench a thirst. Nothing else. During an all-night writing marathon, caffeine had all the effect on me as Pez.

When I moved to Rome the first time in 2001, I made a tough decision. I love hanging out in piazzas. They are what separates Rome from every city in the world. It’s what makes living in Rome like living in a small town with a big city right across the street. I also love wine. But drinking wine all day in a piazza is problematic. I wasn’t a bored housewife in the suburbs.

This is the design a Lazio fan/barrista put in my cappucino one day. Lazio is my beloved A.S. Roma's cross-town soccer rival.

This is the design a Lazio fan/barrista put in my cappucino one day. Lazio is my beloved A.S. Roma’s cross-town soccer rival.

I decided I’d better start drinking coffee. I’d better learn to like it. I remember my first cup of coffee in Rome. My then-girlfriend and I had just landed in November 2001 and we checked into a hotel by the Termini train station. We walked a couple blocks to tree-lined Via Merulana, one of Rome’s prettiest streets. We went to Caffe Merulana and I ordered a cappuccino. The waiter brought it out and in the foam, the barrister had artfully formed a heart. The first sip was like a child eating his first piece of chocolate. Creamy. Sweet. Warm. The milky froth took off just enough bitterness and the sugar added just enough sweetness to make it more of a dessert than a caffeine jolt. The heart in the foam became quite an omen.

The relationship didn’t last but my love for coffee sure did.

Now every morning I dive head first into a coffee culture that is as much a part of the Italian social fabric as aperitivos, wine and corrupt politics. When I wake, pure muscle memory pulls me into my kitchen where I take my little espresso maker and make a cappuccino that is always percolating right when my computer is warmed up. I take my cappuccino onto my terrace, look out over the Tiber River and the foamy milky coffee reminds me of why I love living in Rome so much.

My neighborhood cafe, Linari, has been around for 44 years.

My neighborhood cafe, Linari, has been around for 44 years.

Three or four times a week I’ll walk two blocks to my local cafe, Linari, and stand at the counter with a cappuccino and a perfect chocolate cornetto. If I stay long enough I’ll probably see more than half my Testaccio neighborhood, all gossiping away in the Romanaccio version of Italian that I have no hope of ever understanding.

To live in Italy, one must do more than drink coffee. One must understand coffee. When you visit Italy, order a coffee in one of the following ways:

A caffe from Caffe Sant'Eustachio.

A caffe from Caffe Sant’Eustachio.

Caffe. This is the most common yet the most shocking to Americans. It is a simple shot of espresso that fills about a third of a small cup just a bit bigger than a thimble. I still enjoy watching Americans’ jaws drop when they see it and ask, “Where’s the rest of it?” This isn’t Starbucks, Bubba. Thank God.
Caffe macchiato.

Caffe macchiato.

Caffe macchiato. This is halfway between a caffe and a cappuccino. It’s a caffe stained with a little spot of milk. Pronounce it correctly, mock-ee-OTTO, and you’ll be treated like a local.

Cappuccino. The classic Italian coffee. Espresso coffee covered in warm milk then topped with creamy foam, it is the perfect way to start the Italian day. Please note the word “start.” Do NOT, even if the craving eats at you like a heroin withdrawal, order a cappuccino after noon. Only tourists do that. Yes, you’re a tourist. Just don’t act like a stupid one.

Cappuccino ben caldo. “Ben caldo” means “extra hot.” This is my favorite. Italians like to drink their coffee fast and don’t like it so hot it singes their tongues like American coffee. I like mine with a newspaper.

Marochino. A small cappuccino sprinkled with chocolate, popular with Italian teen-agers and wimpy American expats.

Ristretto. A shorter, very strong shot of espresso and isn’t much more than a sip. It should not be confused with ristretto’s other meaning: What happens to a man’s penis when he comes out of the cold Adriatic Sea.

Americano. A long black coffee that, in more than three years in Rome over two stints, I have never seen an Italian order unless he lost a bet.

It’s a long list. However, it’s nothing compared to that bastion of bad taste, that despicable, grotesque coffee stain on the international coffee landscape.


A big reason I once thought of drinking coffee in the same terms as drinking snake blood is Starsucks. Its coffee is as bitter as a Hollywood divorce and nearly as expensive. Its coffee menu is longer than Denny’s. Yes, it’s a nice variety but the recipes were contrived in a corporate office in Seattle. Italian coffee has been passed down from generations since it arrived in Venice in the mid-16th century. Go ahead. Walk into a rough-and-tumble bar in Rome and order an “iced, half-caff, ristretto, venti, four-pump, sugar free, cinnamon, dolce soy skinny latte.” (Yes, someone at Starsucks really ordered this once.) You’ll get tossed out right onto your Yankees cap.

My biggest problem with Starsucks is it has ruined nearly as many neighborhoods as crack houses. Starsucks is the Walmart of cafes. Cafes should have a family feel. Each should be different. They should be warm, cozy, with the atmosphere that makes you want to stay and chat or read for a few hours. Starsucks came into my old neighborhood in Denver and bought out the one local cafe down the street. The friendly barrister was replaced by a gum-chewing college-age chick with an attitude as bad as her haircut.

Starsucks isn’t about culture. It’s about profits. They want turnover. It’s why its chairs are so uncomfortable, an Indian fakir couldn’t sit in one more than 15 minutes. Starsucks are like Marriott hotels. Every one looks the same from Barstow to Bangkok. Italy, God love it, told Starsucks it could not open a franchise here. It’s the best decision Italy’s made against American culture since outlawing guns.

If you live in Italy — even if you visit — the first thing you must do is establish a local cafe. It’s where every Italian’s day begins. It’s a slice of true Italian culture as genuine as a British pub. You chat with the owner and your favorite barrista. You pick up a spare newspaper lying around and bitch to the guy next to you about A.S. Roma’s last heartbreaking loss.

Inside Linari on a typical morning.

Inside Linari on a typical morning.

My home away from home is Linari. It is labeled a pasticceria, a pastry shop, and the display cases would make a 5-year-old’s mouth water. Cannoli. Chocolate layer cakes. Cookies. Chocolate biscotti. Eau claires. Gelato. And they have the best cornettos in Rome. A cornetto is basically an Italian croissant filled with chocolate, cream or marmalade. They also have plain, or, simplice. The staff all know my name and don’t even bother looking at my receipt order. They automatically put out two small plates in front of me on the counter. They put a frothy, creamy cappuccino on one and take a cornetto to the back where they fill it with a shot of warm Nutella, the famed, 70-year-old chocolate spread Italians eat like peanut butter. The pastries here are so good it’s part of Testaccio’s gastronomic tour.

Linari was established in 1971 by Giancarlo Linari. He died a couple of years ago and handed it over to his two daughters and two sons. Unlike many cafes where people down a quick espresso and bolt, Linari could be an Italian word for “linger.” I often would get my Corriere dello Sport or La Gazzetta dello Sport newspapers and take my cornetto and cappuccino to one of the outdoor tables. I’d sit with the neighborhood’s old ladies and mechanics and middle-aged beauties and read, eat and sip in the sun.

Claudia, one of the many friendly barristas at Linari.

Claudia, one of the many friendly barristas at Linari.

Try doing that at a Starbucks in Des Moines.

Rome has fierce competition about where to find the best coffee. I put Linari at the top of the list — until one day. I read in The New York Times that the best cappuccino in the world is at Tazza d’Oro (Cup of Gold), near the Pantheon. I don’t like The New York Times. I find it stuffy, heavy handed and elitist. It’s 3 euros for 18 pages. Last month it did a four-page special section on the Singapore Grand Prix, just to appease its wealthy advertisers who follow Formula I. Come on! However, I had to see how far off The Times was on its cappuccino rating. I visited Tazza d’Oro shortly after I returned to Rome last year and I must say …

… The Times was spot on.

The best cappuccino in the world: Tazza d'Oro near the Pantheon.

The best cappuccino in the world: Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon.

Tazza d’Oro’s cappuccino is creamier, richer, sweeter and more luscious than any I’ve ever had. Every time I go back I swoon like I’m drinking it in bed with a beautiful woman and not with a pack of Japanese tourists. It’s also only 1.10 euro. Tazza d’Oro is a beautiful cafe. It’s a long, bending bar with stained wood paneling and a shop in the back selling Tazza d’Oro coffee to a steady stream of customers. I asked the barrister, a young, burr-cut man what its secret was.

“Nothing,” he said with a shrug as if he’s been asked it numerous times. “Good coffee.”

Tazza d'Oro.

Tazza d’Oro.

He said they take coffee beans from eight countries in Latin America, from Brazil to Mexico. “And also,” he said with a smile, “I prepared it.”
Sant'Eustachio church has stood for 1,000 years. Notice the stag head on top.

Sant’Eustachio church has stood for 1,000 years. Notice the stag head on top.

Arguably Rome’s most famous cafe has received more press than Fellini. Caffe Sant’Eustachio opened in 1938 just on the other side of the Pantheon. It was named after Eustace, a general under emperor Trajan in the 2nd century A.D. A pagan, Eustace converted to Christianity one day when he went hunting and saw a vision of a crucifix between a stag’s horns. Sant’Eustachio church, across the piazza from the cafe, has stood for 1,000 years and doesn’t have a traditional cross on top. It has the head of a stag.
Caffe Sant'Eustachio began in 1938 and may be the most famous cafe in Rome.

Caffe Sant’Eustachio began in 1938 and may be the most famous cafe in Rome.

The cafe has numerous outside tables, nearly always full. The inside still has the original mosaics and furniture. It feels like old Rome. However, the surly cashier who took my 1.50 euro for a caffe killed my coffee buzz and so did the barrister who put in sugar instead of allowing me like every other cafe in Rome. The caffe was totally ordinary and I walked out wondering about all the fuss.
Caffe Sant'Eustachio still has the original mosaics and furniture.

Caffe Sant’Eustachio still has the original mosaics and furniture.

But I understand the fuss about coffee in Italy. La dolce vita isn’t just a lifestyle. It’s a flavor, too. Italy is a country built by conflict, enriched by art and fueled by wine. No matter where you are in Italy, stop. Then smell. Somewhere there’s a cappuccino with your heart in it.

A.S. Roma draws with Barcelona and gives a city hope

A packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836, decorating the stadium in A.S. Roma colors, watched their team tie defending champions Barcelona as the Champions League kicked off for Roma Wednesday night.

A packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836, decorating the stadium in A.S. Roma colors, watched Roma tie defending champions Barcelona as the Champions League kicked off for Roma Wednesday night.

September rocks. It’s my favorite month of the year. Two months after I sweat through July (, Mother Nature’s cruel joke on mankind, I am in bliss. And I always have been. Here in Rome it’s when
most of the backpackers have gone home, the weather has cooled, all the restaurants have re-opened and, for the 38th straight year, I am reminded I am no longer in school.

However, the biggest reason is one of my favorite sports events of the world kicks off. The Champions League soccer tournament has replaced college football as my fall passion. I covered college football for 19 years. No other sport in the world has more riding on each game. Twelve games. Twelve games to bid for a national or conference title and more money than most South American countries’ military budgets. And one loss to blow it all. Coaches have been fired, non-revenue sports have been cut, on one missed field goal.

But the Champions League takes it one better. It’s Europe’s annual soccer club championship. The best 32 teams, all based on where they finished in their leagues the previous season, square off in eight groups of four. Each team plays a home and home with the other three in their group. The top two in each group advance to a 16-team knockout stage. The final is May 28 in Milan.

This is arguably the toughest soccer tournament in the world. Yes, it’s even tougher than the World Cup. There is no North Korea in this tournament; no Australia, either. The clubs have no citizenship limitations, no salary caps. Despite annual player movement that rivals Major League Baseball, the core of the European powers remain year after year after year. How tough is this tournament?

My prized press pass.

My prized press pass.

In the 22 years since it changed its name from the European Cup, no team has defended its title.

This year, the Champions League schedule is marked all over my cell phone calendar. In red. Why? My beloved A.S. Roma is in it. This isn’t news. This is the 19th year it has made it but it has never gone past the quarterfinals. But this season, Roma is the best it has been in years, possibly as good as the team that won the last of its three national “Serie A” titles in 2001. I sense it. The city senses it. So does my neighborhood, Testaccio, the former gritty, working-class “quartiere” where the team was formed in 1927. When Roma won its Serie A title, known as the “Scudetto,” fans poured into Testaccio and partied for a week. Juventus, the four-time defending Serie A champion from Turin, lost three of its best players, all aging, is not the same, hasn’t won in three games and already lost to Roma last month, 2-1.

This is Roma’s season. In my refrigerator, chilling well, is a large bottle of Prosecco.

The Champions League, however, is what draws attention from the entire world. And on Wednesday night, the world’s soccer fans bored their collective eye on Rome’s Olympic Stadium. It was the opening game of the Champions League group stage and in town was the greatest team in the world, the defending champion, boasting the best player in the world.

F.C. Barcelona.

Barcelona, or “Barca” as fans and headline writers call it, is the most famous sports team on the planet. Please tell all the American sports talk show hosts who say it’s the New York Yankees to get a passport and a life. No one in Africa, in South America south of Colombia or Asia outside Japan, South Korea and Taiwan know or give two grains of rice about the New York Yankees. Yes, people in Europe were Yankees caps. It’s a fashion statement. Derek Jeter never wore a Yankees cap that was pink. I once asked a woman in Rome what the “NY” on the cap meant.

“New York,” she said.

“But do you know what the cap represents?”


“The New York Yankees.”


Ask anyone in Africa, Asia or South America what F.C. Barcelona is and you won’t get “Who?”

I get a press pass for the game and my bus reaches Olympic Stadium plenty early. Built for the 1960 Rome Olympics, it’s on its last legs. A new $340 million stadium is planned south of me and is only a corrupt city government and a few greased palms away from the first shovelful of dirt being overturned. Still, I love to walk past the marble Roman statues that line the path from the Foro Italico tennis complex, home of the Italian Open, and “Stadio Olimpico.” The classic stadium roof is lit up from above. Beautiful women in tight jeans and red and yellow Roma jerseys walk to the gates in heels totally inappropriate for a sports event but totally appropriate for Rome.

I went early to catch warmups. I wanted to see what the world’s best player acts like when the cameras aren’t on him. Lionel Messi looks about as much as a world-class athlete as I look Italian. I saw him walk onto the field and from the press tribune he looks, even at 28, like one of the little boys who holds players’ hands on their way onto the field. He’s 5-foot-7 and his boyish, round, clean-shaven face is topped with a bad, short haircut cropped close on the side. His small eyes look like buttons. He walks with short, quick steps as if his legs aren’t long enough to go fast. The only thing that makes him look older is his right arm. It is covered in tattoos, including one of a lotus and Jesus’ face. With his left arm clean, he looks as if he’s wearing a shirt with one long, multi-colored sleeve. Frankly, he looks like a moron. But it’s hard to throw the moron tag on maybe the greatest player in the biggest sport in the world.

In January this unimposing Argentine will likely win his fifth FIFA Ballon d’Or, given to the best player in the world. He’s already the only player to win three. He has scored 77 goals in 100 Champions League games and has a record 287 goals in 318 games of Spain’s La Liga and a record 50 in 37 games in 2011-12. Many already call him the best who ever lived and if he ever leads Argentina to a World Cup title, don’t ever bring up the debate in any bar from Barcelona to Brisbane.

And right now, Leo Messi is practicing free kicks right below me.

ANSA's Alessandro Castellani and me before the game.

ANSA’s Alessandro Castellani and me before the game.

This is the biggest game to come to Rome in years and Italy’s manic press is all over it. “SENZA PAURA” (WITHOUT FEAR) screams the banner headline on the front page of Wednesday’s Corriere dello Sport. My best friend, Alessandro Castellani, is covering the game for ANSA, Italy’s wire service. I ask him about Roma’s chances.

“I don’t like them,” he says without going into detail. No need. When Roma has stepped up in class in the Champions League, it is the sacking of Rome revisited. Last season it lost, 7-1, to Bayern Munich — at home. It lost at Manchester United 7-1 in 2007, when I got heckled out of Denver’s British Bulldog pub by frontrunning American ManU fans who don’t even know what country Manchester is in. Barcelona has the same team that won last season’s treble: the Champions League, la liga and Copa del Rey, Spain’s national competition including all divisions.

Despite the strong start in Serie A — Rome is 2-0-1 — the buzz around the stadium isn’t one expecting an upset. Roma fans look at their team as they look at their economy. They hope for the best but expect the worst. Either way, there’s a bottle of Montepulciano waiting for them.

However, the game illustrates how far Roma has improved and may be foreshadowing of a season for the books. In front of a TV audience from 142 countries, Roma is taking it to the defending champions. Mohamed Salah, Roma’s new Egyptian striker on loan from Chelsea, has two breakaways and can’t do anything with either one of them. Two more breakaways wind up kicked away by Barca’s desperately retreating defense.

But Messi isn’t sharp. He is curiously left unmarked much of the first half and his shots are flying high. He’s like Michael Jordan who can’t find his jump shot. Then in the 21st minute a long Barca pass is sent toward Roma’s 18-meter box and Roma defender Lucas Digne falls backing up on Messi. The ball falls to the right of the goal. Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic makes a pretty soft pass just over new Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and right to the waiting head of Barca striker Luis Suarez. He scores easily. Barca 1, Roma 0.

It strikes an extra blow to the heart of the packed Olympic Stadium crowd of 57,836. Suarez was Uruguay’s thug who bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in last summer’s World Cup. FIFA suspended and he left Liverpool for Barcelona this season on a $106 million deal. He was booed every time he touched the ball. He was booed every time he tried helping up a Roma player. He is being booed now, as you read this, by somebody.

The game turns. Barcelona uses its trademark short, beautiful passing game to drive Roma nuts and put the stadium to sleep. At game’s end, Barca would dominate the time of possession with 72 percent. But it was one possession in the 31st minute that cost it. On an innocent run up the right side, Roma defender Alessandro Florenzi dribbles past midfield and just before it goes out of bounds, he looks up briefly. He launches a prayer, a shot from 48 meters. It’s the equivalent of a basketball player throwing up a shot from halfcourt midway through the first half.

However, this shot catches Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen way out in front of the goal. All he could do was look up at it like a kid watching a kite. The ball floats with eyes right into the left crossbar and into the net. Tie game. In all the games in all the world, this is likely the best goal in the world this year. It was certainly the best I’ve ever seen. And it holds up.

Messi can’t find the mark even after Suarez lived up to his rep two minutes into the second half and stepped on Szczesny’s fingers, forcing in Morgan De Sanctis, last year’s oft-embattled starter. But De Sanctis played like the best goalie in Europe stopping shot after shot. Rarely as a tie produced such an applause at game’s end.

Defender Sergi Roberto was the only player who talked for Barcelona after the game.

Defender Sergi Roberto was the only player who talked for Barcelona after the game.

Afterward, European’s soccer inane soccer public relations kicks in. I go to the mixed zone with a mob of Italian and Spanish reporters waiting for players to come out. They all do — and keep right on walking. Only one player for either team talks. Even De Sanctis made a sharp left out of sight. No wonder the Italian press never quotes players. No one talks.

“UEFA (European soccer’s governing body) doesn’t care about the press,” Castellani tells me later over a beer. “They only care about TV. They want players to speak to TV. The press? Fuck you!”

The Champions League is a long, tense haul. Also in Roma’s group is Bate, the Belarus champion, which hosts Roma on the 29th. Then there’s Bayern Munich, again, waiting for Roma in Bavaria Oct. 20. I hear Colorado, the college football team I covered for seven years, plays Colorado State today. I wouldn’t know.

I’m gearing up for Roma’s home Serie A match Sunday with Sassuolo. Nope, I’m no longer in school.

Lake Como: My favorite lake in the world is Italy’s watery exotic dancer

Lake Como, from a villa in Varenna, is dotted with 18 villages and connected by a convenient ferry system.

Lake Como, from a villa in Varenna, is dotted with 18 villages and connected by a convenient ferry system.

MENAGGIO, Italy — The Italian Alps come down around Lake Como like giant, jagged claws clutching a basin of cool, clean water. In September, the mountains don’t have snow but they’re still majestic in their height, their steepness, their proximity to my favorite lake in the world. Also, I can’t help staring at their color. They’re covered in green forest. Above the tree line, the brown rock sticks out high above the lake as if to protect it from unwanted foreign objects — like jet skis, yachts and drunk Texans.

This is my view as I’m sitting at my hotel pool along the lake. I went to India in March to learn the meaning of perfect bliss. I may have found it on Lake Como: reading the Italian sports paper next to a beautiful pool in front of me and a gorgeous lake behind me after spending the day walking through a villa garden. I just had ravioli a few feet from the water. The summer’s suffocating heat has left, replaced by high 70s with the sun peeking through the high clouds.

The view from my balcony at the Hotel Bellavista.

The view from my balcony at the Hotel Bellavista.

Traveling overland a lot I’ve seen some remarkable lakes. Lake Zurich and the Swiss Alps. Khovsgol Nuur (Lake) and northern Mongolia’s unspoiled beauty. Popradske pleso (Lake) and Slovakia’s High Tatras mountain range. Never have I seen a lake as beautiful as Lake Como. It is Italy with a Swiss twist. Take the convenient and romantically slow ferry back and forth across the lake and the architecture of the villages reminds you of Switzerland which lies just over the first line of mountains. But disembark and spend time with the people. The laid-back lifestyle, values and food make Lake Como very Italian.

As a sportswriter in Denver, I used to come here and vegetate after covering the grueling three-week Tour de France. Even in late July and early August, Lake Como is not too crowded to enjoy. The lake is 56 square miles and 28 miles long. With 18 towns spread along the shoreline, it isn’t hard to find privacy. I’ve stayed in Lenno, which still feels like an old Italian village but has a terrific sandy beach, and Tremezzo, where lakeside cafes and clifftop restaurants give it an air of sophistication, of style, of Campari on ice and designer sunglasses.

Menaggio in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

Menaggio in the foothills of the Italian Alps.

They are all on the same western shore as Laglio where George Clooney has his 18th century Villa Oleandra. I pass the gorgeous, garden-laden, castle-like mansion, complete with two turrets and stone walkways to the lake, when I take the ferry to villages. If I had a euro for every time a woman asked me, “Tell George hi for me,” I could be Clooney’s neighbor. He’s also considered one of the nicest guys in town. On one trip to Lenno, a woman I met on the beach told me Clooney often throws a big party for the town of Laglio. It’s not for his Hollywood friends and agents. It’s for the cobblers and the bakers and the butchers and the waiters. He’s not the town’s prized possession. He’s one of the locals.

So go ahead and look. Just don’t touch. In April, Laglio mayor Roberto Pozzi established a 600-euro fine for anyone setting foot uninvited on Clooney’s property or disturbing him in any way. Still, Clooney is so fed up with paparazzi, he’s considering an offer to sell for $100 million. He bought it in 2001 for $10 million. Talk about “A Perfect Storm.”

Porta Torre, part of the old Roman wall surrounding the city of Como.

Porta Torre, part of the old Roman wall surrounding the city of Como.

I started my weekend journey in the town of Como, one of the most underrated cities in Italy. It’s oft used as a diving board to the lake villages but it’s well worth a night or two. Inside the 12th century city walls, vast piazzas are scattered near one of the cleanest and most majestic ports I’ve ever seen. The world’s ports often resemble garbage dumps and oil spills. Como’s is as clean as Monaco’s without the yachts.

Hosting me was one John Genzale, an old American newspaper war horse who has had his hand in Italian baseball and taught journalism classes at the American University of Rome. He moved to Como in 2010 and scored a great apartment in the heart of the cobblestone historic center. I spoke to his students a couple of times and told them that one of the joys of travel writing is trips like this: Sitting in old town Como, drinking white wine from Como’s Lombardy region and telling hilarious old stories from our newspaper days.

As the newspaper industry goes the way of the pay phone (my departure had ZIP to do with it), I happily headed to Menaggio. Lake Como is shaped like a long-legged, armless exotic dancer in the throes of a head-rocking orgasm. (Look, I spent a weekend on Lake Como. I’m in the mood, OK?) Menaggio is 22 miles north of Como along the western shore, right above where the pelvic region would be. (SHUT UP! I’LL GET THROUGH THIS!) I learned it’s only an hour as opposed to 2 1/2 by boat. Besides, I’d had enough of tourists nearly capsizing the boat as they rush to the port side to photograph Clooney’s house.

Me on the banks of Lake Como from Menaggio. Even in summer it's not hard to find a room on the lake. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Me on the banks of Lake Como from Menaggio. Even in summer it’s not hard to find a room on the lake. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

The bus dropped me off next to my Hotel Bellavista. It’s not nearly as boring as the mundane title suggests. For 160 euros a night, I had a fourth-floor flat with a balcony complete with a table overlooking the big swimming pool lined with lanais chairs and the lake just over the railing. It was the perfect spot for a late afternoon aperitivo of local cheese and a sweet white — and cold — Gewurztraminer from just farther north in Alto Adige.

Menaggio comes together at Piazza Garibaldi which seems too large for this town of 3,300 people. It still keeps its quaintness. It’s a cobblestone piazza lined with tasteful cafes, boutiques and public services like a bank and post office. Filling the outdoor seats, all facing the cobalt-blue lake were mostly English and Americans, all of whom seemed incapable of learning the word “Grazie.” A note to all travelers to Italy: Don’t say “Thank you.” Say “Grazie.” Italians are very forgiving of foreigners unwilling to learn a single Italian word in their country — or with my sister from Southern California who kept saying, “Gracias.” But saying “Grazie” will score modest points with the locals and keep people like me from thinking you’re an unwashed, functionally illiterate hillbilly.

Ravioli noci gorgonzola, ravioli filled with a nut-cream sauce and covered in gorgonzola cheese.

Ravioli noci gorgonzola, ravioli filled with a nut-cream sauce and covered in gorgonzola cheese.

I ignored all the assorted-accented English around me at La Tana del Luccio, a charming little outdoor cafe where I had luscious hand-made ravioli noci gorgonzola: hand-made ravioli filled with a cream nut sauce and covered in thick, melted gorgonzola cheese. As I said, Lake Como is very much Italian.

The beauty of staying on the lake is each town is easily accessible and has its own character. My best definition of freedom is deciding what Italian lakeside village you want to visit on your way to a boat dock. That’s what I did the next day when I took the ferry across the lake to Varenna. It is known to battle Bellagio as the prettiest town on Lake Como. All Americans know Bellagio. It was famous before the gargantuan Bellagio hotel popped up on the Las Vegas Strip in 1998. Today the town’s windy, hilly alleys and pastel-colored buildings are crawling with Americans in ball caps and T-shirts scanning the breadth of the Big Ten Conference. Bellagio, glittery, rich and a bit pretentious, is at the end of a peninsula and sticks into the lake like, appropriately, a middle finger.

Varenna battles Bellagio for the title as the prettiest town on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Varenna battles Bellagio for the title as the prettiest town on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Varenna, meanwhile, spreads lazily along the eastern shore. Getting off the boat, I paid a nominal fee to enter one of Varenna’s many impossibly beautiful villas and walked along a windy, narrow stone path lined with flowers of pink bougainvillea and yellow hibiscus. Palm trees of a dozen varieties shaded the walkway and I ducked under centuries old archways. To my left were cliffs going straight up to the sky. To my right was a lake so clear I could see fish scurrying along under the surface. I could see why Williams Turner came here to paint.
One of the many garden-covered walkways on Varenna.

One of the many garden-covered walkways on Varenna.

Soon I came across this sprawling mansion. Its facade seemed modest but I walked in and couldn’t believe that Villa Monastero was once a convent. Yes, nuns used this as their home from the 12th century until about 1500 when the nuns, a clerk inside told me, “were being naughty.”
One of the many great views from outside Villa Monastero on Varenna.

One of the many great views from outside Villa Monastero on Varenna.

“How naughty?” I asked.

“Everything,” she said.

It was sold to a rich Italian family who had it for 300 years then sold to a German during World War I. It was open to the public in 1940 and today is used for conferences, particularly annual courses run by the Italian Society of Physics. How they get work done with all the distractions is a testament to Italians’ occasional concentration. The rooms have elaborate patterns hand chiseled all over walls. Red velvet covers the floors. Tapestries of prehistoric scenes serve as backdrops. The bathroom with the extra large tub looks like something out of a swinger’s club.

The bathtub in Villa Monastero, a converted convent turned into private villas and now a government meeting place.

The bathtub in Villa Monastero, a converted convent turned into private villas and now a government meeting place.

Later I contemplated life on Lake Como in past centuries as I read my paper by the pool. A lone sailboat bobbed in the lake. The only sounds I heard were the water lapping against the shore below me and the seagulls above me. The sun set behind clouds hovering over the Alps beyond.

Fellow expats and I join Italians in a regular chorus about the chaos and dysfunction of Italy. It makes life so hard in areas where in other Western countries it’s so easy. Yet those of us living here have learned to bear with the bad. Lake Como is one of those ways. Beauty. Style. Comfort. Warmth. Flavor. At the end of a long, hot summer, they all win out in the end. Clooney’s price tag is $100 million.

Nope, Lake Como isn't a bad place to reflect on life, which isn't bad on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Nope, Lake Como isn’t a bad place to reflect on life, which isn’t bad on Lake Como. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

I can see why he may not sell.

Travel guide to Castelli Romani: Hidden gems in the hills southeast of Rome

Lago di Nemi is one of the many picturesque lakes that dot the Castelli Romani region southeast of Rome.

Lago di Nemi is one of the many picturesque lakes that dot the Castelli Romani region southeast of Rome.

ARICCIA, Italy — I don’t want to turn this blog into a travel guide. This blog is about experiences, not information. But I have to switch gears this once. I have recently been touring an area outside Rome that I just can’t keep to myself any longer. It has been around for 2,000 years, inhabited by emperors and popes, ogled at by Romans and savvy Europeans. But very few Americans ever get out of Rome to marvel at this extraordinary area.

It’s called Castelli Romani. It’s a series of 14 small towns, most sporting castles (thus, the “castelli” in the title) and perched on hillsides or cliffs among the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. They were once used as defenses against a Pac-12 lineup of foreign invaders but now offer some of the best views in Italy.

I toured them in friends’ cars but they’re accessible by public transport from Rome. If you get tired of the heat and crowds of Rome and want to taste true rural Italy less than an hour away, not to mention fantastic local cuisine, grab some adventure and a bus. Castelli Romani is worth the planning. Here’s a list of six towns I fell for with public transportation available:

Ariccia is home to the best porchetta in Italy.

Ariccia is home to the best porchetta in Italy.

Ariccia. It’s home to the best porchetta in Italy. Porchetta is the sizzling, suckling pig that is slow roasted for four hours and then served in homemade bread or wrapped in paper to pick at with your hands. As I strolled down a street toward its spectacular cliff-side vista, nearly every store had an entire pig, roasted brown-maroon, lying prone on a slab. They were carved from the rear forward. The pigs’ eyes are thankfully shut as if they can feel the knife cutting off their flesh.

I walked up one street on a hill lined with porchetta-themed restaurants with outdoor seating and barkers outside luring in patrons with menus and descriptions of sizzling pork. I thought I smelled a hint of porchetta perfume on one of them.

Cooks  in Ariccia making pasta by hand.

Cooks in Ariccia making pasta by hand.

In two recent visits I ate enough to last me through lunch the next day. The servings are massive. I felt like I was in the American Deep South except nothing was fried and the people weren’t obese. I went to a highly recommended restaurant called Gasperone. It’s on a narrow curved street that’s lined chock-a-block with porchetta restaurants. I ordered the mixed antipasti which usually is just a mix of finger food. At Gasperone, they nearly needed a gurney to bring it all out. The lineup: porchetta, buffala mozzarella, ricotta buffala, three different kinds of sausage (including horse), pancetta (bacon), cheese-stuffed sausage, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta with sausage and bruschetta with spinach. A big basket of fresh homemade Italian bread, the kind with the hard crust and spongy insides, made mini nice sandwiches.
The mixed antipasti at Gasperone.

The mixed antipasti at Gasperone.

It’s considered uncool not to order a first dish, called a “primo piatto,” at these places. It’s also uncool to eat pasta when you feel ready to explode. But I ordered the pappardelle (wide, flat noodles) with cinghiale (wild boar). It was so delicious, I somehow found room, like a man digging underground to find a place to hide more stolen treasure.
A porchetta restaurant reading "Serving Dog" which isn't quite true. It means service without rules.

A porchetta restaurant reading “Serving Dog” (check out its flyer below) isn’t quite true. It means service without rules.

Ariccia cane sign
The food almost took a back seat to the waiters’ sideshow. As I digested, they plied me with free shots of Amaro, Italy’s herbal liqueur that’s up to 40 percent alcohol. To give you the idea of the taste, “amaro” is Italian for “bitter.” Meanwhile, I kept a running dialogue with the waiters, none of whom spoke English. They said no European tourists come here, let alone Americans. It’s all Romans trying to get into the cool hills to stuff themselves.
As we talked about life in Rome, they gave me a quick lesson in Romanesco, Rome’s impossible dialect which is the language of choice in my Testaccio neighborhood. I learned a new word, which I can’t use in public but I can here: “smorzacandela.” It’s the sexual position when the woman is on top. Why “smorzacandela”? That’s the name of the round devise Italians use to put atop candles in order douse the fire. Get it? When I walked inside toward the bathroom, I told the cooks working behind the counter that I learned a new word. I yelled: “SMORZACANDELA!” Suddenly two of them, utensils in hand, leaned backward, laughed and pumped their fists up and down by their waists as if pushing a woman up and down.

Yes, Romans are nothing if not romantic.

The steel netting put around Ariccia's "Suicide Bridge" didn't prevent one mother and son from killing themselves in May.

The steel netting put around Ariccia’s “Suicide Bridge” didn’t prevent one mother and son from killing themselves in May.

One of Ariccia’s most interesting traits is its famous bridge. It’s not famous for its views. It’s famous for suicides. So many people threw themselves off the bridge to the forest 60 meters below, the town erected steel netting on both sides to stop the trend. Nevertheless, some people will just kill themselves in attempt to kill themselves. On May 29 a 57-year-old woman and her 31-year-old son drove up from Rome. They climbed over the railing and hopped onto the netting. As police ran toward them yelling to stop, they threw themselves into the void. Not to say the landing was rough, but their bodies, when found, were unrecognizable.

How to get there: Take the Rome Metro subway’s A Line east all the way to the end at the Anignina stop. Exit the station and take the COTRAL bus which leaves for Ariccia every 30-40 minutes. The 2.50-euro ride takes about 40 minutes. Get off at Largo Savelli. Buy a round-trip ticket as tickets may not be available in Ariccia.

Emperor Caligula used to have yachts on Lago di Nemi.

Emperor Caligula used to have yachts on Lago di Nemi.

Nemi. On the east side of Ariccia is Lago di Nemi, a volcanic lake 30 kilometers from Rome. On the east side of the lake is the lovely, charming town of Nemi. Its cliff-side perch offers unbelievable views of the crystal-clear lake below. The Italian national mountain bike championships were being held the day after I arrived so a buzz drifted through town. Fit men and women in Lycra whizzed around on fat-tired bikes while a talented teenage couple sang on a makeshift stage.

I walked halfway down the tree-lined sidewalk toward the lake. It has enchanted Romans since the Roman Empire. In fact, Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) built a large, expensive barge with elaborate yachts. When his enemies offed him on Rome’s Palatine Hill, the boats were sunk. Benito Mussolini salvaged them but a fire destroyed them 1944. The hulls, however, survived and can be seen in the Museo delle Nevi Romane.

Strawberry tortine.

Strawberry tortine.

Strawberry products from the strawberry capital of Europe.

Strawberry products from the strawberry capital of Europe.

The town wraps around the cliff and looks like a gingerbread village. Maybe it’s the proliferation of strawberries that gives it such a sweet feel. Nemi is famous for having arguably the sweetest strawberries in Europe. The sides of the lake’s volcanic crater, as it turns out, are perfect for growing strawberries. They protect them from the elements. Nearly every store had strawberries in some form: strawberry liqueur, strawberrycello, strawberry tarts, strawberry jams, strawberry creams, strawberry grappa, strawberry bread. I had a strawberry “tortine,” or tart, a tiny droplet of cream topped with little pieces of strawberry in a little bitty pie crust. Cold right out of a bar’s chilled display case, it was the perfect opener to the pappardelle and wild hare I had for dinner.

How to get there: Again, go to the Anignina stop. Take the COTRAL bus to Genzano di Roma then change buses to Nemi. They leave about every 30 minutes but watch out. The last return bus from Nemi to Genzano leaves in early evening.

Genzano was once home to the wealthy of Ancient Rome and is best known for its bread.

Genzano was once home to the wealthy of Ancient Rome and is best known for its bread.

Genzano di Roma: If you go to Nemi, be sure to hang around Genzano first. It is famous for its bread which, legend has it, the clean air drifting in from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea makes especially flavorful. Many stores have big wood-fire ovens that produce big, black, hard-crusted loaves of warm bread.

During the Roman Empire, wealthy Roman citizens lived here for the cooler altitude and healthier air. Emperor Antonius Pius (138-161 AD) was born here. The castle was built in 1235. Today, it is a bustling, commercial town
where cafes are packed with local gossip and locals walk around with loaves of bread in their arms.

I walked up one street featuring a big fountain. Every June, this Via Italo Belardi is covered with flowers in an annual festival called Infiorata. Women wear traditional clothing and locals spend days ahead of time building elaborate flower formations. Hans Christian Andersen once wrote of Infiorata, “The whole street is a carpet of flowers … Not even a breath of air moves and the flowers lie on the ground as if they were heavy precious stones…”

How to get there: COTRAL buses go direct from the Anignina stop.

Lago di Albano, from Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the pope.

Lago di Albano from Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of the pope.

Castel Gandolfo. If you want to know what a pope does to relax when he’s not blessing pilgrims and sainting priests, come to Castel Gandolfo. On the shores of Lago di Albano, the pope’s summer residence can be seen anywhere along the lake. It is a 17th century castle complete with a helipad. Pope John Paul II, or, as I call him, The Deuce, came here a lot during his reign from 1978-20??. He held audiences here in July and August.

Unlike St. Peter’s, you can’t enter. Just marvel at it from Piazza della Liberta. Walk around the cute medieval town. Wander down the paved pathway to great vistas of the lake below. Then realize something: It’s good to be pope.

How to get there: Direct trains leave Rome’s Termini station. The trip takes less than an hour and be alert: The Gandolfo station is not clearly marked.

One of the narrow streets in isolated Rocca Di Papa.

One of the narrow streets in isolated Rocca Di Papa.

Rocca di Papa. Named for Pope Eugene III, who lived here, it lost its castle to French troops in 1541 and the city center was bombed to rubble in World War II. It has a roasted chestnut festival in October and is the home of the Parco Regionale dei Catelli Romani, one of the prettiest parks in Lazio, the name of Rome’s region.

I found it interesting for the people. Rocca di Papa is difficult to reach. It is isolated during bad weather and it snows in winter. Word is, because of its isolation, incest is common. I did notice as I walked down the narrow, cobblestone roads that people looked at me funny. They’d tilt their head and stare at me with a lazy eye.

Then my friend who drove me there said, “Some of the people here aren’t quite right.” Just as I heard those words, I heard a woman from an apartment window above me yell at someone inside, “VAFFANCULO!” (GO FUCK YOURSELF!)

How to get there: At Anagnina, take the bus marked “Rocca di Papa via Via dei Laghi.” There are four on weekdays, three on Saturdays and two on Sundays. Get off at Via dei Laghi and walk 20 minutes to Rocca di Papa.

Frascati: This is one of my favorite places in Lazio for a picnic. It is a fast, direct train ride only 12 miles from Rome and, next to Ariccia, has the best porchetta in Italy. Its large piazza is lined with fast-food porchetta stands and they all serve the famous, fresh, crisp Frascati white wine perfect for a lunch in the nearby park.

Frascati is more famous for the villas that popes, cardinals and Roman nobles started building in the 16th century. Hike up the hill to Villa Aldobrandini where one are on the grounds is lined with giant statues of Roman gods.

How to get there: Direct trains leave from Termini every 30 minutes.

Saldi: Italy’s twice-annual sales near another sad end

Italy has sales every summer and winter with prices up to 50 percent off.

Italy has sales every summer and winter with prices up to 50 percent off.

These are sad days in Rome. Like the end of fall colors in New England and ski season in the Rockies, Rome is bracing for its twice annual depression.

The end of saldi.

Saldi is one of the magical Italian words few outside Italy know. But it makes Italians sprint up streets as if racing for a gold medal in the Olympic marathon. In a way, saldi represents a marathon. Saldi is Italian for “sales.” Italy has two every year. The exact dates vary by store but the months do not. The winter saldi begins the first week in January and ends in early February. The summer saldi starts the first week in July and ends …

… about Tuesday.

That’s Sept. 1, meaning if you are looking for clothes bargains in Rome, you’ll have to wait four more months. Considering the insidious prices some stores charge, many Italians shop only two periods a year. Saldis have become as much a part of Italy’s fashion culture as stilettos and designer sunglasses.
I know all about them. I’m one of the few straight men I know who likes to shop. When you’re 59, single and living in Rome, you need all the help you can get. Italian clothes help. When you’re retired, you need all the financial help you can get. Saldis save one’s retirement fund. During this saldi period, I bought white and turquoise polo shirts (My style during Rome’s steaming summers.), a pair of navy shorts (To hell with style during summer days in Rome. I’m staying cool.), a pair of Rome’s requisite red pants (Rome is about the only city in the world a man can get away with wearing red pants as I’d get my ass kicked anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.) and a light cotton turquoise sweater (Perfect for Rome falls.). The regular value of them all was 254 euros ($284.04). I got them for 128.90 ($144.14). That’s nearly 50 percent savings.

This is nothing. A lady friend bought a pair of Prada shoes marked down from 400 to 125. She bought another 500-euro pair of Sergio Rossi for 80. (For those women reading this, these are Prada and Sergio Rossi outlet stores inside the Mall Outlet Village in Reggello, Tuscany, near Florence. Ladies, the line forms to the right.)
To understand the importance clothes has in Italian culture, one must understand the concept of La Bella Figura. It means “The Beautiful Figure” but it is more than body shape. It’s style. It’s attitude. It’s image. It’s how you look at yourself and how you want the world to look at you. Italians are not anything if not proud of their appearance, particularly now when their world is falling apart around them. They have no control over salaries. They have no control over inflation. They have no control over corruption. But they have control over their appearance and they take great lengths to show themselves in the best possible light. Who else but Italian women would wear stilettos along 2,000-year-old cobblestone streets that could trip up a Bulgarian gymnast?

Italians can’t afford many clothes, but the clothes they buy are excellent. They also mix and match better than any people in the world. Parisians are very elegant, but they don’t accessorize like Italians. They don’t have the designer handbags and scarves that set Italians apart. The Italian companies know this. That’s why a Prada handbag some Italian women carry will cost more than the cars they drive. It’s also why selling knockoff Gucci bags on the streets is considered a respected job among African immigrants.
Prices, however, are geared toward the female tourist. Women come to Italy so they can show off their shoes to the woman in the cubicle next to them in Santa Monica. Men do not travel to Italy to buy Italian shoes. They come to Italy to find women who wear them. The men’s prices are geared toward the Italian man with a modest income, not the male tourist. All of my shoes but my Brooks sneakers are Italian. I didn’t pay more than 60 euro for any of them, even when they weren’t on sale. The minute I walked out of the store, every pair felt like my feet were getting massaged. They still do.

The economic crisis that has gripped Italy for so long (unemployment has jumped from 8.4 percent to 12.7 in three years) has cut down on business. According to Valter Giammaria, president of the retail association Confesercenti Roma, families were expected to spend an average of 150-180 euros in this period. Last summer it was 210-240.
Italy has strict laws about saldi periods. Businesses must post an item’s original price, the sale price and the percent of savings. Also, be careful. It doesn’t stop them from jacking up prices right before the saldi begins to make it seem like it’s more of a bargain than it really is. They do the same in the U.S. and it’s nearly impossible to detect.

And when you buy something, be sure you want it. It’s easier to return perishable food than clothes in Italy. I don’t know of any store that will give you money back. Most, but not all, will let you exchange clothes for equal value. Also, check for signs inside the stores reading “Non si prova.” It means, “You can’t try it on.” Seriously, many stores do not allow you to see if something fits. That seems ridiculous for pants and jackets. However, when you see how much people sweat in the summers here, you’ll be happy the policy also applies to shirts.
With this in mind I made one last foray down my favorite shopping street in Rome. The city has three main shopping drags: Via del Corso and Via Nazionale in Centro Storico and Cola di Rienzo in Prati near the Vatican. If you want true sticker shock, go down Via Candotti near the Spanish Steps where you’ll find Armani, Prada, Gucci, etc. This street is so expensive, stores here once charged entry fees. In fact, don’t go anywhere near the Spanish Steps unless you want to take pictures — like the one I once took of some men’s alligator shoes for 6,000 euros.

The other three are affordable for those not sporting roman numerals after their last name. Via del Corso features national brands such as Zara, Gutteridge and Benetton. Via Nazionale has Max Mara and Celio. I prefer Cola di Rienzo which stretches all the way from Piazza Risorgimento at the Vatican wall to the Tiber River. Few tourists coming out of St. Peter’s have the energy to prowl this street and it features some of the top men’s stores in Italy. I buy most of my shoes at Fabio DeMarco, my suits at David Saddler.
On Friday, however, I told myself I would buy nothing. I’d take notes. This was strictly journalistic research. However, I learned that the end of the saldi is when the real bargains happen. Nearly every store had items 50 percent off. Shirts at Fellini went from 78 to 47 euros. Shoes at Angelo di Nepi dropped from 90 to 45 and purses from 195 to 95.

When I saw Eradi Pisano had a blue pin-striped sport coat cut from 425 to 255, I had to explore. A thin woman in a stylish black pants suit and short haircut hovered behind me as I perused the men’s sweaters. They covered the entire rainbow of colors, even in my XL size. This is major news. The problem with saldis is they don’t often replenish their stock. You may find the shoes or coat of your dreams but they are only have mediums or smalls left. Italian women have been known to go Ronda Rousey for the last blouse in their size.

Clothes are so prized in Italy the stores look like art museums such as this piece in Rome's Eredi Pisano.

Clothes are so prized in Italy the stores look like art museums such as this piece in Rome’s Eredi Pisano.

After gazing at spectacular artwork on the wall (this definitely was not a mall in Des Moines), a light, sky-blue sweater also caught my eye. So did the exorbitant price: 95 euros. The clerk kindly picked my jaw off the floor. “Il prezzo e’ la meta’,” (The price is half), she said. It was really 47 euros — for three more days. I tried it on and it fit tight and right, just like Italian style. As I came out she expertly told me half a dozen colors of pants that would go with it, all of which I have. I plunked down my credit card and walked out with an impulse buy I swore I wouldn’t make.
My last summer purchase

My last summer purchase.

My summer haul.

My summer haul.

That’s saldi for you. They lure you in off the streets like the smell of fresh basil-laced tomato sauce. You really have no control. So you may as well give in to La Bella Figura. There are worse gods to follow.