In Sicily: In search of the world’s best cannoli

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

The cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro must be held to be believed.

CROCCI, Italy — It was Columbus Day Monday, that day when Americans argue over whether Italy’s finest explorer, Christopher Columbus, discovered America or was it the indigenous people who were already there. Controversy aside, setting sail across the Atlantic in the 15th century took some major palle and set up some pretty fair exploration from Italians. Fueled by their quest for knowledge, if not matching their courage, I set out on my own exploration Saturday night. It was a quest that would inspire mankind and feed a hunger in me. Call it …

… in search of the best cannoli in Sicily.

It’s a worthy journey. Anyone who has tasted that sweet ricotta cheese filling oozing out of a hard crust like cream from a bonbon knows it’s one of the world’s greatest desserts. Every Sicilian around the world who has put up a shingle on a restaurant, from Palermo to Portland, serves cannoli. You’re never the same after one. Then again, neither is your stomach.

Here in Sicily, where my lovely Marina and I came for a long weekend, cannoli is one of the four major food groups. On the island of Favignana, just four miles off Sicily’s west coast, every bar, cafe, trattoria, restaurant and practically bike shop carries cannoli. I had one after every meal. We had one for between-meal snacks. By the time we hopped the hydrofoil back to Trapani on the mainland, I was about ready to liquify one over a match and inject it in my vein.

On the mainland I mainlined. We met our good trapanese friend, Giuseppe, for dinner at Cantina Siciliana. As the name implies, it’s as traditionally Sicilian as mandolin music at a Palermo wedding. It’s in a back alley away from the bustling port and glitzy main drag of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Dolls that look like witches hang from the ceiling in a nod to the neighborhood’s past life as a theater district. The prices are also Sicilian. I had scrumptious busiate, the traditional Sicilian twisty pasta that looks like a thin, yellowish barber pole. Served with tuna roe, tomatoes and almonds from Sicily’s Baroque Triangle town of Noto, it was only 12 euro. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Sicily, my favorite food region in Italy.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

From left: Giuseppe, me, Marina and Patrizia at Cantina Siciliana.

Giuseppe is a graphic designer, like Marina, and he brought his colleague, Patrizia, who is also a graphic designer. They had plenty to talk about. But then, as in every conversation in Italy, the subject soon came to food. We were finishing our last glass of Grillo, a terrific white wine from Barone on Sicily’s east coast, and Giuseppe and I started talking about one of Sicily’s favorite subjects.


“You want to try the best cannoli in Sicily?” he asked me. He may as well have asked a junkie, “Do you want the best high of your life?”

It was 11 p.m. And we were goin’ on a road trip. We walked out onto the quiet, dark alley and squeezed into Patrizia’s Fiat 500.

“It’s in the countryside not far from here,” Giuseppe said. “But no one from downtown goes there. Not people like me. Only people from the town.”

The village of Crocci lies about six miles east of Trapani on SP52, a highway that goes through farmland and olive groves.

“Is this mafia country?” I asked, playing the role of a dumb American tourist.

“Not far from it,” Giuseppe said. In fact, Crocci is only 60 miles from the famed town of Corleone.

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Oktoberfest in Crocci

Crocci has a population of 461. It seems all 461 people are in Avenue Cafe di Pollina Pietro, a drab name for what could be the best cannoli in Italy and, thus, the world. They weren’t there for the cannoli. However, looking at the size of the locals, they’ve already had their fill. They had packed the bar for Crocci’s Oktoberfest. Italians, particularly in the south, aren’t big beer drinkers. That’s why I saw a direct correlation between the huge liter-size beer mugs being served and the noise erupting from the adjacent room.

Giuseppe walked me to the cafe counter where inside a glass case I saw cannoli so large they looked straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. These were at least 10 inches long, twice the size of cannoli I’ve seen anywhere else in Italy. They were 2 euros each.

He ordered two for the four of us. He could’ve ordered two for the entire cafe.

An advisory to all Americans: The term “cannoli” is plural. One is called a “cannolo.” It’s similar to panini. One is a “panino,” which always baffled the clerks at Panera whenever I ordered one in the U.S. “Cannolo” actually comes from the Sicilian word “cannolu” which means “little tube.”

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

A cannoli at Avenue Cafe Di Pollina Pietro next to a normal-sized cannoli.

The cannolo tradition in Sicily has somewhat of a controversial, steamy past. It dates back to the 9th century when the Arabs controlled Sicily and cannoli were served at the harem of Caltanissetta in the Sicilian hinterland. Apparently, cannoli improved fertility which explains why so many Sicilians have Arab blood today. While the story probably has more sex appeal than truth, it is true that the Arabs brought sugar cane to Sicily in the ninth century.

The more tame legend is that nuns in the convent near Caltanissetta made cannoli to celebrate Carnival.

What is definitely true is what makes cannoli maybe Italy’s favorite dessert. It is a round tube of fried pastry dough filled with rich, creamy ricotta cheese spiked with sugar. Sometimes it’ll be laced with chocolate chips or lined with chocolate or pistachio. But those are found on the mainland. Here in Sicily, I once asked for a cannolo with chocolate and the man laughed and shook his head. I felt like an Italian in the U.S. asking for a hotdog with Nutella. In Sicily, you find only tradition.

What separates Sicilian cannoli with those found elsewhere is the tube. It’s crisp. It’s crunchy. You almost need a steak knife to cut it. Some cannoli tubes in the U.S. are as soggy as a rain-soaked sock. And most cannoli in Sicily are “preparati al momento” (prepared at the moment), meaning they’re always fresh.

Giuseppe put one of the cannoli in my hand and it doubled the width of it. This cannolo isn’t a dessert. It’s a weapon. Giuseppe gingerly cut the two cannoli in halves and Marina, always watching her diet, looked at the slab in front of her and nearly fled the room. I dug in. The thick confection of ricotta cheese had the consistency of gelato and was nearly as sweet. It was almost too much. I had to break off pieces of the tube to give my mouth some context. But I didn’t waste a drop. It fed my growing addiction. I nearly inhaled it like a milkshake through a giant, fila-dough straw.

As the patrons filled themselves with beer, none of their stomachs could’ve been as jammed as mine as I waddled into the night. It was midnight and a hotel room back in Sicilian civilization awaited. As I laid on the bed and groaned, something made me wonder.

What dessert did Columbus bring on his ships?

Las Vegas shooting reminds us all in Italy how stricter gun laws equal fewer deaths

Concert goers run for cover Sunday in Las Vegas where a gunman killed 59 people and injured more than 500.

Concert goers run for cover Sunday in Las Vegas where a gunman killed 59 people and injured more than 500.

The bullets from Las Vegas Sunday could be heard 6,000 miles away here in Rome. They sounded a little louder above the bank of the Tiber River where I stared at my computer and saw the crude videos shot by terrified concert goers. Mass shootings in the United States don’t normally make me sit upright anymore. I’m an American. Mass shootings happen in America as often as fireworks. According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, the updated number of mass shootings, defined by at least four people shot, is 1,516 in 1,735 days. Total dead: 1,714.

But the Las Vegas massacre caught my attention more than others for two reasons: One, the 59 dead, plus more than 500 injured, marked it as the worst in modern U.S. history.

Two, I lived in Las Vegas for 10 years.

I remember nights sitting in the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s sports department from 1980-90 listening to the police radio on a nearby desk. Seemingly every evening someone who bought a gun to protect themselves from everyone else who had a gun was shooting an ex-loved one. Gang members killed other gang members for crossing the wrong street. Most of the murders never even made our front page.

Meanwhile, here in Italy I looked up how many gun massacres the country has had since, oh, say, 1966.


That’s right. Niente. Nein. Nyet. Not even one.

I’ve written before about Rome’s relatively safe streets. Last year I took a police ride and compared some frightening but revealing statistics. Three years ago, according to, the U.S. had 33,169 people die from guns; Italy had 475. Over the last 10 years, Detroit, a city of 200,000, averaged 345 gun deaths. Baltimore a city of 622,000, averaged 234.

ANSA, Italy’s wire service, reported Rome, population 2.6 million, averaged 30.

Between the two cops I rode with last year and three I tagged along with in 2002 for a book chapter, I have interviewed five Rome cops with a combined 70 years of experience. Not one had ever fired a gun. They had only seen one cop shoot one. Why would they?

Hardly anyone else carries a gun, either.

It doesn’t take the brain of a Nobel Peace Prize winner to figure it out — although it may take a brain bigger than the average NRA member. It’s gun laws. Italy’s gun laws are strict; the United States’ are … well, they barely have them.

Thirteen U.S. states don’t even have background checks. The states that require them often take only minutes on a computer to approve. You can buy a gun for as little as $100, making them the cheapest in the world. The U.S. has 54,000 gun stores with 98 percent of the population living within 10 miles of one. Besides, who in America doesn’t live within 10 miles of a Walmart? Yes, you can buy guns there, too. The number of gun shows range from 2,000-5,200 per year. This is a big reason why there is 1.13 guns per every American.

In Italy, these are the requirements:

* Be 18 or over.

* Obtain a shooting safety certificate from a gun safety course.

* Pass a medical exam showing you are mentally sufficient.

* Prove you have a clean record at the police station.

* Register all guns at local police department within 72 hours of purchase.

While you can buy guns in Italy, the types of guns are even more prohibitive. Any military weapons such as assault rifles and machine guns are strictly outlawed. Any rifle made in Italy after 1976 must be identified with a progressive catalog number assigned by a commission composed of police and government officials. All guns must be stored in a locked cabinet. A quick search for “Negozi di pistola Roma” (Gun stores Rome) revealed only 13 in the city. I have that many pizza joints in my neighborhood.

Still, looking at the low number of homicides and limited shopping options, I was surprised to see the number of registered guns in Italy: 7 million. However, if you think about it, in a country of 60 million people, that’s only one for every nine persons. That’s only the ninth highest in Europe and more than 10 times lower than the U.S. That number includes hunting rifles and people with more than one gun.

“You have more possibility to have a terrorist attack here than a mass shooting,” said Sabrina Magris, president of Rome’s Ecole Universitaire Internationale and an expert on anti-terrorism and violence in Italy.

I met Magris, 29, for coffee on Piazza Mattei, ironically in the Jewish Ghetto where, on Oct. 16, 1943, occupying Nazis hauled off 1,000 Jews to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. So Rome knows a little about gun violence and mass death.

The difference is Italy, except for isolated pockets, has no gun culture. Its constitution does not say every person has the right to bear arms. Thus, they don’t. In the U.S., gun owners wrap themselves in the Second Amendment and say it’s not only their right but their obligation to own a gun.

“I do not have a weapon,” said Magris, who grew up in Pordenone near Venice and has lived in Rome three years. “Nor my mother, my father. You don’t need a weapon to be safe in your house.”

Italians, unlike Americans, have learned from their history. After World War II came the mafia wars and the clashes between the Red Brigades and fascists. Italians have had enough. While their level of distrust in their government is among the highest in Europe — look how few Italians pay their taxes — they somehow trust the government to protect them.

Rome is the No. 2 pickpocket capital of the world (behind Barcelona) and sexual assault is a concern, as it is every corner of the world. But gun violence is the least of an Italian’s worry. It helps that the gun laws in Italy are national laws. In the U.S., many guns used in the 762 gun deaths in Chicago last year were bought in from Indiana which has less gun control.

The lack of gun control is thanks to the National Rifle Association, a bigger threat to the U.S. than Isis. It’s an organization so arrogant that it held a rally in Denver the week after two teenagers gunned down 13 people at suburban Columbine High. The NRA has been in bed with as many Republican politicians as $500-a-night call girls but are more morally corrupt. In Italy, the gun lobby consists of a guy named Guido shooting wild boar in Tuscany.

Mattei also says cultural differences extend to the trigger finger.

“A lot of Italians are scared to use a weapon,” she said. “If you buy a weapon or if you have a weapon, it’s not the same as to be able to use it. People buy them to think they are safe. If you are not able to manage a weapon it isn’t easy to shoot.”

Which is somewhat of an argument the NRA has trotted out for years. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. The problem is with the people, not the guns.


If people who murder with guns are deranged and mental illness is the problem in the U.S. and not gun laws, who really thinks Americans are 10 times more crazy than Italians? If mental illness is a bigger problem in the U.S., then why make buying a gun no more difficult than buying George Foreman Grill on your way home from work?

Magris’ point about home safety hits home. The Northern League, Italy’s most far right party, is pushing to give gun owners more rights. Under Italian law, any home owner must prove he’s under serious attack before he can use a weapon but the movement isn’t getting much traction.

In the U.S., the NRA’s need for guns to protect their homes has all the validity of a teenage girl needing a car. I’m 61 years old. I have never in my life heard of one American protecting their home with a gun. Why? Because criminals who invade homes don’t do it when you’re home. They also aren’t armed. They don’t knock on your door and point a gun. They sneak in, rob you and leave.

And if your gun is in a locked cabinet as it should be and not unlocked in your lap, what the hell are you going to do if the thief surprises you? If you keep it in your nightstand drawer, statistics show you have about a 1,000 times more chances of a family member getting shot than any thief. Somehow, some way, the average American gun owner can’t comprehend a simple math equation: the loosest gun laws in the industrialized world equals the most gun deaths in the industrialized world.

It’s all a cop out for a culture that equates gun ownership with patriotism while the rest of the world equates the streets of America with a war zone. The Las Vegas gunman had enough guns to outfit a third world militia and he bought everything legally. I’m sure they were still counting the dead when the NRA started waving the Second Amendment, a rag that was written when Americans used single-gauge rifles and needed them to defend themselves against a government, not each other.

The U.S. Constitution is about the only thing that’s bulletproof in America. But, as so many other countries have done, it needs to be rewritten. As Australian comic Jim Jefferies said, while pointing out Australia hasn’t had a gun massacre since the government outlawed guns following a mass shooting in 1996, “It’s called an amendment!”

Wine tastings in Rome a delicious way to travel around Italy without ever leaving the room

Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of the first Italian words you must learn when you move to Rome is much harder to pronounce than “grazie,” “arrivederci” and “amore” but is just as important.


That’s Italian for “wine tasting.” The degustazione (day-goose-stahtz-ee-OWN-aye) is a much bigger part of Rome’s nightlife than nightclubs. Rome is a sipping town, not a drinking town. There’s a difference. And there’s nothing more fun than sipping the best wines in the world, all in the same room.

This is important or all Rome visitors. Many land and scatter across Italy. They drive from winery to winery, with one eye on the GPS and the other on the rear-view mirror where the rapidly enlarging Fiat is about ready to blow their doors off.

Italy’s wineries are indeed beautiful. Sun-splashed vineyards sport vines lined up like green sentries. Patios overlook deep green valleys and hills. Tasting rooms look like lobbies of five-star hotels.

A vineyard in the Langhe region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A vineyard in the Langhe region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. Photo by Marina Pascucci

However, if you’re pressed for time and don’t want to hassle with a car, a necessity for wineries, you can stay in Rome and get an even bigger variety. In Italy, the wineries come to Rome. In my 3 ½ years here, I’ve been to countless degustazionies. I’ve tried superb wines from Sicily to Alto Adige.

I have been to only one winery: Terre dei Nappi in Umbria. It was part of my social circle’s Friends With No Benefits Tour. It was truly fun and authentic, a great cultural experience. But you just can’t pick up and go to Umbria every month. Every month, the whole country comes to Rome.

Rome has three main types of wine tastings, with dozens of options from all over the price scale:

One, food pairings. You stay in one place and drink a variety of wines, all with a carefully selected appetizer or cheese or meat, each one designed to bring the flavor out of the wine, and vice versa. Get Your Guide has one at a gourmet restaurant where three courses with four different wines is 88.00 euros. Get Your Guide also has a wine-and-cheese pairing in Palazzetto Giangiacomo for 35 euros. Rimessa Oscioli has a private tasting where patrons can choose from 2,800 different wines, 350 cheeses and 150 cured meats. Price 85 euros.

Two, tours. You can organize Tuscany tours from Rome but many tours here don’t leave the city limits. Viator lists a Campo Manzo and Jewish Ghetto tour where you visit different restaurants, each offering a different wine and food, for 98 euros. A walking tour with wine and appetizers is run by Best of Rome for 49 euros. Many tours go to Frascati, home of the popular fresh white wine made just 30 minutes south of Rome. Viator has a 3 ½-hour tour for 59 euros.

Me and friends at a Puglia wine tasting.

Me and friends at a Puglia wine tasting.

Three, tasting rooms. This is my favorite. Wineries from all over Italy come to a luxury hotel in Rome and set up a table. You pay a nominal fee, usually 15-20 euros and you can sample up to 30 wines without every leaving the room. Many come as themes. I’ve been to tastings for Puglia wines, volcanic wines, small-production wines. I went to a wine fair five minutes from my apartment in Testaccio.

Meetup groups are a great way to find wine tastings. I belong to Internations, the global monster that attracts hundreds of people in major cities all over the globe. Occasionally they do wine tastings. I’m also a member of the self-explanatory Wine Enthusiasts in Rome. I get notices at least three times a month about wine tastings just a bus ride, or short walk, away.

Last week I attended one organized by GoWine, an Italian wine promotion company out of Piedmont, in Northern Italy and my favorite wine region in the world. It billed the event as “Alla scoperta dei vini autoctoni italiani.” (Discover the Italian wines made from untransplanted vines — or something like that.) Anyway, the wines are made from vines cultivated in the same historic area as the origin of the vine. In other words, wine tastings in Italy get very specific.

It was held in the Hotel Savoy, a 200-year-old palace off tony Via Veneto where the paparazzi used to war with the many annoyed stars and starlets drinking wine on sidewalk tables. The hotel has a seventh-floor rooftop terrace with a lip-biting view of Centro Storico and the gargantuan Vittoriano monument in the same Piazza Venezia where Mussolini gave his balcony speeches. Nothing puts you in the mood to sip wine more than memories of fascism.

Simone Saprati of Buscareto

Simone Saprati of Buscareto

The wine tasting was held in three plain rooms on the lobby level. It’s a typical setup. The walls were lined with tables holding about a half dozen wine bottles for sampling. Each table had red and white, ranging in quality and price. A learned man or woman, either a sales rep or a sommelier, stands behind the desk and pours samples accompanied by an explanation.

I like going for many reasons. I like asking these wine experts one question, one of which I blogged about two years ago: If you were to be executed tomorrow, what’s the one wine in the world you’d drink tonight? I also find great unknown wines that I can find in my local enoteca, l’Oasi, which carries 1,500 labels. But the main reason is just a night of spectacular taste. These wineries do not bring any bottle that isn’t wonderful, that hasn’t received time-honored reviews. Each table is a new discovery. It’s a new destination, like an unexplored country that welcomes me with open arms.

As the big type on the program says, “BUONO … NON LO CONOSCEVO!” (GOOD … I DIDN’T KNOW IT!)

GoWine’s event had wines from 11 of Italy’s 20 regions, from Campania around Naples to Piedmont around Turin. A lot of these wines, let alone wineries, I’d never heard of. I first stopped at Buscareto, a small winery in Le Marche, which I’ve always labeled Tuscany light. It’s the region east of Tuscany with the same great hill towns, landscapes and wines as its more famous neighbor but at about half the cost. Buscareto had an incredible 2016 Verdicchio, famous in Le Marche, that retails for only 7-8 euros. I asked the goateed, friendly wine rep, Simone Saprati, about how a small winery makes it in the wine world of Italy. It’s like opening a pub in Dublin.

“We’re not so popular but we don’t like buses coming into the vineyards,” Saprati said. “We like cars and motorbikes.”

I tried Buscareto’s La Crima di Morro d’Alba. It sells for 7-9 euros. It’s very sweet on the nose — almost too sweet — but dry to the taste. A guy in his 30s saw me sniffing it. He pointed to the wine and said, “It’s great for ladies. Take her to dinner and give her this. She will fall in love.”

His name was Alex and is typical of Rome’s wine patrons. Young, successful, adventurous, liberal. He just returned from working three months in Honolulu making homemade pasta in an Italian restaurant. Romans come to wine tastings to taste wine, unlike in the U.S. where some come to show off their wine knowledge or, according to some American sommeliers, their ignorance. I heard one clown sniff a wine (scientists say 80 percent of all taste comes from what we smell) and tell the wine rep he smelled “a touch of mushroom.”

CHE CAZZO! (WHAT THE FUCK!) You didn’t smell “a touch of mushroom,” pal. But we all smelled a touch of arrogance.

Alessandro Castellani and me at GoWine.

Alessandro Castellani and me at GoWine.

Soon came Alessandro Castellani, my best Italian friend. He’s a sportswriter for ANSA, Italy’s wire service but he could be a food and wine guide anywhere in Italy. They are his passion and he can sniff out wine tastings before the ink is dry on the announcements.

We cruised around the room chatting with his old friends and new friends. It’s a very easy way to meet local Romans. You have so much in common: Rome. Wine. Curiosity. There isn’t the pretentiousness of other countries where wine is a perceived sign of social status and intelligence. In Italy, wine is one of the four major food groups. They’ve been drinking it since they were young at the dinner table. Wine is a time to share and savor. It’s not a time to impress.

We moved on to DonnaLia from Piedmont where the Barbera is the third most planted red grape in Italy behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano. DonaLia’s Barbera combines with Canavese, another Piedmont grape, to produce a strong, rich wine that’s a good, cheaper (at 15 euros) replacement for Barolo, my favorite wine and so tranquil it could end the war in Syria in about 10 days.

I found one desk not on the program list. The Cantina Frentana in Abruzzo had a fantastic Pecorino that is slowly becoming my favorite white wine. Price: 6.50 euros.

Neroniamo from Casa Divina Provvidenza in Nettuno south of Rome

Neroniamo from Casa Divina Provvidenza in Nettuno south of Rome

It’s important to take notes then take the notes to an enoteca and find a bottle for a very authentic Italian souvenir. You’re allowed to bring back two bottles for free. These degustazionies are fantastic places for research.

If you come to Rome, Google “degustazioni” and find a wine tasting that’s in town when you are. As an assist, here are three coming up in the near future:

Vino Roma’s My Italians, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Oct. 1, Via in Selci, 50 euros, 6 Italian wines with overview and tasting instruction:

Tuscane Wine Tasting, Oct. 4, 7:30-11 p.m., EnoGallery, Via Urbana 131, 20 euros, two glasses and two food pairings:

Internations’ Gateway of Culture Home-Symposium: Triumph of Taste, Oct. 22, 4-9 p.m., Salone delle Fontane, Via Ciro il Grande 10-12, 20 euros, food and wine pairings:

Driving in Rome: After a year driving in “the most dangerous city in Europe,” I have a surprise

In 2013, Rome reported 14,622 accidents. I joined the fray with Car2Go.

In 2013, Rome reported 14,622 accidents. I joined the fray with Car2Go.

I’ve done some pretty crazy things during my travels. I scuba dived during a shark feed. I climbed Kilimanjaro. I did a 24-hour Amazon Jungle survival course. I even woke up one morning in Bakersfield. But some are saying I am now topping them all. I’m defying death as never before.

I am driving in Rome.

I didn’t buy a car. I’m retired. I’d have to come out of retirement just to afford Europe’s gas prices. But I’m a member of Car2Go, Rome’s convenient car rental service where you can pick one off the street, drive it where you want and leave it anywhere in the city. I can drive from my apartment in south-central Rome to my girlfriend’s on the west side and drive us into Centro Storico for under 20 euros. That’s less than a taxi and much less than an Uber. It’s a nod to Marina who finally chafed at doing all the driving in a relationship when she’s battling traffic every day to her office near the Vatican. It also appeases my male ego after more than a year of getting carted around like a 12-year-old boy.

I retired to Rome 3 ½ years ago knowing it — and Italy — has the same reputation for driving as Saudi Arabia does for crime. It’s unforgiving. Rome is Daytona on cobblestones. When you get into a car in Rome, you bring your insurance, your blood type and your will.

Statistics backed up its reputation. As recently as 2008, the United Kingdom-based Road Safety Insurance Foundation called Rome the most dangerous city in Europe. In 2006, Rome had 21,000 collisions resulting in 28,000 injuries and 230 deaths. According to the World Health Organization, that was double per capita of the United Kingdom and four times that of Netherlands.

In 2013, Rome’s 14,622 accidents were 31 percent of Italy’s 14 largest cities, according to ISTAT, Italy’s statistical arm. Rome’s 140 fatalities way topped Milan’s 32 and Naples 31.

This reads like a Pentagon report from Afghanistan.

Keep in mind part of it is Italians’ obsession with cars. Ever since a small-town mayor in Piedmont named Giovanni Agnelli helped start Fiat in 1899, Italians have been car crazy. Alfa Romeo. Lamborghini. Ferrari. Italians feel they’re as sexy as the cars they drive. Italian automobiles symbolize Italian culture and chic as much as art and clothes. The sensuality of the Italian automobile borders on lust.

In reality, driving in Rome is about as sexy as a hiding in the trunk of a Pinto through a war zone. The traffic is bad. The roads are worse. Lamborghinis and Ferraris? I’ve never seen a Lamborghini or a Ferrari in Rome. No one dares. Rome has more potholes than wine glasses. Combine that with 2,000-year-old cobblestones and you could break an axle and testicle just driving across town.

According to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, Romans annually fill out 1,000 applications for compensation from damage caused by roads. The city of Rome reportedly spends 45 million euros on road maintenance a year. On what? Fertilizer? I don’t see it. I once looked into a pothole near the Colosseum and saw a gypsy family having lunch.

You don’t see nice cars in Rome because after awhile they aren’t nice cars anymore. The Roman army couldn’t have put as many dents in the fleet of cars than the cars put in each other. And that’s just from parking. I’ve walked down streets and seen a car parked between two cars with no more than one inch of space in front and back. Romans are either the greatest parallel parkers or the helicopters airdropping cars into place have somehow missed my field of vision.

They also triple park. Huh? Yes, triple park. Two cars — not one, but two — will pin another against a curb. When I hear a horn blow for five minutes straight, it’s not stuck. It’s the guy with the car on the inside curb. Eventually, two guys will appear and release his car like a caged animal and all three go their separate ways, without profanity or hand gestures, as if this was part of their day, which it is.

As writer Bill Bryson once wrote, Romans “park their cars the way I would park if I had just spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid in my lap.”

Yet in Rome everyone has a car. There are 1,000 cars for every 1,000 people. Paris has 415, London 398. London has twice the metro population of Rome’s 4.3 million.

As a result, the traffic can make a genteel, patient Roman bite through his cappuccino cup. According to Corriere, every Roman spends 227 hours a year in traffic jams. That’s more than 28 working days. I’ve been on buses passing stuck motorists doing everything from texting suicide notes to making pasta amatriciana.

Yes, I take buses. And subways. And trams. And regional trains. From a European standpoint, Rome’s public transportation is as inefficient as the government that runs it. Its Metro subway system has only three lines, obviously limited to the amount of underground space holding 2,000-year-old ruins. Nevertheless, the lines cover only 40 kilometers, compared to 192 in much-smaller Stuttgart and the 408 of the blackberry bush that is the London Underground map.

But I’m from the U.S. where about the only people who take public transportation are the poor, the crippled and the drunk. Even the environmentalists drive.

So I think Rome’s transportation system is fine. I pay 250 euros for a year pass anywhere the buses, subway, trams and regional trains go. At 1.50 euro a trip, the pass is paid off after only about 4 ½ months.

Still, there’s nothing romantic about standing with Marina at a bus stop.

For the past year, when Marina and I have a special night in Centro Storico or get dressed up for an occasion, I’ll go grab a Car2Go. I’ve driven all over Rome more than a dozen times, “defying death” as never before, and have a remarkable conclusion to make.

Driving in Rome is no big deal.

I have had no accidents, no close calls, no screeching of brakes. Not once have I been driven into a fruit cart. I have found Roman drivers do not drive any faster than anyone else, are as courteous as any I’ve met and don’t run stop lights as I’ve read so many times. People let me cut in front with a polite wave. They don’t tailgate.

I know this sounds like going to Syria and not hearing gunfire, but it’s true. I have nothing to report. Sure, motor scooters fly around me like gnats. I’ve been honked at a couple times. I’ve yelled “MORTACCI TUA! (meaning “YOUR FAMILY HAS DIED” but only for practice and to impress Marina with my growing vocabulary in the Romanaccio dialect of conversational profanity).

Parking remains a problem. Rome was built 2,000 years ago for horses, senators and soldiers. It wasn’t built for cars in repose. But Car2Go uses Smart cars. They’re tiny, two-seaters with only enough storage space to hold my International Driver’s License and Marina’s jacket. While they do nothing for manhood, they do wonders for parking. I can park it perpendicular to a curb or merely move a cat and slip it onto someone’s windowsill.

The biggest problems I have are with the roads. It’s like driving after an earthquake. There are so many holes, so much cracked pavement, that driving is as smooth as sliding down a gravel hill. No one drinks while they drive in Rome because no one can hold a bottle upright in the car. Also, they are so old the lane markers have worn off. You don’t know if you’re on a two-lane or three-lane road then suddenly you find yourself five abreast at a stop light. That’s about it.

So don’t be afraid to rent a car here. Get tired of the crowded buses and subway? Grab a Car2Go. Drive down Via Fori Imperiali and gaze at the back-lit Colosseum at night. Go up Via della Conciliazione and see the vision of St. Peter’s fill your windshield. Cruise along my own Lungotevere and see the lights of the monuments splash off the Tiber River. You have nothing to fear. Honest.

Now watch me get in a head on with a Fiat.

Newport, Rhode Island: The sailor’s mecca isn’t just for the rich and famous but it certainly looks the part

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms' deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms’ deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

NEWPORT, R.I. — I am prone, on my back at the bow of an 80-foot sailboat with my foot propped atop the railing. If I moved 12 inches to my left, the sun would set between my feet. But I’m too relaxed to budge. The glass of champagne in my hand convinces me that there’s no better place in the world right now than sailing in the Sailing Capital of the World.

My girlfriend, the lovely and uber-talented photographer Marina Pascucci, is sitting behind me. The descending sun and lights of one of the world’s prettiest harbors reflect off her glasses like fireworks. Her beaming smile reminds me of the same one she flashed in Positano and Paris.

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Welcome to Newport, R.I. It’s a combination of Camelot and Monaco, America’s answer to every desperate immigrant’s question since they first started storming our shores: What is the American Dream?

Marina and I finished our nine-day New England trip with a visit to some friends who are living that dream. Gretchen and Peter Bloom have lived in Newport off and on since 1988. I met them in Rome where they lived for 17 years and escaped every sweltering summer to Newport. They haven’t changed their routine since moving from Rome to Washington two years ago.

She’s retired from the World Food Program and Peter, a native of Providence, R.I., 40 miles up the road, is retired from USAID. Between the two, they’ve been to 123 countries, including 40 in Africa. They lived in Sri Lanka. Yet there is no place in the world — not Rome, not London, not the beaches of Thailand — they’d rather be than Newport.

“I wanted a piece of Rhode Island,” Peter tells me. “I am a Rhode Islander. You have no idea how much of a Rhode Islander.”

He’s telling me this while we sit in their fifth-floor condo on a long deck overlooking historic, majestic and magnetic Newport Harbor. After three days, I learned how much of a Rhode Islander he is. It goes beyond the fact that this Harvard grad still pronounces my home state “Or-ee-GONE.” He’s as proud of Newport as I am of Oregon. He puts down his glass of wine and sweeps his hand across the bay. Pleasure craft from small motorboats to towering sailboats dot the harbor, some drifting in from a cruise around the Rhode Island Sound.

Newport is to sailing what Aspen is to skiing. That’s why Marina and I found ourselves on a sunset booze cruise of an 80-foot windjammer. The America’s Cup, the international sailing championship founded in 1851, was held here from 1930-1983. John F. Kennedy’s old boat is here. Ted Turner’s famed champion, American Eagle, is docked here. So is Intrepid, which won the America’s Cup twice. The International Sailing Hall of Fame is negotiating to move here from Annapolis, Md.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s not just sailboats. Jimmy Buffett has here a 245-foot yacht, the fourth-largest private boat in the world. Race car driver Roger Penske has a 200-footer. The harbor in Monaco may have more expensive yachts. But Monaco doesn’t have Newport’s ambiance, its casual sense of bliss. In Monaco, you go to be seen. In Newport, you go to do.

The Blooms go sailing but are smart enough not to own a sailboat. I’ve met too many people who say, “The second best day of my life was when I bought my boat; the best day of my life was when I sold it.” While boats may be money pits, they are the most leisurely way to travel. I’ve done week-long sailing trips in French Polynesia, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. Marina has sailed around Greece. There is no more restful sleep in the world than on the deck of a sailboat rocking on the South Pacific under a Polynesian sky. Peter was working in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1968 when he learned to sail 15-foot dinghies.

“I’m living in the sailing mecca of the world and I learned to sail in Lagos, Nigeria,” he says.

The Blooms actually live on Goat Island, a narrow islet less than a mile long and connected to Newport’s dock-lined southern shore by a short causeway. Goat Island is where they buried pirates they hanged in the 17th and 18th centuries, back when Newport rivaled New York as the most important port in the colonies. It later housed the Naval Torpedo Station until 1951. Today the Blooms look down along Goat Island’s southern shore lined with 19 modest harbor homes starting at about $1.3 million.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Romantic gazebos are spaced along the shoreline. Four big tables with chairs are pointed west for us to sit around and eat smoked gouda and drink good wine while a blood red sunset paints itself along the horizon. As the sun touches down, cannons go off from Newport’s three yacht clubs.

It’s the perfect spot for a wedding reception. In Newport, we were lucky to find a free gazebo. Newport is the nation’s second most popular wedding spot behind Las Vegas. But, as one local said, “Most of the weddings in Las Vegas are at 6 a.m. so I like to think Newport is No. 1.”

Every night we hear wild wedding receptions pulsating from a nearby building, forcing The Temptations’ “My Girl” to swirl in my head on a continual loop the next day.

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Walking around Newport, Marina and I feel like we’re exploring a nautical gingerbread land. The boating theme is everywhere on the long, straight boulevards lined with curiosity shops, tony cafes, sweet stands and souvenir stores. Down Thames Street we see U.S. flags with anchors in place of the stars. Flipflops sport fish on the soles. Jewelry are in the shape of nautical flags. A studio shows Onne Van Der Wal’s brilliant photos of giant sails and bows bopping up and down on the water, basked in a sunset. Then we pass the greatest name for a tackle store in the history of fishing.

Bite Me Bait Shop.

Try explaining that to an Italian woman still learning English. I admit, I had fun trying.

Newport’s action, however, is on the harbor. It’s like its own separate city. The southern shore of Newport is crawling with the breadth of American boating: kayaks, dinghies, motorboats, 15-foot skiffs, 22-foot J-class, historical windjammers. We walk in and out through the maze of shops and seafood restaurants and open-air bars where people eat thick clam chowder, drink big mugs of ice-cold beer and listen to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” over the loudspeaker. We can’t walk five minutes without running into little booths advertising harbor cruises scheduled from morning to sunset.

The Blooms pick us up and give us, not the nickel tour, but the million-dollar tour, which is the only way you can describe Newport. We drive by Washington Square, a wide swath of an area where they use a more civilized means of punishing thieves: a courthouse. People in red uniforms and black, three-point hats and wigs walk around in preparation for a reenactment of the Stamp Act protest from 1765. That’s when locals rioted over the British laying a tax on printed paper, one of the first direct taxes the British forced onto the colonies. We pass St. Mary’s Church where JFK married Jackie Bouvier, who grew up on nearby Hammersmith Farm, one of Newport’s mansions that became Kennedy’s summer White House. Later we see a photo of the Kennedys cutting their wedding cake.

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We pass the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a miniature Wimbledon complete with the green wood architecture and grass courts. Two weekend hacks look astonishingly out of place wearing all whites while patty-caking shots across the net in front of an empty grandstand.

As we go by the massive gray-and-white Renaissance-Norman mansion used to house the New York Yacht Club, I ask Peter how much it costs to be a member.

“I’ll never get inside,” he says.

 The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

We continue along stately Bellevue Avenue and turn left up Narragansett Avenue to what attracts most visitors to Newport. In the mid-19th century, wealthy Southerners wanting to escape their steamy summers built summer homes on Bellevue. Then came the wealthy Yankees who went one step up and built mansions along the north shore facing the ocean. Today the mansions remain, a remnant of America’s Gilded Age. We pass monstrous French-style chateaus, Italian-style piazzas and Elizabethan-style manor houses, many surrounded by American-style fuck-you fences. Running along the north end is the Cliff Walk that offers stupendous views of the mansions on one side and the deep, blue Atlantic on the other.

The crown jewel of Newport’s long mansion necklace is The Breakers. It’s a 70-room, five-story Italian Renaissance palace sitting on 14 acres near the far northeast end of the peninsula. It has 20 bathrooms with 15 bedrooms on the second and third floor that housed the 40 servants. Marina and I walk in and above us are four giant chandeliers with 16 bulbs each. The opera house in Paris inspired the fountains and curving staircase. The dining room is the size of a ballroom with two huge chandeliers over a 10-foot-by-10-foot table decorated with Baccarat crystal. The columns throughout the house are solid alabaster. The walls are made from the famed cipollino marble in Italy, the same marble Michelangelo used. One bathtub is cut from a single block of marble. Every light fixture is fitted for gas in case the electricity ever goes out. If everything goes black, there’s a six-foot-high fireplace.

The Breakers' entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

The Breakers’ entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

In 1855 Cornelius Vanderbilt III bought the grounds for $450,000 (about $12 million today) from money he earned in his huge New York Central Railroad empire. He hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a mansion befitting his label of “New Renaissance in the U.S.” Vanderbilt held huge parties on the gargantuan lawn that separates the home from the ocean. Walking around the grass you feel like you should be holding a champagne flute. CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper is Vanderbilt’s great, great, great grandson and is said to have stayed here on a few occasions.

Yes, Newport oozes money like honey squeezed from a tube. We see candy apple-red Ferrari convertibles and men whose shoes, shorts, matching sweater and shades are worth more than my entire wardrobe in Rome. The Brooks Brothers store has an elaborate flower garden in front of it. The city buses are as elaborately decorated as San Francisco cable cars. People rent cars that look like Lamborghinis.

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

But unlike in Monaco, where everyone lies to impress each other, Newport’s populace is as down to earth as the mansions’ lawns that could pass for fairways at Augusta National. Newport originated in the 17th century as a place where people could escape religious persecution. Everyone is welcome in Newport. People kayak and bicycle and jog. They barbecue on their porches. Peter cooked us incredible teriyaki swordfish one night; Gretchen cooked us massive scallops the next. Locals drink beer and watch the Newport Gulls, the highly popular college summer-league team that plays in 81-year-old Cardines Field sporting a retro sign reading “BASEBALL GAME TODAY.” One block off the ritzy harbor, the east end of Thames Street sports old-fashioned barber shops, take-away pizza joints and an old-fashioned malt shop called Gary’s Handy Lunch that serves one of the better cheeseburgers I’ve had. Even Marina, a third-generation Roman, said the tomato pizza slice at little Via Via “was great and similar to pizza in Rome on the street.”

We drive through Brenton Point State Park, on the southeast corner where people fly kites in an expansive grass area across Ocean Avenue from the Rhode Island Sound. People picnic. I see a kid playing with a yo-yo. We drink a Rhode Island tradition, Del’s frozen lemonade, from a truck stand. Newport is like a sultan’s palace with a country town right across the street.

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After seeing so much water, we decide to get on it. The Aquidneck is the longest boat for harbor cruises in Newport at 80 feet long. We leave at 6:15 p.m. with a full boat and jovial crew who start passing out beer and champagne before we barely exit the slip. The Aquidneck is modeled after a 17th century storage vessel that was used to mail cargo up and down the coast. “It was the FedEx of its time,” one of the sailing guide says.

We pass Fort Adams which was built in 1851 and lasted through five wars but never fired a shot.

“The only thing fought at Fort Adams was boredom,” the guide says.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

The sun is starting to set through the clouds as a party boat motors past playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” We pass the mansions standing like castles on grassy lawns. Seagulls fly through the setting sun slowly as if basking in the dwindling warmth. The temperature is in the high 60s but with champagne and Marina at my side, it feels much warmer.

Rome is paradise. But it’s paradise with flaws. The only flaw Newport has is maybe it’s too perfect. It’s like you’re afraid to knock a gum wrapper on the spotless street or you’ll suddenly burst into flames. Even the birds seem happy here. The opulence is gaudy. But you don’t have to be a member of the New York Yacht Club or bathe in a marble bathtub to enjoy Newport. All it takes is a seat by the water and a glass of champagne.

Of course, a sailboat helps.