Even Italy’s Not Far Enough

Originally posted: October 26, 2007

I left for Italy on my five-week leave of absence with a vow to keep the Iraq war and the presidential campaign far out on the margins of my mind. Still, as I boarded the plane to Pisa, the words of two American leaders tagged along. In his testimony before the Senate, just as we were packing, Gen. David Petraeus was asked by Sen. John Warner, “Do you feel the surge is making America safer?” “I don’t know,” Petraeus responded.

Another question posed by New York Times columnist David Brooks to Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Was invading Iraq a good idea knowing what we know now?” Gates answered, “I don’t know.”

Petraeus and Gates both promote a continuation of this war that is inflicting carnage on our soldiers and their families and costing the American taxpayers $10 billion a month. I wish they were sure it was doing some good.

Unpacking and settling for two weeks in the tiny Tuscan village of Iano was soothing. In Iano, population about 100, with a small market, a restaurant and a church, the Iowa caucuses rarely come up. This area of Italy proved to be an excellent starting point for the main purpose of this trip, namely to refresh my research into a subject of undying interest: Italian cooking.

I took along Bill Buford’s book “Heat,” which is a passionate homage to the traditions of homemade food. Buford quit his job to apprentice himself to Tuscan kitchens, and he designates the restaurant DaCaino in Montemerano as the best in all Italy.

I say he didn’t look far enough. Buford needed to come a little farther off the main roads to the village of San Vivaldo (two restaurants and a convent), to the Ostoria san Vivaldi. The pasta of the house is made with olive oil, fresh and dried tomatoes, garlic, capers and pepperoncini. My praise was so effusive that our waiter, who called himself “the last communist in Italy,” allowed me into the kitchen for a visit with Carla, the chef. After four trips to the Ostoria, I think I can now come close to her recipe. My family hopes so too; my experiments with this spicy divalo sauce now appear on our dinner table every other meal since our return.

It was at this Osteria that we met Luigi, a philosophy professor and passionate scholar of Italy. After Tuscany, he advised, you must next do Sicily. Everything is deeper, richer, more strongly Italian in Sicily, he explained, and there you can really learn about the Mafia. Organized crime represents the largest single segment of the Italian economy, according to a report by Confesercenti, an association of small businesses. Extortion, usury, contraband, robberies, gambling and Internet piracy are the illegal sides, but real estate, finance, farming, tourism and personal services are also infected with Mafia. Pope Benedict deplores the Mafia, Luigi told us, but in Sicily the clergy is conflicted. “Some priests refuse even to give communion to known Mafia,” he said. Then, making the universal gesture of fingers reaching for money, he adds, “For others, it’s too lucrative not to go along.”

Sicily was too far away for this trip. Driving in Italy is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, unlike America, when Italians built their super-highways, they also maintained a strong railroad system, so most commercial goods are moved by rail and there are far fewer 18-wheelers barreling along the autostrada. On the other hand, whether on the hilly country roads with fishhook curves or the autostrada at 160 km, the Italian national driving habit is to close to about four inches off your rear bumper and just hang there. I believe there is a paragraph in the driver’s education pamphlets of Italy that advises students to send a message to tourists: “Get over, I demand to pass!”

The other reason Sicily was out of the question is that, while looking over the ruins of the Roman theater in Romallo, I unfolded my International Herald Tribune to learn that the American dollar is worth less today than at any time since the gold standard was ended. Against the 1982 dollar — the last time I spent any length of time in Europe — today’s dollar is worth 46 cents. And it has declined fast against the euro under George W. Bush.

You can’t escape Mr. Bush. Sicily will have to wait.

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