The Italian Riviera
“Lo posso assaggiare? Lo po-so ah-sah-jah-re?” I said it over and over again as we raced down the Autostrada. Roughly translated, it means, “May I taste it?” I later discovered this phrase’s power on my 10-day Italian journey, and learned that asking for a sample nosh of formaggio or gelato was not asking for a handout, but rather a way of showing your respect for food (and thus yourself, since the two are inextricably linked in Italian culture). Lo posso assaggiare was my password to Italian cuisine and I was saying it as much for me as I was my father, who continued to drive us along the corkscrew highways of the Ligurian Rivera with nothing but Mediterranean to our east and dense porcini-and truffle-filled mountains to our west.
It’s October and I’m here in Italy in search of food. Instead of coming with my boyfriend who couldn’t escape the rat race back in New York, I’m traveling with my 66-year-old dad, a former Fanny Farmer-trained chef from Boston’s North Shore, and now my fellow road-chowhound and driver. Earlier this morning we flew into Nice from Scotland and the warmth of Riviera sun felt great once we shed our wool sweaters. We paid a mint for the rental car because we planned to take it across the France-Italy border. But once on the road, we didn’t care, because we were darting around the same Monaco highways where Princess Grace crashed her Rover P6 in 1982—something that any father and gay son could agree was tragic. We crossed the Italian border without ceremony and quickly passed through the infamous and tattered Italian border towns of Ventimiglia and Bordighera.
The two most important rules when learning to speak Italian are: Gesture a lot and always stress the second to last syllable of any given word. “Arr-iv-a-der-ci!” purred the sexy voice in the automated tolls along the Autostrada. Sadly, this was our first encounter with the language, but it was enthusiastic, infectious, and sung like a song.
We were en route to the sea-swept town of Alassio, a famous 19th century resort just two hours south from the Piemonte region’s town of Bra where the “Slow Food” movement began. The roads here abounded with signs for Agriturismo, working farms and B&Bs where you can experience family-style meals or daily farm chores. Agritourism in Italy is a big business and an excellent way to get off the beaten paths to experience authentic regional cuisine, though dad wasn’t as excited about the prospect of gathering eggs and meeting hot Italian farmers as I was. There are a few gay-owned farm-stays (namely Stone House Retreat; http://www.stonehouseretreat.com), but I thought it was best to ease us into Italy before wrapping ourselves in the Rainbow Flag, which incidentally is strikingly similar to the Italian peace (Pace) flag flown above many of the area’s farms.
Though many still come to Alassio for its stretch of bright white beaches, we were in search of something very dark: A regional specialty called baci (kisses), made from two chocolate cookie whirls sandwiched together with cocoa cream. They were everywhere, but the ones at Antico Caffé Della Pasticceria (Balzola, Piazza Matteotti 26, Alassio; tel. O1-82-64O-2O9) really stood out. After a quick nibble and a walk around the tiny town, we checked into Danio Lungomare (Via Roma 23, Alassio; $110 per night; http://hoteldaniolungomare.it), a mother-and-son run property that offered breathtaking balcony ocean-views and an adjacent restaurant that filled to capacity with older locals enjoying dinner. We opted instead to dine al fresco just 20 feet from the ocean at Restaurant Bar Marina (Via Brennero 39, Alassio; tel. 01-82-644-489) where a flirty English-speaking waiter immediately brought us farinata (chickpea flour flatbread cooked on a woodfire), and dark bitterless olives. I ordered grilled octopus in white wine and dad ordered a pesto dish, a regional specialty in these parts. By 10pm the patio filled with young weekenders. We downed a few bottles—a white Cinque Terre and a rich velvety red Ormeasco, both local Ligurian wines. Afterwards we began a drunken hunt for the perfect gelati. Even at 11pm, the town’s gelatarias were buzzing with tourists, but after much browsing and a couple of “Lo posso assaggiare’s” I settled on artigianale (homemade) zabaglione (egg yolk and Marsala wine) gelato, while Dad opted for pesca (peach) at Antica Gelateria Artigianale Giacomel (Via Mazzini 67, Alassio; tel. O1-82/-64O-474).
The UNESCO Treasures of Cinque Terre
The next morning I plunged into the warm Mediterranean for a quick swim before an even quicker breakfast at the hotel. So much for Slow-Fooding it. We had a long drive ahead of us, so in true American-style we said our goodbyes and packed into the car.
Our next passage brought us through the thickly wooded foothills between Genoa and Levanto where old farmers driving three-wheeled vehicles call apes (bees) puttered along the winding cedar-and-balsam-shaded mountain roads, and mysteriously hunted down porcini, truffles and God knows what else. After a few hours, we descended from the wooded roads and headed towards the ocean again, which was never really out of sight for long.
We were now moving towards Cinque Terre (http://www.cinqueterreonline.com/), a UNESCO-heritage site where five ancient towns, inaccessible by car, dangle from vineyard covered cliffs that plunge into the ocean. You can’t really drive into Cinque Terre (technically you can, but at your own peril since the vertigo-inducing roads are ancient and crumbling in many sections). Like most tourists we parked the car at the stazione (in Levanto), packed a light overnight bag and boarded the train bound for the five cliff-dwelling towns of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. (The train stops at all of them.)
There are coastal walking trails connecting the five towns and though Dad’s knee started to give out after hiking the two-mile trek from Riomaggiore to Manarola, I left him in Manarola’s picturesque cove (feeling a bit guilty about it), intent on completing the salty eight-mile trail myself. The trail affords stunning views of the villages, particularly the Lover’s Lane section from Riomaggiore to Manarola which traverses craggy cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea and filled with lovers names like “Guido + Irene” carved into the cacti and planks of wood that bridge the various gaps. I tried to find a gay couple carved into the wood, but to no avail. Were all the Italian gays relegated to the cities? Having been gone from NYC for over 2 weeks now, I started to miss my boyfriend. I footed it to Corniglia, but it is accessed via an intense climb up the hill so I hopped on the train and got off at the ridiculously charming Vernazza where I watched the sunset over a cookie and a glass of very rare (and high in alcohol content) local dessert wine called Sciacchetrà. Since I couldn’t finish the trail in the dark, (the last leg is the longest and least scenic) I decided to head back to the train where I ran into Dad on the platform. We checked into Monterosso’s Hotel Palme (Via 4 Novembre, Monterosso al Mare; tel. 18 0187-829013\829037; $109/night; http://hotelpalme.it). The town was small and not as charming as Vernazza and Manarola, but we ambled down the promenade past a few British tourists and a scraggly gypsy couple with a violin, and sat ourselves outside at Ristorante Miky (Via Fegina 104, Monterosso al Mare; tel. 0187 817608; http://www.ristorantemiky.it/) where we indulged on more pesto, and Cinque Terre white while watching the moon rise over the water. It was romantic, and definitely not the kind of moment you envision spending with your father (or your son), but we both enjoyed it nonetheless.
Tuscany’s Cooking Classes and Castles
We got up super early today to take the train back to Levanto and pick up the car. We had a quick espresso at the train station, where sexy businessmen in suits whisked in to download the day’s Italian news over espressos. We had scheduled a cooking class in Massa Rossa in Tuscany this morning, so we bid farewell to the coast for the last time, and headed to the hills.
Larousse Gastronomique defines Italian food as “one of the best known cuisines outside its country of origin.” Yet, within Italy there’s no such thing as Italian food per se, but rather distinct sets of regional cooking that existed long before “locally grown” was de rigueur. We arrived in Massa Rossa to experience this first hand. Since we arrived early and had a few hours to kill, we headed straight to the farmer’s market where I got to practice my language while picking up a few unusual local items like truffled cheese, purple artichokes and a selection of local salami.
We arrived at Toscana Saporita (Active Gourmet Holidays, http://activegourmetholidays.com) housed in a brightly-painted 15th-century villa tucked away on a remote dirt road. We joined a group of about 20 American students, including grandmothers from Maine and newlywed interior designers from Miami. I was the only gay man as far as I could tell, but dad was really in his element here and a few of the ladies seemed to really like him. The classes were led by Italian Chef Sandra Lotti, who divulged a few Italian cooking secrets (like how to sauté garlic the right way) and also taught us how to make a basil essence, hand-rolled gnocchi, red tomato sauce, and individual egg tarts. The students were given a tour of the heirloom herb gardens while the final preparations were done to our food, and we returned to the villa’s rustic dining room for a lengthy and chatty lunch.
After lunch we picked up my sister and her husband, who both had flown over from their home in England to meet up with us. We all headed to Tuscany, where we stayed in Il Castillo’s Casa Jenine, an 11th-century castle in San Casciano dei Bagni (http://www.sancascianodeibagni.org/inglese/in_index.htm), which we booked through Homesaway (http://homesaway.com). After a bit of family bickering in the cramped car, we arrived at the enormous hill-top villa at dusk and were in awe; it really was a giant castle, looming high on a hill and was a total highlight of the trip. It was also pre-stocked with food, including local cheeses and meats that we requested through our local host (assigned to us by the agency as part of their service) who takes care of details before, during, and after the guests’ visit. Our local host Oliva had prepared a buffet for us upon arrival and quickly became a friend and indispensable resource for us during our stay, arranging everything from bike-rentals to wine-tastings (Ravazzi Vineyards; http://www.ravazzi.it/) to tiny tours of nearby towns like Cetona (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetona), known for its pottery (Pippo Pottery) and delicious olive oil, cinghiale (wild boar sausage) and wines at Cantina La Frasca (Via Roma 13, Cetona; tel. 05788682). Oliva has all the inside knowledge you want to know when you vacation, and all of us were completely charmed by her enthusiasm for local culture, her professionalism and ultimately her Italian hospitality. (Thank you, Oliva!)
San Casciano de Bagni itself is a tiny ancient spa town, which we didn’t see nearly enough of. It’s tucked away in the hills that separate Umbria and Tuscany, off the path from the traditional (and well-beaten) Pisa-Florence-Sienna-Rome route. We rode our bikes through the dirt roads high up in the hills that offered sweeping views of the valley below. Later, on a drive to pick up some more wine in town, I bought porcini mushrooms from a roadside stand and their scent filled the rental car for the rest of the trip. Much of our time in Tuscany was spent cooking, eating and drinking. Though it was tough to say goodbye, we had to forge on to Rome to continue the gorging.
Indulgence in the Eternal City
Rome! How do you sum up the Eternal City in one journal entry? Rome has all the architectural splendor of Paris, with none of the organization. But it’s the chaos of Rome that is its very beauty. The dirty Tiber River, the rev of Vespa drivers, and some 2 million Romans seemingly oblivious to 3,000 years worth of architecture, help create a complex metropolis with an ancient past and an sexy modern presence.
We stayed at the uber-luxurious Cavalieri Hilton (Via Cadlolo 101, Rome; tel. 39-06-3509-2031; rooms from $195; http://cavalieri-hilton.it) which is built on leafy Monte Mario, just outside the city. The hotel also boasts Rome’s only Michelin three-star restaurant, La Pergola, which expertly plates up continental-style cuisine created by German chef Heinz Beck. Dad and I dined there on our second night in the city. When I called to ask the host what time our reservation was for, he responded in a thick Italian accent, “Please come whenever you want, we’re holding a table for you.” It was that kind of restaurant.
Overlooking the entire city, you feel a sense of refined Roman bacchanalia while dining in the clouds above Rome at La Pergola. We were greeted with a glass of Dom Pérignon and then given a water menu featuring over 20 bottled waters to choose from and poetic descriptions of each. Our opulent meal, which lasted almost five hours, was another highlight of the trip. Though every dish impressed, standouts included medallions of lobster with bacon-and-green-apple sauce, Venison in pistachio crust with chestnut purée and persimmon jam, and a memorable egg yolk cannelloni with duck, foie gras and rich Béchamel sauce, which Chef Sandra Lotti had told us in Tuscany was actually an Italian sauce (Bechamella) lifted by the French from Italy and later renamed Béchamel.
Three days in the city is enough to see the major sights like the Vatican, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, etc. It’s important to hit some of the tourists destinations, but not let them dominate your itinerary or you’ll never see the real Rome.
Over the next few days, we made food and wine pilgrimages to the International Wine Academy of Rome (Vicolo del Bottino 8; http://www.wineacademyroma.com), the gay-owned Ristorante Asinocotto (Via dei Vascallari 48, Trastevere; tel. 39-06-589- 8985; http://www.asinocotto.com), the gay-ish café Oppio Cafe (Via delle Terme di Titi 72, Rome; tel. 39-06-474-5262) near the Colosseum, and a neighborhoody backstreet charmer Il Miraggio Osteria (Vicolo Sciarra 59, Rome; tel. 39-06-678-0226) off-the-beaten path not far from Piazza Navona and The Pantheon on quiet, cobbled Vicolo Sciarra. Surprisingly new to Rome, wine bars are great places to spend a few hours, and take advantage of delicious free food during happy hour, generally around 4pm-7pm. Femme-fatale themed Femme (Via del Pellegrino 14, Campo dei Fiori; tel. 39-06-686-4862; http://www.femmezone.it) is not to be missed. Sample hearty slices of mortadella and piping hot lasagna. Drinks are $12, but the free food makes up for it. A tradition since the 1940s, La Casa del Caffe Tazza d’Oro (Via Degli Orfani 84, by the Pantheon; tel. 39-06-678-9792; http://tazzadorocoffeeshop.com) whips up creamy cappuccino, granita di caffe (iced coffee with cream), and other breakfast goodies in the Centro Storico. Shopping for menswear on Via Nazionale is another great diversion. I bought a few crisp Italian tailored shirts for about $25 each.
On our last evening, we saw the bizarre sight that is the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (27 Via Vittorio Veneto; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_della_Concezione_dei_Cappuccini). The macabre church also houses an ossuary that doubles as a Capuchin Crypt, in which the bones of over 4,000 Capuchin monks are displayed and fashioned into elaborately grotesque and fanciful displays, chandeliers, and altars. It all made for a fitting end to an opulent city tour.
Rome is associated with no shortage of gay icons. Michelangelo, Umberto Eco, Audrey Hepburn, Henry James, Truman Capote, Edmund White, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Virgil, and many others, have borrowed from (or added to) Rome’s rich heritage of homoeroticism. If you have yet to do either, you’re missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Writer’s Note: Though I never made it to Rome’s gay bars, here are a few to check out:
L’Alibi, Via di Monte Testaccio 40-44, 574.34.48
Apeiron, Via dei Quattro Cantoni 5, 482.88.20
Coming Out, Via San Giovanni in Laterano 8, 700.98.71
Edoardo II, Vicolo Margana 14, 6994.2419
Garbo, Vicolo di Santa Margherita 1a (in Trastevere), 581.67.00
Hangar, Via in Selci 69 (Metro Cavour), 4881.39.71
Max’s Bar, Via Achille Grandi 7/a, 703.015.99
Side, Via Pietro Verri 1 (near Coliseum, 348.692.94.72