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The Road to Rome--and Back

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By:Thomas Fleming | January 28, 2014
The title is intended as a joke and not as a declaration of apostasy. The past two weeks my attention has been almost entirely absorbed, first by our Winter School program and then by an informal after-excursion to Rome with a few lingering students. I enjoy these programs, but while they are going on I do not have time to think, much less write--not that writing in these times, whether for print or the Blovosphere, seems to require much thinking.
 
Before working backward through Rome to our school in Pisa, I will share with you the uneventful experiences of the past 30 hours.
 
We did not have to get up too early, yesterday at the Grand Hotel del Gianicolo, because, as part of an excursion to the Palazzo Massimo/Museo Nazionale, I had gone to the Stazione Termini (which all Americans seem to think means Station Terminal). Sitting at breakfast, I reverted to a conversation of a few days earlier.
 
"Today is the 28th today, isn't it?"
"No. remember, it's the 27th."
"Then, why did I book our tickets to Pisa for the 28th?..."
"What about the apartment? Did you book that for the 28th, too?"
 
As it turned out, I was right, for a change, on the date of our arrival back at the apartment on Via San Frediano, but we rushed to get to the station to get new tickets. Rather than wait in line for 30 minutes to try to make a change--inevitably to find out that either one could not without a terrible penalty or that by then the train was sold out--I ponied up at the machine for another 69 euros. Then, equally inevitably, the train was 30 minutes late and we might just as well have tried to get some of my money back.
 
Termini used to be overrun by gypsies and North Africans with eyes darting in all directions to see what to steal and whom to cozen. I remember once, years ago, leaving wife and friends in a corner to guard the luggage while I went to secure a rental car. (What, by the way, a tragic mistake it was to drive a car out of Rome! A friend had advised me, it's no trouble: Just pretend you are a fish swimming in a school. Yes, a reform school for the criminally insane!) While I was gone, they were pestered by a North African boy with grasping fingers. Finally, the lad stuck his hand out to get some spare change from an elderly Italian, who was advising my naive wife and friends to be more alert. The Italian made as if to give him a coin, then ground out his burning cigarette in the palm of the kid's hand. Yes, terribly cruel and wrong, but I wish I had been there to see it.
 
Those wild days are gone, and now it is an endless series of smiling girls asking, "Can I help you," and disappearing immediately into the crowd when you tell them "no." I tell everyone: "Never let anyone put your hand on a bag in the station or help you work the ticket machine or the crumby machines that are supposed to validate tickets but rarely work without coaxing. It will always cost you 5-10 euros.
 
Despite being split up into separate crowded compartments, we did make it to Pisa in the afternoon, and we did get into the apartment. Going out to dinner on Monday, we had limited choices, since many of our old favorites, like Il Nuraghe, are closed. We tried the place down the street, the once famous Osteria dei Cavalieri, but, while they had one table left, it was in a room of parents shouting over the screams of their children. The very kind proprietor suggested their sister restaurant, just next door to our building, the Sosta dei Cavalieri, but I had read too many reviews on line that indicated it was overpriced and ambitious beyond the abilities of the chef. As one Italian wag on Tripadvisor put it, "Bello ma non buono."
 
Speaking of Tripadvisor, I regret having written nearly 20 reviews, usually to correct maliciously hostile write-ups of decent places. Tripadvisor and Yelp epitomize all that is wrong with democracy. There are basically two types of review. The first is by the fellow who has just arrived in Italy today but does not hesitate to proclaim the most tired of tourist traps to be "The best Eyetalian food I've ever eaten." One of them on Tripadvisor, reviewing a restaurant I know well in Pisa, described it as being "near the grand canal near the big Cathedral." Now, as you all probably know, Pisa's canal has been silted up and filled in for a very long time, and everyone who knows anything is aware that a diocese has one cathedral and not main and lesser cathderals. Still, fortified by invincible ignorance of all things Italian, the poor schmo went on to discourse on the greatest Italian food since the discovery of the tomato.
 
The other sort of review, more common on Yelp than on Tripadvisor, is by the food maven, the sort of person who regards himself as an expert on cooking per se but has never taken the trouble to distinguish the different traditions of cooking. So, for him (and I just read this on Yelp), the best pizza in Italy is to be had at a little place off the Corso d'Italia here in Pisa, because he had eaten pizza "all over Italy" and it was all the same as in America, but at Gusto Giusto (or wherever) they had unique combinations of ingredients.
 
First off, there is no pizza in the world like Neapolitan pizza, and an expert chef could study there for years without necessarily learning how to duplicate it. Secondly, while I am very loyal to Pisa, whose pizza I have been eating for 25 years, there is no such thing as good pizza here, when compared to the standards of Southern Italy and Sicily. The best place, La Tana, by the way, is no longer run by Guido but by someone named Diego, whose people speak pidgin Newyorkese and pile on heaps of cheap mozzarella that ruin the pizza. I finally figured out the transition and will not return.
 
To finish this rambling rant on dinner, we ended up back at the little Osteria del Tini, where Emigliano--like a bear in so many ways--gave us a warm "ciao" and provided us with a good dinner: I had an antipasto of smoked duckbreast, organge, and pears, while Gail had pasta with artichokes. We both followed with branzino al forno with potatoes--surprisingly good--and finished with drinks, I with a pretty good grappa, she with an amaro. We have been there so often this month that Emigliano asked if we lived in Pisa. Alas, no.....

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