Our group of irreverent expats (C.O.S.I.) is at it once again, joining forces in an attempt to impart our hard-won knowledge upon you, the unfortunate readers. This week we welcome a member to our brood, Andrea from Sex, Lies, and Nutella. Admittedly, our discourse can often sound a bit cantankerous, as we lament the challenges of battling the Italian bureaucracy, or debate the necessity of superfluous bathroom hardware (a.k.a. the ubiquitous bidet).
However, this time around, we are here to sing the praises of one of Italy’s greatest contributions to the world: its regional cuisines. On this topic, the only cantankerous part is arguing over which region is the best.
So we’ve each chosen a city/region/area to defend, expounding on the culinary wonders indigenous to the local farms, markets, kitchens, and restaurants. I could have chosen Rome…probably should have chosen Rome; it would have made perfect sense since it’s the area that I’m most familiar with. But after a few trips to Romagna this year, I’m pretty excited about all of my latest tasty encounters, and I want to let everybody know about this relatively unexplored foodie paradise and some of the typical products of Romagna.
I recently read the thoughtful memoir by Joseph Luzzi entitled, “My Two Italies,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). At its core, it’s the tale of an Italian family who crossed the ocean to start a new life in the United States, and how that journey was experienced by different generations. But there are several features of this book—and its author—that set it apart from most Italian American immigrant stories.
First of all, the events take place about fifty years after The Great Immigration (which is when my own great-grandparents arrived from Calabria). The 1910’s marked the peak of Italian immigration to the United States, when over two million Italians arrived during that decade, with a total of 5.3 million between 1880 and 1920.
Mr. Luzzi’s family—parents and older siblings—arrived in 1956, also from Calabria. (Worth noting that during those fifty or so years, the U.S. had changed quite a bit, as did the North of Italy. Calabria, however, did not.) As for the author, he was born 11 years later in 1967 as an American citizen. So while he learned English as his primary language, played baseball, and dressed in American-style clothes, his parents remained Italian in their ways, allowing the young Luzzi to understand something of his parent’s country before he ever traveled there himself.
After concluding our meetings and seminars at TBDI in Rimini, our group of international bloggers was quickly whisked off in a private bus for our post-conference tour in the Verona/Garda area of northern Italy. The weather was turning nasty, but it was comfortable inside our coach, snacks were provided, and someone else was driving. So I sat back and relaxed for a couple of hours as we made our way towards our first stop just outside of Mantua.
Thankfully, the rain ceased and the sun fought to peak through the clouds just as we pulled up to Palazzo Te. From the vantage point of the wet parking lot, it wasn’t overly impressive—but then again, your criterion for what’s impressive gets grotesquely distorted the more you travel in Italy. Lethargic and a bit weary from my travels, I didn’t really anticipate the remarkable works of art that we were about to encounter once inside. We were in for quite a surprise, and we had the perfect guide to lead us through this unexpected discovery.
We all knew Lorenzo quite well already, as he had been one of the group leaders during our stay in Rimini for the big TTG Incontri trade show. He was the facilitator between us—the writers/bloggers—and the high-profile travel industry brands that were attending the conference. But at Palazzo Te he was really in his element, as he introduced us to some of his “friends,” Federico Gonzaga II, a.k.a. the Duke of Mantua; and the Renaissance master Giulio Romano who designed and decorated the sprawling palazzo on the swampy grounds of a former horse stable.
We could translate the terms benessere (well-being) or buonvivere (good living) literally, but that wouldn’t quite relate their full meanings. Here in the Romagna region, it encompasses all the elements of a healthy lifestyle. Not just a healthy body, but a healthy mind, a healthy community, and a healthy environment.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel Terme Riolo during my visit to the area for La Settimana del Buonvivere. Right away I began to gain a sense of this holistic approach to the proverbial good life, as it’s defined in Italy. The lush grounds evoke the heath resorts of past eras, where ladies in modest bathing suits soak in thermal baths, and men drink herbal tonics while reading the paper and discussing politics with their fellow spa-goers. Folks engage in calisthenics, eat simple food, and of course submit to various time-tested natural spa treatments.
This particular resort was built in 1870, but the therapeutic use of the local natural springs dates back to—who else—the Romans (the hotel even displays some actual ruins on-site). The curative waters arise from the Romagna Chalk Vein Regional Park, from the water table at 60 to 80 meters below ground, charged with mineral salts present in the earth’s crust for more than 500 million years. That sort of time scale makes even the Romans seem like yesterday’s news.