Assisi: Flames, Forks, and Franciscan Frairs

Charging through dark and quiet Assisi — stony with history — I needed to visit two more restaurants before enjoying my reward for the day’s work: returning to my favorite place reviewed that night for a good meal…hopefully before the kitchen closed.

At 10:00, the pink marble streets of Assisi shine, lonely under the lamps. It seemed the only ones out were Franciscan monks in their rough brown robes and rope belts. All over Europe, I find monks hard to approach. But there’s something about “the jugglers of God,” as peasants have called the Franciscan friars for eight centuries, that this Lutheran finds wonderfully accessible. (Franciscans modeled themselves after French troubadours — or “jongleurs” — who roved the countryside singing and telling stories and jokes.) Franciscan brothers remind me of really smart dorm kids in the University of God…and tonight, it seemed, their studies were done for the evening.

Their warm “buona seras” and “ciaos” reminded me of my experience here filming a few years ago. While I like to say things with a creative edge, this can occasionally haunt me in my work. (Like the Norwegian mountain village I called “painfully in need of charm”…and then, during my next visit, the tourist office staff saw this printed in my guidebook and ran all over the building reading it with disbelief to everyone they could find. And like my little Vatican Museum rant posted on this blog last week. It was originally entitled “Vatican: practice what you preach” and had a harsher, more angry tone, until my Roman friends read it and made it clear that burning a Vatican bridge can haunt a tour organizer for years. The respect/fear they had for the Vatican was actually astonishing.)

But back to filming in Assisi: I had a 7 a.m. appointment to take my PBS TV crew into the grand Basilica of St. Francis, one of the spiritual and artistic highlights of Western Civilization and critical to our episode. At the crack of dawn, we waited — our letter of permission in folded hands — at the basilica-big door. Finally, three unusually officious-looking Franciscans appeared. In my most reverent tone I said, “buon giorno.”

They had reviewed our script, which made clear what we planned to film. This I expected. But before they opened the door, they said, “And…we’ve read your guidebook.” I immediately reviewed in my head the quirky descriptions I had used to tell the Francis story. (Passages such as “Holy relics — like the saints’ bones — were the ruby-red slippers of the Middle Ages. They gave you power, answered your prayers, won your wars…and ultimately got you home to your eternal Kansas.”) I was feeling sunk. Then the shortest of the monks looked at me and said, “We all read your guidebook…and we like it.”

We had the basilica — so adored by centuries of pilgrims and wallpapered by Giotto — all to ourselves. And the camera rolled.

Back in the present, I made it back to my favorite restaurant. It filled a brick-vaulted old cellar, or “buca.” Many restaurants are called “Buca” (even in the USA…as in, “di Beppo”). Since a buca or cellar traditionally paid cheap rent, it served cheap food. But now, with European Union regulations creeping into just about everything, there are no more restaurant licenses for cellars — bad ventilation, no secondary escapes in case of fire, and so on. And I’m seeing bucas with licenses grandfathered in really spiffed up and, while no longer cheap, great places to savor the local cuisine.

A local guide (Giuseppe) and his wife (Anna) joined me and we let the chef shower us with his best work. The wine (Sagrantino de Montefalco, Umbria’s answer to Brunello de Montalcino) was almost like marijuana, evoking flames and dancing girls. And the food both looked and tasted delightful. Anna greeted each plate with unbridled enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Giuseppe looked at me and said, “My wife’s a good fork.” Misunderstanding him, I blushed — amazed at what I thought he said. My face said, “Come again?” And Giuseppe clarified, saying, “una buona forchetta…a good fork…that’s what we call someone who loves to eat.”


12 Replies to “Assisi: Flames, Forks, and Franciscan Frairs”

  1. Rick –

    The vault of the basilica was badly damaged during an earthquake on September 26, 1997. Was the fresco by Cimabue replaced or is it a bare ceiling?

    Also, what are the temperatures and daily weather like? I will be in Rome for one week in April 2008 and your observations would help.

    Have a safe trip!

  2. It would be awesome to see that good forking moment on television. I fear though that instead of an advisory notice “for mature audiences only” you’d be forced onto pay per view.

  3. Sounds like you’re having a wonderful trip! Wish I were there instead of here. Italy is delightful to hear about. Take care as you work and travel!

  4. Buona sera, Rick,
    My husband and I will be in Assisi in just over a week. In which restaurant did you sample the Sagrantino de Montefalco? I’d like to eat at the place you considered your favorite. Is it the only “buca” in Assisi? Grazie!

  5. I’m leaving for Rome April 23rd & will be in Assisi a few days later. I”ve heard the Hermitage is a good site so let us know. Also, my neighbor from Italy suggest Estabblo (not sure of the spelling), but means The Stable has her fave restaurant. Enjoy, Boun Giorgno.

  6. “Vatican: practice what you preach”

    How I would have loved to read your original version! I was at the Vatican a few years ago and was horrified by the contrast of opulence inside the the vatican walls and its poverty stricken neighbors — quite the oxymoron.

    Happy travels!!

  7. I remember hearing a fellow student rant and rave about the treasures of the Vatican (and the Catholic Church) with poor beggars on the streets outside (the outrage!), and when I visited Rome, I certainly saw that. Then I saw these “beggars” climb into a Rolls Royce just a few blocks away from the lines of tourists! It seems begging is a profession in Rome, and many other cities we visited, and a profitable one at that!

  8. Rick may refer to this in his guidebooks, but the frescoes in the basilica of St. Francis by Cimabue and Giotto are significant in the development of Renaissance art. Their real-world portrayal of people’s emotions was a daring change from the centuries-old inexpressive faces and flat halos, that seeing their work is both an important and enjoyable must-see part of the visit to this maginificent building.

  9. In Assisi, Italy, a two-story canopy covered escalator leads up the hill from an upper parking lot, toward town. Can you imagine an escalator climbing the hill in a medieval city? At the top of the escalator we walked higher through the town, then turned and walked down, down, and down the hill, snaking through this most unusual city. Fruit and vegetable vendors filled market squares, pink stone houses and stores lined the narrow walkways. As we walked down street after street past buildings that are a thousand years old and look it, we admired the window and store displays, and found stylish things for sale, exhibited in an attractive manner. It was a short bus ride to where we had parked. It turns out that parking in that upper lot, riding the escalator up the hill, then walking those miles down the hill through Assisi, was one of the best travel ideas we ever had, even if it was just a happenstance. (1995)

  10. Rick
    I was using your 2006 guide book, so I don’t know if you have this restaurant in Assisi in your new book, but the best meal I had in my first two weeks of travel in Italy, and a great value, was at La Fortezza in Assisi. As I recall, their duck was only about 9 euros, and my total bill, including a 23 euro 1/2 bottle of a great 2001 Brunello, was only about 60 euros, including service. And service was great. It is up the steps from the main square, a little hidden and easily missed. I would have returned for more meals, except that I found it on my last night in Assisi.

  11. Rick,

    We visited Assisi, Sept., 05, in pouring rain. Soaked, entered Basilica, expecting to see gloom and darkness. However, another TV crew was filming, and the Giottos were in their full glory under the lights. Just a small miracle, or just good fortunate. Look forward to reading your reports from Croatia. Thanks.

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