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.”