lmost every year toward the end of summer bucolic tales of Italy slip into American newspapers as a kind of bittersweet bonbon to mark the end of the travel season. These stories rarely have much to do with the country’s bizarre politics or its underworld seething, two favorite if hackneyed topics of Italian dispatches. As if to soften or distract from the September return to work-life, the American accounts are usually focused on picturesque villages and tasty foods.
So it was again this year, as an esteemed New York newspaper in short order published a story about a tiny and tourist-swelled Italian town perched precariously atop an unsteady hill as well as a long and deeply personal piece about one writer’s experience with Rome’s culinary wonders, featuring his incitement to do more than just savor Italian dishes (“When in Rome, Learn to Cook Italian,” read the headline.) The food piece contained the kinds of hosanna-like sentences seemingly made for Italy and Italy only: “Flavia elevated simple dishes into something remarkable, without recourse to measuring cups or cookbooks.”
There is always a Flavia in such narrations, and she usually does whatever she does simply, only to emerge with a wonder-dish that leaves the narrator smitten. The Flavia character is also tasked with essential follow-up lines, in this case, “Bonissimo, eh?” usually spoken with “quiet satisfaction.”
This year’s hilltop town of choice, an Etruscan hamlet north of Rome, was picked not just for its beauty but also because the land around it is gradually eroding and the town itself may soon tumble from its perch, much the way Venice is someday expected to drown in its own bathwater.
Stories about imperiled towns also come with sets of preheated observations intended to act as an object lessons about the actual passage of time that Americans, as historical teenagers, cannot yet fathom. This particular town, its deputy mayor explains, is landslide-prone and uniquely susceptible to its own demise. “It is the idea that you have it today, but you don’t know if you will have it tomorrow.” Reflections on fragility and potential loss matter because they rebut American Dream optimism, including its Melting Pot tradition, and introduce an ingredient of fatalism that American national immortality refutes but which remains irresistibly interesting in principle.
Italian food and towns are also presented in such a way as to feed America’s hunger for, and fascination with, ancientness, to help nuzzle up against traditions grounded in the worthy-making verifications that age and endurance imply. Flavia is attractive not just as a cook but because she does something that’s been neatly rehearsed for centuries (famine and disease ignored). The precarious town is precious not only for its endurance but because once, at the time of its Etruscan origin, it was stalwart and strong, which after some 25 centuries it is not, the exhibit A of a downward veer America has yet to experience.
The yearning for such stories, which includes their slightly condescending cultural architecture, has less to do with the intrinsic value of traditional food and antique villages than the obvious shortfall of reliable oldness at home. History Channel-oriented Americans eagerly forage for the ancient and the alien as reassuring proof that a world, albeit a largely incomprehensible one, existed before the 250-year-old American experiment. In such a world — and Italy is especially hospitable to legend — local cooks are always wise and little towns always enlivened by folklore. Italy is perfect comfort food for those who seek a timeline that sounds credible but doesn’t include them. It presents culturally untranslatable idylls that serve as anti-parochial antidotes to malls, superhighways and the often cluttering and claustrophobic truths of expanding-skyline urban progress.
This year’s small-town story includes a Maurizio (such stories often do) whose daughter is named Alessandra (who could be Flavia). Together, they run a restaurant (not a chain; not a food emporium; not a wine bar). Maurizio, says the article, “spends his mornings in nearby hillsides, hunting truffles, before turning up for a meal…”
These are touchstones of a larkish fairy tale of time outside time, the kind resisted by most middle class American training and which induces some to imagine a less constrained life (only to then struggle with leisure). Americans are brought up above all to learn, to work, to acquire, and to gainfully repeat these responsible actions until retirement dissolves the chronic burden and finally allows for the golfing equivalent of hillside mornings. They cannot lead lives like that of Maurizio, who brings truffles to his restaurant, after which “they cook me lunch” — the “they” led by his daughter, since a patriarchy can sound quaint in an Italian context.
In the deepest recesses of this Italian time outside time, “Donkey races are hosted in the small piazza twice a year,” yet another sliver of wonderland oddness Americans gladly borrow from to embellish an imprecise myth of a good life well lived. These slivers, with donkeys replacing rats, are what make borrowed foreignness taste so good. They open neural pathways into a existence in which Flavia and her delicious offerings are the daily norm, with donkey competitions to follow; they encourage a semi-rustic Italy of the mind and allow it to descend wistfully over a mall or cafeteria lunch before the return to a truffle-less, cubicle routine overtakes the dreaming, fortifying the need for its next recycling.