Articles by: Anthony Paonita

  • Facts & Stories

    Journalists Like to Talk About the the World Around Them and About Themselves

    Journalists like to do a couple of things. They like to talk about the the world around them. And they like to talk about themselves and their own peculiar world. Both tendencies were up front and indulged fully at this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

    First, the festival. It’s an amazing few days. Reporters and editors fly in from around the globe tothis central Italian city. Some come from large news organizations like The New York Times and La Repubblica. Some are freelancers, while others may be documentary filmmakers. It’s five days of panel discussions, films, workshops, while attendees range from students from Perugia’s university, to working reporters and editors, to the merely curious of all ages. The venues are spread throughout Perugia’s compact centro storico and range from hotel meeting rooms to grand medieval guild halls. And, best of all, it’s free.

    I’ve been to a few of these, and each time I check the headphone check-out rate. The bigger sessions have simultaneous Italian/English translating via headsets, and this year the headphone check out rate seems to be much lower, especially among the students and younger reporters. Well, the Italians, anyway. What we’re seeing, at least to me, is the spread and adoption of a common bridge language, English, and its greater adoption among younger Italians.

    The festival reflects that greater cosmopolitanism. A few years ago, the sessions evinced a more internal soul-searching among the Italian contingent, with feature documentaries and panel discussions centered on Italian concerns. But this year’s festival was fully global in outlook, with sessions on the news business and new models, the refugee crisis in Europe, and such issues as the European Union’s economic straightjacket of countries like Greece and cybersecurity and cyberwar. And looming over much of the discussions was the extremely long and strange electoral season in the United States, and, of course, the rise of Donald Trump.

    An early evening session feature two British journalists, Paul Mason and filmmaker Theopi Skarlatos, and moderator Leonardo Bianchi of Vice News Italy. Bianchi asked Skarlatos and Mason about their experience filming last year’s crisis in Greece after the election of the left wing Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras. The pair had unparalleled access to Tsipras and his cabinet while they tried to pry the unbending Germans from their fixation on an austerity program that devastated the Greek economy and caused untold human misery. As journalists, the pair were shaken by what they saw as a deliberate attempt to destroy Greece’s government and sovereignty. The resulting film’s title gives you a good clue to the duo’s take on the matter (and it happens to be a Twitter hashtag in wide use during the one-sided negotiations between the Greek government and the financial creditor troika): #ThisIsACoup. You really get to see the human dimension as the crisis unfolded. (You can see the film >>  in four parts).

    Often panel discussions took on a life of their own, not adhering to the program. One of them was supposed to the “Explanatory Journalism” featuring la Repubblica editor in chief Mario Calabresi and former Obama White House press spokesman (who is now a media executive at Amazon, one of the festival’s sponsors this year) Jay Carney. The two began talking about how journalists can and should explain what’s going on. Calabresi talked about the need to slow down and analyze rather than report irrelevant factoids. And, looking at the U.S., he wondered out loud when the hyper-polarization that he saw could even produce decent journalism.

    But then the 800-pound gorilla Donald Trump symbolically entered the room. Calabresi, a passionate and personable speaker, kept pressing Carney to explain the Trump phenomenon, and Carney did his best to explain the mentality that leads to this U.S. style Berlusconi-style anti-politician. (In a few words, he said that Trump’s tapping into the anger of people who think they’ve been abandoned by globalism and a multi-cultural society.) They asked the audience at one point, “who likes Trump?” and the crowd shouted “no!” But I thought I heard more nervousness than conviction in people’s voices.

    A lot of the other sessions did reflect navel-gazing, as you might expect in a festival featuring journalists talking to one another and, in a way, hoping that they might get an idea or two about how to continue doing their jobs. The Internet has proven to be both a disaster for old-line print business as well as a boon, if not a highly profitable one, for new types of storytelling. One session featured “disruptive storytelling,” which basically means trying to figure out how to keep Web surfers on the page for more than 10 seconds. The New York Times interactive news editor Marc Levallee showed how his group deconstructed stories to tell a story, using quizzes and other devices to guide readers through, for example, figuring out a kid’s chances to go to college. They could have just written a story, but by making the feature almost a game, they showed how different economic classes and parental upbringing could influence the outcome. (NYT >>>)

    Toward the end of the festival, it turned inward for just a bit, to recognize the locale. The Sunday morning session was attended mostly by older perugini, and featured regional president Catiuscia Marini and Anna Mossuto, the editor of Corriere dell’Umbria, which celebrated its 30th anniversary recently.

    One of the weird ironies of Umbria and its capital Perugia is while they are centrally located, transportation in and out of the region is, to be kind, spotty. Italy’s high-speed train network bypasses it, while the regional airport is subject to the whims of low-cost airlines.  (A recent Alitalia service from Rome to Perugia’s airport has carried, at its maximum, 19 passengers.) Marini spoke with passion about how she and the regional government have tried various ways to get infrastructure support from the central government. Finally, she said, some aid is coming.

    The attendees who crowded the city’s streets, hotels and restaurants seemed to have no trouble getting here. But the festival, successful as it may be, isn’t something that a region can depend on for its continued viability. We’ll see how Marini’s efforts play out in the next few years. 

  • Facts & Stories

    The 9th Edition of International Journalism Festival of Perugia

    For a few days every spring the ancient Etruscan city feels like the center of the global media universe rather than the capital of a small, landlocked region (I like to think of Umbria as the Italian version of Vermont). Journalists from around the globe gather for the International Festival of Journalism (, where they watch documentaries, listen to debates and get some hands on lessons and inspiration from some of the greats.

    Previous years (this is the ninth year the festival has been held) featured a lot of navel gazing all’italiana. In 2012, for example, the show opened with a film, “Italy, Love It or Leave It.”

    This year’s edition, however, seemed fully immersed in the global village that media in all its forms has become. One completely unscientific sign of Italian assimilation into the English language-dominated EU: Organizers give out translation radio-headphones to select events. In earlier years, there would typically be a rush for the headsets. This year, not so much; anecdotally at least, the young and media-savvy listened to speakers unaided.

    Previous years have also seen disputes over the festival’s funding and venue. The organizers, Arianna Ciccone and Christopher Potter originally called off last year’s edition, saying it had gotten too big and too expensive. There were hints that Perugia might not be so supportive, if not from them, then from the gossip on the street and online.

    Rumors circulated that the venue—Perugia—might be changed. It looked dire for awhile, until Ciccone and Potter relented. But there was a condition: They crowdfunded the festival, with an understanding that unless they reached €100,000, the show wouldn’t go on. With the help of thousands of contributors and a few companies, the goal was surpassed and the festival went on. This year, the organizers reverted to sponsor funding.

    Geek warning: Though there wasn’t as much Italian introspection on display at the festival, there was plenty of inside baseball of the journalism kind, as you might expect. IJF15 Central is the Brufani Palace Hotel, central Perugia’s finest. A lot of speakers are put up there, and they might even have time to splash around in the hotel’s pool, which features a glass bottom view of the ancient ruins under the hotel. Local (though owned by Nestlé) chocolate maker Perugina was represented, too, by giant bowls of its famous Baci, which fueled the sometimes frenzied networking and session attendances of the crowd.

    But back to the substance—or, perhaps, process? Media people everywhere are obsessed with the move online. It’s nothing new, of course, but the audience has suddenly shifted seismically in the past couple of years. And it’s not enough, attendees were told again and again in different forums, to merely put online what you’d do on paper or before the camera. One panel was titled “Tech vs. Journalism: Who’s in Control?” The very first speaker, moderator Vivian Schiller of Vocativ, delivered a spoiler at the start: Tech is.

    Panelists spent a lot of time discussing social media, or “platforms” as is the fashionable term. Seventy-one percent of young Italians get their news from a social link, bypassing old-school newspapers and even sites. So outlets like La Repubblica and The Guardian have gone out to where their audience is, establishing a big presence on Facebook, for example, and pushing their content out that way. Facebook’s news director Andy Mitchell showed the audience all the platform’s news tools; it took a 19-year-old student to ask him if getting news from a computer algorithm was such a good thing. (Mitchell demurred, saying that Facebook doesn’t expect anyone to get all their news served up by them.)

    The kid was one of many who warned about the dangers of machines controlling our lives. But the big show had to be Edward Snowden. People lined up way in advance in the central Piazza IV Novembre for a chance to see the spying whistleblower and the filmmaker who documented his emergence, Laura Poitros, in the beautifully ornate Sala dei Notari. They didn’t appear in person. Snowden isn’t free to leave Russia and Poitros keeps a low profile, so they appeared (of course!) via Skype.

    Snowden was both in good humor and deadly serious. He walked the crowd through how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spies on people worldwide. But more than that, he gave an eloquent argument why it’s wrong. Besides the obvious invasion of privacy, the NSA’s spying has given more authoritarian governments, like China’s, license to do the same—and worse. They keep their citizens behind almost impenetrable firewalls, and launch attacks against other governments and companies around the world—the old “if they do it, why shouldn’t we?” argument.

    Lest it sound all serious and dire, along came La Stampa editor Mario Calabresi to lighten the mood. At one point, he quipped that Italians are so down these days because, post-Berlusconi, they don’t have a fixed object at which to direct their negativity.) Also speaking in the Sala dei Notari, which is reserved for the big draws, he talked about reinvention and serendipity. Putting a spin on an intractable problem, he told anecdotes about unemployed young people suddenly reviving old family enterprises and improving them.

    Sure, Calabresi was there to push his book, Non temete per noi, la nostra vita sarà meravigliosa: Storie di ragazzi che non hanno avuto paura di diventare grandi (Don’t worry about us, our life will be terrific: Stories of youths who aren’t afraid to become great), but his chat gave a human touch to a festival that can be dominated by business concerns and theoretical arguments.

  • Facts & Stories

    A Tale of Two Perugias

    Pasticceria Sandri is closed.

    An away-on-vacation sign went up at first, with a reopening date of July 7. It didn’t open, and the reopening date was erased from a revised sign. What’s going on, all of Perugia wondered

    To back up a little: Sandri is—was?—an icon, a Viennese style bar-caffè that anchors the Corso Vannucci. The Corso is Perugia’s Main Street, a pedestrianized thoroughfare that’s the site of one of Italy’s best evening passeggiatas. Sandri is where you buy a special dessert when you’ve been invited to Sunday pranzo, a place where elderly Perugian women would stop for an espresso with panna, or maybe, if they’re being a little naughty, an aperitif.

    So the famed pasticceria’s closure comes as a shock, another shock during an economic crisis that doesn’t want to let go. Apparently, the crisis is mainly to blame; Sandri operated a catering business that supplied the profits; the bar was losing money. With fewer big celebrations, its catering arm suffered, and the owners can’t see a way out.

    In fact, as you walk around Perugia’s historic center, you can see too many ex-businesses, their doors seemingly shuttered forever. There’s La Lanterna, the “creative” restaurant that occupied a prominent spot at the top of the very steep via Ulisse Rocchi, up a hill from the landmark Arco Etrusco. There’s the vegetable lady around the corner from La Lanterna. The bread shop down our street, not to mention the former Conad supermarket a few steps from the Università per Stranieri, one of Italy’s most prestigious language schools for foreigners.

    Who’s to blame for the hollowing out of centro? I was going to talk to the city’s mayor, a genial and progressive man named Wladimiro Boccali. Instead, I got an earful from the people of our area, the Borgo Sant’Angelo, at a recent neighborhood block party. “It’s empty, it’s becoming a museum,” asserts Graziella (I’ll just use their first names, because no one knew—I didn’t know at the time—that I’d use their comments.).

    Referring to the city’s latest big public works project, the innovative Minimetrò (it’s a small metro system), “it costs young people 3 euros to come and go from the outskirts. It stops before 9:30. It’s crazy, and they wonder why no one’s opening new businesses?” Another cites high rents, and the chain stores like Foot Locker, not to mention Feltrinelli, the Italian book chain. It’s a terrific store, but it chased out indies like the Libreria Oberdan.

    “This city does great festivals, but centro needs support every day,” Antonio chimed in.

    But still…Perugia really does deliver on the festivals. There’s Eurochocolate in October, appropriate for the city that’s the home of the famous Italian chocolate kiss, the Perugina Baci. (Perugina is now own by Nestlé, but let’s not go there just now.) In the spring, there’s the incredible (for us scribblers) International Festival of Journalism, where the world’s great reporters, editors, and bloggers get together to figure out where media is going, and share reporting tactics.

    If it’s July, however, it’s time for Umbria Jazz. For a week, the city becomes a big party, the Corso Vannucci a combination dance floor, parade crowd, and kitchen. Stands sell beer and wine, while two big stages, one in the main Piazza IV Novembre, the other set up at the opposite end of the Corso in the Giardino Carducci, feature free live music.

    The festival’s definition of “jazz” is fluid. We saw R.E.M. perform on their last tour a few years ago, while this year featured performances by the like of John Legend and Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil. Closer to the jazz roots, this year also featured Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and Diana Krall, as well as Italians Pino Daniele and Mario Biondi.

    One night we wandered up the hill to the Piazza IV Novembre, where Dr. Bobby Jones & the Nashville Gospel Superchoir whipped up the crowd into a frenzy with American gospel standards. They finished off with an ecstatic version of  “Oh Happy Day,” as thousands of us crowding the piazza and the Corso sang along.

    Maybe the economic crisis will pass, and Perugia—as well as Italy—will see happy days again. It’s hard to imagine it right now. But I fear it will take more than a rise in GDP to ensure that Perugia’s historic center, and that of other cities here, remain vibrant, living places, and not backdrops for day-tripping tourists and festival goers.

  • Op-Eds

    Lunch With a Candidate (for Senato)

    I’ve been inundated the past month with robot calls, leaflets, and emails from political candidates. There are links to videos, appeals to “work together,” invitations to cocktail parties and forums.

    True, the American elections for president and Congress are over. But those of us who have the good fortune of dual U.S.-Italian citizenship get to vote again, mere months after the U.S. electoral season. Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support from the technocratic government of Mario Monti last fall, and so, a couple of months early, Italians all over the world are heading to the polls.

    There’s something different this time around, nearly five years after the last general election. Back in 2008, the list of candidates was limited, and there was barely a peep from any of them. This year, candidates are courting Italians in North America like never before. And no wonder. In 2006, when the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi eked out a close victory over Berlusconi, many attributed some of the margin to “italiani all’estero,” overseas Italians. This came as a shock to Berlusconi and his allies, who expected their overseas compatriots to vote for them.

    I have a day job as a full-time magazine and website editor, so I can’t really spend much time chasing candidates around. But a few days ago, I received a tempting invitation; I could have lunch with Renato Turano, who is running for the Senate on the PD list for North America. The venue, a chic (and very good) pizzeria called Ribalta, wasn’t far from my office, the time and price were right.

    So I ambled up to Greenwich Village, introduced myself to the small group assembled there, mostly younger Italians living in New York (and an American lawyer working for the federal government) and we waited. At least one thing was very Italian, the rather fluid idea of time and the loose way the lunch was organized. One very American thing: no one indulged in a wine or beer with the very good thin- crusted pizza.

    After awhile, Turano appeared. Now anyone who pays attention to the ever more frenzied appeals of ex-prime minister Berlusconi has heard him depict PD members as wild radicals. To hear him, these candidates are a hybrid of Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-un. Turano dispels that notion immediately. Dressed in a conservative suit, he radiated an easy prosperity; Turano owns a large baking concern in Chicago with his two brothers. The family came to the United States in the 1950s and did what generations of Italian immigrants did before them; they got to work and built a nice life for themselves.

    We asked him why, as a prosperous businessman, he’s putting himself on the line and running for the Senate. “I’ve kept my ties to Italy. We speak Italian in my family, our children do, our grandchildren do. We’ve taken vacations together to Italy. I don’t want to lose that attachment.”

    Talking about his platform, he spoke about youth unemployment in Italy, and how he, under the Prodi government, helped set up exchange programs between Italian and American universities. It helped the Italians widen their horizons, get some good training and gain fluency in English—and it proved a tremendous aid to the post-graduation job-seeking efforts, because they were fully bilingual and skilled in how Americans do business, too.

    In all, it was a pleasant way to spend a winter lunchtime in New York. It made me think about why I’m grateful to my immigrant father for my being able to straddle two countries, two cultures. And, perhaps owing to the smaller numbers involved, it was a pleasant throwback to a time when politics was less polished, and more up close and personal.

    The ballot, even for overseas Italians in the Americas, is much more splintered this year, much more so than when in 2008 we got to choose only among the two main party blocs. Here’s hoping that when the results are in, Italy gets a stable governing coalition that tackles the very real problems the country faces, from an unending economic crisis that’s causing real pain (the closed storefronts in my hometown of Perugia are testament to that), to the challenge of finding useful employment for a new generation of young people. The jockeying for position and possible coalitions began months ago, so it’s a real possibility that my naïve hope will remain just that.

  • Life & People

    Staten Island's Swept Away Family Memorabilia

    By now, the images of a post-Sandy Staten Island are familiar: the ruined houses, the flooded streets, the belongings and appliances out on the streets, the cars and boats tossed around like toys, seemingly at random.

    Two weeks later, New York City’s smallest borough, like other coastal places, is still struggling to dig out. The people, many with Italian surnames, begging the city and relief agencies to come to their aid.
    I live in Staten Island, and my family on my mother’s side—Sicilian-Americans from Castellammare del Golfo—go back nearly 80 years on the island, to the years of the Great Depression. And this disaster makes me think of a culture and a society that could very well have been wiped out by this terrible storm.
    My mother remembers being taken to the beaches of Staten Island as a small child. They lived on the Lower East Side back then (Brooklyn later), and it was a long, boring trip for a little girl. My grandmother would rent rooms or a bungalow, to give her five children a break from the sweltering tenement heat.
    Later, my grandmother, a seamstress married to a dockworker, managed to scrape together enough money to buy a patch of land and a small bungalow near New Dorp Beach. I don’t know exactly how she managed to do it, but I do remember the last years of the bungalow, down the street from Miller Field, then an army airfield, with a former Vanderbilt mansion as the headquarters.
    I remember the photos, now scattered in my cousins’ homes. My grandfather’s big garden, and the shed where he made wine (yes, I know, a cliché). Friends and family would travel to my grandparents’ place to stay the weekend, or a week. My mother’s godparents played guitars and mandolins, and she said they’d sit under a tree and play Sicilian songs for whoever was around. When money was tight, my grandmother (we called her “grandma”—we reserved nonna for my paternal grandmother, who lived in Palermo) would send my mother and her sisters to the beach to gather mussels. Some tomatoes and oil, a lot of pasta, and she had enough to feed a crowd.
    During World War II, the military housed Italian prisoners of war at Miller Field. Grandma, generous to a fault, would take some in for Sunday dinner. They had a separate building for big communal meals; we called it the screenhouse years later.
    I spent my first couple of summers there. I was a Brooklyn kid back then, and my mother and her sisters took the kids out to the beach house, while our fathers worked in the city. They’d come on weekends. I have some vague memories: My grandmother spreading tomato purée on wooden boards in the sun, smuggling leftovers to the cats that roamed the yard. We had a little pool and a swing set. Later, my father taught me to swim a few blocks away in Raritan Bay—the very bay whose storm surge caused so much damage and pain.
    That property has a place in what will be Sandy’s lore. As part of the exodus from Brooklyn to Staten Island, my grandparents and uncles built a house there, to replace the bungalow. It’s a fine, strong brick house, a duplex, so typical of Staten Island. My grandfather, and later my uncles, continued some traditions. The garden lived on, and so did the winemaking, until they, too, passed away.
    My 80-something aunt and two cousins still live in the house, with their families. When Sandy approached, my aunt refused to leave her home. Her belongings were stashed in the basement, a space that’s barely below ground, when my cousin moved back in with her mother. The storm surge came and flooded that basement nearly up to the ceiling, and a couple of the family cars were swept away. My cousins and aunt all survived. Miraculously, one half of the house maintained power, a godsend to my espresso-addicted cousin, who says she doesn’t know what she’d do without her machine.
    I’m guessing that a lot of family memorabilia was swept away, too. My aunt kept everything. Everything. I don’t have the heart to ask her, and she may not even know. Her memory fades in and out now, and it would be cruel to press the point.
    When I see the pictures from Staten Island’s coastal areas, I can see that a lot of memories were swept away, memories of an immigrant culture, of people who knew how to enjoy the time they had with their friends and family from the old country. They didn’t have pretensions then.
    And they later built what they thought was a permanent life there, when Staten Island’s time of being a seashore resort had passed, a victim of pollution and more sophisticated, but not necessarily better, appetites and aspirations. But their ancestors back in Italy knew that nature could be cruel. It’s a lesson we’ll have to relearn as we decide how to rebuild.
    Postcript: Lest anyone think that modern, hipster Italian immigrants escaped Sandy’s fury, today I ran into Stefano Barbagallo, one of the co-owners of Barbarini Mercato, one of my favorite places for lunch near my Financial District office.
    Barbarini was devastated—the surge flooded Front Street, just north of the South Street Seaport. Stefano looked remarkably stoic for someone whose business was ruined in the matter of a couple of hours. Will he rebuild? He said he didn’t know, just couldn’t say. It depended on whether the various levels of government will pitch in to help.
    A real pity—Barbarini was a rare jewel, relaxed and authentic. The food was truly Italian, served in human quantities, with that Italian sense of minimalism. The ingredients ruled. I’ll miss it a lot—it was my default lunch place to meet friends. In bocca al lupo, Stefano and the gang.

  • Art & Culture

    Perugia: Chronicles from the International Journalism Festival

    If Italy is the land of contradictions, of golden Tuscan sunsets and Neapolitan mountains of refuse, then Perugia must be, in one way, a microcosm. Because of its huge student population (some 30,000 of about 160,000 inhabitants), the ancient Umbrian capital is youthfully exuberant. And its hip, friendly atmosphere coexists with a party culture that sometimes gets out of control, most notoriously in the alleged events leading up to the 2008 murder of the young English student Meredith Kercher.

    This week, however, Perugia is doing something it does best, hosting a festival. In what might be the ultimate in inside baseball (or inside calcio), it’s year 12 of the International Journalism Festival. But true to the egalitarian ethos of the place, all events are free, and they’re in various venues all over town. In that way, it’s much like summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival, which has some paid headline acts, but also features a New Orleans marching band parading at regular intervals, and free concerts around town.

    The big act that kicked off the festival, which began on Wednesday, April 25, Italy’s Liberation Day, was the movie “Italy, Love It or Leave It,” by documentary film makers Luca Ragazzi and Gustav Hofer. The directors play themselves, and drive around Italy in an old Fiat 500 looking for reasons to stay in il bel paese, rather than emigrate, as did many of their friends.

    It’s a poignant movie, and highlights all the emotional tugs that push young Italians away, or keep them close to home, sometimes in spite of themselves. We see loud old ladies defending the departed Silvio Berlusconi (“He’s a young man! He has a young man’s heart!”). The film makers explore the harsh reality of the system that feeds Italy so wonderfully, where migrant farm workers struggle under terrible conditions and collapse in filthy dormitories. And so on…

    But then, there are moments of extreme beauty. The orderly Tuscan landscape, the Sicilian coast (though in their unsentimental way, Hofer and Ragazzi also explore “Sicilia Incompiuta,” vast public works follies that were never completed). And the pair find hope in a political figure like Nichi Vendola, a gay man who managed to get elected governor of Puglia.

    The film was reason enough to be in Perugia’s ornate Sala dei Notari, in its city hall on the main drag, the pedestrian Corso Vannucci. The discussion that followed was an added bonus. Spoiler alert: The film makers stayed, and gave their reasons for doing so.

    Hofer told the audience that with Berlusconi gone, the country’s at an important juncture, and true change might actually be possible. “It’s time to stop complaining,” he told an admiring crowd of journalists, students and walk-ins. “”We’re the ruling class and it’s time to act like it.” [note—these are my translations from Italian]

    The documentary makers added that Italians have a chance to get their self-respect back, now that the notoriety of the bunga-bunga parties given by the former prime minister fade into memory.

    Caterina Soffici, a blogger for the left-wing Il Fatto Quotidiano, provided a counterpoint. She departed for London for, among other things, to ensure a better future for her children. She pointed to the recent press scandal in England, where Rupert Murdoch was forced to close The News of the World, over reported wiretapping by reporters and editors there. “In England they’re forced to quit and shut down,” she said, “but here, when caught in a scandal, they vow and vow to stay.”

    Soffici admitted that being away from home is a “tormentone,” literally, a great torment. But, she told the crowd, while life in Italy is generally more pleasant than in the Anglo-Saxon countries, “la dolce vita can be a cage.”

    Hofer brought the event to a close (despite a verbose question that followed and that no one answered, as the crowd headed for the door) by saying, “It’s good when people leave here, get some good experience, and come back with what they’ve learned. It’s bad when leaving isn’t a choice.”

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    How New York City’s Outer Borough Italians Cook and Eat

    The verdict is in, and Italy has won the culinary battle against the French. At least that’s what it looks like to a visitor to New York when it comes to cooking. Luxurious Italian restaurants like Del Posto and Marea draw the critical accolades and big crowds, and New York’s newest tourist must-see destination is Eataly, a huge food spectacle in the fashionable Flatiron district.

    Part upscale food store, part restaurant, and completely jammed most days, Eataly (related to the original shop in Torino) sums up all the contradictions of Italian food in the United States: Is it “authentic?” Do you need Italian ingredients for a dish to be “Italian?” Is Italian-American cuisine a cuisine apart? (Eataly is not without its charms, though; Italians with Unicredit checking accounts can pilfer their accounts without a fee by using the bancomat machine. And by the Unicredit kiosk, a digital screen managed by i-Italy broadcasts information about Italian events in the city 24/7).

    “Maybe we’ll see Mario Batali,” I overheard one tourist-visitor on a recent visit, referring to one of the celebrity co-owners of the store. And for many visitors to the place, that’s enough.

    Ever since cookbook author Marcella Hazan burst onto the scene in the 1970s, Italian food in the U.S. has split into low and high culture. The highbrows scoffed at the old immigrant “red sauce” cooking. Their food was first called “Northern Italian” in the U.S.—supposedly refined, with cream sauces and delicate flavors—none of that garlicky spaghetti and meatballs. Soon, the Manhattan type of Italian restaurant took on a rarified air, embraced by foodies, who gushed about authenticity, regional cucina, and truffle-hunting in Piemonte. In the process, they turned Italian food into another consumer fetish, divorced from its native context.

    Meanwhile, in New York’s outer boroughs, Italian immigrants and their descendants went about their business, shopping for food and cooking it like they always had. Is it “authentic,” meaning prepared exactly how it’s done in Italy today? Probably not. But Italian cucina in Italy evolves, too, as any living culture does. And even there, more travel back and forth meant that more foodstuffs, like genuine parmigiano-reggiano, and Arborio rice, showed up in the salumerie and markets of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

    So let’s take a look at what the real Italian diaspora is doing, in terms of food shopping, restaurants, and home cooking. We’ll start with Staten Island, of all places. Why? Staten Island, or Richmond County, is the most Italian county in the U.S., with some 37 percent of its roughly 500,000 souls claiming some Italian blood. With its rolling hills and gentle, easy way of life compared to “the City,” as many Islander call Manhattan, it’s comfortable with its way with food, mostly unaffected by the culinary snobbism that afflicts Manhattan.

    We start with Basilio Inn, Staten Island’s oldest restaurant. It’s in a nineteenth-century house near South Beach, which was once one of the biggest summer resorts in the city. City dwellers, many of them immigrants like my maternal grandparents, would escape the Lower East Side and other crowded inner city neighborhoods for the sea air of Staten Island’s south shore.

    Places like Basilio’s (as it’s popularly known) catered to them. It’s changed hands over the years (the owner, Basilio Giovannino from Piemonte opened it in 1921), and its proprietor is Maurice (Maurizio) Asperti, who came to the U.S. from Campania as a boy. Basilio’s is probably the closest you can get to an Italian country osteria, with a laid-back feel and a reasonably priced wine list. The cooking is rustic Italian, too—seafood pastas, zucchine with mint, various veal dishes, whole broiled branzino. There’s a bocce court in the yard (the restaurant hosts tournaments), and in the summer, the restaurant’s garden supplies much of the produce.

    Speaking of Campania, the city’s newspapers regularly run surveys of the best pizzerias in the city, and a Staten Island favorite invariably makes the list: Joe and Pat’s. An unassuming place, Joe and Pat’s famous pie features a thin, cracker-like crust; it’s Italian minimalism at its best. Started by immigrant Giuseppe Pappalardo in 1960, the pizzeria has become an island institution. Joe and Pat’s has given back to the city, too—their son Angelo “A.J.” is the proprietor of the success Rubirosa, near the acclaimed Torrisi Italian Specialties on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy, where you’ll find the same kind of cracker-crust pizza.

    But Staten Island doesn’t only do old-fashioned. A short walk up the hill from the ferry terminal you can find the 5-year-old Enoteca Maria, a comfortable, new-age Italian.

    Eschewing the rustic old-country look typical of many Italian-American establishments, the look is industrial chic, with bare brick and factory lighting. Owner Jody Scaravella hit upon a terrific gimmick: Have a serious wine list, and hire nonnas to do the cooking. A cast of some seven grandmas take turns at the stove each night it’s open (Tuesday through Saturday; you can check the web site for that night’s menu). The food is classic cucina casalinga: spaghetti with mussels and beans, rabbit stew, roast pork with rosemary potatoes.

    Staten Island is not all about restaurants. The island can boast thousands of good home cooks, who can turn out perfect arancini and shrimp oreganate. They have to shop somewhere, besides the huge supermarkets that have made a big stand on Staten Island, like everywhere else. One Eataly in miniature is Pastosa Ravioli on Forest Avenue. It’s part of a family group of stores, identically named, but varying in what they carry, depending on the neighborhood.

    The Pastosa closest to my home carries a huge variety of imported cheeses, mostly Italian (Tuscan truffle pecorino!), fish, meats and prepared foods. Those with more esoteric tastes (for Italian-Americans) will be happy with the stocks of farro, Umbrian legumes, roasted olives and pastas. It’s in a mixed (not primarily Italian) neighborhood, so the food on offer has a slight international cast to it. More roots-oriented is another Pastosa in Dongan Hills, where half the packaged food doesn’t even carry labels translated into English.

    Have a sweet tooth? Pasticcerie dot the island, and one of the newcomers is among the best. Pasticceria Bruno, with its marble counters, dark wood and sleek lighting, looks at though it’s been airlifted from Palermo, and besides the usual biscotti and torte, there’s a gelato stand in front. We can now get our nocciola fix whenever we feel the urge.

    All of this is just a sampling of what’s out there in the city’s least-populous borough. But Italian-oriented food is woven into the fabric of everyday like there, for around one-third of the population, and it’s not just a fad. We’ll next check out Brooklyn, the borough across the bridge, which has its own mixture of nuova cucina and immigrant-roots cooking.