April ends. So does our time in Umbria. Parting Shots.

I have oceans of the Italian cult comic Dylan Dog. I can rationalize having my nose in a comic instead of Calvino by saying I’m doing it improve my Italian, my way.

PANICALE, Umbria— Parting is such sweet sorrow. Especially when swallows are swirling overhead having a bug fest / breakfast / airshow that starts early and goes on until after sunset every day. And even harder to leave when your rascally roses are only moments from blasting into full sunshine yellow bloom. The buds were numbering in the millions and getting fatter by the hour. Yes, that is how often I was checking. It is almost a cruel local joke here how I fuss over my roses all year long, but have yet to see them in bloom, missing them on one side or the other of their usual full month of glorious (so I’ve heard) bloom. Note to self: schedule trips to Umbria for first of May. And May is generally a more dependable weather month in Italy than April anyway. Duly noted.

Enjoying the garden in spite of the spite-full reluctant roses. I know they are teasing me. I love it all back in the garden anyway. It is just becoming so alive at this time of year. And one of the nice things about cleaning up a garden for company is that once they arrive I can quit cleaning, weeding and fussing. And do lazy things, like dragging out a chaise and reading in the sun.

Nothing like some Dylan in the garden. Of course, when I say Dylan, you know I mean Dog, not Thomas. I’ve always been a sucker for comics. I have oceans of the Italian cult comic Dylan Dog. I can rationalize having my nose in a comic instead of Calvino by saying I’m doing it improve my Italian, my way. Anything with pictures is a big step up and after a while you realize any author has a certain way of writing and a certain vocabulary and it gets easier with each new reading. I’ve learned a lot of conversational street talk from Dylan. To each their own. Its what works for me. My daughter Wiley is all about pop culture and her favorite guilty pleasure is gossip magazines, both in the states and in England where she goes to university. She and her favorite Italian language teacher here in Italy use the Italian version of those awful tabloids as text books when they do their lessons together and it seems to really work for her. All I know is Wiley’s Italian was better after every lesson. Again, with the words and pictures.


The other fun thing about having company in Italy is that it gives us an excuse to have fun picnics in the garden, drink wine watching the sun go down and to look forward to going out to eat next door at Masolino’s. I’ve cleaned out the frig so that is my excuse to wind up the trip eating every meal there. Three times in two days. Not counting breakfast coffees. They are so busy at night we can’t chitchat properly at night at all so I will stop in on my way into the piazza in the morning and really catch up. Anyway, I was there for lunch on Wednesday with fun clients I had been writing to for a year and was dying to meet in person. Kept thinking, pace yourself Stew, don’t have to eat everything on the menu right now, you’ll be back again in a few hours. Temptations abound.

Later that same day, at a different table I was eating with our long time friends from Colorado. They had just arrived and they wanted Masolino’s to be their first stop before even unpacking. Visions of panicotta and creme carmels danced in their heads.

Then sweet Stefi one of the owners and the pastry / desert chef came out and started listing all the goodies that were on the desert menu for the night. Choices, choices, choices. Hate to make decisions? Don’t. We finally we cut the Gordian Knot. And ordered six different deserts for the five of us and just kept passing them around. A desert buffet. You know how places often have AntiPasti Misto? Same thing but sweeter. Dolce Misto?

Call it whatever you want we made them all go away, didn’t we? Its kind of a trick in Italy as the deserts are often kind of a let down compared to the terrific antipasti and pasti lead ins to every meal. Stefi keeps it fun and light and is determined that even after a big meal everyone should still be looking forward to one of her treats to finish it all off.

Here’s what we had:

Panecotta. Yes. But which kind? With frutti di bosco? Chocolate? Or carmel? Questions within questions. I’m in a horrible rut. I run with a pack that is honor bound to keep trying panecottas with fruit everywhere they go just to compare them to Stefi’s. Tiny little wild forest fruits. Berries that look like raspberries and blue berries? Awful good whatever part of the fruit kingdom they below to. But then Jeff of Colorado swears by the chocolate and it is awesome. Wicked good, almost black chocolate swirled and drizzled about over the snowwhite panecotta and it just takes the panecotta to a whole different place. And, ok, I sampled someone’s carmel and I liked that too. Still a sucker for the fruit. Oooh, oooh. There are two panecottas in each order. They come out of a mold and have a pretty depression on the top to hold fruit or chocolate. Order one each with friend and divide them up. Don’t have to wait till you have a big smorgasbord group feed.

Tiramisu. Tira. Mi. Su. Get it? Pick. Me. Up. Because in my understanding of its traditional form it should have two caffine delivery systems, one coffee and one of chocolate. There was a debate raging as Stefi patiently waited for us to get over it and order already. The debate was more or less this: is Tiraminsu just too much of a clique? Is it only on the menus of Italy for the amusement of low brow American tourists? Hey, its Italy. Its Italian. Lets eat it. We did. It was a beautiful thing, it was light, it rocked and earns its fame. And its name. Quando a Roma.

Torta Fragola. Strawberry cake. Hmm. The other night I thought, “gosh if I order that it. . . means I’m not ordering Panecotta.” What to do? What to do? Will I like it, Stefi? She assured me it was worth the risk. Because I had so happily had it already, I lobbied for it to be in the mix. No one quite believed it. She called it cake but I don’t know what it was really. It just about floated off the plate. True fact. Fresh strawberries in almost cream/cake arrangement. Light, but not limp, it holds its slice-of-cake shape, but a fork just sighs and slips through it by gravity.

Cookies in Holy Wine. The VinSanto classic. The cookies are homemade of course and are of multiple shapes and ingredients and have a hint of citrus to them. I usually don’t get this because I’ve had enough wine by this time and I think I see Andrea pouring some complimentary experimental thing for us over by the bar. (turned out to be an excellent light yellow grappa based liquor. The next night the surprise Umbrian desert wine was a dark communion grape juice colored Vernaccia. I hope I spelled that right. Very much of the grape flavor. Loved it. I will see if I can get a picture of the bottle on here some time soon. But I digress from the deserts.

Crema Catalana. How about something flamable in carmel so everyone in the restaurant will look up and think “that does look like fun, maybe we DO have room for desert”. Flames of liquor burning bright, a foot or so in height. Just wait. They burn down and out and ok, NOW you can stick your spoon in there. Why wait for your birthday to have your desert set on fire? Our friend Harry had this flaming concoction two nights running and for all I know he is there tonight ready to potentially sacrifice his eyebrows once again over this showy treat.


Well, as we know, all good things must come to an end. We did a final night with friends from Maine stirred into the equation to good effect. They seemed to be settled into the good life Villa LeMura and looking like they could get quite use to that. The next morning came, I coffee’d and hugged my way around the piazza, took this photo of Katia (Giancarlo’s new assistant) and her family by Panicale’s fountain, gave my rascally roses one last look and said until next time –

See you in Italy

Stew Vreeland

Not a bad day at all.

Jumped straight out of bed determined to get my ritual Biano haircut. Go early. Hang out by the fountain until he arrives and beat the line. There is always a line. And he takes an hour even if you are folic-ly challenged.

Many people. OK. Probably, most people, might question spending a sunny day in Italy cleaning house. And calling it a fine day. I had people coming that I wanted to show the house to. To show them a Giancarlo restoration. And get the house past that bachelor pad fraternity house look that I had let it devolve into in the mere two days since Midge left. There was that. She is coming back in a few days. So.

Personal grooming to the forefront. Jumped straight out of bed determined to get my ritual Biano haircut. Go early. Hang out by the fountain until he arrives and beat the line. There is always a line. And he takes an hour even if you are folic-ly challenged. I win. I’m first! But. No Biano. Gate’s up, but doors locked and now there are old men closing in on the stone bench. Cuing up and talking polite chitchat but will they remember that I was first? So competitive. Loser gets to watch winner getting clipped for ever. All works out for the best and in the process I get scoop on a house we have just put on the site and pictures even. Jungle drums working fine this morning.

Back across the street for second cup of cappuccino and there is our invisible neighbor Youngi. Where has she been? We catch up, she’s curious about the web site and we talk about this great new sport of blogging.

Now. I really am going home to clean. Right now. Wait, there’s that rascal Bruno. Bruno! He’s offering to help an old lady carry her groceries, putting them in her car and dropping them off, on his way out. I jump in with him and we discuss important issues like my shutters. I don’t have any on two street level windows and I want some. Want to be like all the other kids on the block. First, we drop off the lady’s groceries and then we zoom over to the edge of the next town. There we meet Vittorio at the wood working shop and try to cajole him into coming to look at my lack of shutters situation. This afternoon works for me and he agrees, I’m sure, because of Bruno’ prodding to come see us this afternoon.


Yes, the hardware store in Castiglione del Lago is named CANADA. Big letters, just like that, maybe three feet high so that really is the name of the best hardware store any foreign boy like me could dream of. Huge, they have everything and most importantly they have an incredibly smart aleck owner who moved to Canada as a young boy and moved back as a young adult. Hyper fluent in English. I don’t wait to use him today as my list is simple obvious things but when it gets funny and technical as fine hardware can get when you are talking about funny screws that go in weird places, he can shovel me right out of trouble but quick. I can hardly keep up my end of the conversation in Goffs on Main Street in Yarmouth, Maine so this is sometimes a huge blessing.

Back now, really am working. See Stew work. Work. Work. Work. Clean. Clean. Clean. LUNCH TIME! Work. Work Work.

Maybe for a minute I did sneak out and shoot some wild flowers. And Denise and Tigre the Town Cat on my way to the town office to get a shutter permit. And I did take time to blow up computer. I just needed it for a minute there and now look what I’ve done. Hour and a half international long distance call later Magic Rich at the office had me back in the game. That was close. Imagine a day or two in Italy without email. Well, I can’t either.

Anna arrives to put professional clean to my amateur. And shoos me out to the garden where I clean like a machine till sainted person that she is she brings us ice creams from her cousin’s store up the street. And we sit in the newly hyper clean garden and watch the sun setting and the swallows swooping overhead for a few. Ceremonial first token picnic of the year for the white plastic table. Inauguration Day.

Before settling down to nine o’clock frozen food from a bag (Philistine Dinner of Champions-Italian Division) I was taking out the last bag of rubbish. And I could see the tail end of the sunset casting a fragile pink haze to everything in its path. On my way, I met Dily and she had seen me admiring her new apartment. It has a balcony right above a restaurant’s big wisteria covered outdoor dining area. Well, that was a sea of violet in full flower. I had actually seen that before. What I had never noted before was the roses climbing up her wall, up out of the wisteria and headed for the roof. Yellow roses growing right up her balcony. To the top of the fourth floor. It is in the castle walls proper so there is yet one more floor to go. But still. This is a serious bouquet of roses. As we stood there, holding our black plastic bags, the lights twinkled on in amongst the clouds of wisteria and the green arch of neon spelling R.I.S.T.O.R.A.N.T.E. over the entrance blinked on and that put finish to the day. I don’t care what the other tourists were doing, I had a fine time of it. I may have worked even a bit too hard as you can see, I’m just a shadow of my former self.

Ok, I’m back now.

First it rained for a few days here in Umbria while we jetlagged about the house and test drove the wood stove. Then we had what are now referred to as the days of wild sunsets.

Been crazy since last blogging. First it rained for a few days here in Umbria while we jetlagged about the house and test drove the wood stove. Then we had what are now referred to as the days of wild sunsets. I have a photo, in fact, several photos that will attest to swell levels of weirdness. Then we started Italian gardening in spades. And of course it was necessary to take pictures of new flowers in bloom. I call this Wisteria in the Wind Is anyone buying any of these lame excuses. Anyone, at all? And seeing houses and meeting friends and making up for serious lost time. So, it has been just an Italy bit busy around here these last few days. Our town is called Panicale. It is so fun and social and full of things to do we affectionately call it Panic Alley. Having entirely too much fun, too much food, coffee and gelati. You know. . . That does sound pretty good. Wait right there.

Ok, back now. I must just be an urban kind of guy I guess. Popped my head out, popped right back in for umbrella and off to Aldo’s for gelati with “the family”. Nocciolo and almost black chocolate gelati. Aldo and Nico are talking plants and watching Italian movie sort of. Late at night these town cafes get more like being in someone’s living room. Where you can drop in as late as you want like bad teenagers. We get right into the fertilizers and cosmic issues of light and shade. Should we try to raise lemons in a pot or not? Big issues, weighty thoughts. And the good part is Aldo is sitting and gossiping like all the people he waits on all day every day. Is it obvious why I have trouble getting blog up? Easily distracted here in Umbria. Two stores up the street, and half way to our house is Masolino’s Restaurant and it finally looks like I can get in there. To see for sure if they are open Wednesday when friends from Colorado are racing up from Rome to eat there. Tuesday is still the day of reposo. Plan accordingly. Andrea says “you came in twice before and went back out” I said “cripe yes, era un cassino qui”. Somehow saying something was a bordello evokes crazy busy. Huge crowds every time I went by earlier and decided to pass on that even after I had actually stepped in. “Nobody but Americans still here now” he said without too much irony pointing towards the last couple tables lingering over coffees. Then he poured me a grappa something and we talked about fun things to do in Miami. Did I mention Miami is next month? I do too have a good excuse. Family member has a birthday and they insisted we party like Foridians. What could I say? And I will be reporting in “live” from Caffe Milano there thanks to Andrea’s heads up on that touristic front.

Seeing delightful Italian homes in all price ranges up to 2 million euros. And as low as 55,000 euros. Trust me you get what you pay for so if Giancarlo takes you to the 55,000 no whining, OK? Its cheap, already.

Some lovely lovely houses all around this part of Umbria. Places with gardens, with pools, or both. Complete Italian villas with their own woods, fields, horse paddocks like Podernovo, fairy tale hilltop, private homes with garden on all sides in full flowers, near Citta della Pieve. Go to the This just in! section for the full tease and then write me for the photo galleries or more information. This is really just the tip of the Italian real estate ice berg. Hold my feet to the fire when I get back to make me keep sorting and get all these beauties up on the site!

I went to the theater last night (it is a couple doors down the other way) and saw an amazing production by a local group. High tech, high concept, just a wonderful thing even if it does take place in hell? Astaroth in: La Guerra Spiegata ai Poveri. War explained to the poor people. Written in Italy right after WW2 but relative today as well. We knew several people in it. I loved getting my ticket. I was grocery shopping and my friend Dily wanted to know if I was going to the play and what night and we discussed and she said a ticket would be waiting and it was. Second row, middle, sold out show. I love how everything works here in Umbria.

The night before I walked to a friend’s house just outside the castle gates by full moon light. Chairs packed around the dinner table. A dog under the table. Some of the British people at the table kept exclaiming with great joy “It’s a Lurcher, it’s a great bloody Lurcher’. Which I guess is a breed of dog we silly Yanks don’t know about yet, big thing, mottled like a great dane. No, wait again, make that two dogs, I think there was a Jack Russel under the Lurcher, and if you stood up to get seconds on something a cat would doze off in your chair. Well, one did in mine. We wined and dined. And wined. Prosecco, local white Umbrian wine, Vin Santo, two kinds. Anti pasti, pasti with fresh rape, artichokes baked in a torte, fish (its head was nearly as big as mine) mouse, cookies. As the Egyptians say if I wasn’t standing deep in de Nile, I would admit to a bit of a “morning after” syndrome from all the wonderfulness.

The day before that party I really and sincerely found myself lost in deepest Tuscany. Ok, THERE is the map – at the BOTTOM of my computer bag. Boy, I could have used THAT a few hours earlier. Roads were out. Word of the day: Deviazione. Deviate indeed. I was lost. I was on roads that I later saw on maps, and they resembled nothing so much as twisted entrails. My own personal stomach was not doing a bad impersonation of same. If I only had a brain. Or a co-pilot. Or the map. A normal person could do it quite easily with any of those above.

It was worth trip I will admit. Podernovo, was my photographic goal of the day. Acres and acres of Tuscan woods being meticulously manicured and groomed, the pool and its terraces being readied for summer. Multiple stone buildings, all rooms freshly painted in the most luscious and tasteful pastels, old details cared for, restored and flattered with accessories, flowers and vines ready to burst into color. From the villa and grounds you look over at the town of Monticiano. Or you can canter through your own Italian woods to the Monticiano’s horse track where they train horses for Siena’s famous Palio. How many small towns have a horse track. How cool is that?

Wait. How far out of whack am I on this blog? Have I been so blogged down that I dropped the ball and didn’t report on seeing Siena again? I’m here again?

Appears so. The clouds parted and we had run to Siena between the raindrops. By late lunch time we were eating outside in the sun beneath scudding clouds that would have us in coats one minute and down to Tshirts the next.

Its all about food and books and people watching for me in Siena.

Food: pizza, ravioli and salad in il Campo. Porchetta and wild boar sausage in a sack from the deli a few stores away. Dinner solved.

Books: Ones with pictures and even one without: “The Reluctant Tuscan, or How I discovered my Inner Italian” by Phil Doran. We’ll see how that turns out. Had to like the title.

People watching: Note to the fashion forward, pale pistachio is the new black. It is the color in Siena for Spring ’05. My wife took her credit cards and went one way and my daughter took hers and went another and both came back with green. Shoes for one and a jacket for the other and they matched. So I started noting. Once you spot it you see it everywhere in Siena: cloth, leather, silks, walls of stores, on posters and graphics. So now you know. You heard it here first. “Green is Hot”. Ok, some of the pre-schoolers hadn’t gotten the memo on that but aren’t they so cute when with their day glow back packs and umbrellas and they are holding hands two by two like that? Town was aswamp with them.

Been quite a good Italian adventure so far and different friends are arriving every day for the next three days. My, sigh, flight is on the fourth of those days. If only the roses will bloom for me before I go. I hear good things about them, and people even send me photos of them. Never seen them in bloom in person yet. Some day.

Happy Italian Liberation Day Monday, April 25th by the way. La festa della “Liberazione” We asked if they have fireworks and got blank looks. Guess not.

Ok, for at least the next few days we can still say,

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Italian weather report: April Showers

Went out in the pouring rain to Angela’s garden shop near Chiusi and got a few flowers, some sage advice, and ordered some verbena to replace the ones that got caught out in an extra cold February.

UMBRIA, Italy— We are here! Yesterday was arrival day and gorgeous, blue skys, warm temps. I gardened before even unpacking. What fun, then coffee and and gelato in sun and hugs around the village. Hundreds. Oh Joy.

Then came back and went out to dinner. More joy. How good was dinner at Masolino’s? Teenage girls raving about it. Artichoke on fresh handmade pasta, fresh leeks of the season on tagliatelli. Stefi remembered that I usually rave on her panacotta with fresh fruit. and did again. Have we truly died and gone to heaven? Close enough.

Today we have rain for the garden and all of Italy is green green green. Almost neon fields of new baby crops coming up. Our garden is ready to explode in bowers of yellow roses. Can’t wait. Went out in the pouring rain to Angela’s garden shop near Chiusi and got a few flowers, some sage advice, and ordered some verbena to replace the ones that got caught out in an extra cold February. The daisies? The Italian word for daisy is Margherita. So our Margherita Daisies are a fine bit of redundancy. Anyway, my wife is Midge but really Mary Margaret (Margherita) so they are in her honor. Our house is on Piazza Regina Margherita (Queen Daisy) and we call our house Casa Margherita.

Having fun deli lunch with the girls and a fire in the new woodstove and later dinner with friends. Take that jet lag! All is fine. More news as it comes in.

See you in Italy,