Tuesday, April 29, 2014

La Pineta and Bibbona

We emerged from the pine forest in Marina di Bibbona as the sun was beginning to set over the Mediterranean Sea. The beach was empty except for a few fisherman casting long rods and a dog romping in the sand. Nearby was a small building that resembled so many others up and down the Tuscan coast - a place where you might rent a beach umbrella and maybe grab a quick snack. Yet this strana baracca as Chef Luciano Zazzeri likes to call it, is home to La Pineta, one of Italy's great restaurants known for its wonderful seafood. The restaurant takes its name from the Tuscan coastal pine forests that were cultivated for their pine nuts as far back as Roman times. La Pineta, the restaurant, was the reason we and two of our friends were here.

Before going down to the sea, we had spent the end of the afternoon in the original medieval village of Bibbona that sits on a nearby hill.  The town's name is Etruscan in origin, but much of that early history is lost. Bibbona is first mentioned by that name in 1040. In the 1100s there are records of a dispute between Ugo della Gherardesca and the bishop of nearby Lucca over feudal rights in the area. 

The village - lovely and quiet on this weekday afternoon - is built in a series of concentric circles, connected by narrow streets and steep steps. Its center is the 11th-12th century church of Sant'Ilario. Like many villages in Tuscany, its position on a hill was not only for defensive purposes, but also to lift the town above the unhealthy swamps and marshes that covered much of the lowlands in ancient times. Today's Tuscany of vineyards and olive groves that most people know and love is the result of successive draining projects over several centuries. 

It was during one of these draining projects in the middle of the 18th century that Marina di Bibbona came into existence, but it was not until 1980s that any significant building took place in the town. 

When La Pineta opened there in the spring of 1964, it was just a little place on the beach with 12 changing huts and 12 umbrellas. Present chef Luciano Zazzeri was nine years old, but he was already in the restaurant's kitchen. He learned to cook from his grandmother, his mother and his aunt, who were preparing the dishes that attracted tourists just beginning to discover the region. In later years, the restaurant also attracted the attention of the great wine families in the nearby Bolgheri region, where Super Tuscans are produced. Among the diners were members of the Della Gherardesca family, descendants of the the same family mentioned in 12th-century records of the area. 

From the outside, La Pineta still looks like a beachside shanty.  Inside, however, the dining tables are covered in heavy linen cloths and the crystal and silver glimmer in the soft lighting. The view that fills the windows is the great expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.  

The sea fades from view, however, when the food is set before you.  You can order a la carte, but there are also two seafood tasting menus served to a minimum of two people. Since we were four, we ordered both menus, giving us a taste of 11 different dishes.  Every one of them was wonderful. The fish is fresh from the sea, the pasta is perfectly al dente, and the vegetables are cultivated in the restaurant's garden. The dishes, although elegantly presented, are relatively simple. The flavor of the fresh fish is first and foremost, as in a baccala on a puree of leeks or in a simple baked fish with rosemary, capers, olives and tomatoes. The wine list is extensive and is heavy on Tuscan wines, including many of the best Bolgheri wines.

The atmosphere is relaxed and the waiters linger to chat when they take away the dishes. Chef Zazzeri stopped by as well to talk to us about the different fish and how they were prepared. When we were leaving, he walked us to the door and in traditional Italian style, lingered there with us for ten minutes or more, talking about the politics of Italy, the vagaries of the restaurant business, his family and his passion for food. We seemed to diverge a bit on politics, but we were in perfect harmony on the pleasures of good food. 

To see more photos, click here

A presto,

Via Dei Cavalleggeri Nord 27
57020 Marina Di Bibbona, Toscana, Italy
Telefono  (0039) 0586.600016

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Bicycle Thieves

In the film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief),Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece of Italian neorealism, Antonio is struggling to support his family in post-World War II Rome. He has miraculously landed a job, but it requires a bicycle and his has already been pawned. His wife sells her dowry linens to retrieve it and the family's prospects seem to be on the rise, Then the bicycle is stolen. Antonio is devastated because the loss of his job means ruin for his family. One thing leads to another until Antonio himself becomes a bicycle thief. 

I thought of Antonio the other morning when I went down to get my bike and found that it had been stolen during the night. I suspect that it was just one of many because the bike rack was curiously empty and the only bikes left were those that were locked with heavy metal chains. 

Old-timers in Pisa attribute the thefts to people from Livorno, Pisa's ancient enemy in war and modern rival in soccer. Others accuse extracomunitari, people from outside the European Union, for the most part from eastern Europe. Harder for them to admit, but also likely, is the fact that among the culprits are ordinary Italian citizens, who like Antonio, are reduced to thievery by Italy's severe economic crisis. 

Whoever is behind it, bicycle theft is an enormous problem in Italy. In a recent surveyFiab, (the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle) estimated that 320,000 of the four million bikes on the road in Italy are stolen each year. The numbers are especially high in university towns such as Bologna, where the 240 people interviewed by Fiab reported 275 bicycles stolen. In Pisa, the numbers of stolen bikes are also higher than one per person interviewed. At a high school in Pisa, 50 bikes, locked to racks in the school's courtyard, have been stolen in the last several months. In a recent article in the local paper, the principal of the school Andrea Simonetti, cried basta and called for the city to take action: "We cannot remain silent while our parking lots are regularly plundered in broad daylight," he said.  

Pisa has instigated a registration policy for bikes, and police have conducted some undercover raids at known selling points for stolen bikes. However, theft is still such a common occurrence here that most people don't even bother to report it. Antonio and I, however, both filed a denuncia. At the headquarters of the carabinieri, the officer who took my complaint was very nice, but like Antonio's police officer, he warned me there was very little the police could do. He gave me a copy of the report and suggested that I walk around the city and look for my bike.  If I found it, I could call for an officer and with my complaint in hand, it was likely my bike would be returned to me.  

So I've been walking around Pisa for the last couple of days. Bikes are everywhere - thousands and thousands of them - but there is no sign of mine.  In the film there is a scene where Antonio, who has been searching for his bike in the streets of Rome, sits on a curb and watches sadly as the world whizzes past him on bikes. I know how he felt.

If Hollywood made The Bicycle Thief, my part would be played by a young beautiful blond who would find her bike, aided by an incredibly handsome Italian policeman. They would fall madly in love and in the last scene, they would bike off into the sunset. In the gritty world of Italian neorealism, however, Antonio never does find his bike.  I suspect I won't either.

My green and white Bianchi bicycle was already old when I bought it nine years ago for 40 euros. JR, however, kept it in good repair, and a vegetable crate, tied to the back rack, allowed me to carry wine and other heavy items. I never bought an official bike basket because I always assumed my bike would get stolen. Now it's happened, but I content myself with the fact that nine years is something of a record for continuous bike ownership here in Pisa. Friends always said that my bike was too ugly to steal, but I thought of it as distinctive and too easily recognized. I guess in the dark of the night, its distinctiveness was not apparent. 

Unlike Antonio, I can buy another bike, but I will miss my old one. It took me not just to the supermarket in Pisa, but also - on bright, sunny spring  days - along coastal roads on the island of Elba, through Tuscan river valleys red with poppies, and to the tops of the highest hills in Chianti.

(To see more photos, including places I visited on my bike, click here.)

A presto,

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Farmland below Peccioli and the town's contemporary sign on the road leading to Peccioli

Not far from Pisa is a beautiful Tuscan gem of a town called Peccioli. I first visited Peccioli in 2007 when I did some translation work for the town and have been back several times since. Located mid-way between Pisa and San Gimignano, Peccioli is perched high on a hill overlooking the valley of the Era River. The town boasts a perfectly proportioned Pisa-style 12th-century church, medieval buildings, modern sculptures, restaurants, shops, a theater, summer concerts and four museums. 

Recently Peccioli announced that it is selling shares in 2,200 acres of its beautiful, rolling, dream-inducing Tuscan landscape. The land, once part of an immense farm owned by the Medici family of Florence, also contains 40 picturesque farmhouses that were home to the peasant families who took care of the land. Realizing the value of its pristine farmlands with their white roads and rustic farmhouses, a partnership was  formed with the company Belvedere, to preserve the land for the common good. Belvedere estimates the cost of the restoration of the farmhouses at 50 million euros. If local people invest a part of their savings in the project, say company officials, they will not only protect the area from real estate speculation, but will also give jobs to local workers. It's an ambitious project whose success depends on local investment. Peccioli, however, has a history of success.

First mentioned in written documents in 793 A.D., Peccioli was a vital piece on the Etruscan chessboard of northern Etruria as far back as the 5th century B.C. By the Middle Ages, however, the town had become just a lowly pawn in the seemingly never-ending battle for political dominance between Pisa and Florence, passing back and forth between the two super powers. Through it all, the Pecciolesi made the best of a bad situation and continued to make, as they do today, great wine, honey and olive oil.

The town's modern claim to fame has been its ability to "make gold from garbage." More than 25 years ago when Tuscany faced a serious sanitation crisis, enterprising Peccioli, unlike its neighboring towns, welcomed the establishment of a nearby landfill.  Located about five miles from the town center, it has become an international model of good sanitation practices and a source of economic prosperity for the town.

Building upon this newfound wealth, the town administration made infrastructure improvements, bolstered social services and improved schools. It also sponsored an archeological dig, and restored chapel frescos painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the 15th century. Museums were opened, including an archeological museum of Etruscan art and a lithography museum with a superb collection of famous 20th-century Italian artists. 

Now, Peccioli hopes to attract more of the millions of people who visit Tuscany each year. According to their web site, about half of the 40 farmhouses, once restored, will be part of a tourist complex. The others will be sold on the international market to help finance the project. 

Owning a Tuscan farmhouse may not be in your future plans, but a visit to the town should be. Not so long ago, Peccioli earned the coveted Bandiera Arancione  from the Italian Touring Club, naming it one of the best small towns in Italy. So if you want to get there before the crowds, go soon. 

To see more photos of Peccioli and some of its 40 farmhouses, click here.

A presto,