Texas wine, food, media professionals: please join me for virtual tastings with Italian producers September 21-22.

Some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done has been for the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. Previously covering just Texas but now also Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma (hence “south central”), the Houston-headquartered IACC is ranked number one among chambers in North America and number eight throughout the world.

Sorry, New York!

The IACC has achieved that status in part by mounting truly compelling events with top wine and food producers from Italy, leading wine and food professionals here in Texas, and high-profile journalists and tastemakers from across the U.S.

In March, the IACC would have presented the sixth annual Taste of Italy trade fair, the largest wine and food gathering in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Italian products and producers. I’m a consultant and emcee for the event. Last year, we hosted more than 100 producers and 500+ attendees.

This year, we’ve moved the event online: on Monday and Tuesday, September 21-22 wine and food professionals across the state of Texas will have the opportunity to attend one-on-one virtual tastings with producers in Italy via Google Meet.

And here’s the even cooler part: once you schedule your tasting appointments, the wines and food products will be delivered to your home or office. It’s that simple.

The other cool thing is that the IACC has partnered with a super groovy new platform called GrapeIn to coordinate the tastings (more on GrapeIn forthcoming).

If you are a wine and food professional or a culinary-focused social media user active in Texas, click here to see a list of participating wine and food producers. Click on the producers you’d like to taste with, indicate the time slot, and the IACC will take care of the rest.

This 100 percent virtual event represents an extraordinary opportunity to connect in real-time with Italian producers as you taste their products.

Please join me in just a few weeks as we explore some great Italian wines and foods. Ping me if you need more info or guidance. But it’s all pretty straightforward.

Austin, San Antonio, Dallas: I’m talking to you, too!

Oh and that photo at the top of this post? I took that in our kitchen. It gives you an idea of what these tastings will look and feel like.

I hope you can join me! Thanks for supporting Italian wine and food and the people who make them (in the comfort of your own home)!

Italian sisters and brothers, you are my heroes! This is what a life in wine can be like in the time of the pandemic.

My good friend Flavio Geretto, a top Italian wine professional, post this photo yesterday with the following caption: “Lunch and Prosecco blind tasting with the export team before the summer holiday break. During this difficult year we never stopped… and our aim is to continue in the same way!!!!”

Dinner was over, the kitchen was clean, and our daughters were in bed last night when Tracie and I turned on some music and sat down on the coach to catch up on news and social media.

One of the first images that appeared in my feed was the one above: my good friend Flavio Geretto (second from right) with the export team at the Villa Sandi winery in Valdobbiadene (I do media consulting for Flavio).

I turned to show it to Tracie.

“That’s what life in wine could be like,” I said, “if our country had the leadership and moral fiber to fight the virus. Italians are my heroes.”

Through their sheer resilience and deep sense of civic duty, the Italians have shown the world how we can learn to live with COVID.

Here in Texas where we “live,” our infection rates are high, countless people are suffering, and many are dying, and yet our state leaders continue to tie the hands of our local government despite our mayor and crisis manager’s pleas to let them lock our city down. It’s so plain to see: the Italians were quick to lock down their country once the scope of the pandemic became clear; they banded together — apart — to stop COVID’s spread; they wore their masks and maintained social distance; and now, across Italy, a normal life has resumed.

It’s a life where people can work and socialize without fear, as in the photo above of Flavio with his colleagues.

What the Italians have down is nothing short of heroic.

I’ll never forget texting with one of my single friends in northern Italy at the height of the health crisis there. He was holed up alone in his condo in the country end and we were extremely worried about his physical and mental health. He had no contact with anyone — anyone at all, not even his parents or sister — for weeks on end. Today, he goes out to lunch and dinner, sees his friends, and regularly receives tasters at his winery.

Wine professionals in America could be doing the same if it weren’t for the shortsightedness of our leaders and our utter lack of civic responsibility. We could be doing the same if our worldview didn’t boil down to why should I wear a mask to protect your health, why should I change my lifestyle so that others don’t suffer, why should I care that members of my community are dying at an alarming rate?

Where Tracie and I live, there’s no end to the crisis in sight. We are among the fortunate who work at home and have the means to live a decent life even while sheltering in place. But our community — our country — will never get back on track until our citizens embrace a sense of belonging and selflessness in the place of the egoism and myopia that continue to paralyze us.

Italians, you are heroes! How I envy you! How I weep and long for my America!

Letter from Italy: “Issues in our hospitality industry that need to be addressed as we rebuild” by Francesco Bonfio.

Today’s letter from Italy come from my good friend and one of the wine professionals I admire most, Francesco Bonfio, founder of the Italian Association of Wine Shop Professionals. He lives in the historic center of Siena. He shared the above photo of the Piazza del Campo where the city’s famous Palio is run twice each year.

Jeremy, I don’t need to tell you how terrifyingly painful it is to see Piazza del Campo without a single human being in it. I don’t need to tell you how frustrating it is that it’s highly likely that the people of Siena won’t be able to attend the two traditional runnings of the Palio on July 2 and August 16. They’ll be missing their main reason for living. The last time that it happened was because of the Second World War. It wasn’t run again until August 16, 1945 with Il Drago as the winner. Since that time, it’s never been suspended or cancelled.

Instead, I’d like to take advantage of your offer to share a letter from Italy by addressing the Italians who follow your blog. I know there are many of them out there.

Jeremy, I don’t know if you are familiar with the Italian saying, quando sei martello batti, quando sei incudine statti (when you are a hammer, strike your fill; when you are an anvil, hold you still). I believe it comes from the world of gambling. It means that when luck is on your side, you need to make the most of it by pushing yourself as far as you can. When, vice versa, you are in a moment of difficulty, you need to hunker down and stay put because the more you get worked up, the more damage you’ll do.

Right now, Italians are an anvil.
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Coronavirus unleashes panic across northern Italy.

Above: an illustration released today at noon (Italian time) by the Italian health ministry — 213 cases reported, 99 persons being treated at a hospital, 23 cases in need of intensive care, 91 persons in home isolation.

According to a report published this morning by the Italian national daily La Repubblica, a sixth person has died in Italy’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

The latest victim, report the editors, was a man in his 80s in Milan. All of those who have died from the virus have been more than 80 years old, they write.

You can see a map of areas where contagion has been reported here.

City streets are deserted and grocery store shelves emptied across northern Italy, where panic has gripped citizens in Piedmont, Lombardy, Trentino, and Veneto. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, officials are asking returning residents who work in the north to report their status upon their arrival there.

Italy’s emergency telephone number, 112 (similar to 911 in the U.S.), has been overwhelmed by callers who are seeking information about the outbreak.

At least 10 towns in Lombardy, where the outbreak is concentrated, are on lockdown, according to the most recent report by the New York Times.

Museums, schools, and churches are closed and all public gatherings have been postponed through Sunday, March 1.

Anecdotally, I’m hearing that lines at supermarkets are long and vital products are scarce. Nearly everyone who dares to go out wears a surgical mask (despite the fact that it doesn’t reduce your risk of being infected).

So far, I haven’t heard of any impact on the wine trade. But with industry fairs around the corner (Prowein next month and Vinitaly in April), some are concerned that the outbreak will impede attendance.

Italy’s winemakers dodged a bullet on February 14 when the U.S. government announced it wouldn’t be expanding wine tariffs to include Italian products. But many fear that the recent and rapidly evolving health crisis will ultimately have a negative effect on domestic sales. Today’s steep drop in global financial markets will certainly be viewed as an indicator of consumer confidence.

I’ll keep posting updates as more information becomes available.

Attention Italy-bound travelers: car rental companies now may require international driving permits

Although international driving permits for foreigners have been required by Italian authorities for decades, rental car agencies have rarely, if ever, insisted that drivers present a permit before renting a car there.

But that seems to have changed: two weeks ago, for the first time in my 30+ years renting cars and driving in Italy, the agent at the Hertz counter at Malpensa airport asked me to present my permit before she would give me the keys to a car.

When I asked her why she had asked me to show her my permit before she would release a car, she told me that her company has begun to check drivers’ permit status after Italian police had impounded vehicles driven by foreigners who lacked a permit.

Since the first time I rented a car in Italy back in the late 80s, I had read and been told that not having an international driving permit (IDP) could lead to stiff fines. And even though I have always obtained and renewed my IDP before traveling there, I had never been asked to present it — not by authorities or rental car agencies. I’ve been pulled over on a handful of occasions for random police controls (although I have never received a ticket or fine). When that happened, the police never asked me for my IDP. (I have been fined for speeding after receiving a ticket generated by a speed camera; see my post on my experience here.)

On its website, the Italian ministry for infrastructure and transportation clearly states that an IDP is required to drive in Italy. But, again, I had never heard of the law being enforced.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “an international driving permit (IDP) translates your government-issued driver’s license into 10 languages. Although your U.S. driver’s license lets you drive in many foreign countries, the translations in the IDP are intended to minimize language barriers when you drive in countries where English is not widely spoken or understood.”

Only two agencies are authorized to issue IDPs in the U.S.: the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). On its website, the commission also warns against “IDP scams.”

If, like me and countless other wine professionals, you’ll be headed to Italy this year and plan to rent a car, it’s worth the negligible fee and hassle for an IDP (I get mine at my local AAA office).

Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (Francis Petrarch; translation by Robert Durling).

Above: Italian resistance fighters in Piazza San Marco, Venice in 1945 (images via the Archivio Luce).

Today is Italian Liberation Day: Festa della Liberazione, April 25. Established in 1946, it commemorates the end of Nazi and Fascist rule in Italy.

It’s a national holiday in Italy and most Italians are taking today and tomorrow off (an Italian ponte or bridge, as it’s called, a long weekend).

But one of my colleagues, a young man from Tuscany, took time out to write me this morning.

“Viva l’Italia,” he wrote, “unita, libera e antifascista.”

“Long live Italy, united, free, and anti-fascist.”

It’s incredible to think that in 2019 the Italian government is being run by Matteo Salvini, a strongman, would-be autocrat whose political origins are murky with traces of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. He came to power (and continues to run) on a virulent nationalist and anti-immigrant platform. He’s pals with Putin and Orbán. Sound familiar? He’s one of Steve Bannon’s pet projects.

Just last week, the Washington Post ran this story on Mussolini’s grandson and his run for a seat in the EU Parliament. Neo-Fascism is no longer a taboo in Italian political and social circles, notes the author.

Salvini, for example, often cites the “golden years” of Mussolini and the Fascist regime. He forgets that those years weren’t golden for everyone.

Check out this slide show by the Archivio Luce. It features images from Italy after Mussolini’s fall.

Happy Italian Liberation Day! Long live a united, free, and anti-fascist Italy!

The priest the Mafia killed: the story of Padre Pino Puglisi, fictionalized by one of his students in a novel I translated

It was just a year after the world had collectively gasped at the Mafia’s brutal 1992 car bomb killings of magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

A dark moment in Italian contemporary history, it was a year after Italy’s ruling political class had been implicated in the infamous “Bribesville” scandal.

It was a year after Italians had begun to lose faith in their political system and social fabric. The dream of Italy’s economic miracle, with a “Benetton on every corner in Manhattan” (as one of my professors marveled a few years earlier), was coming to an end.

In 1993, the Mafia did something that seemed to break with its own “code of conduct,” however abominable it were: members of Cosa Nostra killed a priest in Palermo — something unthinkable at the time.

Padre Pino Puglisi (known affectionately as “3P”) had openly defied the Mafia in an economically challenged Palermo neighborhood where it recruited and trafficked kids from the streets: Brancaccio, a proletariat community where youth prospects dwindled in step with Italy’s fading promise of prosperity.

Read the English-language Wikipedia entry on Padre Pino here. And read this wonderful blog devoted to his life and times, with English translation, here.

Today he is remembered as “the priest who smiled at his killers.”

Father Pino ran a community youth outreach program in Brancaccio and he lobbied and spoke out aggressively against the Mafia’s unyielding grip on the neighborhood.

Educator, television personality, and screenwriter Alessandro D’Avenia was one of his theology students. His 2014 novel, Ciò che inferno non è, a fictionalized account of Padre Pino’s story, was a best seller in Italy.

My translation of his book, What Hell Isn’t, has just been published in England by One World.

As wine lovers, we spend so much energy hawing and humming about this natural wine from Sicily or that, but we hardly take time out to examine the immense and often insurmountable difficulties of growing up poor in Sicily’s cities.

I highly recommend it to you. Not because I translated it but because it offers perspective into the human tragedy that plays out in Sicily’s urban streets every day.

Top image: screenshot via the blog Tra il cuore e la mente.

“Shock, terror, pain, dread” (@Miti_Vigliero): the Morandi bridge tragedy in Genoa

“My connection is slowly coming back but not my strength or my will to write. Just shock, terror, pain, dread, and a sense of frustration and interminable nausea caused by rage, indignation, and contempt. It’s better if I don’t say anything, at least for the moment. Silence is better. #genoa #Morandibridge” (translation mine)

Mitì Vilgiero, one of my favorite contemporary Italian writers and a chronicler of life in Genoa, posted the above tweet yesterday following the tragic collapse of the city’s Morandi Bridge.

According to the New York Times, at least 39 people have died as a result of the disaster.

Although we didn’t pass through Genoa, Tracie and I recently drove along the A10 freeway just north of the port city and capital of Liguria in Italy’s northwest. The Morandi bridge connected Genoa to the rest of the continent along that corridor.

Not only is that road one of the country’s major arteries but it is also one of Europe’s most important transportation routes, connecting Italy and France.

The collapse of the bridge will continue to impact lives in Genoa, Italy, and Europe for the unforeseeable future.

Our hearts and prayers go out this morning to the victims and their families.

Italian bacon and eggs: Italy’s obsession with American food (no, this isn’t a joke)

Above: when I first started coming to Italy 30 years ago, bacon was still called pancetta. Now it’s called “bacon” in Italian.

Tracie and I landed in Italy yesterday with our daughters, ages 4 and 6. It’s their first real trip to Europe (since our oldest doesn’t have any recollection of our visits here when she was just one year old; and our youngest only made it here previously in utero).

When we told them about our summer trip this spring, they were concerned — gastronomically speaking.

“Daddy, daddy, we can’t go to Italy!” they protested vehemently. “They won’t have the things we like to eat there!”

“They have LOTS of good things to eat in Italy!” Tracie and I laughed and smiled.

“Do they have pizza in Italy?”

“Yes, of course they do,” I told them. “In fact, the Italians invented pizza! They have the best pizza in the world.”

They seemed genuinely impressed by this historical tidbit but then came the culinary litmus test that would determine their willingness to join their parents in the Garden of Europe:

“But daddy, do they have bacon in Italy?”

Above: bacon and eggs is now commonly found on menus in northern Italy.

It must have been seven or so years ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni took me out for (truly excellent) hamburgers and I noticed that the cured pork belly was cut and smoked not like traditional Italian pancetta but like American bacon.

In the time since, “bacon” — as it is now called in Italian — has become ubiquitous in northern Italy.

Above: a hamburger I ate last month in Franciacorta. Note the bacon.

Italians love LOVE hamburgers. They love them so much that they don’t use butcher scraps to form the patties. They use the highest quality beef they can find. And beyond the myriad fast food restaurants that now sadly dot the northern Italian countryside, the omni-present amburgheria (hamburger house) never uses the hydrogenated-oil buns that we adore in America. Instead, they use artisanal buns.

I’ve had some of the best hamburgers of my life in Italy in recent years. And that’s coming from an all-American, huge bacon-cheeseburger fan.

Bacon and scrambled eggs are also immensely popular now in northern Italy. Two years ago, I snapped the above photo of the dish in a run-of-the-mill trattoria in downtown Milan, ordered at lunch à la carte.

Above: bacon fries with Pecorino sauce (no joke) at the same amburgheria in Franciacorta.

Giovanni is graciously hosting our family this month at his place in Franciacorta. And being the generous and thoughtful friend that he is, he went grocery shopping for us before we arrived. The bacon in the top photo is awaiting our girls in his fridge as they slumber.

Back at home, we spend SO MUCH money on high-quality, wholesome bacon. Here in Italy, even when they cut the bacon from top hogs, the price is still very reasonable.

Leave it to the Italians to “misunderstand” American cuisine and make it all the better along the way. My only worry is: will our children ever want American bacon again?

We arrived safely and soundly yesterday afternoon in Milan and made our way to Franciacorta before the heavy rain began to fall. The girls have already spotted their first bunnies outside of Giovanni’s apartment and they loved the fresh fruit that Giovanni’s mom had prepared for them. Aside from a lost bag (mine, thank goodness, not Tracie’s with all the girls’ things), we’re already having a great time. Thanks for reading and buon weekend a tutti!

My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds: the Italian Republic’s populist tide

Above: the Euganean Hills where the Italian poet Francis Petrarch (1304-1374) spent his last years transcribing his life’s work.

“My Italy, although speech does not aid those mortal wounds of which in your lovely body I see so many, I wish at least my sighs to be such as Tiber and Arno hope for, and Po where I now sit sorrowful and sad” (translation by Robert Durling).

The above passage, the opening of the most famous of Francis Petrarch’s political poems in Italian, came to mind last week when I read the news that Italy would have a new governing coalition formed by racists and nationalists.

The news also made me think of my dissertation advisor, the Italian poet Luigi Ballerini, whom I recently saw in Milan where he was born in 1940. His earliest memories, he has often told me, are of Nazi soldiers retreating from the city atop their tanks, bare-chested in the heart of winter. Luigi never knew his father, who was killed by fascists on a Greek island.

Today, Matteo Salvini — an avowed racist, nationalist, and Euroskeptic (not to mention a confidant of Steve Bannon, who now resides in Rome) — has come to power in Italy (see this Fox news account of one of Salvini’s campaign rallies from earlier this year).

The Italian papers reported yesterday and the English news media is just beginning to file its reports on Salvini’s freshly forged alliance with Viktor Orbán, the hardline anti-immigrant and openly anti-Semitic prime minister of Hungary. Together, they plan to re-write the EU’s rules on immigration — Salvini and Orbán’s shared cause célèbre.

Before he cleaned up his act and tried to affect an air of respectability, Salvini was renowned in Italy for his overtly racist rhetoric. In 2009, he proposed (as a joke, he later claimed) that foreigners riding the subway in Milan be forced to wear stars on their clothing to denote their immigration status.

Even when I’m Italy teaching for an Italian university, I’m technically an extracomunitario, an alien. Will he require that I wear a star when I take the train?

Tomorrow, I’ll head off again to Italy for another two weeks of teaching at a university there. This time, I’m taking my wife and our two young daughters with me. We took our oldest daughter to visit the country when she was just a baby. She has no memories of our time there. So this trip, which we’ve been planning and talking about for weeks, is their “first trip to Italy.”

It makes me think of my first trip to Italy, in 1987 when I studied the history of Italian language at the University of Padua. I’ll never forget meeting and interacting with other foreign students from the Middle East and Africa then. I can only imagine, with dread, how they perceive Italy’s current political climate. I can hardly fathom their concern for their children’s futures.

When I saw Luigi last month in Milan, where he is living permanently now, he told me that he doesn’t recognize the Italy of his adolescence, a time when economic prosperity and liberal attitudes locked arms to create a culture of hope, tolerance, and humanism there.

Machiavelli famously closed The Prince with these lines from the same poem by Petrarch:

“If only you would show some sign of piety, then virtue against rage will take up arms, and battle will be short, for all that ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead” (translation by Mark Musa).

Hope still shines in the distant future, dimmed and diminished but still flickering. Let us pray that the not-so ancient valor in the Italian heart is not dead.