Italy Day 1: Chianina and pisacan with old friends

Above: the Castello di Zumelle rises above the historic town of Mel nestled at the foot of the Dolomite Alps. Zumelle is the ancient name of Mel (in the province of Belluno, about an hour and a half south of Cortina d’Ampezzo). It means “two twins” in Bellunese dialect. According to legend, the castle was built in the 700s by twin brothers whose sarcophagus still resides within the castle walls.

So here goes: Italy Day 1…

I arrived in Venice on April fool’s day, picked up my Fiat Idea, and headed toward the hills. My first destination was the Castello di Zumelle, lunch, dinner, and sleep over with some of my oldest Italian friends, the Dalpiva family. I first met Renato and Lucia (left with their son, Nicola) in 1989 when I was in my second year at the Università di Padova and was making a living by playing blues and covers with my good friend Elvis (more on him later) in the many pubs and beer gardens that line the Piave river. At the time, they ran the Casa Rossa, one of the most successful venues, and in 1991, they were asked to manage the famous Birreria di Pedavena, a beautiful 1930s beer garden and botanic garden, where I spent three summers playing six nights a week with a cover band comprised of friends from California (including Charlie George, John Krylow, Ted, and Shawn Amos).

Today, they live atop a hill in a castle… yes, a castle, just like in fairy tales. A few years back, after they had retired (at a very young age, I might add), Renato won the local competition to open a restaurant in the town’s medieval castle. Not only did he build a beautiful restaurant there, but he also refurbished the living quarters and the family moved in. The ever-industrious Renato also created a medieval re-enactment walking tour for children: three or four times a week, he dons his medieval garb (as in the photo above) and teaches school children how to make chainmaille and medieval dumplings, he lectures, accompanied by music, on life in the Middle Ages.

For dinner, Renato threw some fiorentine on the grill (Tuscan porterhouse steaks, butchered from Chianina cows). Note how he chars the top of the steaks before grilling them — a sine qua non.

After our steaks, Lucia served a salad made with tarassaco (Taraxacum), a local variety of dandelion green known in Veneto dialect as pisacane or dog pisser. The name is not very appetizing but the bitterness of these tasty greens was offset by a drop or two of balsamic vinegar.

The castle armory is a highlight of Renato’s tour. He’s like a kid in a candy store…

A diorama of the castle as it appeared in the Middle Ages.

Sunset in the valley as seen from the castle tower.

Next post: a visit with Maria Teresa Mascarello, Bartolo’s beret, and the mystery of his Che Guevara star…