April 2013

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How I ended up meeting Maura

The other morning, in a break from my usual tradition of ordering cornetto con crema and a cappuccino at Caffé di Perugia, I took my breakfast at Sandri, a revered pastry shop (here since 1860), staffed by waiters in scarlet red waistcoats and matching bow-ties.

The long narrow room, as elegant-looking as a wise-cracking Cary Grant, has carved wooden display shelves, full of chocolates and confections, and a domed, painted ceiling, like a church vestibule. The Two Amandas have relentlessly encouraged me to come here. They refer to it as Perugia’s Holy Loving Church of Sweets.

The place is jammed, the tables full. There’s only a single spot available at the bar and I have to wedge myself in, clearing my throat so that the woman beside me, standing over an espresso and a small white plate with four little chocolates on it, will move her coat—her faux-fur coat—off the bar. A coat, I realize too late, that belongs to the pretentious Italian guide who evicted me from her sex-in-religious-art tour at the National Gallery a couple of days ago.

I apologize for bothering her and she snaps, “You’re the rude man who interrupted my tour.”

“I wasn’t rude,” I tell her. “I was just curious as to what you had to say about the prostitutes.” The pasticceri, who greeted me in English, looks up from washing cappuccino cups and raises his eyebrows in alarm.

“Well, normally people pay for my services,” she says the woman icily.

“I’d be happy to pay for your services,” I tell her. The pasticceri puts down his towel and shakes his head before moving away. “As a guide, I mean.”

“Well, I’m very busy.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“I am.”

“Of course.”

She downs her espresso in a single gulp and dabs at her melon-colored lips with a linen napkin, leaving a red stain.

“When would you like to hire me?”


“You said you wanted to hire me.”

“I said no such thing.”

She shrugs and reaches for her purse. “You did.”

“Actually, I was planning on visiting Assisi tomorrow,” I tell her, hoping that will be the end of it.

“Fine,” she says as she opens a compact and applies another layer of pink lipstick. “I’ll meet you in front of the Basilica at ten. Don’t be late.”

And so before I’ve even had a chance to order breakfast, I’ve accidentally gone and hired this snooty little woman from the museum, Signorina Maura Baldoni, as my guide to Assisi tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll get lucky and she won’t show up.  

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A town just like a woman

It’s annoying as hell walking around Perugia with Miss Baldoni. Everyone, it seems, knows her. Waiters at the sidewalk cafes across from the duomo leave their tables to rush over and give her a kiss on the cheek; a young woman selling daffodils in the piazza offers her a free bouquet. Even a capuchin monk, on his way to Assisi, stops his journey to give her a hug and then prattles on for 10 or 15 minutes about god only knows what.

Finally the bearded monk in his pointy little hood hurries off and we are able to continue on, heading down a narrow street until Maura suddenly stops and looks all around her, as if for the first time. “I love this street,” she says. “Via Maesta delle Volte. It’s one of the most sensual streets in Perugia. Do you see what I mean?”

My guide, Maura Baldoni. Photos by David Lansing.

My guide, Maura Baldoni. Photos by David Lansing.



Frankly, no. To me, it’s dark, dank, narrow. A bit claustrophobic.

“You are blind, aren’t you?” She sighs. “Look,” she says, pointing back up the street. “Focus. Pay attention. This street is like a woman, full of arches and curves. It is vuoto and pieno—empty and full. You see?”

Slowly, I do see. The gorgeous arches above the vicolos, the inviting openings that entice you onwards. The play of shadow and light, the different textures and colors.  She’s right. It’s incredibly sensual. Why could I not see this before?

We continue down the hill as Miss Baldoni explains to me that Perugia has always had the lines of a woman. “It was founded on two hills,” she says, “with the flat space—Corso Vannucci—between them.” She stops and faces me. “You see,” she says, directing my attention to the mounds of her chest with both her hands, “this is what Perugia looks like.”

Point well taken.

We end up on the edge of town where a round church sits on a nob in a tranquil setting of rose gardens and cypress trees. She has brought me to San Michele Arcangelo, one of the oldest Christian churches in Umbria, dating to the late 5th century. It is intimate, simple, peaceful and quite beautiful. There is no one inside. I walk around its circular walls, touching the well-worn stone.

The church San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia, Italy.

The feminine curves of San Michele Arcangelo in Perugia, Italy.



“It’s something special for us, this church,” Miss Baldoni tells me as we sit on a wooden bench. “A very popular place for Perugians to get married. Do you understand why?”

I do. This time she does not need to explain the romantic nature of the architecture to me. There is something sweetly feminine about this little church. Something that invites you into its intimate space, something that makes you feel tranquil and happy. A post-coital emotion that even I can sense. 


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Whenever I ask the concierge at the Locanda Della Posta how to get somewhere, he tells me it is next to or very near someplace else. Someplace I’ve never been and have no idea how to get to. He tells me, for instance, that the Osteria il Gufo, where I planned to have dinner Saturday night, is across from the old cinema on Via della Viola (a street that’s not on any map). The truffle shop, he tells me, is on the same street as the gelaterie. But since there are about a thousand gelati shops in Perugia, I ask him which one and am told, “The best, naturalmente.”

Rather timidly, I ask him if the best gelati shop in Perugia has a name? No, he says. “But everyone knows it.” And he dismisses me as the idiot I am with a wave of his hand.

Saturday afternoon, after asking the concierge for directions to a shop nearby selling cheese, I ended up walking down a narrow, dark vicolo, completely lost, where I stumbled upon Cacioteka Formagi Salumi (although, somewhat confusingly, it says GIULIANO’S in big blue letters on the front).

Leonardo Spulcia in Cacioteka. Photos by David Lansing.

Leonardo Spulcia in Cacioteka. Photos by David Lansing.



Cacioteka is owned by Leonardo Spulcia and when I ask him why the store sign says GIULIANO’S, he shrugs and says the name has always been on the front of the shop and why ruin a perfectly good sign just because the original owner,  Giuliano, may have died of cholera in the 15th century? Well, who can argue with such logic?

I tell Leonardo I’d like some local gorgonzola and he instructs his assistant to cut me off a chunk from a lovely wedge in the display case. While I’m waiting, Leonardo gives me an assaggio from a big, fat, round sausage in a cloth bag labeled coglioni di mulo. I don’t know a lot of Italian but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mulo is mule and coglioni sounds very similar to the Spanish cojones—balls. Mule’s balls sausage.

Would you prefer the mule's balls or grandpa's testicles sausage?

Would you prefer the mule’s balls or grandpa’s testicles sausage?



Italians, who have an endless number of food items named after male and female sexual parts,  seem to find this sort of thing hilarious.

When I compliment him on his mule’s balls, he cuts up a crinkly-looking sausage, palle del nonno, made from local wild boar. The name translates into something like “grandpa’s testicles.” It’s even tastier. Not as fatty as the mule’s balls but with a better mouth-feel. I take a quarter kilo of each and happily munch on them, and my gorgonzola, out on the balcony of my hotel room while watching the swallows dive bomb for insects above a very busy Corso Vannucci.

Here in Umbria, it’s starting to feel a little bit like spring. 

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Fra Antonio and Fra Marcella are standing with me in front of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi arguing about cappuccino. “Fra” is Italian for brother. The due friars are capuchin monks which is how this whole heated argument came up. I was hanging around in front of the church waiting for this ridiculous guide I’d accidentally hired when Fra Antonio came over and introduced himself to me. There were monks all over the place and I made the mistake of asking him why they wore different outfits and he explained to me that there are three monastic orders in Assisi and some monks wear brown robes and others black, shoes or sandals, beards or no beards, pointy hoods or piccolo hoods.

Photo of Assisi by David Lansing.

Photo of Assisi by David Lansing.



He wasn’t proselytizing and he wasn’t looking for a handout. I think, like me, he was just bored. I don’t know what friars do nowadays that there isn’t a lot of Black Plague to attend to and they don’t get to preside over the traditional let’s-roast-a-heretic bonfires in the middle of town. They must get tired of just praying all the time. You can only say so many Hail Marys before that just gets old. So I think Brother Antonio was just, you know, shooting the shit with me.

Just to make conversation, I asked him what came first, the capuchini or the cappuccino?

He took the question seriously, looking up towards the heavens for divine inspiration. Cappuccinos, he said slowly, playing with the three knots on his rope belt (the knots stand for chastity, poverty, and obedience, none of which I’m too interested in), were named after the reef of hair, called a tonsure, on the heads of the old-time monks. People thought the brown foam on top of the coffee drink looked like a tonsure.

Which is when Fra Marcella, who was obviously listening in on our conversation, came over. He put a hand on Fra Antonio’s dusty robe and laughed. “No, no, no,” he said, wagging a finger at his brother monk. The cappuccino was so-named because the capuchini robes are the same color as the milky brown coffee.

Well, that really pissed Fra Antonio off. He got so angry the top of his bald head turned red. He started kneading one of the knots in his rope belt like it was a mozzarella ball, though I couldn’t tell if he was taking his frustration out on chastity, poverty, or obedience. I’m guessing obedience. Brother Antonio explained to Brother Marcella that he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. After all, the monks didn’t have just one color of robe. Go look at the painting by Giotto in the church, he told him. The robes are different shades of ash, black, earth.

“What do you know of cappuccino?” trumped Marcella. “You are not even Italian! You’re Spanish!”

Which is when my guide, Maura, finally showed up (almost 20 minutes late). The due Fras ignored her as they jabbed fingers into each other’s cappuccino-colored robes. She gave me a look of disgust and said, “You always seem to cause trouble. What have you done here?”

“Nothing,” I told her. “They’re just having a heated discussion over coffee. Shall we go look at the frescoes?”

And we did. 

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A tale of two lovers

Usually I don’t mind eating alone. In fact, I kind of like it. Nobody pays any attention to you (including the waiters, which, okay, can be the downside) and I can just sit there unobtrusively drinking my wine while trying to figure out everybody’s story instead of listening with faux-rapt attention to whoever I might be dining with (this is, after all, what a flâneur does).

For instance, last night I ate alone at La Taverna Ristorante in Perugia. While I was waiting for my ravioli di radicchio e speck al gorgonzola e pere, which was very good by the way, two different couples walked in. Both dressed head-to-toe in black (it’s an Italian/NY thing). The women looked so similar they could have been sisters: early 30s, black shoulder-length hair (great cuts), pale skin, dark eyes, Roman noses, hoop earrings (are they back?). One of the guys was better looking than the other: better haircut, better suit. The other guy wore a stretched-out turtleneck and had a Beatles haircut (which, I’ll admit, looked very hip in 1963). Otherwise, demographically identical couples.

One couple—let’s call them the “Cute Couple”—do all the date things: run fingers along the rims of their wine glasses while they’re oh-so-intently listening to the other’s story;  she plays with her hair, he puts an index finger on his cheek; they laugh and tilt their heads at the same time; touch hands, faces, thighs; ignore their food when it comes.

The other couple—“It’s So Over,” shall we call them?—keep their coats on; sit with their hands on their laps; and talk to the chef, Claudio, when he wheels his cart over to slice up some lamb for them, but otherwise ignore each other.

Question: Which couple is going to get laid tonight?

It’s obvious, huh. So what do you think–was it the guy’s haircut? 

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