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Window on Italy - Life in Piazza Matteotti

Colleen Simpson

In my small village of Piegaro in Umbria, Piazza Matteotti is our outdoor living room. It is where life is lived outside the confines of our homes. And it functions as the connecting point much like the center of a kaleidoscope. The center stays stationary as all the facets of colorful pieces spin around mirroring each other.

I love this life that is lived in the central piazza of my village where most essential business is conducted and the daily flow of greetings and gossip is shared. I have only to step out of my entry way to peer through the old wooden gate that is always open between my little street next to the town hall leading to the piazza. From that vantage point I can see Pepina's home directly across from the town hall, where my lady friends hang out.

Ladies of the Piazza: Colleen, Annuziata, Carla and Gina

Ladies of the Piazza: Colleen, Annuziata, Carla and Gina

I call these ladies the "Donni della Piazza" and they know all that goes on from their vantage point at the hub of our village. They maintain the beautiful floral displays each spring and summer, they welcome me to sit with them, and they embrace all my guests with open arms. They are the official welcoming committee of Piegaro. Lively Pepina, mother-in-law of the mayor and tender of her grandson, Giorgio, the young prince of Piegaro; staid and sturdy Ada, who seems to me a monument to all that is steady and trusted about Piegaro; soft-spoken Maria Pia, who takes my hand and gently kisses my cheeks whenever and wherever we meet.

Micheale, the Meat Maestro

Micheale, the Meat Maestro

On one corner is the butcher's shop where Michaele and Rosa always press a few of their homemade sausages or a porchetta panini into my shopping bag as a gift. They are grateful for the many guests I send to them to purchase the best meat in the territory. A good time to be sure to see some friends, is to wander in around 11:00 when most of us are thinking about what to prepare for lunch. Michaele always wants to know what I plan to cook. One time when my menu included risotto he cautioned me to be sure that it is "al dente!" A beautiful couple, Rosa and Michaele have two-year old Frederica and now will welcome their second child in February. They have no plans to know whether they are having a boy or girl, they just want a big surprise!

Just across the street, another jewel in our kaleidoscope, is the grocery tended by Matteo, a reluctant shopkeeper when his father retired, but now warmed to the idea. Matteo is naturally reserved which comes off a little grouchy, but I always charm him into a smile when I introduce all my new guests who arrive each Saturday. I encourage them to shop locally and Matteo loves the idea of additional commerce. He tries to stock only the freshest produce, and if he only offers two choices of cereals, he makes up for it with his vast array of local cheeses and cold cuts. He also tells me to be sure to cook my risotto "al dente." During our Annual Festa del Vetro in August, it is such a pleasure to see Matteo completely transformed from grocer into an ancient Courtier for the procession through the village and the medieval festival.

On the other corner is a real bright jewel in our kaleidoscope, the recent arrival of Osteria di Juni that moved into one of the best spaces in the piazza, but where restaurants historically have come and gone, unable to make it through the winters. The owners, the petite spitfire, Juni, and big teddy-bear, Vittorio, have become my dearest friends. I know this restaurant will stick through the year for the Piegarese have flocked to sample their fresh fish and seafood and the crisp, thin pizza from Napoli, where Vittorio was raised. I could eat here every night if I had my wish. Sometimes, I arrive before the traditional opening at 7:30 and am invited to the family table where Juni, Vittorio, Juni's brother, Manuele and good friend, Silvio eat before the busy evening commences. Sometimes, Vittorio simply asks me what I am in the mood for and he creates temptations that are not on the menu. Sometimes, it is my usual: spaghetti con vongole (clams) or the delicately steamed mussels with clams in a heavenly garlic broth. I even have a pizza named after me because I always order the same: Michaele's sausage with wild mushrooms.

Vittorio Prepares Seafood Antipasti and "Pizza Colleen"

Vittorio Prepares Seafood Antipasti and "Pizza Colleen"

Around the corner from Osteria di Juni is the mainstay of all our village life, the Café Via Roma. Here is where I am assured to find many of my friends for a quick morning cappuccino, or a prosecco before dinner. And here is where I find dear Martin, my friend since I moved here three years ago. Actually Martin is a plumber, but his girlfriend, who owns the café left for the big city of Bologna, and he gamely tends the bar now. I know he yearns to return to plumbing, but I enjoy seeing him each day where I know I can find him behind the bar at Via Roma. He and my friend, Omar, can usually be found together and we conspire on many adventures. Omar, even though a stonemason has lots of ideas how to liven up Café life. One night Omar sponsored a Nutella Party (you don't want to know what that involves)! Other times we have had cinema night and karaoke night. Whatever night it is, this is the social center of the village. We have both tried to play matchmaker for Martin to no avail. He is a sweet man and drives a sporty Mercedes convertible, so I'm sure it won't be long before he will find the girl that he deserves! I call him "Man of Many T-Shirts" for the amazing collection of shirts he wears, seemingly never twice.

Martin "Man of Many T-Shirts" beside the summer terrace

Martin "Man of Many T-Shirts" beside the summer terrace

During the unseasonable rains of May, many of the ragazzi, the young men of Piegaro, congregated in Café Via Roma and I could deepen friendships with these solare, golden boys of Piegaro who are young enough to be my sons.

Solare Boys of Piegaro

Solare Boys of Piegaro

These boys are soon transformed into an attorney, a nobleman and a courtier within a few months during our medieval festival in August. These are the young keepers of tradition. They work hard, they love to party, and they love a good medieval festival to celebrate their heritage.

Carlotta, Lady in Waiting, with Omar, the Advocate

Carlotta, Lady in Waiting, with Omar, the Advocate

My best friend among the boys is Omar, a stonemason, who yearns to roam the world and has already visited Mexico and Africa. He is accompanied by Carlotta, the fourth generation of strong women in my adopted Italian family.

The summer center of our kaleidoscope is definitely the temporary wooden terrace erected over two parking spaces beside Osteria di Juni. It is where we all gather nightly to watch the World Cup or to dine at lunch or dinner. It is a delightful collaboration between the Osteria and Café Via Roma. Drinks from Martin accompanied by meals from Vittorio! On one special occasion, "Watermelon Night", Juni, Martin, Silvio and Manuele sport Hawaiian shirts and leis, while dishing out generous pours of liquor mixed with watermelon juice and slices of watermelon. I did not spoil the fun by pointing out that pineapples, not watermelons are grown in Hawaii. My guests and I had fun dancing to the music, and even Pepina joined me in a brief rock and roll number!

Watermelon Night Fun

Watermelon Night Fun

One cool morning in late September, lured by the sound of hammering, I peeked out from my wooden gate and saw Martin and Vittorio dismantling my beloved summer terrace. The memory of so many carefree hours that my guests and all my village friends have spent there are now in the past, just as our Capri pants, T-Shirts and summer dresses are now replaced by warm sweaters and coats.

Ascanio, dismantle the summer terrace

Ascanio, dismantle the summer terrace

The piazza takes on a different flavor during autumn and winter. It was our summer outdoor living room, now it is where we pass back and forth on our daily errands, stopping briefly to kiss both cheeks, inquire how it goes, and move on to Micheale's, Juni's, Matteo's or Martin's. Inside each shop we linger longer to have our conversations, compare recipes or make plans for the next festival. The piazza will come alive during our Sagra della Castagna.

A Sagra is a festival celebrating a certain harvest product ranging from asparagus in the spring, to wild mushrooms in summer. Our village worships the hallowed chestnut in October! This annual sagra really marks the advent of autumn and goes on for ten long days and nights. Every corner of the central piazza and outer piazzas are home to booths and tents, selling chestnuts in a myriad of forms: roasted, candied, cakes, and the mosto wine of the first harvest. Garages are opened to display antiques, collections and hand-crafted wares made by local artisans. At night there is dancing in the piazza and a plethora of venues for five course meals, pizzas or simple chestnut pastas with sweets. Thousands of people attend each year. I am hard pressed to find a parking space for the main streets and my private drive is blocked to traffic. It is a small price to pay for this annual festival where I can welcome friends who live now in Roma or Spoleto, but who return each October, for this is reunion time, feasting time and dancing time!

Gina tends the roasting chestnuts

Gina tends the roasting chestnuts

Encircled by our 9th century walls with two gates, Piegaro has a hub, a center called Piazza Matteotti where much of our collective lives are shared and enjoyed. In the absence of back yards, we cannot, nor do we want to hide from each other. Even when friends drive through the piazza, they stop to exchange an embrace and warm greeting! Drive-by hugs and kisses!

Yes, when we walk into our houses and close the doors we do have privacy, but when we want to be a part of this beautiful kaleidoscope of varied and unique jewels, mirrored off each other, we walk out into the Piazza!

Resources


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2011

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