Post mortem post

We’re in Barcelona where our adventure began. Tomorrow we leave Europe behind. I thought I would do a little bit of reflecting on what worked and what didn’t and what I would do differently, partially for myself and partially for you, dear reader, should you decide to explore some of the places we visited.

For me the trip was about a week too long. I think in the future I’ll limit my trips to four weeks. The last week I’ve been feeling pretty road weary and a bit homesick. Europe has changed even since our last trip in 2002. Shoulder season starts later – November instead of October at least south of the Alps – and ends earlier – think April instead of May. It’s more crowded and a bit more crass in the worst cases. Still it’s possible to get away from the maddening crowds and have those magical moments all travelers hope for.

Something I learned is that neither Kay nor I tolerate places that are inundated with people very well, especially big bus tour groups. I would skip Montserrat near Barcelona for that reason. If you really must go to Montserrat stay overnight and experience it without the masses. By the same token we would avoid Roussillon in Provence or any other very famous villages such as Gordes or Isle sur la Sorgue. In the case of a must see like Pompeii, I would try harder to time our visit when the big groups are likely to be gone – very early or late in the day. In the Naples area we would stay in Salerno rather than Sorrento. Sorrento is packed with tourists and the Circumvesuviana train, the only way to get are around, is abysmal. Salerno makes a better home base. It’s just as easy to get to Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Pasteum or Pompeii from there. The regular Trenitalia system which serves it is much more pleasant. It has very little tourism, a cool old town and great food. The Palazzo Morese owned and operated by the wonderful Monica Giannattasio provides a beautiful two room apartment in a restored palazzo for less than a small hotel room in Sorrento and she’ll buy oranges for you so you can make your own fresh OJ!

In general I want to work harder next time to find cool places to stay. Two of the best we found, the aforementioned Palazzo Morese and Barrani Agritourismo in Corniglia, Cinque Terre, were not in any guide book! It is still possible to find the old Europe amidst the tour buses but you have to work at it. Luckily the internet makes it easy. When I planned our first trip together to Italy in ’97 I used fax machines. Today every place has a website. Next time I will also check Airbnb and VRBO for places to stay. In the coolest places we stayed, the two I mentioned above as well as Nice Home Sweet Home in Nice and Hotel des Voyageurs in Saint Saturnin les Apts, we made personal connections with the owners. That’s what great travel is all about. Another tip is if the place has no English version of their website it’s a good sign. I had to email Barrani Farm in Italian just to get a response.

Likewise I would rely less on guidebooks for restuarants. We had great luck with trip advisor for food. Also kudos to brother Ken for a couple of perfectly timed foody articles via text. Definitely read the guidebooks but check trip advisor.

That’s all I can think of although I’m sure there’s more. It’s been an amazing 5 weeks. Thank you again, dear reader, for coming on this journey with us. Have safe and rewarding travels were ever your wandering feet take you.

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Arrivederci Roma

Today was the final sightseeing day of our trip. Tomorrow we begin the long slog home, first a short flight to Barcelona, then Friday three legs to Amsterdam, Seattle and finally Portland. Thank you, dear reader, for following along on our adventure. It’s been fun to describe. I have to give Kay credit. Although I took some of the photos, the majority were hers.

Last night we had yet another great meal. This time at Ditirambo near the Campo di Fiori. We started with a glass of refreshing prosecco. For the primi we both had pappardelle with a rabbit ragu paired with a glass of great chianti. The pasta was fresh, the ragu was thick and rich and the Chianti was robust. For the contorni it was a salad of fennel, orange and pomegranate. Kay finished it off with a chocolate pudding with hazelnuts. I had a shot of Calvados which finished me off.

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Today we saw the Ara Pacis, a first century B.C.E. altar built by Augustus to commemorate his subjugation of the “barbarians” to the north. It was an amazing piece of imperial propaganda with reliefs connecting him to the mythic founders of Rome and establishing his dynasty.

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After a great lunch at a little trattoria we headed for the Borghese Gardens, Rome’s Central Park. It was a pleasant break from the traffic of the city. We had a coffee at a little outdoor café and enjoyed the placid scene. Our ultimate destination was the Borghese Gallery at the north end of the park. It contains three of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most amazing baroque masterpieces, David, Apollo and Daphne, and the Rape of Persephone. At age 25 Bernini’s genius is fully evident. Unfortunately no cameras allowed so once again you’ll have to find an image of them. Apollo and Daphne is particularly mind bending. It captures the moment when Apollo grabs Daphne as she turns into a tree. Apollo seems to float in air his robe billowing. Daphne’s fingers and toes turn to branches and roots. Her legs become bark. In typical over the top Bernini style the piece captures all the movement, tension and emotion of the moment. It’s hard to believe it’s stone. Another highlight is Caravaggio’s painting of David with Goliath’s severed head. The face on the head is Caravaggio. What a morbid sense of humor that guy had.

On the walk home we went down the Spanish Steps. Crowded as ever it felt like a great way to end our trip. Kay’s in the picture somewhere. Can you find her?

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Arrivederci Roma!

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Upon this rock I will build my church

We spent today at the Vatican, first the Basilica of Saint Peter, then the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. This was our second time visiting. No matter how many times one enters it, St. Peter’s is amazing. First there is the size. The Nave can hold 60,000 worshipers. The Baldacchino over the main altar is seven stories tall! And church is ornate beyond imagining.

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It’s hard to tell in this picture but where I was standing is two football fields distance from the apse behind the altar or nearly half a mile! Much of the interior is baroque with many features by Bernini, the master of baroque illusion. The alabaster dove in the apse has a seven foot wing span. It’s translucent so that golden rays of sunlight project out of it.

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Oddly something that moved me was a round piece of polished porphyry granite in the floor near the entrance. Porphyry is the stone of emperors and thus of popes. It was on this spot that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 799. I don’t know why this is so powerful to me but it is. The most moving piece of art in the church, however, is Michelangelo’s Pieta. Mary tenderly holds the lifeless body of her son with an expression of sorrow and yet acceptance that nearly brings me to tears ever time I see it.

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We knew the museums would be grueling, so after the basilica we took a break for food and coffee. Thus refreshed we plunged in. We made short work of the Egyptian stuff. To be honest the collection isn’t that great compared to Cairo or the British Museum. We did linger a little at the examples of Sumerian (today’s Iraq) writing, the oldest in the world, some 5000 years. I’m a sucker for that sort of stuff. But for me the big attractions are the sculpture and the paintings. The Hellenistic statue of Laocoön and his sons being crushed by serpents is one of my favorite ancient works.

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It is from the story of the Trojan horse. Laocoön was a Trojan priest who warned about the horse but the Gods wanted the Achaeans to win so they had serpents do their dirty work. The expression on Laocoön’s face as he wreaths is sheer agony. This is a far cry from the Classical Greek statuary of 200 years earlier with it’s balance and serenity.

Further into the museums and 1600 years later we found Raphael’s The School of Athens in which Raphael’s buddies are portrayed as great Greek thinkers. I especially like Leonardo Da Vinci as Plato (center left with the beard). My other favorite is Michelangelo in the foreground brooding, leaning on his elbow. While Raphael was painting this, Michelangelo was just down the hall doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the same time.

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You can’t photograph the chapel so pull up an image from goggle. The ceiling was done at the peak of the renaissance. It’s overflowing with humanist optimism. Adam is not feebly cowering before God. He is confident and muscular as he is brought to life. You could say he’s portrayed as nearly God’s equal. 23 years later Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement behind the altar of the chapel. The counterreformation was underway. Freedom of thought was under attack as the Catholic Church dug in. The inquisition began. The painting is dark and filled with tension as a muscular Christ swings his arm banishing sinners to eternal torture. Clearly the optimism was gone. It makes me think of the optimism some of us had in the late ’60s – another renaissance. Humanism was on the rise. Sexual and spiritual freedoms were expanding. Equal rights for all and lasting peace seemed achievable. Art, literature, music and theater were finding new and exciting expressions. But ten years later much of that energy and optimism was gone in excesses of the ’70s. I suppose it is inevitable. When culture experiences that kind of flowering it will swing back the other way. Some people fear the freedom of such cultural movements. It happened in the renaissance with figures such as Savonarola. And it happened in our time as well. I guess the trick is not to loose sight of the things we gain, the expansion of human experience and consciousness, when the pendulum swings back.

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Crossing the Tiber

South of the center of Rome lies the neighborhood of Trastevere, literally “across the Tiber”. Our journey today took us there. We began on Isola Tiberna, a small island in the river. It was near here over two millennia ago that Rome was founded. Crossing to the other side, we felt the difference immediately – more real, more Roman. Parts of the neighborhood were not demolished and rebuilt in the 19th century as much of the city was. As a result the streets are narrow and picturesque.

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We visited the tranquil Church of Santa Cecilia. Immigrants – in other words non-citizens – to Ancient Rome couldn’t live inside the city walls. As a result this neighborhood has some of the oldest churches in the city, many built on the homes where early Christians worshiped in secret. Santa Cecilia was a martyred early convert who willed her house to the Christian community. Once Christianity was legalized in the 4th century a church was built there.

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We continued on to the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, thought to be the very first dedicated to Mary and built over another early Christian home. There is a wonderful 9th c. mosaic behind the altar.

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After a good lunch of traditional Roman cuisine – minestrone di verdure, pears with pecorino cheese and bacutini con cacio e pepe (thick pasta with pecorino and pepper) we crossed back from Trastevere. I love the sign.

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The Jews of Rome are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, they arrived before the diaspora as merchants. They settled, like many immigrants, in Trastevere. Ceasar supported the community because they were well connected traders and didn’t proselytize. Over time things got worse. Once Rome was Christianized restriction on marriage and land ownership were instituted but still the community did fairly well. Then came the counterreformation and the swampy land just north of the Tiber was made into a ghetto. Some four thousand Jews were forced into seven acres behind walls and locked in at night. A few of the old streets that remain give an idea of the crowded conditions.

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The Ghetto was finally demolished when Italy united in the 19th c. Things were better until Mussolini then Hitler. Many Roman Jews were sent to the camps and the community never really recovered. Today the neighborhood has undergone a renaissance. Although most of Rome’s Jews don’t live here many visit often and consider it their spiritual home.

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The cafés are separated into meat and milk.

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The Eternal City

I love Rome. Of the 8 or 10 big cities I’ve visited in Europe it’s my favorite. Maybe it’s the Roman people, elegant and exuberant, maybe it’s the tiny streets of the old city, maybe it’s the timeless architecture thrilling at every turn, but really it’s all these. We were here 17 years ago in January and pretty much had the place to ourselves. After the crowds in Florence and Pompeii we were a little worried that the city had lost its charm. But Rome manages to maintain her grandeur despite the people. For one thing it’s big, not only the size of the city, but the size of individual monuments.

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After a good lunch in a quiet trattoria on a small side street we walked to some of our favorite haunts. Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona with its Egyptian obelisk on top, dwarfs the hundreds of people at its base in the square and the majestic Pantheon is so massive inside and out that the people are barely noticeable. I love the Pantheon, perhaps the best preserved building from antiquity. Sitting before the immense portico one realizes just how impressive the ancient city must have been.

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I like to imagine myself a merchant from some far flung corner of the empire coming here for the first time. Perhaps I have just become a citizen hoping to expand my business. I walk into the piazza filled with people. Acrid smoke from sacrifices rises before the massive columns of the portico. The square is lined with shops filled with activity. I have arrived at the center of the civilized world.

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Amalfi

Amalfi, the very word congers images of romantic sunsets overlooking the azure sea. Sophia Loren, Rudolf Nureyev and Gore Vidal each called it home for a time. The elite of Ancient Rome came here to get away from it all. Approaching from Sorrento it’s easy to underestimate its impact. The road climbs slowly for eight kilometers through olive and lemon groves. One wonders what all the fuss is about. Then suddenly you are atop the cliffs plunging hundreds of meters into the sea below. As the bus winds its way you seem to be suspended in air above the water.

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Yesterday we arrived in the insanely picturesque town of Positano, nestled in a ravine between the tan and gray cliffs. Our private terrace at Residence la Tavolozza overlooked the town, the church of Santa Maria Assunta with its majolica tiled dome and the sea. Peaceful doesn’t begin to describe it. There’s not much to do here but shop, eat and sit on the beach. We’re not beach people and the only bit of a souvenir we bought so far was a fridge magnet in Cinque Terre. So eat, drink and relax it was.

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The coastline between Positano and Salerno is some of the most breathtaking in the world. Ancient towns cling to the cliffs. Every inch of useable land has either a building or terraced garden. We viewed the coast from the top deck of a ferry. Although the drive is legendary, I think the best way to view it is from the sea. A picture is worth, you know, a thousand words, so …

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Our B&B in Salerno is in the old Palazzo Morese which our hostess Monica told us once accommodated a Pope, a Salerno native who is now and ever will be in the Cathedral here. For less than a tiny room in Sorrento we have a beautiful two room apartment with full kitchen and a huge shower. It’s nice to not be in tourist town for a change. In fact Salerno may be the least touristy place we’ve been with the possible exception of St. Saturnin les Apts in the Luberon.

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We just had a wonderful, gourmet quality lunch at a small Osteria, linguine con scampi for me and puttanesca with olives and capers for Kay, all for less than the mediocre tourist food in a Positano.

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It feels like the trip is really winding down. Tomorrow it’s on to Roma for three days then homeward bound.

 

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Coming back to Sorrento

Yesterday’s adventure, which included four hours of train travel, left us a little drained so we hung out at the hotel until around noon. We then walked to Piazza Tasso in the center of town and had a bite. It was a lovely afternoon. We strolled the back streets of old Sorrento finding some little ancient allies without too many people. This is the lovely cloister of the 13th c. church of San Francesco.

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Sorrento was founded by the Greeks 2500 years ago. Here and there you find a bit of ancient wall or a Roman column if you know what to look for. Our path took us down from the town through an Ancient Greek gate to the Marina Grande which is outside the old city wall. Legend has it that the Turks would plunder this part of town, raping and pillaging as pirates are want to do. As a result the people of Marina Grande are thought to descend from Turks. They say even the cats look different. The Marina has a totally different atmosphere from the town above. Though dependent on tourism it is still a working fishing village. It feels real and decidedly laid back.

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We went down there ostensibly to have a café and walk back up. But we liked it so much we stayed for several hours and had a delicious early dinner at a little trattoria owned by a group of fisherman.

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Needless to say the fish was great. Feeling stuffed and a little buzzed from the local vino bianco we ambled slowly home. Tomorrow we leave Sorrento for two days on the Amalfi coast.

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Buffalo cheese and more old stuff

Water buffaloes were accidentally introduced into the region south of Salerno sometime around the 9th c. C.E. from Asia by Turkish pirates. How buffaloes got on pirate ships nobody seems to know. They soon naturalized, becoming somewhat wild, living in the marshes formed by the Sele River near Paestum. Soon locals had redomesticated them and started making cheese from their milk.

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We know it as Buffalo Mozzarella. Today we took the train an hour south of Napoli to watch it being made at the Barlotti Buffalo Farm. Starting at four in the morning the buffalo milk from the day before is mixed with a curdling agent, shredded, mixed with hot water and stirred to a thick cream. Most of the water is then removed by hand in a large vat using a large bowl with a handle in a particular stirring motion.

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The resulting fresh cheese is then stirred more and squeezed in the characteristic balls we’re familiar with.

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The squeezer is a machine although they still squeeze some by hand. One fellow deftly twisted a piece into a braid.

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The cheese is ready to eat by 11 the same morning. Now that’s fresh! And the taste is amazing.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Paestum also has three of the best preserved Greek temples anywhere? After visiting the buffalo farm we spent the afternoon with Silvia Braggio, guide and expert on the ancient history of southern Italy.

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From her we learned that the Greeks colonized much of this part of Italy from the 6th until the 3rd centuries B.C.E. The temples and accompanying museum are incredible. The best preserved temple,  dedicated to the goddess Hera and dating from around 450 B.C.E., is in better shape than the Parthenon in Athens.

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This temple has not been restored. Unlike most architecture from this time it is entirely original.

One of the highlights of the museum is a rare example of Greek painting from a box tomb. The inside of the top depicts a man diving over some pillars into a body of water. Archeologists believe this was a metaphor for the journey into the after life. The pillars represent the pillars of Heracles (the Straits of Gibraltar), believed to be the end of the world. The water represents the unknown world to come.

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Something we often fail realize is that Greek temples and statuary were painted to an extent that might seem garish to us. Red, white and black were the most common colors. This is a piece of the frieze from one of the temples with the original paint intact.

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The area around Paestum is pastoral, quiet and tranquil – a great break after Napoli and Pompeii. Following a train ride back to reality we dined on pizza and beer on our balcony overlooking Sorrento and the Bay of Naples. It was a good day.

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Once more into the breach dear friends

To say Pompeii is crowded is like saying Louis the XIV built a nice little chateau. Yet, despite the hordes of slack jawed tourists obediently following their masters holding aloft tiny placards and the fact that parts are, as usual, closed for restoration, the place is amazing. We all know the story so I won’t go into details. Simply put, it is the most evocative Roman site I’ve seen after the Forum in Rome. For me, seeing the chariot wheel ruts in the ancient stone streets and getting up close to a brick column, covered in fine aggregate concrete then marble plaster brought the place to life.

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However, a couple of hours of sun and hordes was all we could take so it was back to Sorrento, espresso and some down time. Tonight we’ll try a favorite of locals near our hotel for dinner, Ristorante Verdemare.

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Basso living

Vesuvius broods over the the Bay of Naples like some great beast. Even at night it is visible as the absence of light on the otherwise brightly lit shore. We arrived in Sorrento around ten-thirty last night after 3 hours on the high speed train from Florence, another hour plus on the creaking Circumvesuviana line and a twenty minute walk. The hotel bar was open! Need I say more.

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We’re in seventh heaven, literally. Our hotel is the Settimo Cielo which translates as, wait for it, seventh heaven. It hangs on the side of a cliff above the Marina Grande in Sorrento.

We lolly gagged around this morning heading out for Napoli around one in the afternoon. The rickety excuse for a commuter train held us in the station for half an hour with some sort of mechanical problem. The doors would repeatedly open, shut and open again. Each time hope rising that the thing would actually start to move. Finally some unintelligible squawk that I can only assume was Italian came over the address system and everyone, including us, ran for another train that was sitting on the next track. At this point I swore I was through with Italy and would never return. Despite having the contents of two trains packed into one, once we were moving I thought better of it. You gotta love Italy.

Our first stop in Napoli was the Archeological Museum containing the best of Pompeii’s treasures as well as Roman statuary known as the Farnese Collection, mostly discovered at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The place is a bit overwhelming and completely amazing. One of the highlights is the Farnese Bull, a massive, marble 3rd c. C.E. copy of a lost, bronze Greek original depicting the sons of Antiope tying Dirce to a bull in revenge for stealing their dad, Lycus, from their mom. Michelangelo helped restore the work when it was uncovered during the renaissance. Those Greeks really knew all about payback. If you look carefully through Dirce’s flailing arms you can see Antiope looking on coldly.

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The museum visit took it’s toll so we headed for Café Mexico and the best espresso in the known universe. This place is old school, no tables, you stand at the bar. For one Euro you get a glass of water and a shot of espresso that is the strongest, smoothest, tastiest coffee you’ve ever had. Thus revitalized, we went deep into basso living down Spaccanapoli in the heart of old Naples. The streets are tight. Scooters careen through crowds of locals and tourists. Laundry hangs from the balconies. People yell, laugh, cry and gesticulate as only the Neopolitans can. What a scene.

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Near the end of our walk we dropped by L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. They’ve been wood firing their pies since 1870. Da Michele makes two kinds of pizza – marinara with tomato sauce, oregano and garlic, and Margherita. Pizza as we know it, tomato on flat bread, can be traced to the 18th c. in the Napoli area. By the 19th c. it was a popular street food among the poor. According to legend, in 1889 chef Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi created Pizza Margherita in honor of the newly unified Italy’s first queen representing the country’s new flag – tomato for red, mozzarella for white and basil for green. It must have been shortly after that when Michele Condurro incorporated it in to his limited menu. A document signed by Queen Margherita hangs on the wall of da Michele attesting to the authenticity of their pies.

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We sat next to a delightful Neapolitan couple who spoke about two words of English. Despite this and our limited Italian, the gentleman taught us the proper way to eat such a pie – cut the 18 inch disc into quarters, fold a quarter in half lengthwise forming a narrow triangle then in half again. Once folded eat with our hands, using a fork only in case of eminent collapse. Repeat for the other 3 quarters. Oh so good. Like I said, you gotta love Italy!

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