Come to Italy with Me: Part II – A Day in the Neighborhood

Editor’s Note: Mary is once again providing our community with a series of articles based on recent travel to her ancestral home Molfetta, a sea-side city located low on the Italian boot in a region called Puglia. Her last series on Italy we published four years ago remains one of the most popular cultural pieces we’ve presented.

By Mary A. Musson


Prior to coming to Italy I did a lot of reading on Immersion Travel, which is living like the locals. Most of the suggestions given helped me plan my trip because they were just good old common sense. Based on my own experiences, I offer these recommendations for anyone wishing to do this kind of travel in Italy.

First of all, renting a house – casa to the Italians, is a key element. Bringing in the flavors of home such as marketing, cooking, laundry and cleaning are all part of immersion into another culture. A casa in ancient cities like Molfetta is usually a suite of rooms in a multi-family residence. Location is key. It needs to be in the right neighborhood, one which is vibrant, rich in resources (public transportation, grocery stores, drugstores, bakeries, produce markets) and heavily dotted with places to sit and watch the crowd (parks, cafes, stairs, benches). Forget the farmhouse in Tuscany, you won’t meet the locals that way. Also, I recommend this type of immersion for the more seasoned traveler – the one who has already done the tourist bit. First-time travelers to a new country should stick to guided tours, especially if time is short. But it you are ready for Immersion Travel in Italy, here are a few suggestions for making it successful:

• Rent a centrally located casa in town and stay a while. Make this house a home. Buy a potted plant for the balcony. Cook and let your food aromas announce you are at home. Play music on the radio. Most of all – be visible. Clean like the neighbors do. Sweep your threshold, shake out area rugs, wash the floors. Hang out laundry like they do.

• Be approachable. This means introducing yourself to people. Let them know you are interested in them. Ask their name, remember it and use it often. Ask about their work, their kids, their cars. In Italy, curiosity is a compliment.

• Find a cafe and go there daily. It will be your personal ‘Cheers’ where everyone will know your name. It will be a great comfort to you when your first cup of coffee in the morning is handed to you by a friendly, smiling Italian.

• Spend some time in the local park. Watch the children play, sit down with the elderly. In Molfetta, many of them were employed as mariners who spent time in America, and I was surprised they spoke a little English.

• Pay attention. Eat, drink, sleep, dress and shop like the locals. This is not a time to be a roaring individual, it’s better to blend in. You’ll make more friends this way. Honor the people and the place you are in.

• Every so often, go where the teenagers hang out – a gym, a soccer field, beach club, band concert or nightclub. Notice how little they drink, how excitedly they talk, how affectionate they are. This is a very confident group of young people, so try to find out why and bring that notion home.

• Only give information about yourself when asked. Listen more than talk. Draw out more than bombard. Avoid comparisons at all cost.

And so, taking my own advice I did all of this and here are some of the people and new ideas I met along the way.

1. Don Franco Sasso. Although I’m Protestant, when in Italy I go to mass. There are eight churches in my neighborhood, so there is no sleeping in mornings when all the bells go off. But I have to admit it’s a great way to start my day. My favorite small church is San Pietro’s up the street from my house and I go there often. Built in 1174 and refurbished in 1660, it is small (just 14 pews) and its vaulted ceiling is painted in pastel colors. It reminds me of a Faberge egg. Don Franco says one mass here daily and, at 81, that’s quite a commitment. I often see him in the evenings walking the neighborhood and chatting with the retirees. I always smile and say hello and he doesn’t always remember my name, but he calls me “la bel’Americana.”

2. The Blues Cafe. I go here every morning for my latte machiatto and when Ron comes along the waitress Katrina has an American coffee ready, as well two cornettos (pastry). She is a Russian dancer who came to Italy to perfect her ballroom dancing techniques with an Italian coach. She works in the cafe mornings and trains in the afternoon as she readies for a competition in Paris. Aldo is one of two brothers who owns the Blues Cafe. He has the day shift when the place is a cafe and his brother takes the evening shift when the place turns into the hottest bar in town. It’s a real attraction for the 25+ crowd whose favorite drink, he tells me, is a Mojito. What about the blues? Yep, we live across the street from this place and I can vouch that blues performers often play till 3 a.m.

3. Vincenza. I must pass her fruit stand at least six times a day since she is located on a corner where the street I live on meets the primary exit out of the walled city. She has been at this location for 40 years and is the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. I make friends immediately, knowing a good resource person when I see one. She is friendly and delighted I speak Italian. She often asks where I’ve been on my travels around town and offers advice and comical anecdotes about the people I am meeting. I stop here often and she becomes comfortable enough with me to invite me to her home which is a huge compliment. The lady lives in an ancient house once owned by a noble family. There is a code of arms carved into the stone lintel over the front door and the stone courtyard entrance is breathtaking. You go girl!

4. Massimo, Gladiator of Salamis! When I buy melon from Vincenza I automatically go to Massimo’s store across the street for perfect prosciutto. Massimo is the popular salumeriere in this part of town. This guy really knows what he’s doing and his products (including the freshest ricotta and mozzarellas possible) are appreciated and much in demand. He can tell me things like the sopressata from Calabria is the best because they feed the pigs chestnuts – not just stem and leaves but real chestnuts – and the flavor is infused into this popular salami. He knows how to treat customers by providing thoughtful service. Every few days he makes me a little basket of cheeses to sample. I fall in love with the creamy mild-flavored Bel Paese and his 18 month-old son Marco falls in love with my husband’s mustache. He must be picked up by him and have access to it every time we visit.

5. The Panetteria del Borgo. I would have been lost without this place. Wherever I am in town I try to get back home by 1 p.m. before this bread store closes for siesta time. It is excellent take-out food and I often pick something up for lunch. The have single-serving portions of baked eggplant, chicken, stuffed squid, roasted shrimp and all kinds of baked pasta. Their bread is both soft and crusty. The paninis are stuffed with ham, cheese or tuna. But the best thing here is their Adriaric calzone, a double pizza filled with cod, onions, olives, and cheese. Counter tenders Lydia and Loredina soon know my choices and save me some of my favorites if I am not there before the lunch crowd hits.

6. Vallalleri Ceramics. Shopping is a thrill in Molfetta. Course Umberto is the main retail center in town and the shops are full. I love the children’s clothing stores best because Italians dress their youngsters beautifully, especially the babies who wear a lot of hand-knit and embroidered clothing. And let’s not forget to mention shoe stores – we’re talking real leather here with prices to match. But my favorite store in town is a ceramics shop located just outside the walled city where I live. It’s owned by Mario and Angela Vallarelli. Mario comes from a family of artisans who have been making ceramics in a nearby city for over 60 years. Luckily this delightful couple opened a shop in Molfetta which I discovered a few years ago and I shop here every time I visit. My favorite purchase this year is a spoon rest for my stove. It’s decorated in red ceramic and hand painted in curly white tendrils by the master himself. On the night I leave town I stop by to say good-bye and they get all emotional and present me with a little gift – a gorgeous red ceramic heart jewelry box. “Come back,” they say knowing that every time I leave Italy I leave a piece of my heart behind.

7. Carmela. Molfetta is full of artists and this lady is one is one of the most productive. She has been working in mixed media for 35 years. Her studio, located on an ancient street dominated by artists, is full of wonders. At the moment she is hand painting silk fabrics which are sold to fashion industry designers in places like Milan. I especially like the transparent pieces splashed with strokes of pastels which she frames and ships off to Germany where they are very popular. Her silk scarves sell in trendy Positano to a clientele who really appreciates quality. Carmela and I find much to talk about. For one thing, we both believe in muses, those spirit angels who guide our work. They often wake her up with ideas for paintings at 4 a.m.; across the ocean in New York State, they’ve been showing up around the same time in my dreams too. We jokingly agree they should go find somebody else to bother or at least appear at a more reasonable hour. But ... when we feel their gentle inspiration ... we pay attention and gratefully let them through.

8. Trash. I just had to include this photo because my husband, being a guy, was very impressed with solar energy, wind power and services like trash pick-up and recycling in Italy. Here’s what my neighborhood’s trash deposit center looks like. We put our trash in one, cooking oil in the other and paper, plastic, glass and metal in the remaining four. A truck shows up early in the morning and lifts the whole thing up exposing a giant pit whose contents are raised and emptied into the truck. Now that beats everyone putting out a plastic container that blows into the street doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s worth traveling just to bring home a new idea or two.

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