We were both feeling bored one morning, so we hopped into our little Fiat 500 and headed to a tiny town we’d never heard of called Calciano, situated in the Dolomiti Lucane mountains just south of us in Basilicata. We were on a mission—to visit a frantoio to taste olive oil—but it wasn’t open when we arrived and didn’t look like it would be open at all during the winter. Disappointed, I asked David what we should do.
“Let’s go see the ruins of that fortress over there on the hill next to the town,” David suggested. He was fascinated by the castle and fortress ruins in Italy and loved that every single small town we happened upon had some sort of old fort sitting high on a hill guarding the town. With nothing else to do for the day, I agreed. At the very least, it would be a way to fill some time.
David was ready to head directly to the ruins, but I needed a bathroom first. We knew after a month in Italy that that fastest way to find a toilet was to find a bar, order a coffee, and use the facilities while the barista prepared the drinks. “Buongiorno. Vorrei un espressino per me ed un Americano ed un cornetto per lui,” I said to the woman behind the counter. An espressino is a much smaller version of a cappuccino, available only in Puglia and Basilicata, and is considered “acceptable” to order after breakfast, so it was always my go-to drink during the day. A cornetto is a slightly sweeter version of a croissant, and while I generally tried to curb David’s craving for sweets, I usually surprised him with a treat on these coffee-bathroom breaks.
The barista could tell we were clearly not from Calciano—I was certain she knew all the twenty or so people who lived in this town—and she asked me where we were from and what we were doing here.
“Siamo da Denver in Colorado. Siamo qui per due mese per la mia doppia cittadinanza,” I explained. Every time I explained my mission, I got the same response.
“Brava! Ma perche’ qui?”
The Italians living in these small towns in Basilicata just couldn’t understand why an American would come here—for tourism or for anything else—and they were always delighted to hear my story about getting my Italian citizenship. When I explained that my great-grandfather had been born in Toscana, they would instantly tell me that I was Italian, which of course was exactly what I was hoping they would think of me. We finished our coffee and thanked her.
“Arrivederci e buona giornata!”
It was only a short walk through the town and down the path towards the fortress. We had zero expectations but ended up wandering around the ruins for over an hour, reading the signs that told the history, snapping pictures of the ruins and the views from the hill, and marveling that these structures were still standing after so many years. The scenery from the hilltop across the valley was breathtaking, and we slowed our pace. There was seemingly nothing really to do in this isolated little hill town, so we took our time to just be in the moment and enjoy exploring together.
After traipsing around the ruins, we needed to drive back down the hill to get out of town, and as was the case in most towns we visited, there was only one way in and one way out. In Calciano, the way out, at least according to the Google lady who was telling me where to go, was to follow Via Roma (of course) around a very sharp hairpin turn to the right on a very steep, tiny road. This type of driving terrified me—my fear of heights and my inability to handle the stick shift very well on a steep hill left me paralyzed. I told David there would be no way I could make that hairpin turn going uphill, as I usually burned up the clutch trying to engage the gears on a hill.
I saw a small parking space in front of a house on my left and decided it would be easier to turn around in their driveway, so I was heading uphill instead of trying to gun it on a hairpin turn to the right. “I’m going to turn around in their driveway so I’m pointing forward and we can go from there” I told David, sweat dripping down my face and neck. He knew better to than to argue with me when I was in a state like this, so instead of pushing me to take the hairpin turn on the right, he stood behind the car and directed me into the driveway so I could turn around point the car uphill to head out of town.
The barista at the tiny bar had mentioned a neighboring town that might be worth a visit to see the Norman castle while we were in the area—I had been learning that one of the benefits of taking the time to engage with people was that they would share little tips like this—so we drove down from Calciano, crossed over the highway, and up the hill on the other side to Tricarico.
It was already after 1:00 and I was hungry, but the town had the same deserted feel of Calciano. I was trying to find a restaurant on the Google map on my phone that showed open, but there didn’t seem to be any restaurants in this sleepy town. David knew that I would go from hungry to hangry quickly if I didn’t get something to eat. “Look, I think that place right there is a restaurant, and it looks open—there are police cars parked out front. Always eat where the carabinieri eat, right?” he joked, I’m sure hoping to distract me from my hunger.
As we pushed open the door to the Red Lion, we immediately saw the table of carabinieri in the back, heads down enjoying their lunch. We took a seat at the table next to them and a man approached us immediately and asked what we wanted to eat.
“C’e’ un menu’?” I asked.
“I’m the menu” he said, throwing me off for a minute. When I asked what he had, he asked me what I wanted.
Was there pasta?
Of course, what kind do you want?
When I asked about secondo options, he rattled off so many versions of pork, beef, chicken, and veal that I couldn’t even keep up with the options. Instead of thinking of a menu, I requested two pasta dishes I knew we both would like, a spicy arrabiata sauce for me and a meaty ragu for David. He asked if we wanted meat after that. I felt like I had gained five pounds in the week we spent in northern Italy, where the food was much heavier, so I politely declined and ordered a side salad instead.
I realized part way into this conversation that all the framed certificates on the wall behind him were from the World of Pizza contest in 2018 which he had won. I saw his name—Roberto Gentile, Red Lion—and I complimented him on his award. “Grazie mille,” he said with a smile, and I could tell he was very proud.
We both took a sample bite of our pasta, which was good, then decided it would be even better with some chile oil as is customary in Southern Italy and as we’d seen the police in the back doing. We drizzled it on liberally, then both realized at the same moment how hot the oil was, and simultaneously grabbed a sip of water. But the pasta was too delicious to let a little burn in the mouth deter us, and we both devoured our dishes.
As we were finishing, Roberto sat down to have lunch with a man seated to our right. He looked like he might be Roberto’s brother, and there was a school-aged boy with him. We had noticed these two when we sat down, primarily because the man had large glass of wine and the boy, who looked about twelve, had a matching glass of wine in miniature. Something so forbidden in the US—serving wine to a child at a meal—was perfectly acceptable in Italy, and I couldn’t help thinking we could learn something from them. The boy wasn’t guzzling his wine, but merely taking a sip occasionally like it was no big deal.
After a month in Italy, I’d grown accustomed to standing at the cash desk to pay after our meal since so many small establishments in Southern Italy preferred payment this way, so I waited there patiently, feeling bad for disturbing Roberto’s lunch with what I assumed was his family. When he eventually came to the desk and asked if we were ready to pay, I asked, “Si. Una carta di credito o euro?” He said he didn’t care if it was cash or card as he handed me the bill, which was only 18.50 euros for a large bottle of water, a beer, two large pastas, a large salad, and an even bigger breadbasket. I gave him a twenty, and when he insisted I take the change, I insisted he keep the small tip.
After walking around the outside of the Norman castle, we drove back to Rionero, still full from our big lunch, and more than a little surprised at how a “throwaway day” could be so rich with experiences. Not touristy things like seeing the David in Firenze or the Colosseum in Rome, but the little things that you simply can’t plan for, like eating lunch with the police in an unheard-of, award-winning restaurant.
It wasn’t until this day trip away from Rionero that I realized that although I had said I was coming to Italy to live like a local, I had still been thinking we’d spend time being tourists. I imagined that our explorations away from Rionero would include things like visiting a frantoio to taste olive oil, in other words those things that would show up on a list of tourist sites for our destination. This day was devoid of a single tourist attraction, and it set the tone for every other trip we would take during our time in Basilicata.
Instead of venturing out to see a specific sight, we went exploring with no agenda and zero expectations, excited to see what we would find and who we would meet when we arrived. In virtually every town we visited we were rewarded with some small experience we could never have planned for. Like finding the birth home of an Italian American politician from my late husband’s hometown in New York. Or learning the history of a clock tower from one of the elders in a tiny hill town near Rionero. Or chatting with a group of old Italian men on a park bench after they kept the parking attendant from ticketing our car while we were purchasing the parking pass. We had these unplanned experiences every day, and they were what helped me learn the most about what it was truly like to live in Italy, and to be Italian.
I didn’t fully appreciate this until the trip was over, but looking back after our trip, it was these small, nuanced moments that were the most memorable of our time in Italy. While this was hard to explain to friends who asked (I’m sure expecting some classic tourist site would be the most memorable), it was these experiences that stayed with me and shaped my understanding of Italy in a much deeper way.