We spent a lot of time walking around town during these early days, excited to learn about our new home, but the town seemed dead, with most shops closed regardless of the time of day. I had known we were coming to a region that was rarely frequented by tourists. We hadn’t chosen the location for the glitz of Rome or Florence, but simply because my consultant Stefano had been born and raised in Rionero and had a solid working relationship with the town hall to expedite my application. As a bonus, his family had an apartment to rent for the explicit purpose of applying for citizenship, making our entry rather turn-key.
But despite knowing we were in a sparsely inhabited, less prosperous, region of Italy, I wasn’t prepared for just how bad things looked. Many buildings seemed abandoned or in disrepair, making the town feel sad. There was a huge crane in front of our apartment partially obstructing our view of the town, but nobody ever showed up to work on the construction project, so we just stared at the large hole in the ground and tried to ignore the orange construction netting. We took photos whenever we walked around town, hoping to capture something special to send to friends and family at home, but so many of the pictures looked depressing. It didn’t help that we had arrived in the middle of winter. I tried looking past the grit and graffiti, tried to remind myself how fortunate I was to be in Italy, but the first days were hard.
Looking back, I’m not sure what I expected. I had told everyone at home we were going to go live like locals in Southern Italy. Still, I must have thought it would more closely resemble my many other trips to Italy. I knew there would be graffiti—it’s kind of a given in Italy—but I thought here would also be pretty buildings with interesting architecture like I’d seen in other towns in Italy. I thought we’d find some spots to sit at a bar with our coffee and people watch, but none existed, whether it was because it was still winter or simply because the people living here didn’t have the financial means to sit around and leisurely sip coffee. I knew that in smaller towns in Italy everything closed during the break between lunch and dinner, but I thought Rionero would come to life at night. It didn’t.
On our first night, even though we had filled our tiny apartment refrigerator with groceries, we were exhausted from the long trip and wanted to eat out instead of cooking. We walked to a pizza place Stefano had recommended, but found it was closed on Tuesdays. An older couple walking by told us if we wanted pizza, we could try La Pergola at the other end of town. We pulled our coats and scarves tight against the blustery wind and walked up the hill to the restaurant, but when we pushed the door open, we found a room filled with kids and a large sign for a five-year old’s birthday party. No thanks.
We didn’t know of another pizza place, but there was an osteria just next door that was open, so we took a table in the back. The large, cavernous space was overly lit as are many restaurants in Italy and there were only two other diners in the entire place. The waiter handed us an olive oil-stained piece of paper with the menù del giorno, a three-course meal with two options for the primi, secondo, and dolce courses. The fixed price included a large bottle of water, a small carafe of wine for each of us. David was primarily a bourbon and beer drinker, but been learning to drink red wine for the past few months in anticipation of our trip, a gesture I took to show his excitement at learning a new culture. We each ordered a pasta dish and a meat dish—David’s came with fries and mine with a salad—and then we passed on the dessert because there was no way we could eat another bite after all that food. The tab was only 35 euros. While it was delicious and we were thrilled at the cheap prices, we couldn’t help wondering where the people were. We knew it was a Tuesday night, but why was the entire town so deserted?
After just a few days in Rionero, we were both feeling isolated. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy each other’s company—we had met just before the pandemic and had spent months together, rarely seeing anyone else. We enjoyed the same TV shows and had brought an HDMI cable to be able to watch American TV through my laptop (since David couldn’t understand Italian). But while it was fine to unwind at night with a TV show, neither of us wanted to squander this opportunity in Italy by spending all our time in front of the TV.
We were both happy to wander and explore and take photographs, without any map or agenda. But Rionero was small, and after those first few days we’d already looped the town several times. We both wanted to be around some other people, preferably some Italian people, as it didn’t feel like much of an Italian adventure alone in our apartment every day.
I had been bringing guests to Rome and Puglia for fifteen years, and on every trip, I would arrive a day or two ahead of the group to settle in. One of my favorite things had always been to sit at an outdoor table in front of the Pantheon with a glass of Prosecco or an Aperol Spritz, marveling at the architecture of the ancient city while people watching. But in Rionero, there were no establishments like this, no monuments to admire, and seemingly no people to watch.
We knew restaurants in Italy generally wouldn’t open until 8:00, so at 6:00 on our first Saturday evening in Rionero we went in search of a bar for a cocktail. We first stopped at Pasticceria Libutti because there was a large sign saying “bar” over the door and we could see a wall of liquor on the back shelf. The shop was full of gorgeous pastries and chocolates, but they told us they didn’t serve drinks. The liquor, I realized, was for making that unique Italian drink, caffe’ corretto, a shot of espresso with some alcohol like grappa added to “correct” the coffee.
I had forgotten that bars in Italy weren’t the same as the US—the name bar referred to a coffee shop—so we set out in the other direction through town to see what we could find. LazzaRella Café was also a coffee bar, but it was the sign in the window that said aperitivo that caught my eye. Inside the small shop we were surprised to find Wild Turkey, and I ordered a shot of bourbon for David and a glass of Prosecco for myself. Our drinks came with an assortment of chips, nuts, olives, and taralli crackers—the classic assortment of snacks served whenever you order an aperitivo in Italy. The bill for two bourbons, two Proseccos, and all those snacks was only eleven euros. Although it was cheap, the place lacked ambience, and we felt like we were having cocktails alone in an overly bright, sterile MacDonald’s.
Since it was Saturday night, we thought we might finally get lucky and be able to have pizza at the restaurant Stefano had suggested right across the park from LazzaRella. When we emerged from the bar, we were surprised at the number of people out. The town finally seemed alive. People were out walking arm in arm—I’ve always loved the Italian ritual of the evening passeggiata—teens were huddled on the benches flirting, and dogs and kids were playing in the park. It was still too early for dinner, so we stopped at a place next door to the pizzeria, a bar named Alter Ego. We hadn’t noticed it before because it had been closed on Tuesday when we had walked by, but we were happy to discover that it was a proper cocktail bar, not a coffee shop, and that they carried Japanese whiskey, interesting beers, and a full cocktail menu. The place was also cute, decorated nicely, and not overly lit. The bartender’s name was Francesca, and when we paid for our drinks, we told her we’d be back another time.
When we tried to go for pizza next door, we were told they were booked until after 10pm. I hadn’t really thought about it before we arrived, but in a small town like Rionero, where people lived very modestly, they certainly wouldn’t go out to eat every night. Dining out in Rionero, we could see, was largely reserved for Saturday nights, and everything was filling up fast, starting with this pizza spot full of families with kids. We started walking uphill to try La Pergola once again, but it was freezing and windy, and after just a few steps, and we turned around and returned to Alter Ego.Francesca had told us when we ordered our drinks that they were famous for their American style burgers, so we took a table in the back, watching the place fill up to watch the live music that she told us would start later. The burgers were anything but American—the buns were 6 inches tall, and David’s cheeseburger had a full eight-ounce ball of burrata on top of the beef patty, making it impossible to bite into. But the place had ambience for sure, and we were finally around other people which was refreshing.
A few days later we returned to Alter Ego for a drink before going for pizza. “Buonasera!” Francesca said with a big smile as we pushed through the door. We felt like we’d finally made a friend in Rionero. I’d seen several types of bourbon on the bar, so asked her if she could make us an old fashioned. “Certo!” she said, and we watched her mix our drinks before pouring them over the large ice cubes that we prefer for cocktails.
They were the first American style cocktails we’d had since arriving in Italy, and they tasted so wonderful that we ordered another before going to dinner. As we paid the bill, we told Francesca her cocktails were fantastic. It was only then that she confessed she had never made one before and had just figured it out for us. “Brava!” I said, telling her we’d most certainly be coming back soon.
“Ci sarà una band sabato,” she said, reminding us of the live music on Saturday nights. “La musica dei Red Hot Chili Peppers.” David lit up with a smile. I told Francesca David grew up in California and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were one of his favorite bands, so we’d be back on Saturday for the event.
Knowing the music wouldn’t start until probably 9:30 or 10:00, we arrived at Alter Ego about 8:45, but the place already full. Francesca saw us and took us to the only two seats left in the place, a high-top table in the corner she’d been saving for us. We felt honored. The music was really loud and the singer’s voice only mediocre, but when they gave a shout out to David as the LA kid in the room and everyone applauded, we felt like we were among friends. We stayed until well past midnight watching the band and singing along with our Italian neighbors.
The sun was low in the sky to our left, casting a pretty glow over the town that we now called home. I snapped pictures of the center, our apartment, the dome of the main church, and Palazzo Fortunato. What I had seen as dilapidated buildings when we first arrived now sparkled, showing off their true beauty. The entire town was stunning in the late afternoon sun with Monte Vulture rising majestically up behind it. I sent a picture to my kids with the word HOME written at the top and an arrow pointing to our apartment. I was overcome with gratitude for this town and these people, and wondered how I had missed just how beautiful this spot was and how lucky we were to have ended up here.
At 7:00 sharp that night—when we knew the bar opened—we went to Alter Ego for a cocktail before dinner. We ordered two old fashioneds from the young woman at the bar, but she asked us to wait for Francesca who would be there in just a couple of minutes. When Francesca arrived, she waved to us from behind the bar and immediately started making our drinks.
As she handed us our drinks, she said, “È un onore per me che tu venga qui per i miei cocktail.” I told her we had just returned from a long trip driving north through many towns and none of the old fashioneds were as good as hers, so we were always happy to come home to her cocktails. I could tell she was genuinely touched and suddenly I was choked up.
I had come to Rionero not understanding that I had been expecting my experience to feel like a vacation in Italy. But I wasn’t a tourist visiting this place, I was a resident, and Rionero was my home. Over the weeks that we had lived here, we had learned the rhythm of the town. We knew that some shops would be open only in the morning, some only on Thursdays, and some only when the shopkeeper felt like opening her doors. We had learned the days and opening hours for our favorite restaurants in town, and I had learned to make reservations over the phone in Italian. We cooked in our apartment on weeknights, reserving Saturday night out for a passeggiata with our neighbors before dinner in a restaurant.
We went to Alter Ego one last time on our final night in Rionero, and I felt sentimental before we even set foot in the door, knowing it would be the last time we would be able to hang out there. Francesca (between David and me) and the entire staff had made us feel so welcome, and we were sad to say goodbye. While we had simply been looking for a cocktail when we discovered the bar, we ended up making new friends in a place that made us feel at home.