Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When in Rome, Eat as the Romans Do


ROME--If you don't want to eat the crappy food that tourists are fed in every big city, you've got to have a battle plan. You can scour foodie magazines, you can spend hours online, or you can find a local friend. Probably easier said than done if it's a foreign country, which is why the first stop for many is TripAdvisor or one of its imitators.

It's not foolproof, and ya gotta understand the rules. But as a rule, the first dozen or so restaurants on TripAdvisor will be tourist joints. Don't believe me, look up your own home town. Seattle's top-rated "restaurants" are Beecher's (a retail cheese shop), Pike Place Chowder, Paseo Caribbean, Poppy, Toulouse Petit, Le Panier, Crumpet Shop, Salumi, Skillet Diner, Space Needle. In other words, places close to the heart of Seattle's top tourist attractions (the Market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Center, Kerry Park, Capitol Hill).

And even when you spot a TripAdvisor review that seems to point you in the right direction, you might still find yourself seated at a lousy table, ignored by the waitstaff, or handed a "tourist" menu. We ran into this in Venice last year; where we had a great time with the colorful owner of Mascareta, but the online reviews were decidedly mixed.

So if you don't have a friend in Rome, here are a couple of places that you should try. One is "Roman," in the sense that it's the food of the Lazio region; the other is "fish." They don't have fancy web sites, ritzy-glitzy decor, valet parking or waiters in tuxedos. In other words, they are probably not places to go on a first date.

dino-tony.jpg Dino & Tony's gets a fair amount of walk-in trade, since it's just two blocks from the Vatican Museum metro stop, not far from the tony Prati neighborhood. But its principal traffic has always come from "in-the-know" locals who say it's home to "the best spaghetti all'amatriciana" (pig's cheek) in Rome.

The thing about Italian food, we should remind you, is that it's not fussy. There's a time and a place for tablecloths and fancy china, but it's not what you'll find at Dino & Tony's. The lighting comes from fluorescent bulbs; the paint job is a hallucinatory shade of green. Tony once cooked at the White House; an apron autographed by George H.W. Bush hangs on the wall as proof. The servers bustle: prosciutto crudo, salami, two kinds of pizzas, a plate of chicory in pastry, croquettes, carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichokes). The carbonara is served with rigatoni; the pasta alla gricia is "dry," no sauce except the pig's cheek.

Puntarelle.JPG. The most "Roman" item on the menu is a salad of crunchy chicory shoots called puntarelle. It's a pain to prepare the greens properly at home, so they're sold ready-to-eat in local markets, but kept in water until they're ordered and the tangy garlic & anchovy dressing is added. Making one's own killer dressing for puntarelle is a point of pride for Roman cooks.

A portion of herb-infused suckling pig was one of the main courses, the other was another typically Roman dish, trippa alla Romana, marvelously tender honeycomb tripe in tomato sauce. Your wine, a liter of unremarkable red, is included, as is a post-prandial limoncello.

Apps at der Belli.JPG
The Osteria der Belli stands out for its high quality seafood in a gentrified neighborhood, Trastevere, known for its banal tourist fare. Not everyone gets it. The standard meal begins with a flurry of appetizers, brought to the table half a dozen at a time: three types of shrimp (sgambetti rossi, scampi, gamberetti), anchovies, squid, octopus, mussels, sardines, three or four kinds of bread, an excellent bottle of Vermentino di Gallura. You could make a meal of them, but save room, even if you skip the pasta,  (they brought me an artichoke alla Romana instead); there's a whole branzino yet to come.

Finally, a shot of Mirto, a grappa distilled not from the blueberry fruit, as you might think, but its bark. From Sardinia, just like the four Piras brothers who run the place. 

Pricing. Yes, you can eat for less money all over Rome. A lot more money, too. But the fixed-price, whole-meal-deal at both of the restaurants mentioned here (virtually unlimited appetizers, two or three pastas, two or three main courses, dessert, wine, coffee & digestivo) is no more than $50. You can get away for less by ordering à la carte, but why would you want to do that when you've come this far to eat like a true Roman? 

Dino & Tony, Via Leone IV 60, 00192 Rome, Tel 06 397 332 84
Osteria der Belli, Piazza S. Apollonia, Trastevere, 00153 Rome, Tel 06 580 2781

Colosseum photo by Andreas Tille, Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking at the Top of the World


CASTRO DEI VOLSCI, Italy--Welcome news on the travel front: Casa Gregorio, a bed & breakfast and cooking school here in the countryside south of Rome, is bringing style and vitality to this perfectly restored medieval village.

Castro church at dawn.JPGThis area, known as the Ciociaria, is a long valley between Rome and Naples, hemmed in by steep, forest-covered hills (the Apennines--Italy's spine--to one side, a coastal range to the other) and saw some of the heaviest fighting during World War Two at Monte Cassino. (In the shameful aftermath of the Allied victory, renegade Morroccan troops pillaged the countryside; Vittorio De Sica's movie Two Women, with Sophia Loren's Oscar-winning role as the mother of a brutalized teenager, was called La Ciociara in Italian.)

The Ciociaria is often overlooked by travelers drawn the romance of Tuscany, to the north, or the glamour of the Amalfi Coast, to the south. In fact, the corridor is traversed by the A1 motorway; Italy's fastest train, the Frecciarossa, makes the 150-mile run between Rome and Naples down the center of the Ciociaria, in a just over an hour. Yet the Ciociaria was named an area of national interest for its panoramic views and fine food.

Doorway in Castro.JPGCastro dei Volsci--the stronghold of the Volsci clan back in the 15th and 16th centuries--sits atop one of the hills overlooking the valley. The village itself is a meticulously restored community of 300 or so inside the walls and a couple thousand folks who live on surrounding farms. A minibus comes up from the valley several times a day; private cars park outside the walls. There's a post office, a bakery, a couple of shops and cafes, and then there's Casa Gregorio, which combines a taverna for the locals (open weekends for now, soon to open daily), a professional kitchen, elegantly appointed living quarters and five luxurious guest rooms with private baths.

It's taken Gregory Aulensi three years to restore the property, which, ironically, he never set out to purchase. A successful decorator in Florida, he had decided to move to Rome in search of a simpler life. His father, though, had been born in Castro dei Volsci, and one day Gregory returned to the village for a wedding. The property next door to his father's house happened to be for sale: an interconnected series of houses, workshops and terraces built into the village walls, 12,000 square feet in all. The price was no more than a studio apartment in Rome, so, in the Italian tradition of spontaneity, Gregory made the life-changing decision to buy it.

Kitchen at Casa Gregorio.JPGNow he's offering cooking classes in a perfectly equipped kitchen to his B&B guests, who also get his personal attention throughout their six-night programs. You don't need a car of your own; Gregory's vehicles are comfortable sedans and minivans. You don't need to be a professional chef, either; the local women who come in to demonstrate pasta-making or vegetable carving are patient to a fault. Visits to a vineyard and an olive mill are part of the program as well. And if you happen to be there over a weekend, you can stop in at the agriturismo at the bottom of the hill, Il Rusponte, and enjoy the copious farmhouse lunch we described in a post back in October.

Gregory has launched an ambitious cultural heritage program for "his" village, which has even attracted the attention of Italy's RAI television network. The video is here, picturesque scenery, muddy buffalo herd, cooking class and all, though it's in Italian.

Bookings through The International Kitchen, which made arrangements for my visit.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Masserias: Puglia's Fortified Farms

Sunrise at Borgo Egnazia.JPG

PUGLIA, Italy--You arrive over a road whose pavement is, shall we say, rustic, as it traverses a grove of ancient olive trees with trunks so twisted they could be posters for a menacing horror movie. You bluff your way past the gate (honk, wait for it to open; US border security should be so lucky!) and pull into the parking lot of the Masseria Torre Coccaro, one of several dozen masserias, historic farmhouse properties on the lowlands facing the Adriatic.

Chapel at Masserie Torre Coccaro-thumb-560x420-1420.jpgPirates were once a real threat along the coast, so the farms and villages tend to be based a few kilometers inland. There's a Fort Apache or Alamo feel to these masserias, many of them refurbished as four- and five-star hotels for tourists, with plenty of banquet space for local weddings and conventions, sometimes with golf courses attached, often with a stretch of private beach (reached by shuttle bus).

Not all are genuinely old, though. Borgo Egnazia (in the photos at top & bottom) is a two-year-old movie-set of a village built, literally from the ground up, with the local beige-white limestone. The owner, Aldo Melpignano, is said to have designed the Borgo himself, adding a cluster of villas surrounding the central "fort.." Local designer Pino Brescia decorated the expanses with vast quantities of unexpected objects (bottles, keys, laddders, old newspapers, twigs and branches, candles, birdcages). Marble hallways lead to cavernous rooms with high-tech lighting (which I couldn't figure out), high-thread-count sheets, and phones that rang on their own in the middle of the night. The Borgo's spa catalog ("Vair") is a study in psychobabble, with two dozen treatments getting their own names in ancient dialect ("Loma Kian") and descriptions ("..inspired by Orthobionomy"; "....will help you fall like raindrops on your reconnect to your emotions." Not cheap, eather: a manicure is nearly $100.

Okay, I'm not the target market. Unfair to complain. Point being, though, that Puglia may be the far southeastern tip of Italy, only 25 miles across the Aegean Sea from Greece and Albania, but it's thoroughly modern when it comes to upscale accommodation and luxury services.

Note: My trip to Puglia was sponsored by the Italian Travel Promotion Council in conjunction with Italy's Natonal Tourist Board.

Borgo in Puglia.JPG

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Italy Needs a New Pair of Shoes

Shoes in Bari.jpg

Italy, baby, you need a new pair of shoes. We know that, and we're doing what we can to get you some. But not these, not at those prices. Look: 145 euros is 200 dollars and change. You can't afford them on your own, and there's no way we can pay those prices to bail you out.

--Photo taken Friday night in Bari, the capital of Italy's Puglia region, where I was a guest at a symposium sponsored by the Italian Government Tourist Board and the Italian Travel Promotion Council.

Outrageous prices for shoes (and $800 or so for off-the-rack men's shoes in Rome is not unusual) would be hard to justify in the most prosperous of economies. Italy is just the latest European country to find that consumer spending is no help when the bond markets lose confidence.

One fix is to promote international tourism, especially to undervalued destinations like Puglia, the heel of the boot. Amazing art and architecture have been here for centuries, but to build five-star accommodations you need to create five-star demand, which is why the ITPC brings several hundred travel agents, tour operators and journalists to Italy every year.

These are momentous times for Italy's travel industry. We've commented before on the challenges faced by Italy, which comptetes with Spain, France, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and Morocco for visitors to the Mediterranean. Then the Puglia region, little known outside Europe, which competes with the picturesque Cinque Terre, the glamorous Amalfi Coast, the art cities of Emilia-Romagna, the splendors of Florence, the glory of Venice. Doesn't help that Trenitalia just cut 30 trains a week of high-speed inter-city service to Puglia.

The question is whether the technocrat Piero Gnudi, the new minister of tourism & sports in the post-Berlusconi cabinet of Maro Monti, can do what's necessary to re-energize Italy's moribund tourism sector. His predecessor, a right-wing TV reporter ("Berlusconi bimbo") and animal-rights advocate named Michaela Vittoria Brambilla, was so tone-deaf when it came to tourism that she proposed banning the colorful Palio--run every August on the cobblestone streets of Siena--because it was "cruel" to the horses.

As an industry, tourism is made up of thousands of independent businesses, from hotel chains to private citizens who rent out their villas, from local tourist bureaus to bus companies. (Even stores that sell hiking gear to visitors.) Getting everyone to agree on a strategy and a marketing campaign is like herding cats.

So maybe Gnudi is the right guy after all. Electric utilities know what's happening on the ground level, monitor the output of every transformer at every neighborhood substation. Gnudi ran Italy's NL for a decade, so maybe he's the right man to give the system a jolt. He's not going to worry about horseshoes.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Puglia: Ancient Stones, Modern Poltics

Trulli in Alberobello.jpg

Conical, slate-roofed houses called Trulli in the UNESCO world-herItage village of Alberobello. Below, an alleyway in the hilltop town of Ostuni

PUGLIA, Italy--The good news, it's safe to say, is that right-wing Berlusconi bimbo Michaela Vittoria Brambilla is no longer Italy's minister of tourism. The one-time TV reporter, known for her long legs, red hair and fiery disposition, had been roundly criticized for spending eight million euros on a useless website (, and was never able to articulate why Italy desperately needs to promote intself as a tourism destination. Some 20 years ago, in a public vote, self-satisfied Italians even voted to do away with a formal tourism agency, forgetting that vacation expenditures and taxes contributed by visitors provide essential funding for basic local nservices. Within a short time, Italy was overtaken by France as the world's most popular tourist destination, and tourism outside the Rome-Florence-Venice corridor has stagnated. Here in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, a 45-minute flight from Rome, it's mostly sun-bathing German families lying cheek by jowl along the sunny Adriatic beaches. There's hope--not a lot, but hope nonetheless--that the new guy, a 73-year-old industrial engineer without political experience named Piero Gnudi, will "get it," but Gnudi management career was running Italy's national electric utility, a classic top-down hierarchy that bears little resemblance to the "herding cats" model of international tourism. In fact, managing a state monopoly is poor preparation for the competition Italy faces in troubled economic times: it's probably the most expensive destination in the Mediterranean (compared with France, Spain, Croatia, Greece, or Turkey), although this corner of the country can at least boast that it's affordable. Compared to Tuscany, anyway.

Nichi Vendola, the popular governor of Puglia, has expressed cautious support for the new Monti administration. An earring-wearing member of the left-wing Green party, he has a wider vision than most: Puglia is a gateway to the eastern Mediterranean; its stones speak many languages, its olive trees outnumber its citizens by 12 to 1. His deputy for tourism, Silvia Godelli, speaks of the region's attractions: its light, its flavors and smells, its antiquities. But only 25,000 of Puglia's 4 million visitors are Americans; it's not an easy sell

Americans spent $80 billion on overseas vacations last year, and there isn't one who doesn't want to visit Italy (according to the polls, ideally within the next couple of years) And Italy meets the three top criteria for a foreign destination (safe, affordable, scenic). That's why Italy's national tourist board, ENIT, and the Italian Travel Promotion Council (an association of 19 American tour operators) have sponsored this symposium for travel agents: so they'll know more about Puglia and convince more of their clients to come here.

Alleyway in Ostuni.jpgAll this as prelude to the scenery.

Take Ostuni, for example. You look at the narrow streets, whitewashed walls, and bright blue sky, and you might think you're on a Greek island in the middle of the Aegian. But no, the water out there, less than five miles away, is the Adriatic. The town is called Ostuni, a fortified town in the Middle Ages atop a limestone cliff, settled since prehistoric times. The influence of Greek architecture is understandable, as are design elements from North Africa.

Half an hour away, atop the Murgia plain, you find several hundred peculiar cylindrical dwellings called Trulli, with cone-shaped roofs are built without mortar from slabs of limestone. They're not like teepees or the chimney-houses of eastern Turkey; there's a separate stack at the side to vent the kitchens. You can buy your own trullo, should you want to abide by the strict historic-preservation standards, for 100 grand. A studio in one of the white-washed buildings of Ostuny, on the other hand, runs about twice that.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Traveler's Notebook: Back in Bari

Bari Castello w Cathedral.JPG
Bari's 12 C castello, built by Frederick II, and its 15th C Romanesque cathedral

BARI, Italy--We are back in Puglia ("Apulia" in English), last visited three years ago on a wine tour, this time around for a symposium sponsored by the Italian Travel Promotion Council and ENIT (Italy's National Tourist Board). Over 200 American travel agents, two dozen tour operators and about 20 journalists from the USA are participatiing.

It's too soon to tell what priority tourism will have in the "austerity budget" to be presented later this month by the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti (just sworn in yesterday), although the signs point distressingly toward reduction to zero. Yes, Italians have the understandable notion that the whole world already knows about its historic cultural treasures, ideal climate, great food and pleasurable lifestyle. In this they are not alone; it is a homegrown pride that is (quite often) justifiable, yet quaint and ultimately short-sighted. But tourism promotion is not a luxury.

When Washington State eliminated tourism promotion from its budget, the only audible protest came from Seattle hotelkeepers who knew that people have to be encouraged to travel to specific places. You must tell your story over and over, the marketing folks lecture you; the public is a passing parade, not a static classroom of docile fourth-graders. Tourism professionals like travel agents need constant reminders, too, ideallly in the form of field trips, to experience the uniqueness of the "product," of the destination.

And the destination here in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot, is certainly attractive. Some 500 miles of pristine coastlne dotted with ancient watchtowers (to guard against invaders); historic architecture (Roman, Greek, Norman, Byzantine); modern cities like Bari, Baroque cities like Lecce, prehistoric settlements like Alberobello, limestone hilltowns like Ostuni; medieval strongholds like Castel del Monte; vast groves of olive trees, and vineyards planted with southern Italy's best full-bodied reds (Negroamaro, Primitivo and Nero di Troia).

Olive grove at Vallone.JPG
Olive grove in Puglia
Interntional tourism is a much sought-after source of income, but local officials here acknowledged only "incremental" increases of 20 percent over the past decade, which is a polite way of saying that tourism to this region is stagnant. Only 25,000 Americans visit Pugllia in the course of a year, a tiny fraction of the half-million foreigners who come. Assuming they're not daytrippers disembarking from the giant cruise ships, Americans stay an average of three nights, a full day less than most international visitors (almost 20 percent of them heat-seeking Germans). Puglia's official tourist office recommends touring by bicycle or on horseback, but the Yanks tend to occupy rooms in the best hotels..

Don't get me wrong, it's a stunning region, even without the beaches, but there's a campanilismo here, a short-sighted, provincial, shoulder-shrugging attitude, that seems to undervalue the surprisingly broad cultural heritage.

Welcoming the delegates, Mauro Galli, the ITPC president, pointed out that Puglia is at least 30 percent less expensive than the rest of Italy, especially compared to the strasopheric prices of hotels in Venice or Florence. Whether the price advantage alone will draw American travelers is far from clear.

Street scene in Old Bari.JPG
Street scene in Old Bari
For Americans to visit Puglia, they first have to select Italy over France, Spain, Greece or Croatia (to name just four competing Mediterranean destinations). Then Puglia competes with the trinity of Rome-Florence-Venice, not to mention the romance of a villa in Tuscany or a cooking class on the Amalfi Coast. So it's not a stop for first-time visitors to Italy.

Puglia's capital, Bari, is a vibrant, modern Italian city, as big as Portland, Ore., with a pedestrians-only old town (narrow streets with washing hanging from the balconies), a busy harbor (shipping to Mediterranean ports, cruise ships, car ferries across the Adriatic) and imposing Mussolini-era buildings along the waterfront. The palazzo housing its Chamber of Commerce may not have wi-fi (for shame, for shame), but the city does have a dozen shared-bicycle stations and a stunning Romanesque basilica. And Puglia boasts a coastline that's every bit as long and varied as Florida's. It's embarrassing, frankly, that Americans haven't discovered this wonderful land.

So much for the first day; there's more to come. More seminars and site visits, more pictures, too.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just a Small-Town White in a Red Wine World

vino_bianco.jpgFRIULI, Italy--It hasn't been tried before, an international summit like this on the opportunities and challenges facing the country's best white wines. We're not talking about the bulk pinot grigio, you understand, but the most prestigious wines from this region in the northeast corner of Italy, on the border with Slovenia). The daylong conference was organized by the Collio wine producers, and drew a good crowd of local winemakers, consultants, marketers, importers, exporters and restaurateurs, along with a dozen or more journalists. The panels--once the public and industry officials made the obligatory welcome speeches--talked about technical issues in the morning and marketing in the afternoon. 

The challenge was expressed by a grower who didn't attend. Edi Keber, whom I called the "Commoner-King of Collio" in a post last year, looked out from his winery this morning and surveyed the landscape, where vineyards and whitewashed houses share the sun-drenched hills, where Italy blends into Slovenia without so much as a border fence. "I could make and sell 50,000 bottles of pinot grigio here, but I would betray my heritage. What grows here is unique. Several varieties, but one wine." It's as if the very blend were a single grape variety. Nobody much cares that Bordeaux grows half a dozen red grapes, Keber points out. The same here. "One wine, and it is virtually autochtonous. It is Collio."

Collio vineyards.JPGItaly exports four billion euros worth of wine every year, more than any country, but less than two percent of that comes from this region, formally known as Friuli Venezia Giulia. FVG wines are nationally acclaimed as excellent, everyone agrees, but they don't have a coherent story to tell the export markets.

Prof. Francesco Venier.JPGFrancesco Venier, professor of business administration at the University of Trieste, points to FVG's grab bag of appellations and grape varieties, which end up with some 168 varieties and protected denominations spread over 25,000 acres. Collio, for all its efforts, is one small appellation but allows almost a dozen varieties and blends--all white--to carry the name. Venier urged the wine makers and government officials to develop a more coordinated and efficient system of leadership ("Cluster Governance") that would permit more flexibility and encourage more innovation. 

The marketing sessions drew plenty of attention, ranging from specifics (using gel packs instead of refrigerated containers, for example) to broad advice regarding Asian and American markets.

Becky Sue Epstein writes, Paul Wagner tastes.JPG"Making good wine isn't enough," said Paul Wagner of Napa-based Balzac Communications, who participated by videoconference from the US. The competition is overwhelming and the sales people are overwhelmed. A single distributor can carry more than 5,000 wines; Wine Spectator gave 90+ scores to nearly a thousand Italian wines. "So you need more than a good wine," Wagner told the audience, "you need a good story."

And because of the message-killing inefficiencies of the three-tier wine distribution system, wine makers need to tell that story themselves.

Less than a quarter of all Americans even drink wine (about the same percentage as own passports), Wagner pointed out. Americans do their "traveling" by going to the movies or drinking imported bottles in restaurants. They want to fall in love with their wine, yet most wine marketing is based on the false notion that Americans want wine education: enology (barrels), chemistry (fermentation) or geology (soil structure).

Wrong! says Wagner. This may work in emerging Asian markets, but to sell in the United States, you need to sell the romance of travel, sell the romance of wine. Sell the story of vineyards on sunny, foreign hilllsides; sell the story of a wine maker walking through those vineyards, touching his grapes. Sell the story of nonna's recipe for homemade pasta and the family dinners enlivened by a special bottle. It's not about facts, it's about feelings.

Antonio Galloni, the Italian correspondent for Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate, agreedd that more work is needed to create an identity for wine from Friuli. "The sommeliers in New York restaurants are young, they have no wine prejudices and are happy to become ambassadors for serious white wnes along with the appeal of Italy's la dolce vita lifestyle.

Patricia Felluga, president of the Collio-Carso consortium, would certainly agree. "We need tourism," she said. The winery she owns, Zuani, is adjacent its own, wine-centered restaurant, Luka, to attract visitors. (In Napa, Wagner pointed out, a single winery sells one million bottles of wine at full retail to passers-by.)

Josko Sirk.JPGJosko Sirk, who owns Al Cacciatore della Subida, the region's best restaurant, sees a solution: the world's first bi-national appellation, a DOC that would include most of the Italian state of Friuli Venezia Giulia along with the vineyards of Brda, on the Slovenian side of the border. "They work well, they are serious, their wines are good," says Sirk. "And the publicity for Collio would be fantastic."

There's no doubt that the wines of Collio and FVG could use a stronger identity outside Italy. Only one winery (so far) has its own sales rep in China, where only ten percent of wine sales are white wine. Burgundy and Bordeaux do well in China, as long as it's their reds. New Zealand's sauvignon blanc is making inroads; its bouquet is aromatic and fresh. German Rieslings, well known and appreciated. Premium white from Italy? Yes, as it becomes more famous, and comes with a unified story: "The future is white."

It's all very well for the locals to be self-congratulatory about the excellence of their wines, but they need to do more for the gorgeous lady in the silvery-gold lamé dress, whose delights they're praising. Right now, she's standing all by herself in the corner, ready to strut her stuff. She needs to step into the spotlight, she needs to be invited to dance. The world is waiting.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Berlusconi Resigns, Sort Of

ROME--Tuesday night, after a dramatic rainstorm, the dome of St. Peter's glowed with an almost palable, paternal benevolence over the Eternal City. It wasn't quite bright enough for the TV correspondents doing live shots in front of the Quirinale Palace, of course, but their breathless reports were strangely reassuring: after 17 years at the helm of Italy's government, Silvio Berlusconi had finally announced that he would step down, and the Prime Minister would have to come to Quirinale to deliver his resignation to the President of the Republc.

It didn't happen. What Berlusconi promised wasn't exactly a resignation, and the message wasn't quite clear enough. Berlusconi lost a critical coalition partner earlier this week, then lost a procedural vote yesterday in Parliament relating to Italy's debt crisis. It looked like he would suffer the same fate that befell the Greece's George Papandreou just last week.

The obituaries were already being written: in the end, it wasn't the sexual escapades that brought Berlusconi down, it wasn't the street protests, it wasn't even the loss of political allies. Rather, it was the same thing that brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns: the financial markets, which care nothing about sex or politics. Once the yield on bonds for Italy's sovereign debt came close to seven percent, Berlusconi lost his remaining support.

The markets responded this morning to the non-resignation with renewed ferocity and even higher interest rates (what is referred to here as "lo spread"). The drama is being measured in hours.

Italians as a whole are both self-indulgent (those shoes! those scarves!) and self-deprecating, by turns passionate and indifferent, but they are always keenly aware of image. That their head of government was seen by much of the world as a swaggering sex clown was, for a time, not so bad. When the Amanda Knox case eventually become an national embarrassment, they just sent her home. Berlusconi's embarrassing antics finally ran into the roadblock of international finance.

The markets were may not reassured this week, no doubt because Berlusconi has slipped through a number of crises in the past. But most observers think his time is finally up. Rome's newspapers reported this morning that Berlusconi had promised President Giorgio Napolitano that he would not run for re-election in February and would step down before then, as soon as an austerity package is approved. The nature of the package and its timing have yet to be revealed.

"I am personally delighted," said Michele Napoli, national sales director for FilmAuro, the distribution arm of the Dino De Laurentiis film studios. "The trouble is it didn't happen soon enough." Napoli's sentiments reflect conversations I overheard in cafes around Rome today. If you want a Big Mac, it's $8 at Mickey D's, by the way.

The question, from an American perspective, might well be, "what took so long?" But this is a profoundly conservative country (occasional forays into liberal politics aside). Everywhere you go, from the Roman Forum to the Sicilian countryside, you are surrounded by "old stones," by the monuments of antiquity and stones that have been in place for centuries. In Seattle, we're lucky to see a totem pole, but in Rome you drive past the actual Colosseo (and gas costs $8.50 a gallon in Europe). Even the manhole covers in Rome are emblazoned with the motto of the Roman Empire, SPQR. There's a literal weight to history that can't be ignored, change doesn't come easily.

No matter how long--hours or days--the prime minister manages to hang on, tough times lie ahead for Italy, but the countenance of St. Peter's will no longer shine on Silvio Berlusconi.

UPDATE, Sunday, Nov. 13th: Mission Accomplished!