Evocative, beautifully rendered travelogue/memoir by Publishers Weekly editor Rotella, recounting his adventures in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot and the land of his ancestry.
Although it’s the area from which most Italian immigrants originate, the south has been largely overlooked in the recent spate of books on Italy. But Rotella fell under Calabria’s spell after a quick visit with his reluctant father to his grandparents’ town of Gimigliano and for the next decade returned biannually, “like the olive, which bears fruit every two years,” according to his guide and friend Giuseppe, a postcard photographer who introduced the writer to Calabria and offered a personal interpretation of topics as varied as immigration, religion, and “the polenta heads from northern Italy.” Rotella encountered a world in which things were made, not manufactured: bread was baked in an oven fired by the wood of the olive tree, a butchered pig fed a family for six months, a dish of sautéed chicory began with a long walk to find the greens. He traces Calabria’s long history of invasion and occupation. He explores its links with mythology: Odysseus washed up on the shore of Lamezia, the Sybarites cavorted in the sulfur baths of the Grotta delle Ninfe (Cave of the Nymphs), and King Arthur reputedly loved the city of Reggio. As Rotella takes pains to feel a part of this land, he makes us privy to the Calabreses’ charming habits: their evening passegiata, their friendliness, their suspicions, their propensity to hang out in groups—“and in Calabria especially, this hanging out is an art form.” With the eye of a writer, a son, and a historian, the author searches and finds Calabria’s soul. His love of the region’s physical beauty, its people, food, celebrations, and religious devotions is infectious. “It will never attract the tourists like the rest of Italy,” Giuseppe tells him. “How lucky,” Rotella admits to thinking selfishly.
Better than gelato. Not to be missed.