Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria

Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria

4.8 5
by Mark Rotella

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An effortlessly artful blend of travel book, memoir, and affectionate portrait of a people

Calabria is the toe of the boot that is Italy—a rugged peninsula where grapevines and fig and olive trees cling to the mountainsides during the scorching summers while the sea crashes against the cliffs on both coasts. Calabria is also a seedbed of Italian


An effortlessly artful blend of travel book, memoir, and affectionate portrait of a people

Calabria is the toe of the boot that is Italy—a rugged peninsula where grapevines and fig and olive trees cling to the mountainsides during the scorching summers while the sea crashes against the cliffs on both coasts. Calabria is also a seedbed of Italian American culture; in North America, more people of Italian heritage trace their roots to Calabria than to almost any other region in Italy.

Mark Rotella's Stolen Figs is a marvelous evocation of Calabria and Calabrians, whose way of life is largely untouched by the commerce that has made Tuscany and Umbria into international tourist redoubts. A grandson of Calabrian immigrants, Rotella persuades his father to visit the region for the first time in thirty years; once there, he meets Giuseppe, a postcard photographer who becomes his guide to all things Calabrian. As they travel around the region, Giuseppe initiates Rotella—and the reader—into its secrets: how to make soppressata and 'nduja, where to find hidden chapels and grottoes, and, of course, how to steal a fig without actually committing a crime. Stolen Figs is a model travelogue—at once charming and wise, and full of the earthy and unpretentious sense of life that, now as ever, characterizes Calabria and its people.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Stolen Figs is the anti-Mayle version of travels in Europe, of finding one's true home, whether you like it or not, the source of your personality and appetites. — Susan Salter Reynolds
The New York Times
There are already bad books on the subject; this one is good, the product of persistent, gentle curiosity and persistently open eyes. Judges travel with armed guards and people are surprised when a stranger comes back intact from remote Greek-speaking villages, but there are also the feasts and joys and faith of a hardscrabble life. By the end, you're no longer so startled that Sybaris, the indulgent city of the Sybarites, once lay in Calabria. — Michael Pye
Publishers Weekly
The jacket copy defines PW Forecasts editor Rotella's narrative as a "model travelogue," but it's much more. Even without a conventional conflict and plot, the author's intensity and personal commitment to a country and its inhabitants cast a spell. Anecdotes range from comedic-a long unseen relative scolds Rotella's father, "Thirty years and you don't write!"-to curiously romantic, as when the author's wedding ring slips off his finger while swimming and a "crazy aunt" exclaims, "That's good luck. Now you will have to return!" Descriptions of delicacies such as soppressata, capicola, fettucine and rag simmered with pepperoni incite a desire to be there just for the luscious, succulent meals, supporting Rotella's belief that you simply can't get a bad meal in Italy. Calabria is a particularly vivid character; readers learn how much the region has been through: spoiled by drought, destroyed by earthquakes and plundered by barons and kings. Rotella points out the effects of Mafia control in Bianca, a small, decrepit city, and the economic destruction it causes, without belaboring or stereotyping the Italian-Mafia connection. Playful moments are equally memorable, detailing petty fig heists from trees belonging to unknown farmers. Such likable protagonists as Rotella's loving father, his wife, and guide Giuseppe are woven unobtrusively through the tale of a culture that counts among its children Tony Bennett, Phil Rizzuto and Stanley Tucci. The book is a love letter, and Rotella reinforces that feeling when he writes, "I am a romantic. With each trip back to Calabria, I've felt myself becoming not only more Calabrese but more Italian." Readers, whether Italian or not, will find themselves captivated by so much meticulously drawn history and enchanting terrain. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Italy looks awfully like a boot, and when I read Mark Rotella's Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria (North Point: Farrar. 2003. ISBN 0-86547-627-6. $25; pap. 2004. ISBN 0-86547-696-9. $14), a cheerful and charming memoir about his adventures in his family's homeland, I was tempted to book reservations for that boot's very toe. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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'sphysical 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. Agent: Maria Massie/Witherspoon Associates

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Stolen Figs

And Other Adventures in Calabria

By Mark Rotella

North Point Press

Copyright © 2003 Mark Rotella
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-6606-1



THE DOORS of the train opened at Naples. Shrill announcements twittered over the station PA system, babies cried, people argued, and beyond the tracks cars honked amid the din of Vespas and motorcycles. The passengers getting off the train squeezed their way past those trying to get on. Train workers, passengers, and merchants communicated with one another as if yelling across bleachers at a football game. The smell of fried zeppole and calzone filled the station. Vendors selling ice cream, water, and wine appeared and roamed the aisles, knocking on the doors of first-class air-conditioned compartments. When no one looked up, they opened the Plexiglas doors themselves. They were followed by Gypsy women begging for change, musicians playing guitars and accordions, and packs of children — many with piercing green eyes.

My father and I, who had boarded in Rome, watched as the mob of people squeezed their way down the aisles, looking for seats. We were finally on our way to Gimigliano, in Calabria, the homeland of my grandparents.

I had been staying with my father in Perugia, where he was sculpting stone, during the month of July. I had heard so many stories about Calabria, where his parents had been poor farmers. I suggested that we visit their village, but he shrugged off the idea. "That was decades ago," he said. "Why go back to the past?"

"Why not?" I asked. "Anyway, what's so bad about the past?"

"Nothing," he said dismissively. Going back, I knew, would remind him of his mother, who had died the year before, and his father, who had died eight years earlier. My father pushed a hand through his full head of hair, a soft mixture of jet black and silver. "I don't even know if we have family there anymore. They've probably all died — or moved to Torino or Milan."

"Well, why not find out? What's it gonna hurt?" I had already decided to go even if he didn't, but I knew the trip would be better — would feel more appropriate — if we went together. "I know you're at least a little curious. Anyway, look at it as the one time you'll be able to take this trip with your son."

My father laughed. "Jesus, you're such a romantic." He, too, is a romantic, but he wouldn't give in just then. He wouldn't admit that he might enjoy it. He fits the Calabrese stereotype of being stubborn, or having a testa dura — a hard head. My parents had taken my sister and me to Italy several times before, but this would be the first trip we had made south of Rome.

He looked at his watch. I knew what he was thinking. Our stomachs were on the same schedule.

"C'mon, let's get some dinner," he said. And with that, we walked to the trattoria up the street from the apartment we were renting.

At fifty-five, my father was fit and strong. Although he's a head shorter than I am, everything about him is grand: his nose, his eyes, his smile. And he eats with purpose and intensity.

By the time we finished dinner and a liter of wine, he had agreed to take a two — day trip south, returning to Perugia on Sunday. Two days seemed like no time. But it didn't really matter how long we stayed: I would finally see Calabria, and I would see it with my father.

The compartments filled. New passengers greeted the old ones and, like next-door neighbors, fell into conversations about the weather — hot even for July — and the recent strike of railroad concession workers. I unbuttoned my shirt and leaned out the window, trying to find a breeze. A man in a light brown suit claimed a seat across from us and joined me at the open window. He turned and greeted me with an exhausted smile, his thick mustache glistening with sweat. The train coasted out of the station. The thunk of windows sliding open sounded throughout the car. Passengers flocked to the windows, letting their shirts fill with air.

As the train, an express, left old Naples, the yellow and pink seventeenth–century buildings of the historic center gave way to shoddy, colorless Mussolini–era tenements, which then yielded to the cinder–block Soviet–style structures of the 1970s, whose facades crumbled beneath their sagging balconies, then to suburbs, the Bay of Naples opening up on the west. Blue-and-white fishing skiffs lined the shore, their nets spread out to dry. To the east, Vesuvius's gaping crater broke through the smog.

This was Campania, and as the train continued south, I saw how the sirocco winds from Africa had dried the soil and left the bushes and trees scrubby and desiccated. Olive trees, fig trees, and grapevines — the only vegetation that can thrive there — lined the hills. The train passed villages and peasant farms, each smaller than the last. All the buildings were simple structures, painted pale yellow, olive green, or burnt red. All the shutters were closed, shading interiors that were most likely, in true Italian form, immaculately clean and organized.

This was the gateway to the south, the passage to Calabria.

Already I saw the difference. Campania's hills are not the rolling hills of Tuscany Absent are wide-eyed pink travelers with their sulking kids. Absent are streets congested with souvenir shops. Absent are packed tour buses. Absent are crowded museums with their endless lines. Absent are English ex-pats and their summer villas. Absent are bilingual waiters and shop ladies. Absent are tourist menus in fourteen languages.

Within the train compartments and along the hallways, conversations grew comfortably loud; gestures became grander, more ebullient. An older woman (from Cosenza, Calabria, I found out) offered up nuts and fruits. A dapper Neapolitan pensioner talked local politics in a harsh dialect. The mustachioed man in the brown suit stood up to demonstrate the size of the fig trees in his backyard, his hands forming around each imaginary branch. The woman smiled and held up a white fig that she had picked from her sister's garden.

"My God," my father said as if to himself, "I've been all along here. I remember this." He eased back in his seat and stared out the window, mouth open. The right corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.

I went to the carrozza ristorante, the dining car, to get us some bottled water. Outside the open windows, the train hugged the ocean, the slate-blue water crashing against the rocks and boulders. Occasionally the jagged coast receded to an alcove of sandy shores. The sunbathers on these secluded beaches, reachable only by boat, didn't even register the train speeding above, but only stared out to sea, past their anchored motorboats rocking gently on the waves.

"The water is so blue, so light that it appears gray," someone said to me in Sicilian.

I turned to a deeply tanned man who shot me a smile almost as wide as his panama hat. The Sicilian version of a well-off, relaxed Florida retiree, he had unbuttoned his brightly patterned yellow-and-red batik shirt, exposing a bare chest the color of a ripe tomato; two thick gold chains, one with a pendant of a saint, broke the wall of red.

"So does the sky," I responded in Italian.

"The sky is gray," he said, turning to me with an indignant glare. "It's the factories." He waved with one hand; on each finger was a large gold ring, embedded with colored stones that sparkled in the light. His hand floated through the air, then sailed downward like an unfolded tissue.

"The factories?" I knew that there was little industry for hundreds of miles south of Naples; Calabria's economy was especially depressed.

"Yes," he said, squinting as if about to impart a secret. "Up in the north. Those Milanese destroy everything, they're almost like the Germans.

"Did you come from Naples?" he went on.

I told him I planned to stop there on the way back. He rested his large, gentle hand on my shoulder. "È una bella città," he said — it's a beautiful city — and told me that whenever he passes through Naples, if only for a few hours, he ducks into a restaurant called Mimi alle Ferrovie, a block away from the train station. He had just been there, in fact: grilled calamari, mussels in a marinara sauce, and white wine — wine so distinct, he insisted, that you can taste the ashy soil of Vesuvius, where the grapes are grown.

"Ma, io sono Palermitano," he said, making sure that I understood that as a Sicilian from Palermo, he knew what he was talking about. "The marinara could have been a bit spicier, but the mozzarella di bufala ... nowhere else can you find it so fresh!"

He explained what he did in his spare time, which was mostly what he was doing now, traveling and talking with strangers.

As the pensioner spoke, his sh's and ch's clicked between his tongue and teeth in the distinct, forceful Sicilian dialect, barely understandable to any Italian off the great island, much less anyone living north of Naples — let alone me, who had learned Italian growing up in Connecticut and Florida and going to college in New York. Confident that people would work to understand him, he made no effort to slow or regulate his speech.

He glanced at his chunky gold watch and, as if he'd almost missed an appointment, announced, "Allora, it's time for a caffè." We walked back to the bar — he for his coffee, I for bottled water.

Four hours out of Naples, our train crept through a desolate station — no one waiting alongside the tracks, not a single station door open or a window cracked. A blue sign at the edge of the platform read TORTORA. We had entered Calabria. For the next two hours I gazed out the window, the sea to my right, and to my left, far on the horizon, the deep green foothills of Calabria's Sila massif, locally known as the Black Forest.

The heat was suffocating, and I started feeling sleepy. As I was about to doze off, I caught sight of something I had seen in many old pictures of Calabria: ambling down a dirt path was a man riding a mule. Somehow, it fit right in with the landscape. I thought of the writer Carlo Levi, who in the 1930s described the south as a region that had evolved very slowly

Carlo Levi was a doctor and writer from Piedmont, in the northwest of Italy. A vocal anti-Fascist, he was arrested in 1935 and sent as a prisoner to the province of Lucania. This poor, almost completely landlocked region, now called Basilicata, borders Calabria to the north; the train had passed through it during my conversation with the Sicilian pensioner.

For two years Levi was forbidden to leave the village of Gagliano. Italy had just invaded Ethiopia in the Abyssinian War; Mussolini's army had drafted many of the south's doctors (and its able-bodied men generally) and sent them to Africa. Levi offered his medical services in Gagliano, and did so openly, until the mayor, Don Luigi, feeling the political prisoner was becoming too popular, forbade people to visit him.

Thereafter Levi performed his work at night and in secret. During the day he painted pictures of the landscape and wrote about the villagers and southern life. His memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, was the first modern book to describe the people of the south, who, it seemed to him, still lived in the Middle Ages, practicing a blend of Christianity and pre-Christian paganism and fearing dragons, gnomes, and spirits that lurked in the forests.

According to Levi, the peasants with ancient Italic features, the natives of Basilicata, thought they were worthless people from a godforsaken place. They were not Christians, not even humans, but beasts. "Christ never came this far," Levi wrote, "nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history."

Levi famously characterized Basilicata and Calabria as "that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow ... where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death." To this day, many northerners see these regions this way: bereft of culture and economy, a burden to the rest of Italy.

In any case, the harshness of life in the south led many Calabresi to emigrate, especially to the United States. In 1936, the year Carlo Levi's sentence ended and he was allowed to leave Gagliano for Piedmont, my grandmother, at the age of nineteen, left Calabria for America.

Now the train approached the toe of the "boot" that is Italy Out the window, I could see one, two, three more sets of tracks in each direction. Some tracks simply ended in mounds of dirt. We passed a freight train of two engines and seven boxcars, their open doors revealing their emptiness. There were several World War II — vintage locomotives and boxcars rusted to the rails.

This was Lamezia. Here train passengers can continue south to Reggio, where the entire train is pulled onto a ferry that continues the journey to Sicily, or they can take a train that cuts eastward across the peninsula, the narrowest point in all of Italy, to Calabria's capital, Catanzaro, and the Ionian Sea. And it was here where the train and the Sicilian pensioner continued to Palermo, while my father and I disembarked and boarded a small diesel train to Catanzaro. We stuffed our knapsacks on the narrow wooden racks above the window and passed a bottle of water between us.

Because it's located on one of the few plains in all of Calabria, Lamezia supports the region's largest airport. A half mile from the train station, small houses and condos lined the crowded coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

"I can't believe you've dragged me all the way down here," my dad said.

"You had a choice," I said. "I was happy to come by myself."

He rolled his eyes, but I knew he, too, was happy he had come.

The train veered across hilly, mostly barren land, past factories, tracts of plain new houses, foundations in cleared land. In time the hills grew to mountains. The train slowed to a walking pace. To one side, a field of orange trees bore rotting fruit that had not been picked; to the other, a Gypsy camp pushed up against the track bed: shacks made of wood and corrugated metal, with smoke from working fires rising from within.

A thud on the window bounced my head up; the juice from an orange trickled down the dust-covered glass. I looked out expecting to find kids running and ducking behind a tree, but I saw nothing except the sunlit grove of orange trees.

Finally, the train passed through a long mountain tunnel and emerged at Catanzaro. The station was at the bottom of a cliff. The walled city of Catanzaro crowned its top like a daunting fortress. We stepped off into the open-air station. It was four in the afternoon, almost the end of the siesta; outside a shuttered trattoria hung a sign that read CHIUSO, closed. An adjoining bar's door had been wedged open, and the entrance to the lightless room was covered only by a curtain of multicolored beads.

We still had one more train to take. We walked over to the local station to check the schedule of the Calabro–Lucano train to Gimigliano.

In Calabria and Basilicata there are two rail systems: one is the Ferrovie dello Stato, or the state railroad, which cuts through the low-lying valleys and skirts the coast; the other is the Calabro–Lucano Railroad, which traverses the mountain ridges, connecting the cliffside villages.

The train official at the ticket window motioned that he would come out from behind the window and talk to us. A short man who reached me just at chest level (and I'm an average five feet ten), he spoke in a voice both booming and raspy. He seemed to be missing every other tooth.

He explained that there were two more trains to Gimigliano, but that we would probably miss the last train back to Catanzaro and that we should stay in Catanzaro and visit the next day. We would have only a single afternoon to explore Gimigliano. In a display of what I would come to recognize as Calabrese hospitality, he walked us back to the state train station, where three cabdrivers stood talking by their cars under the shade of a portico. We took one of the cabs up to the city.

Catanzaro and its maze of streets are set on a plateau between two mountain gorges. The city can be reached from only two directions: one a narrow, spiraling ridge, the other a four-lane suspended highway, built in the 1960s. The cab cut alongside the mountain, climbed up a bit, then took the highway, which protruded from the cliff. I felt as if we were taking off in flight; the land dropped below us, the sea loomed ahead. At one point we stopped at an intersection — seemingly in midair over one of the gorges — to let other cars cross. With a final loop, we descended to a narrow cliffside road, where the buildings were packed tightly together in a discordant architectural mix of the nineteenth century and the 1970s.


Excerpted from Stolen Figs by Mark Rotella. Copyright © 2003 Mark Rotella. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Rotella works as an editor at Publishers Weekly. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Mark Rotella is the author of Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria (NPP, 2003). A senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, he lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children.

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Stolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although my ancestors are not from Calabria, I found this book fascinating and full of rich Italian traditions I am so proud of. My great-grandparents were from small towns near Naples. After reading this book, I long to see the beautiful towns they were from. Mr. Rotella brought me there. I smelled, tasted and heard the sounds of a culture I want my children and husband to experience. Thank you, please write another book!
italia_lover More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book when it was first available to the public in softcover format. Our Italian lodge used this book for our Reading Club years ago and everyone loved it. Sadly, there is a previous reviewer who didn't think the book was worthy of more than one star. What a pity! He can't be descended from southern Italian immigrants - there are so many of us, and we all have the same pull back toward Italy as our ancestors felt when emigrating to America. I simply want to know exactly why my ancestors left their country. I am not Calabrese. My Italian families are from Parma, Rome and Naples areas. Seven years ago my Italian citizenship was recognized, and three years ago we bought a very small apartment in Scalea, Calabria. I have one foot in America and one foot in Italy. I wouldn't want it any other way. My thanks to Mark Rotella for telling his family's story. My husband and I enjoy wandering through his travel spots - very enjoyable. I am now on my third read (wish it was available in e-reading format for my NookColor)
Mariet More than 1 year ago
I had to special order this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a journey to a land I had heard about while growing up. This is told from a modern traveler's memories as he visits his father's birth place and falls in love with it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My family is from Italy, and my husband's family is specifically from Calabria. We travel there every year or so. I loved this book because it allowed me to learn more about our family history and 'visit' for awhile. The gatherings and conversations are reminiscent of my family here in the US and there. It was heart-warming to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Apart from creating a strong desire to explore Mark Rotella's ancestral homeland, his 'Stolen Figs and other adventures in Calabria,' may also evoke an emotional response from readers whose ancestors have left Europe to settle in distant lands. A far cry from travel books that point up the indiosyncracies of locals, Stolen Figs is a loving celebration of the uniqueness of the Calebrese -their food, landscapes, languages, customs and history and a fascinating tour de force it is. Rotella's paternal grandparents, who emigrated to America in the 1920's, provide the hub around which the tale is spun, starting at the village where cousins, aunts and uncles still live in much the same way they did in the 1920's. To describe the narrative as emotionally satisfying is just scratching the surface of 'Stolen Figs,' which succeeds at so many levels. Humanity is the overlaying premise offered here. We all belong to a wider family, but it's our roots that sustain us and provide our anchors. How lucky Rotella is to have found his. However, being somewhat pedantic when it comes to following a journey that zig-zags though a little know region of Southern Italy over the course of several visits, a map tracing the author's travels would have been appreciated. Otherwise...perfect.