As you already know, we're sagra enthusiasts. We love the home-spun events that bring people together over plates of good, cheap food and music that is usually the equivalent of a B-movie. Like has-beens from the 80s that are now touring the State Fairs, we've noticed that many of the bands seem to make the rounds, playing the 'sagra circuit'. But hey, it's free entertainment and for us, it's all about the food. And the cameraderie.
In our sagra experience, we've found that people are generally congenial and at nearly every festival we've attended we've had someone chat with us and offer us wine from their pitcher. "E` troppo," they tell us. I have too much wine for just the two of us, take some. Since Italians don't feel a meal is complete without wine, they always buy a liter. Since most of them drink only a glass or two they know they'll not consume it all, so it's customary to offer some to whoever happens to be sitting nearby.
Such was the case Saturday at the opening night for the sagra in the Porta Romana district. Their annual festival centers on mezze maniche all'Amatriciana and those little grilled critters I like so much, arrosticini. Mezze maniche is a type of pasta I'd never seen in the US, at least not under that name. Short sleeves is the literal translation. Turns out they are basically your run of the mill rigatoni. This particular sagra makes good renditions of both specialties, but we've found the kitchen to be rather slow. It didn't help that we arrived on opening night while they were still trying to get organized.
As we sat at our table stewing at the slowness (as well as from the heat), we noticed an older man next to us doing the same. He was alternatingly fanning himself and bouncing his right hand up and down with his finger drawn together...a classic Italian gesture that indicates "what the hell is the hold-up" and such-like sentiments. He got up and talked with someone behind the counter. He threw his hands up in the air and came back to sit and wait. He had his eyes resolutely set on the kitchen area and didn't give a sidewards glance in our direction. We noticed this only because there were not too many people yet and because the wait was- as I mentioned- rather long, leaving us rather bored.
Finally a few numbers, including ours, were belted out over an insanely-loud microphone, causing everyone to jump. We retrieved our food and dug in. Our neighbor went for his meal and returned with a liter of white wine. That's when he gave us some notice and was horrified to see that we not only hadn't ordered any, but sitting there on our table was a glass of beer. Beer! Mah! Pour that out and give me your glass, he said. We passed him the plastic cups we'd procured to hold water. He filled them up, saying he had a friend behind the counter who had given him the wine. Drink some...it's much better for you that beer. Piu` leggero, it's lighter. Better for the digestivo.
Naturally we got to talking as we dined. He was stunned to hear that we are Americans, that we live in Ascoli and that we're appassionati about sagras. He's lived in the Porta Romana district for years and years. This became evident as people entering the tent would call out his name and greet him. He kept pouring wine we didn't need, and at the end of the meal he ushered us up to the counter to introduce us to his benificient friend (who, it turned out, was actually his son-in-law). He bought us caffe and wished he had his own home-made liquore to make them corretti. He continually cursed the fact that none of his cronies had bothered to show up for opening night. He wanted them to meet us, could we come again for dinner together...his treat? Ma certo! we said.
We rode our bikes home, bumping through the cobbled streets ringing our bells madly for no other reason that it was fun to do so. The bell on Bryan's rickety-sounding but sturdy bike makes a hearty bring-bring type of tone. Mine is a wimpy little ping. All the way across town we echoed out the little chorus. Bring-bring. Ping. Ciao amici, a friend called out as we rode by. Bring-bring. Ping ping.
Tuesday we had a sagra encore when we met Ezio and his friends. We had an evening with lots of laughter and too much food, too much wine, too much gelato (yes it's possible to get too much!). He and his friend Guido both uncorked bottles of home-brewed mistra, that fire-water concoction that will burn a hole in your stomach. I had to pretend to taste it, but no way was I going to swallow that liquid inferno.
They were all so very sweet, inviting us to partake in horseback riding and a grape harvest. This is so typical in Italy...we just met them, yet they were so immediately accepting because their friend said we're okay.
By the end of the evening they declared us soci, members of Porta Romana, even though we live in a sestiere across town. By this definition, they tell us, we will be included in other events because we are soci in their circle. All because we sat down to dine and accepted a glass of free wine. And people wonder why we love the sagras?