FLORENCE, ITALY––It’s rare to find the restaurant lacking a long line. Inside the paninoteca, tiny caprese panini, others with panchetta or soprapressa, top the counter, stacked, tempting hungry locals and travelers alike as they wait impatiently to order. “Oh, Wow!” An American girl exclaims when she looks at the enormous pork loaf, as Manuale behind the counter cuts into it with his chef knife. Others watch, mesmerized. Out of curiosity, I ask Manuale how many sandwiches he makes a day.
“I don’t want to know,” he says. “Definitely more than one hundred. Two hundred. Really a lot.”
By noon, many of those little panini will be gone. Yet this is nothing unusual for the Antico Vinaio, one of the most lively sandwich shops in Florence.
Danielle Mazzanti, the owner of the Antico Vinaio, says that one of the main ingredients in the shop’s success can be chopped down to one word: Tradition. It’s a quality that covers every aspect of the business, from the grapefruit-sized mozzarella carried over from across the street, to the consistency of the black truffle spread across the daily-baked foccacia.
“And we live by tradition,” his colleague Eugenio adds, “The Tuscan tradition. It’s the only one that we stick to.”
Traditional Tuscan street food can be seen itself as a religion, with the prophets being the porchetta vendors pushing their carts around the streets of Livorno or La Spezia. Every speciality the Antico Vinaio sells — the fennel salami, artichoke spread, gorgonzola (one the most “important” sandwiches at the shop, according to Eugenio) — has roots far beyond the storefront on Via di Neri.
Eugenio Mazzanti, 28, who’s been working at the Antico Vinaio since he was 19, says that this is the key to making a sandwich par excellence. He can’t think of the restaurant’s success any other way. Any deviation from tradition, Eugenio said, and he frets.
“We have rules here,” he said. “If you mix the wrong types of meats or cheeses — like turkey and prosciutto, then you are wasting flavor.”
Eugenio, who spoke of his work like a Florentine artist, expressed his honest remorse when someone “breaks the rules.” The shop’s success may be attributed to its a la carte ingredient approach, but, as Eugenio said, this may also allow for some poor choices — often fixed by a Tuscan education.
“Sometimes I have to restrain myself,” he said laughing. “But people order what they want.”
It’s the choice of all the ingredients that seems to give the Antico Vinaio is good name and reputation. And such comes from their nearly two-decade history in Florence.
In 1992, the Antico Vinaio opened up its doors on the northern side of Via di Neri, already a prime location due to the foot traffic from the nearby Piazza della Signoria. The previous owners ran the location as a rosticceria, selling roasted chicken by the whole, not panini. Danielle first ran food like any other Florentine delicatessen, but after a few years he found the restaurant’s Tuscan niche. And this meant expansion.
“There was not enough room so we bought the [wine] bar across the street,” Eugenio said, which was where they got the name "Antico Vinaio" (“old wine bar”). It was when they began their five-euro, “street food” approach — not “fast food,” as Danielle told me — that they still run today, which was began because, as Eugenio said, “We just wanted to see how people would react.”
And people surely did react. The dozens that line up for the famous Mazzanti panini compare to the tourists snaked in front of the Uffizzi Gallery. This is no coincidence, Danielle reminded me.
“It’s like the lines in front of the Mona Lisa,” he said.
And then there’s the Internet buzz. TripAdvisor currently lists the Antico Vinaio number one out of 1,860 restaurants in Florence. According to Danielle, it has maintained this title for more than three years running. International tourism and social media popularized the shop outside the Tuscan borders, turning it into a major tourist destination in Florence, right alongside the nearby David. And in 2001, gastronomic magazine Saveur ranked the Antico Vinaio one of the top three sandwich shops in the world.
The shop’s popularity doesn’t seem to phase it’s owner. In fact, Danielle reassured me that the online reviewers tell nothing less than the truth. He said it has to do with his restaurant’s originality, taking Tuscan street food to its highest potential, slightly off the streets.
“We are [not only] the first in Florence,” Danielle said after taking a drag of his cigarette, “but also the first in Italy — and maybe even the first in Europe.”
And from all over Europe, and the US, travelers come to taste the crunch of the Antico’s foccacia bread and help themselves to a glass of vino rosso.
Dan P, a university student studying in Spain, said that nothing quite compares to the Antico Vinaio anywhere else in Italy. The same goes for his home base Madrid.
“In Spain,” he said, “there are restaurants sort of like [the Antico Vinaio] but they’re not the same. Here in Italy it’s just different. Especially in Florence.”
Marina Ionova, a traveler from Moscow, said that the Antico Vinaio’s panini make up for her country’s lack of “good Italian food.”
“My husband and I have been all over Italy,” she said, “Bologna, Venice, Florence, Rome — and we have not found a better place to eat. It’s the best, I think.” She then held up her prosciutto sandwich for me as if to verify this.
Western tourists may also like the restaurant because of its intuitive way of serving its customers.
“It’s almost like Subway, how they do it here,” Dan said, smiling as his looked down at a half-gone salami sandwich.
But no restaurant in Florence can knock the Antico Vinaio from its number one spot. This includes its down-the-street competitor, La Prosciutteria, who ranks second on TripAdvisor. Both shops develop a similar Tuscan-street-food style to sandwich crafting, yet La Prosciutteria is a newcomer on Via di Neri, with only two years in business.
Danielle reassured me again the reason why his paninoteca reigns Via di Neri.
“Without history,” he said, “there is no business.”
And the history, the Tuscan tradition, is what seems to live on, out of the arid streets and into the pocket-sized hub on Via di Neri. At the Antico Vinaio, rules have grounding in sense, and meats and cheeses are paired together like colors on a canvas.
Eugenio agrees. “This is what makes the job an art,” he said.
Poet and educator David Hassler of Kent State University, admires his art for its conversational quality, it’s ability to communicate one's “inner voice” to that of another. Hassler, who has published two books of poetry – one, called Red Kimono, Yellow Barn, which won him the title of Ohio Poet of the Year in 2006 – is fascinated with the discovery of words that provide a new perspective.
I’m struck by that 'aha!' moment, that moment of surprise, when someone makes a leap of thought, a new understanding. And That leap of thought is like a spark, when, like you rub two sticks together, you can rub two words together in a new way, words that may not be normally be put side by side to make a new meaning, and you feel that spark.
Hassler’s poetry itself demonstrates this “spark” also between Chinese and American cultures, and how a new understanding of each can unfold through colorful comparison. This can be something as simple, Hassler says, as juxtaposing two commonplace dishes of food, like American sunny-side up eggs and Japanese full-moon soba, and “naming that connection” that lies beyond the words and phrases we use.
As Director of Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center (since 2000), Hassler has made great leaps in bringing the conversation of poetry to a new generation, “using the newest technology,” he says, “and connecting it to the oldest technology.” Wick’s “Traveling Stanzas” can be spotted all over Kent’s campus, in its 12-story library, its coffee shops, buses, and, in due time, in Wick’s own outdoor gathering place for poets. These "Stanzas" can also be found via the Wick web app, along with animated versions of poems from Wick authors.
Yet it’s the work that Hassler has done “in the schools” (also a semester-long course that he directs), that has given him his most immediate “aha” moments. Describing one of these moments, he tells of an experience in an Akron elementary school with a student who “had not found his voice” until he had the opportunity “to play with language.” It’s as if, as Hassler tells it, the boy’s “inner voice” had come alive, just because of this spark of language — something as simple as redefining the clouds in the sky. Or flowers that bear resemblance to something familiar...
But poetry is not just about naming, Hassler says, but renaming the commonplace objects in our daily life, and seeing them in a whole new perspective. This, he says, is why poetry was so fascinating to him as a student.
I came to poetry because it gives us that ability to tap in what is forever young in us that youthful sense of play in ourselves of exuberance, of play, of experimentation […] If we keep up that conversation with ourselves and with the child and our youthful sense of play in ourselves, we can make our world anew by naming our world anew — by renaming, we renew our relationship to ourselves and to each others and our world.
“Once you can name something, you're conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You're in control,” says writer and designer Robin Williams. And with Hassler’s outlook, once you can find a new way of looking at something — a shopping cart in a Walmart parking lot, the sound of a pigeon on the piazza, the eggs you fry on a Sunday morning — you have made it personal, and yourself a poet.
Watch the full TEDxTalk for more of Hassler's thoughts on the "conversation of poetry":
Walking near the Cathedral de Santa Maria Fuore, one sees a long line of portrait and landscape painters, selling sketches of Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise, portraits of tourists, and acrylics in the flavor of the classic Florentine artists. Walk a little further and you can find several stands to buy reproductions of a Michelangelo or a postcard with a Botticelli. It’s what Florence thrives off of: the art of the past, the art of its golden age – the Renaissance. If contemporary art is what thrives in the present, than this is what is "contemporary" in Florence.
Yet there are artists that want to change that. Last week, “controversial and eclectic artist,” Pep Marchegiani sent an “open letter” to Florence mayor Matteo Renzi proposing that he do something to instigate a revitalization of what is “new” in his city’s artistic scene, as he is “too tied to the art of the past, and deaf to the contemporary.” Marchegiani is pushing for Renzi to endow the city of the Renaissance with a new asylum for contemporary artists. And this “letter” was in the form of a very well-endowed modification of Michelangelo’s David:
Observers of the piece have had mixed reactions. Some say Marcheigiani’s David is “disgusting” or “vulgar” and deserves no media attention whatsoever. Others admire its boldness, like one Florentine who says that although the statue is “provocative,” it may be “more creative and meaningful than the tacky aprons sold at the night market, or the keyrings available at the souvenir stalls across the road from SMN train station.” Many support the piece mainly because of the message that lies behind it. And either way, Marchegiani’s piece has made some sort of statement about the city's art scene, asking persons like Renzi to consider a new "Renaissance" in the future.
Compared to Andy Warhol, and labeled as a Pop artist by art critic Anna Guidi Baskets, Marchegiani’s art uses cultural icons in mostly lewd and disturbing manners: the Dalai Lama holding a pistol to his temple; a clown-faced Berlusconi holding a human heart; a nude Queen Elizabeth fondling her breasts, smiling insidiously. What’s “Pop” for Marchegiani is merely an extension of what Warhol found contemporary of his time — and he’s reaching back a little further than Warhol ever did. But the question is: Is this type of art able to mix with the classicism of Florence?
Extending the “characteristics” of Michelangelo’s David, Marchegiani is taking the cultural icon with Biblical roots and enlarging the public’s conception of what “high art” should be. What his phallic statement seems to say is that Florence simply needs to grow its naturally aesthetic environment and make room for new Michelangelos and Giottos, like Marchegiani and similar pop artists (e.g. CLET). Suggestions like these that can move the once-leader-of-the-world-in-art closer to that of Milan or Paris in modern consciousness. There is some prospect for the city, as writer Francesco Sala says that this stagnation in Florence “is a paradox given the potential.”
Check out Pep's website for examples of his work.
Raymond Carver, one of America’s greatest short story writers, is equivalent in fame to that of Ernest Hemingway. Even though Carver hated the term “fame” and deemed it worthless — and that it complicates a writer’s expectations about “where they are going” — he never let his rising popularity diminish the sincerity of, or complicate, the small-town characters whom communicate his ideas.
Born in Oregon in 1938, Carver was raised in a town called Yakima, Washington where he hunted waterfowl and fished for trout as a child. His father, Raymond Carver Sr., held various jobs through Washington and California, working as a sawmill operator, and helped work on the Hoover Dam and “never got recognition for it,” Carver says in his essay “My Father.” He cites his father’s repeated use of what his mother called “nerve medicine” as a source of his own alcoholism. His dad was also a prime inspiration for Carver’s interest in storytelling:
My dad would tell me stories, anecdotes really, no moral to them, about tramping around in the woods, or else riding the rails and having to look out for railroad bulls. I loved his company and loved to listen to him tell me these stories […] I realized that he had this private side to him, something I didn't understand or know anything about, but something that found expression through this occasional reading. I was interested in that side of him and interested in the act itself.
Carver decided he wanted to become a writer when he spotted an ad in Writer’s Digest for a writing course run by the Palmer Institute (which still exists, by the way), but got “bored” with the work after a few assignments. After he met his first wife, Maryann Burk Carver, in 1955, he was too overworked by his job and finishing his B.A. degree at Humboldt State College to write freely, but managed to get published in the Western Humanities Review. He stuck to short stories and poems because he could finish one in one sitting, which he struggled to find time for amid the penury, effects of bankruptcy, child bearing, and working “crap jobs” as a janitor, as a librarian, or even at the sawmill, like his father. This is when Carver’s drinking habit became prevalent. He says,
I began to drink heavily after I'd realized that the things I'd wanted most in life for myself and my writing, and my wife and children, were simply not going to happen. It's strange. You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.
But Carver never really wrote directly about his alcoholism. However, most of the iconic characters in his short stories are struggling with a personal sense of dissatisfaction with life, a side of Carver’s personality that may have made him turn to the drink. It’s the way Carver wrote about this blue-collar lack of luster that made him such a figure in the realist movement of the 60s and 70s.
And so did his drinking. After blacking out in police stations, appearing in courtrooms, and almost tainting book deals, Carver eventually beat his attachment to his “nerve medicine” in May of 1977 after he was offered a contract to write a novel by Fred Hills, head of McGraw-Hill Publishing. With the help of AA, Carver reached sobriety, the feat he was most proud of in his life. Although he states that his alcoholism and the subsequent recovery was never injected directly into his fiction, the stories he admires most have undeniable connection to the “real world,” those that have grounding in human experience.
None of my stories really happened, of course. But there's always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place […] The fiction I'm most interested in, whether it's Tolstoy's fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent. At the very least it's referential. Stories long or short don't just come out of thin air.
And Carver says that it is this “reference” to our own lives is pervasive in the great writers of fiction, from Hemingway in his short stories, to Kerouac in On the Road, even to some writers of biography and memoir (I once heard an argument from a friend who said Elie Wiesel’s Night was fictional to some extent). What he calls 'autobiographical fiction" is inescapable for the writers who write with direct connection to world around them. About this ‘writing from experience,’ Carver says
Everything we write is, in some way, autobiographical […] Of course, you have to know what you're doing when you turn your life's stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You're told time and again when you're young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets? But unless you're a special kind of writer, and a very talented one, it's dangerous to try and write volume after volume on The Story of My Life. A great danger, or at least a great temptation, for many writers is to become too autobiographical in their approach to their fiction. A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.
The above quotations were taken from The Paris Review's, Art of Fiction, no 76.