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Sari's e-book on sale this weekend at Amazon
Alitalia’s fate hangs in the balance.
Berlusconi cannot leave Italy (for now)
Keep an eye on (or rather, in) your bill fold.


Murder trial redux
Mar 26, 2013 at 10:33 PM
Will this happen again?
 This morning the news hit that the Italian Court of Cassation, the highest review tribunal in the country, has annulled the sentences of the Perugia appeals court that on October 3, 2011 acquitted American student Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito of murder charges. A new trial will thus be held sometime in the not so distant future, this time in the Appeals court of Florence since Perugia only has a one-section Appeals court and they cannot be asked to reconsider their own verdict.
Amanda and Raffaele, along with a third person, Rudy Guede, who is currently serving a 16 year sentence, had been convicted in December 2009 of the murder of Amanda's roommate, Meredith Kercher, on the night of November 1, 2007. The two have always maintained their innocence but in the first trial were convicted on the basis of forensic evidence that seemed to indicate their presence at and during the murder.
At the moment, it is not known exactly what the "motivations" of today's decision by the Cassazione were; whether it takes issue with the acquittals themselves or with more formal aspects of the trial. I myself never followed the ins and outs of the trial since I was not then working for a newspaper that required constant coverage and it was hard - at least for me - to make a judgement in the matter. What I did find outrageous was the general attitude of the U.S. media which consistently treated the Italy as if it were a backwater banana republic.
Now, there is no doubt that the Italian justice system leaves a lot, and I mean a lot, to be desired. It is incredibly slow, overly bureaucratic and probably its prosecutors, or at least a good number of them, are older people who are unschooled in the more modern investigative techniques. One analyst I heard speaking today on television, believes in fact, that the main defect of the two trials held so far - primarily that staged by the regular tribunal (which in Italy is the first stage of justice) and then again the appeals court - did not do enough to investigate who else might have been involved, since there seems to be little doubt that three people played some sort of role in Meredith' untimely murder and only one, Mr. Guede, has been convicted. But to turn the whole affair into a sort of nationalistic battle - US vs Italy - was unfair and unseemly. And let us not forget how many bloopers the U.S. justice system has committed over the decades; just to cite some fairly recent cases, the failure to find the murderer of Jonbenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson's getting away scot free, and the scores of people convicted (and some executed) because of legal mistakes or worse.
By the way, it is also unclear if Amanda would  have to do jail time even if the second Appeals trial were to find her guilty once again. Italy would have to try and extradite her and the US might refuse.
Sede Vacante (twice over?)
Mar 02, 2013 at 03:54 PM

Beppe Grillo

On Thursday, I spent much of the evening watching live coverage of Pope Benedict XVI leaving the Vatican by helicopter for Castel Gandolfo where he will live for the next two months, before retiring to a monastery inside the walls of Vatican City. I am not Catholic, and am also one of those people who has reservations about church policies both worldwide and in Italy itself, nevertheless I was moved. Even more than that, I was aware that I was witnessing a historic event, one which may well change the centuries-old papacy forever.

Conservative Catholics and some prelates have been rushing to say that this should never happen again as the knowledge that a pope may not be pope for life will undermine his authority and that of the Holy See. But others, like me, feel that Benedict's nearly unprecedented act (certainly unprecedented in recent times) will go far to bringing the papacy into the 21st century and by making it more responsive to the pressures and needs of the present will go far to making it more relevant.

Polls open in key Italian election
Feb 24, 2013 at 08:02 AM

ImageA few hours ago, the polls opened in Italy and a lot of people, me included, will be (figuratively) holding their breath. I've lived through a lot of elections in Italy but this may be one of the most crucial. It is no longer a Cold War kind of election, of course, when people in Rome - and Washington - sat around gnawing their fingernails, worrying about what kind of incursions the powerful Communist party would make in the political universe; for decades now (despite what Berlusconi says) the communists are no longer communists and Italy has been firmly anchored in the West. But what is at stake is whether this country can keep on being a viable member of the European Union and retain its status as one of the world's major economies or whether it will continue a slide - Greek-wise - towards near financial ruin.

Anyone in this country with half a brain knows that major reforms are needed in a plethora of sectors: taxation, of individuals and even more so, perhaps, of companies, must be revisited; tax evasion has got to be curbed; pensions and overall labor law must be re-examined; unemployment (and, in particular, youth unemployment) has to be dealt with; infrastructures and bureaucracy must be improved if foreign investment is to recover; and schools, hospitals and the justice system (currently there are 5.3 MILLION civil cases pending) if life here is to be improved for Italy's citizens. Above all, spending cuts must be enacted for the public administration at large and, in particular, in the political sector given that Italy's members of parliament - on both national, regional and the European level - earn far more and have far greater perks than their counterparts elsewhere.

To do these things what one needs is a solid majority headed by a thoughtful leader capable of drawing on high-level human resources. And should either the left-of-center Partito Democratico, or - but this is less likely - the group backing caretaker prime minister Mario Monti emerge as the most voted, Italy would have a thoughtful leader.

But neither of these leaders is expected to be strong enough to govern alone and the two would either have to join together in an alliance or find someone else to govern with. But this may prove difficult not only because the vote may be highly fragmented but because all the pre-vote polls suggested that when Italians wake up on Wednesday morning they may find that one fifth of the people sitting in parliament are first-time MPs elected on the protest ticket of an obnoxious (but effective) former comedian who has been able to take advantage of the widespread discontent here both with the economy and the people who have been governing them.

If former premier Silvio Berlusconi should emerge as the most popular leader than Italy, to my mind, is in really deep doo-doo. None of the governments headed by Berlusconi since he first entered politics in 1994 has made any significant progress in dealing with any of Italy's major problems. Despite what he says, he has kept none of his promises to Italians except those aiding and abetting tax evaders and people who are guilty of illegal construction of one kind or another. With his various antics and his generally tawdry life style he has also helped Italy become and international laughing stock.

One would hope that Italians would no longer be taken in by this man, but I am not sure we can count on this. And Berlusconi, who as Italy's second richest man has unlimited resources, clearly thinks he has a chance. Last week he spent what must have been hundreds of thousands of euros sending letters to nine million voters promising them that if he becomes prime minister again he will reimburse them the stiff real estate tax that the Monti government (supported by Berlusconi and others) put into effect in 2012. "If they don't get hteir money back, they can sue me", he said.

Italy’s slippery slopes
Feb 09, 2013 at 05:32 PM

Berlusconi Bersanti Monti

This is the time of the year when many Italians, at least those not deeply affected by the current economic recession, are enjoying their winter holidays, best known as the Settimana Bianca, the “white week”, since the most popular destination is, as the term would suggest, somewhere snowy. However, not all of those who are frolicking in the country’s mountain resorts – and no doubt celebrating Carnival with confetti and fancy-dress costumes – will be able to forget that in a few days they will be called to the polls to decide on Italy’s immediate political future.

As is well, known, mountain slopes are slippery and many ski vacations end in unhappy skiing accidents. The downhill political race now in progress may end similarly, with a parliament that is ungovernable, that is one which is unable to produce an effective and long-lasting government. Despite various attempts in recent years to adjust the Italian electoral system so as to make the Italian political arena more of a bipartisan one, today as usual there are close to two dozen parties competing for control of the two-house Italian parliament and attempting – although this now appears highly unlikely for anyone – to conquer a majority enabling it – alone or in a coalition – to govern this turbulent, troubled country.

Berlusconi on the campaign trail
Jan 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM


Well, you have to hand it to him. Whatever you may say about him, at 76, a cancer survivor, and out of power for a year, Silvio Berlusconi has a hell of a lot of what the Italians call "grinta", determination, and he is in the midst of what appears to be a major media blitz* designed to keep his name afloat and to convince the more credulous of Italians that the current financial crisis is not his fault and that, if re-elected, he will make everything better.

This of course is nonsense. But last Thursday Berlusconi appeared on a talk show (Servizio Pubblico) on La 7, a respected television channel (that by the way he does NOT own or control in any way), and which is conducted by a well-known (and generally obnoxious) leftwing moderator, Michele Santoro, with whom he has been at odds for years and whose contract on Italian state television he was successful in blocking at one point during his prime ministership.

Monti to Resign
Dec 09, 2012 at 12:42 PM

Monti has decided

Well, Silvio Berlusconi has gotten his wish and one can only hope that it will totally backfire on him. Indeed, some observes here  believe it already has. After meeting Saturday afternoon with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, prime minister Mario Monti has announced that just as soon as the economic austerity package currently before parliament is approved, probably before Christmas, he will resign. "The situation has become untenable", Monti said yesterday after he left the Quirinale Palace. His pre-emptive move made the attempt by Berlusconi's party, the PdL, to fire a warning shot over the Monti government's bow appear ridiclous.

Monti's resignation, however,  will clear the way for the dissolution of Parliament and the setting of a date for nationwide elections, either  in early February or early March. Opponents of Berlusconi accused him, loudly, of acting irresponsibly by forcing out of office (see the following article) a government that has been doing its best to pull Italy out of the economic and financial quagmire it found itself in last year or at least to ameliorate it.

The new development is sure to send a very negative message to Europe about the country's commitment to ongoing if bitter reform. Italians would do well to look across the Ionian sea to Greece where inefficiency, ineffectiveness and downright lying by that country's leaders have reduced the nation to the direct economic situation it has known since after World War II. But while blindness is not catching, the political variety is a real danger.just two days earlier. 

However, Europe should be aware that for the time being there is no immediate danger. Monti is likely to stay at the helm of a caretaker government while elections are held and while a new government is being formed. And since in the midst of all this, the new Italian parliament will have to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano, whose seven-year term ends this spring, Monti is likely to be arund for another four months. And maybe longer. One newly emerging coalition sees him as their future prime ministerial candidate, while others feel he might be a good successor for Napolitanoìs job. But it really is too soon to tell.

Heeeeeee's back! Berlusconi, A man so shortghted he cannot see beyond his own EGO!
Dec 08, 2012 at 06:00 PM

The puppet and the puppeteer
  Silvio Berlusconi, once again reversing his on-again, off-again decisions to leave politics, appears now to have decided to try and pull the rug out from under the feet of Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, and has convinced his party, the PdL, (the one he said was leaving) to back him in this endeavor by abstaining on a key economic decree currently before Parliament. If he succeeds, the Monti government - a technical (unelected) government in power now for 13 months - may fall, opening the way for new elections that will be hotly contested between Berlusconi and his allies and the center left. Italian president Giorgio Napolitano appears to have convinced the PdL to take it slowly, so that several key economic reforms will get passed before parliament is dissolved. But the new development is nevertheless unsettling.

At the moment, the PdL is far behind in the polls compared to the PD, Italy's major opposition party, but Berlusconi seems to be convinced that between now and elections (the most probable date is March 10-11) he will be able to turn the country's mood around. Most observers think he will be sorely disappointed and personally I hope they are right. Not only did he repeatedly make a laughing stock of Italy by his antics - in both private and public life - but his failure to address the storm clouds gathering on the economic horizon deserves a lot of the blame for many of Italy's current problems. How it can be that there are still voters who believe Berlusconi ought to have a chance at being prime minister again, is beyond me. But there you are. There is no accounting for taste (or stupidity).

Thank you, Castroni: Rome's remedy for culinary nostalgia
Nov 29, 2012 at 10:36 PM

I imagine that most of you back home think that those of us who live abroad do not celebrate (or care about) Thanksgiving. Not true. Most of the Americans I know over here in Europe do celebrate it (or feel badly when they can't) because most of us agree that Thanksgiving is the best hoiday ever: non-denominational, non-commercial, as easily celebrated by a newly arrived immigrant as by a member of the DAR. So we do our best to keep up the tradition, even if most of us celebrate on the weekend AFTER Thankgiving since clearly the third Thursday in November is not a holiday here and most people, unless they are Americans working at the embassy, have jobs to go to during the week.

This year I had 12 people at a rollicking Saturday evening sit.down dinner, with five Americans, one Brit, one Aussie, on Spaniard, one Slovene and three Italians present.(if you like, see the pix on my Facbook page). And no, we did not eat spaghetti carbonara. We had roast turkey with Pepperidge Farm stuffing, two kinds of sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, corn pudding, succotash, brussel sprouts and the pumpkin, apple and pecan pie.

Now how did we manage all that? Well, a large part of the credit goes to one of my favorite food stores in Rome, Castroni, in Via Cola di Rienzo in the heart of Rome's residential Prati district. Castroni, which was invented by papà Marcello between the two wars when he started catering to embassy folk, sells imported condiments and canned goods from most parts of the world, including sushi and caviar, cookies and biscuits, crackers, teas, patès, sauces, rice (or rather rices), pasta, nuts, candies and coffee (there is a flourishing espresso bar inside AND a corner dedicated to torrefazione, freshly-ground, as you like it, coffee beans from a variety of sources). Before Thanksgiving,not to mention Christmas and other major foreign holidays, special tables are set up for specialty products that the various groups of foreigners feel they simply cannot do without.


Visitors to Rome or other parts of Italy often come here primarily to eat this country's wonderful Italian food. But when you've lived in Italy for a long time, it often happens that you don't want coffee and cornetti for breakfast you want pancakes with maple syrup. You crave herring in cream sauce and not spaghetti carbonara for lunch. You want French country paté or tortilla chips with guacamole sauce and not osso buco or saltimbocca alla romana. You want an Indian curry or Japanese noodles even if it means a prepared meal you heat up in the microwave. After all, it can happen that instead of Nutella you find yourself dreaming of Skippy's creaming peanut butter.


And if tiramisu is deliciously mind-blowing, what if you need a fix of dulce de leche or fig newtons, oatmeal cookies or, I am ashamed to admit it, a chocolate cake made from a Betty Crocker mix?


When you get these cravings, if you live in downtown Rome you go straight to Castroni where, almost anything is possible. A few years ago when I was on a diet and desperately wanted a non-caloric dessert substitute such as sugar-free Jello, I wondered if perhaps Castroni might have something similar? It sounded far-fetched but I jumped on my motorbike and scooted over to Via Cola di Rienzo 196-198 to have a look. Not only did I find American Jello, but there was a second, British variety made by Rowntrees, and even a sugar-free version by a company called Hartley's. I was lucky because, as Roberto Castroni told me, it was only recently that they'd only been stocking Jello among the store's nearly 2000 imported products.


The Castronis - papà Marcello, sons Roberto and Fabrizio and brother-in-law Massimo - rely on a long-standing supplier in London to advise them about British and American products, and others in France, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, the Philippines, and China - some of the roughly 20 countries from which they import.


There are several other Castronis in Rome, run by other branches of the family, but this is the biggest and the most central and the best stocked. The store exists since back in 1932 when it was a normal grocery. But in the 1960's Marcello Castroni had that brilliant idea which turned out to be more than foresighted. He decided to stock his store- to satisfy Rome's diplomatic community. Little did he know that starting in the 1980's, Italy would see an unprecedented influx of foreigners from all parts of the globe. Fresh ethnic produce is available in and around the Piazza Vittorio market on the other side of town where many Africans and Asians shop. But those who live or work downtown, or have a bit more disposable income, know that most of those homesick cravings are best satisfied right here.



Corruption rears its ugly head. Again.
Nov 13, 2012 at 04:07 PM

Franco Fiorito

Roberto Formigoni

Italy is not the only country in the world where corruption exists, but when some 60 billion euros a year are reportedly lost to the legitimate economy because of corruption, this is not much of a consolation. Again, we ordinary mortals have no idea how the experts arrive at that figure of 60 billion. But it certainly makes you stop and think, particularly at a time when the economy is in deep trouble, some people have lost their jobs, more than a third of young people cannot find jobs, and most of the rest of us are being asked to make sacrifices by paying higher taxes.

The 60 billion euro figure came out of a report last January by the Italian Corte dei Conti or Court of Accounts, a European-style top-level audit institution the major function of which is to audit the executive branch of power with controls regard incoming revenues and public expenditures. But most international indexes also put Italy high up on corruption scales as compared to most other European countries.

This is not a new discovery; there is widespread awareness among observers here that corruption in the public sector - especially when combined with bureaucratic delays, inefficiency and bad management -- are seriously compromising economic growth. But in the last few weeks, several new major scandals have burst upon the scene, highlighting just how bad the situation has gotten and leading most pundits to conclude that the Clean Hands investigation of the early nineties has had absolutely no impact on the behavior of most Italians.

Twenty years ago, the Italian political system was turned on its head when a major criminal investigation led to the disintegration of two of Italy's major postwar political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, many of who leaders were charged with illegally financing their parties through bribes, kickbacks and other forms of graft. The results included jail terms, several suicides and voluntary exiles, the formation of new political parties such as Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and national prominence for the magistrate who headed the investigation, Antonio Di Pietro (now currently under a shadow of his own).

It seemed as Italy was going to change. But recent events show this is now the case. In fact, if anything, things are worse. Back then, the focus was on the illegal ways of finding political financing which, yes, may also have enriched certain individuals but that was not the main point. Now it has become clear that the new class of politicians who steal do so primarily for themselves. In certain parties and in certain areas, ideals have gone the way of the trash can with the new pols seeing politics primarily, if not exclusively, as a fairly easy way to get rich.

In September of this year, a scandal erupted in and around the regional government of Lazio (the area which includes the Italian capital, Rome) when it became known that a regional lawmaker named Franco Fiorito, a member of the PdL party founded by Silvio Berlusconi, had embezzled something like 1.3 million euros of party money, sending part of it abroad and using other parts of it for luxury travel, the purchase of three cars and a seaside villa.

Fiorito was arrested on October 9 but his wrongdoings - which reportedly included his paying himself 31,000 euros a month for his job as the administrator of the PdL's regional parliamentary group - pale beside the system that he revealed during interrogations by investigating magistrates and which was so shocking that the regional president, Renata Polverini, elected with Berluscni's support, although she originally came from the far right Alleanza Nazionale party, was forced to resign although she herself is not under investigation. New elections are expected to be held in February or March.

Fiorito revealed that the 17 regional MPs belonging to his party had submitted almost receipts for six million euros in alleged expenses of which at least half were false or fraudulent. Over a year, the group had allocated to itself something like 21 million euros, an incredible amount given this country's financial problems, that were supposed to be spent on regional or party expenditures and that each MP had been given an extra 100,000 euros a month above and beyond their already outrageously generous salaries, far higher than any of their conterparts elsewhere in Europe. The revelations focused so much attention on the situation of regional councilors that reforms (see below) were called for by all and sundry and may actually be put in place.

Shortly thereafter a similar scandal erupted in the northern Italian region of Lombardy where Domenico Zambetti, a regional MP who is also a member of of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, was one of 20 people arrested by police in Milan on October 10, for allegedly buying votes from the 'Ndrangheta mafia syndicate. Zambetti is accused of paying two mobsters 200,000 euros for 4,000 votes (at 50 euros each) in the 2010 vote at which he was elected. Zambetti was relieved of his duties by Lombardy Governor Roberto Formigoni, himself under investigation for a different scandal involving bribery for contracts in the health care sector. But no one seems to have asked themselves who are these 4000 Italians who in the year 2010 were willing take money for selling their preferential votes. Shame, shame!

Zambetti's arrest and the accompanying corruption probe brought the number of councilors in the Lombardy regional executive and assembly who are under investigation up to 14, including Formigoni, who was first elected in 1990 and clearly has been in power too long.

Formigoni successfully resisted calls for his resignation after coming under investigation last year but on October 26, given the insistence of the Northern League, one of his former backers, agreed to dismiss the members of his government and replace them with temporary commissioners until new election are held sometime early next year. He will not be a candidate although reportedly he is (unbelievably) thinking of tossing his hat into the ring for primaries to choose a successor to Silvio Berlusconi as PdL leader and, thus, as a candidate for the premiership of Italy.

But reform appears to be on the way. According to a decree, which President Giorgio Napolitano signed last month, the number of regional councilors throughout Italy would be cut by 35% and local bodies who do not stay in line with budgets will face central-government funding cuts of 80%.

Mayors who do not keep their accounts in order will not be allowed to stand again, the premier said. The pay ofregion al presidents (who for the last few years have been called Governors, although it is not clear to me who started this), local and regional councilors will be cut sharply to the level of the "most virtuous" region, while stipends will be eliminated and all local officials will have to make public, and have certified by the Audit Court, the money they get. The pension age of local officials will be raised from 50 to 60 or 65 and will be authorized only when a councillor has served two terms, that is 10 years.

Another anti-corruption bill passed earlier this month is expected to be followed by a codicil that will determine the eligibility (or non-eligibility) for office of officials convicted of crimes or, perhaps, even under investigation. Watch this page.....

Italy's new entrepreneurs
Oct 30, 2012 at 03:26 PM

Image For most Romans (and other Italians as well) the foreign-born and frequently dark-skinned peddlers who sold their wares on beaches or beachside sidewalks were known as "vu compra", a slang way in Italian of saying "do you want to buy?" and a term that for years was used interchangeably with that of immigrant.

But if many of the non-Europeans who began immigrating to Italy in the 1980s and 1990s started out that way, the country's immigrants are now starting to climb up the economic ladder and there's no telling what will come next. The fact is that willy or nilly, this once exaggeratedly homogenous country is now becoming ethnically integrated.

Over the last two decades the complexion of the people one encounters in everyday Italian life has changed, both figuratively and literally. Non European-immigrants work as domestic help, restaurant cooks and waiters, construction workers, truck drivers, delivery workers and so on. But now they are also opening businesses and stores, a clear sign that true integration has gotten underway.

The signs of this change are obvious even in the neighborhood, Trastevere, where I live. On my block, Via della Scala, two jewelry stores are owned by Egyptians, as are two restaurants around the corner. In another direction, there is a small grocery owned and run from a man from Bangladesh which is open everyday until 10 or 11 pm, unlike the nearest Italian-owned grocery. The "cornettaro" the croissant or cornetto maker who supplies two of the cafés where I have my morning coffee is an Indian. And a man from Libya runs the kebab store on the other side of my neighborhood market.

These changes were clearly inevitable in a country where over five percent of the population, nationwide, is now foreign-born, even though the majority of these people - like most Italians - work for others. But the trend is confirmed by a new study by the Rome Chamber of Commerce according to which as of June 1, 2012, some 18.3% of business owners in Rome and the surrounding Rome province are now foreign born immigrants, up from only 16.5% a year earlier.
Of these 32,445 people, one out of four hails from Africa, mostly North Africa, with Moroccans and Egyptians leading the pack followed by Nigerians, Senegalese, Tunisians, Libyans and Algerians, in that order. Of the total, 56% have gone into commerce and own shops or eateries of one sort or another. But 8.8% have set up construction firms, 7% have gotten involved in the technical field and 6% in rentals. About 12% of the total are women. 

Another interesting thing is that immigrants seem determined to succeed at a time when because of the rocky economic situation, many Italians are throwing in the towel. This may be because they are able to rely on family or foreign community groups for financing at a time when banks are reluctant to give loans or because many of these enterprises are small, individual firms which can roll with the punches. In any event, there is no doubt that because of the tenacity of these people, the social fabric of this country has changed forever, and to my mind for the better.

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