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A letter from the coronavirus quarantine: missing Serie A, pasta and friendship

No country has been ravaged more by the coronavirus than Italy, but its people are still finding small moments of beauty and joy in the midst of disaster.

OXFORD, Miss. -- On Wednesday, someone sent me a video clip of a quarantined Italian man playing the keyboard on his small terrace and a neighbor a building or two down joining in on saxophone. There are lots of these videos and stories floating around, a reminder of the real beauty Italians can find in the midst of nearly any disaster. Maybe that's what happens when you've been rising and falling for thousands of years. I read about an opera singer belting out an Andrea Bocelli classic while her neighbors smiled and swayed.

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Right now, I am supposed to be getting ready for a reporting trip to Naples, Italy, to write about the history of triumph and corruption in the club Argentine legend Maradona made famous. My flight was scheduled to land Wednesday. Instead I am home. We are on Day 12 of lockdown as I write this, one of the longest stretches at home for me since I started working for ESPN nearly 15 years ago. Long ago, in what feels like another life, I briefly lived in Florence and fell in love with Italian soccer -- especially Gabriel Batistuta and the Fiorentina team he captained. That fascination has never left me, so whenever my editors need a story on Serie A, I try to volunteer.

Every day since I canceled my trip, I've thought about Italy. Followed the news and checked on friends. Oddly enough, I've found myself longing for a night at the restaurant I love most in Rome, a place called Matricianella, which does all the classic Roman pastas just perfectly. The last time I was in Rome to cover the eternal derby, I ate there two nights in a row. There's a waiter I always request. His name is Gianni. I've found myself wondering this week what's happened to him, and to his family, wondering what kind of world is going to be waiting on us once all of this finally ends. I travel a lot for work, which I love, but I am also prone to real bouts of homesickness. That's been true for as long as I can remember. My self-defense strategy over the years has been to make restaurants all over the world little outposts of home. People come to me sometimes for restaurant tips when they're traveling, and I think I'm pretty consistent in saying I have three favorite restaurants in the world: D'Chez Eux in Paris, Clancy's in New Orleans and Matricianella in Rome. I like pointing people to these places for the same reason I find myself returning to them: The ritual is something we can share, no matter the distance between us, and feel connected.

The other night, I got online and found a recipe for the Roman standard Amatriciana and prepared it the best I could, sitting down and eating it with a bottle of Italian wine that normally would have been saved for some special occasion -- although I'd argue that imagining the world before the virus and being hopeful about the return of that world is as special an occasion as there is right now. It was the kind of wine Gianni would have sold me, for about 50 euro more than I'd planned on spending, all of us grinning as he popped the cork.

The restaurant is closed until further notice. It's hard to imagine. Few countries revel in communal living more than Italians, whether it's reading the pink-colored sports page over an espresso with all the other old men, or sipping beer at sunset in a park by the river, or staying late into the night at taverns where both the game and a pot of tripe are on. In Italy, as in many parts of the United States, sports and food are perhaps the two most important ways to celebrate your home. You know: I don't just tailgate at the Steelers game but I bring my deep fryer so my sandwich can be topped with french fries as God and Chuck Noll intended. I don't just go cheer on AS Roma but I go eat pizza with my family in Testaccio after -- because Julius Caesar and Francesco Totti. That's how we announce, to anyone who is listening and perhaps most of all to ourselves ... I am from here!

Gianni, the writer's waiter of choice, hard at work at Matricianella in Rome.

This is a letter from the great quarantine.

I got two pieces of information Wednesday that have torn down the facade of acceptance and calm I've been putting up about the virus. The first was a wire story link that detailed how investigators had identified a soccer match held in Milan as "game zero" in the Italian outbreak. Two days after the game, the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19 was found in the country, and now it has the highest death rate in the world. As an employee of ESPN, I am acutely aware of the lack of sports right now, which is especially worrisome to me mostly because sports provide one of the few acres of common ground in a country where we too often give in to what divides us. The "game zero" news made me realize that the absence of sports was actually vital right now, and it made me question how the function I value most in it might survive this strange hiatus.

Like sports, I've always felt restaurants were a point of intersection, and on the food television show I make for the SEC Network, I find that to be true over and over again. People who agree on little else agree that collard greens are awesome, you know? Maybe that's why I found myself so shaken by the second piece of news I got: A beloved chef with whom I shared an agent, and many common friends, died in New York City of the coronavirus. His name was Floyd Cardoz, and he was a brilliant cook, a fearless and successful businessman, a husband, a father and someone who was an honorary member of the Oxford, Mississippi, mafia.

So much is being lost with each passing day: money, freedom, time and, most important, lives. The world we inherit from our former selves -- in a few months, or as many as 18 months -- will feel different. It will be different, diminished by the absence of lost friends and places. I guess Wednesday was the first time I fully accepted all that, fully felt it. My neighbor Ray came to my house the night before. We sat 6 feet apart and had a drink on my porch before saying goodnight. Normally we'd watch a Braves game on mute.

The Serie A season has been suspended indefinitely and Euro 2020, whose opening game was to be hosted at Rome's Olympic Stadium, has been pushed to 2021.
 

Stadiums and restaurants, once places of communion, are now places closed by this virus for who knows how long. Serie A was one of the first European leagues to cancel games, and I don't know when it will start again, or when all sports in general will start again, or when we might be able to visit our parents, or sit in a restaurant with strangers who are more to us than threatening disease vectors. It might be a very long time. I checked in with one of the well-dressed public relations men who work for AS Roma. He told me he and his family were finding joy wherever they could.

"We are Italians," he told me, "and forced to stay at home, we do our best in the kitchen."

That's one of the first times I can remember hearing an Italian refer to himself as Italian. For its relatively short history, Italy has barely been a country at all, still spiritually and quasi-functionally a collection of city-states. People from Rome, for instance, tend not to call themselves Italian. They are, proudly and fiercely, Roman. Even the national team wears blue, a remnant of a previous monarchy, instead of the green, white and red of the country's flag. Sometimes I think there are more Italian flags in Philly than in Milan. So it surprised me last Friday when I read about how a lot of Italian radio stations played the national anthem at the same time and Italians all over the country stopped to sing. The virus seems to be pulling Italy closer together, even in the midst of all this hurt.

Restaurants like Matricianella are little outposts of home for the writer, who returns to them again and again on his travels.

The most remarkable day I've ever had on the road was in Italy two years ago. The captain of Florence's soccer team, Fiorentina, had died suddenly in his sleep at 31. The city held his funeral in the old church that had also held the funerals of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. My flight landed an hour or so before the service, and I went straight to the piazza around the church, where mourners and fans were arriving. What happened next remains the most moving expression of civic pride and unity I've seen in the world of sports. Maybe only a place as good at hating as an Italian city-state could be capable of such love.

Thousands of people packed the square.

The Fiorentina fans started recognizing familiar faces coming up a side street and walking up the old marble steps of the church. It was the hated Juventus team, which had traveled all night from a game in England to make the funeral, and when these people in the square put it all together, they let out a roar I can still hear. It's been two years and 16 days and I just got goose bumps again merely remembering it. Later, a priest told me they could hear the crowd inside the church. Juve's Gigi Buffon, then the national team keeper and perhaps as much as anyone the keeper of the essence of Italian identity, looked out and waved in gratitude.

When the funeral ended, I followed fans to a local trattoria, where they gathered around a table and sang the old songs from the terraces. I won't ever forget that restaurant, either, tucked into the corner of one of those covered food markets lined with produce vendors and fishmongers and butchers hacking away at big porterhouse steaks. Later that night, writing on deadline with the glorious time-zone advantage, I sat at a table in a local restaurant where I'd been dozens of times before, sipping wine and eating a plate of pasta, feeling as close as I'd ever been to the real reason we love sports. Honestly, I felt like I'd traveled the world for years, going to games and practices and talking to athletes in cars and helicopters and planes, and here, finally, I saw it all distilled. I felt euphoric, in the way only sports can make you feel. I hope that feeling isn't one of the things that doesn't come back.

Thousands gathered in Florence in March 2018 to mourn the death of 31-year-old Fiorentina captain Davide Astori.

The news reports keep telling us we are two or so weeks behind Italy, so following life there is sort of like looking into the future. A few days ago, I got obsessed with finding Gianni, the waiter at that Roman restaurant I love so much. I wrote Paolo, a reporter I've worked with a lot who is based in Turin, and asked him to call around for me. It took him a day, but he found Gianni.

"I live alone," Gianni said, "but I'm frightened of loneliness."

He's 61 and single and has been waiting tables at Matricianella for 26 years. He loves making Amatriciana. His mother taught him that to cook, first you must use the heart. Only then can you use the pan. Like a lot of people, he's been stuck at home cleaning, reading books and cooking. We are all going to be fat alcoholics when this thing is over. Gianni said I wasn't the first quasi-regular customer to come looking for him. The other day, a diner from France called and they lifted each other's spirits.

I wanted to know about Rome. I wanted to know the truth.

How bad was it and was there hope?

"Rome?" Gianni said. "Now is a strange and unreal city. It feels like the silence before a snowfall. I see terrified people. Nobody talks or smiles, but I think it's wrong. My mother -- she fought in the resistance against the Nazis and Fascists -- used to say that only death hasn't got a solution, because at the end of a tunnel you may find the light. That's my philosophy, and I'm trying to extend it to other people. At the end of this period it could be like after the war. We should start again with humor, going step by step. Yes, we will face some problems because of fear, but we should spread optimistic messages, recovering our self-confidence and respecting the rules. Nature told us to stop, because we mistreated it, we should leave to the kids a best world. I think that also inside bad moments you may find a good message. We should be more kind with our people, with our neighbors. I am a real optimist, like Scarlett O'Hara, 'We will think about it tomorrow.' Italy is the most beautiful country in the world and we will get through this."

There are many isolated days left. Many scary days. At least two of my friends have it, one in New York and one in L.A. One friend is worried his daughter has it. Another friend's dad needs to start chemo, but the oncologists are worried about getting him safely into a hospital. One of my daughter's former babysitters has it. I think I'm going to try to channel my inner Gianni -- to be optimistic, to be brave and to find the beauty. Someone else came up with this line, but Italians have always been notoriously bad at the prose of life while being great at the poetry. I think I'll make Amatriciana again. Instead of using the internet recipe, I got the genuine article from the owners of Matricianella in Rome. It's printed below, so you can make it too. Maybe I'll find some classic old Serie A game to watch once the pasta is done. I'm thinking Fiorentina-Inter, 1997, Batistuta versus Ronaldo. Maybe if you read this, and make the recipe, and find your own game to watch, this shared ritual will briefly connect us.

Balconies have become an unlikely gathering spot for Europeans under lockdown, the venue for neighborhood singalongs and musical performances, along with this message of hope.

Here is the recipe, in metrics because it comes straight from the owners:

Amatriciana (serves four)

400 grams bucatini pasta

300 grams pork jowl

100 milliliters red wine

1 kilogram peeled tomatoes

100 grams pecorino cheese

Salt, pepper, chili pepper and olive oil to taste

Take a big pan and put inside some olive oil, half chili pepper and pork jowl. Brown it all using a high level of fire. Simmer the jowl with red wine until reduced. Whip the peeled tomatoes and put them in the pan. Cook for about 40 minutes until it starts to boil.

In the meantime, take another pot and fill it with water, turn on the fire and wait until the water starts to boil. Add some salt and cook the bucatini pasta for a few minutes (the best way is to taste it to control the cooking). The bucatini pasta should be al dente.

Drain the bucatini and put it in the pan with the tomatoes and jowl, add pecorino cheese and cook until creamy.

Add pepper before serving.

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