Specifically we’re in Frascati, one of the largest of the ‘Roman Castles’, the scattering of towns in the Alban Hills south of the capital where for centuries those who could afford it would retreat to escape the malarial heat of Rome. The area is studded with their summer villas, many still in private hands and barely glimpsable through locked gates and down long, tree-lined drives.
But there’s a more accessible side to the Castelli. The same volcanic hills that made them an ideal summer retreat also made them perfect for growing wine, and Frascati’s light, crisp white of the same name is one of the area’s biggest exports (one of the town’s other specialities is a biscuit in the shape of a woman with three breasts; the third is supposedly for wine).
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Villas and vineyards in Frascati. Photo: DepositPhotos
While visitors flock to the Castelli’s famed Grape Festival in October – when statues are decked with fruit and the fountains quite literally run with wine – I’ve come for a tradition that’s just as regular and at least as old: a fraschetta, a boozy picnic to celebrate the year’s new wine.
I was invited by a friend who grew up in the Castelli, Jan Claus Di Blasio, who is an enthusiastic guide to the area’s heritage (see his blog, Latium Mirabile, for more on the history, legends and nature of the Lazio region).
The word fraschetta, he explains, originates from the days when, come late summer, wine producers would hang a branch – a frasca – over their door to show that the new batch was ready to be drunk. Not having kitchens to speak of, the makers would invite customers to bring their own food and eat at tables set up for the occasion outside.
Today the custom is a little more systematized: at the handful of establishments that still host fraschette, some have introduced a €1 cover charge, while the one we visit, Osteria Dell’Olmo, invites guests to buy their fare from their preferred supplier across the road.
But the etiquette remains simple, Jan Claus assures: pick up bread and side dishes from one of Frascati’s old-fashioned bakeries or forni, and cold cuts and cheese from a salumeria, such as Fagotto. The osteria will provide the tables, plates and cutlery, and of course the wine.
Make your selection – the choice is simple, red or white – and prepare to order several carafes of it, each one tallied on the paper tablecloth as your server drops it off. Straight from the ceiling-high vats inside, the young wine is even more drinkable than usual; dunkable, even, if you finish your meal with the hard, sweet, local biscuits tinged with anise and made for dipping in your glass at the end of the night.
A fraschetta in Frascati. Photo: Osteria Il Fuoco/Facebook
Jan Claus scans the other diners sharing benches, still tanned from the obligatory August beach break, still bare-armed and legged after sunset on a late-summer night. He’s hoping the entertainment will show up. Before too long we spot them: a jovial pair of white-haired men in shorts and teeshirts, one of whom is bearing a guitar and will be referred to exclusively, by strangers and friends alike, as “maestro”.
They’re here to sing stornelli, a form of musical poetry from central Italy that was traditionally improvised between competing bards but can also be addressed to lovers, drinking companions, entire towns or even inanimate objects (our minstrel performs a particularly memorable song addressed to the nearby water fountain, informing it of the numerous ways it falls short compared to a jug of wine).
Everyone seems to know the words, or at least the next song they want. As the only group that includes non-Italians we get special treatment, the pair stationing themselves by our table while other customers call out titles they think we should hear. We get odes to love, to Rome, to Romans, to the various merits of the Castelli – before the musicians announce it’s time for coffee and amble off.
By the time we leave to catch the last train back to Rome, there are five litres of white wine tallied on our tablecloth and we’ve exchanged goodbyes with more strangers than we can count.
Fraschette take place only in the charmed weeks between the end of August and late September: as the holidays are ending but before they’re over entirely, warm but no longer too warm and remembering why it’s not so bad, after all, to come home from the beach. As late-summer evenings go, it’s hard to picture a better one.