The police chief of the small Italian hill town, looking quite dapper in his double breasted-Brioni suit, ushered us into his offices and offered us espresso. He was friendly, jovial–all smiles and handshakes–but when we left an hour later we were no closer to getting the permits we needed to open a restaurant than on the day we arrived three weeks prior. Opening a restaurant in Italy would be no small feat for an Italian, try doing it as an American. In 2004, a friend and I were approached to take over and operate a ristorante in a hill town in Umbria. This friend, Jeremiah Tower, is a world renowned chef and restaurateur. I also had years of experience working in the restaurant business. A small, possibly seasonal place seemed like a perfect idea. That is until we started dealing with the infamous Italian bureaucracy. What no one tells you before you undertake such an endeavor is the hoops you must jump through, and the circus-type feats you must attempt to secure the necessary licenses and permits required to start a business as a foreigner. Endless meetings with lawyers, police chiefs, and building inspectors with assurances from all that they would help, all promised with sly smiles. Six weeks into our stay we had not a single permit, plan, or go-ahead in place. We were madly spinning our wheels, and burning through Euros.
The restaurant was located in Amelia, a small hill town in Umbria not far from the well-known town of Todi, and relatively close to the A1 (the auto route that connects Rome to Florence). The restaurant, in an ancient stone building that also housed a small hotel, had all the requisite equipment and furnishings already installed. All the pieces seemed to fit: a picturesque Italian town, popular with tourists, and easy to get to. With our combined experience it seemed like a doable project, one that could be fun as well as rewarding. Until our American patience, or lack thereof, wore thin. In retrospect, I do believe some of our troubles were cultural: our American requirement to do things quickly (impatience!); the Italians with their “sure, of course, no problem, have-another-espresso” way of life. Not always a positive mixture. There is an overwhelming amount to love about the country; the experience was among the best of my life. But after much effort and hand wringing, we both decided that there were too many roadblocks and difficulties and decided not to proceed with the project. But it wasn’t all for naught; I ate exceptionally well, saw a lot of the country, and honed my Italian. Tutto bene! // C. Gregory Thompson