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Malcolm Jolley: Dispatch from Rome: Drinking Frascati at lunch and Casanese at dinner

Commentary

This post is being written in a flat just north of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The story of its geographical origin is too long for this post’s word allowance, but I hope it’s enough to say that family and I have finally made it to the Eternal City on our third try since March 2020. Our interest-free loan made to Air Canada at that time has been called in and converted into real tickets, so this March Break we are taking advantage of what was once called, in before times, international travel. It’s good to be back.

Also good are the wines we have been drinking over the last few days. My wife and our friends, with whom we are traveling, have stuck to what we can drink from Lazio, the provincial region in which Rome is situated. So far, we have only ordered local wines, like FrascatiFrascati is a white wine which is arguably the most famous (of either color) produced anywhere in the Lazio region. It has a heritage dating back many centuries, and its appellation was established in 1966.” https://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-frascati#:~:text=Frascati%20is%20a%20white%20wine,be%20brut%20or%20extra%20dry or other fresh and crisp whites made with, for instance, the Bellone grape, at lunch. In the evening it’s been Cesanese, which we are discovering is a versatile and rewarding red wine grape.“Cesanese is an ancient red-wine grape originating in Italy, in the Cesanese Comune area of the Lazio region, around Rome. https://thatusefulwinesite.com/varietals/reds/Cesanese.php

Some of the Cenasese wines we have ordered have been pleasant and friendly fruit-forward quaffers. Occasionally, though, we’ve won the wino lotto and hit something more ethereal, like the rose aroma’d one we had at Al Moro, near the Trevi Fountain, that was as elegant and as fine as my traditional Roman dish of tripe.

It was not that long ago that a “local” wine on a Roman list was from Umbria or even Tuscany. But like everywhere else, the Romans seem to have embraced the ethos of the locavore, and I am happy to say that I am doing, and drinking, well by it. Canadian importers: please get yourselves to Rome and bring us back some of these wines.

To be traveling again, after two years of COVID, really is a great pleasure, and what’s also a great pleasure is eating out in restaurants. The rules here are similar to the ones we have at home in Toronto (or did when we left). It is masks on if you’re not sitting down at your table, and before you get seated they check your papers to make sure you’re fully vaccinated, which means a double jab and a boost. When it comes to dining out, one of the many advantages the Italians have over us Canadesi is their climate. The tables out in the piazze are full again, and it’s easy to pretend the pandemic never happened. Eating out in a restaurant is a normal and anxiety-free thing.

Before we left for Italy, the closest I got to a normal dining experience that reminded me of such a thing that was once called fine dining was at the Toronto outpost of the Italian Michelin starred restaurant, Don Alfonso 1890. The survival of Don Alfonso over the last two years is one of the better stories of Canadian gastronomy. This is due to the perseverance and vision of Nick and Nadia Di Donato and the Liberty Entertainment Group, who moved the restaurant from the old Consumer’s Gas Building in Toronto’s financial district uptown to Casa Loma, where they run the catering and operate BlueBlood Steakhouse.

Don Alfonso Toronto didn’t just survive COVID and the cruel cycle of lockdowns that has gutted so much of the hospitality industry in Canada, it actually won a big award: the best Italian Restaurant outside of Italy, as declared by The Best Italian Restaurants in the World 2022 – Prosecco DOC Award classification.Don Alfonso 1890 Toronto is the best venue for Italian cuisine outside of our national borders. This has been declared by The Best Italian Restaurants in the World 2022 – Prosecco DOC Award classification. This ranking is part of the 50 Top Italy brand, the noteworthy, freely accessible online guide that was created by LSDM, the International Congress of gourmet cooking, and by the journalistic publication Luciano Pignataro Wine&Food Blog.” https://www.50topitaly.it/it/the-best-italian-restaurants-in-the-world-2022-don-alfonso-1890-toronto-wins-first-place-in-this-special-classification/

The restaurant is run by Chef Daniele Corona, who moved from Italy to Toronto to open it just before COVID came to pass. But, with the modern miracle of the Internet, Chef Ernesto Iaccarino “visits” the kitchen every day from the original Don Alfonso, just south of Naples.“Ristorante Don Alfonso 1890 reflects a philosophy that is innovative while respecting the local food culture and the old traditions of the Sorrento peninsula and the Amalfi Coast. Nestled in a 19th century Neapoletan building, the restaurant is filled with bright colors – lilac, yellow, orange and pink – which look lovely with the natural, Mediterranean light, transporting guests to the extraordinary atmosphere of Southern Italy.” https://thebestchefawards.com/2021/06/02/ernesto-iaccarino/

The idea is that the experience is as close to the original as possible, though, of course, the ingredients may differ owing to location, like the tenderloin of Manitoba bison on the Canadian menu.

Nadia and Nick Di Donato at Casa Loma. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

I sat down with Nadia and Nick Di Donato in the library bar in Casa Loma a few weeks ago when the news of Don Alfonso’s award was fresh. Nick Di Donato is one of Toronto’s most successful restaurateurs, managing to do well in a business that is infamous for its low margins and financial casualties. And yet he insisted that the Don Alfonso project was “not about making money.” Nadia, who thoroughly manages the design of the Liberty restaurants, backed this up, explaining that for the couple this is a passion project and they were not going to let Don Alfonso in Toronto die without a fight: “The city needs this,” she explained.

For now, Don Alfonso at Casa Loma is technically a “pop-up”, taking up space in the castle’s solarium, which in normal times would be used to host events, like weddings or anniversary parties. Where Don Alfonso ultimately ends-up is still up in the air: Casa Loma is owned by the City of Toronto, and there are all kinds of rules and regulations that govern how it is used. I am just glad that there is fine dining still—and that the castle’s hundred-year-old wine cellar (which had been half boarded up and used as a staff change room) is being filled again.


Should any Hub readers be heading to Rome, they may be interested to know that we have had excellent meals at La Travernaccia da Bruno in Trastevere, Il Sorpasso in Pratti, the classic Al Moro at the Trevi Fountain, La Carbonara in Monti, and Flavio all Velavevodetta in Testaccio.

Stephen Nagy: Russia or the West? Which way China tilts will have seismic geopolitical consequences

Commentary

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed China and its leadership in an awkward position. Its closest ally has invaded a sovereign state and violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity using overwhelming military force.

These actions completely contradict Beijing’s longstanding Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. These principles include mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Beijing also continues to walk a tight rope in terms of its position vis-à-vis the invasion. It abstained from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.“The resolution demands that Russia ‘immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.'” Accidentally leaked internal media directives have shed light as to the Chinese government’s position on the invasion stressing “not post anything unfavourable to Russia or pro-Western” to ensure that Russia will support China’s position over Taiwan.

Furthermore, Xi Jinping’s warm welcome of Vladimir Putin at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and the signing of the Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development, raises uncomfortable questions for China. Did it know about the invasion? Is China facilitating the invasion or did Xi Jinping and his leadership misread Putin?

Russia now faces unprecedented and coordinated sanctions against its leadership, its oligarchs, and ordinary citizens. Its banks are mostly banned from using the SWIFT system, Western businesses are voluntary pulling out or refraining from doing business with Russia, and the Ruble has collapsed.  In short, the coordinated financial and economic sanctions deployed against Russia have devastated its economy.  

If China were to provide economic assistance or military aid directly or indirectly to Russia, it would be subject to secondary sanctions and other consequences as articulated by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.“There are additional steps that we will continue to take, additional targets of oligarchs that we are developing, additional measures to tighten the vice – the economic vice that we have put around the Russian economy. We’ll continue to do that with our allies and partners and we will see the results. As we’ve seen, the Russian stock market hasn’t opened in two weeks and they’ve just announced it won’t open because, if it were to open, you would see an immediate cratering of the stock market showing just how much damage to the Russian economy has already occurred.”

China’s national and foreign priorities continue to be a stable and sustainable socio-economic development at home and a stable regional environment. Russia’s action has upended that balance causing a cascade of negative consequences for China.

Wheat prices have increased more than 5 per cent to $US9.41 a bushel in European and U.S. trade following the invasion. Other commodities such as Russian potash, aluminium, and nickel have also increased in price in the wake of the invasion. These exacerbate existing headwinds on a Chinese economy which was already slowing because of structural issues and the periodic Covid-19 outbreaks and the subsequent large lockdowns. 

Reputationally, China was already seen by many of its neighbours as a revisionist power that “intends to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.” In South Korea, China has surpassed Japan as the most unfavourable country with similar negative sentiments found in the 2021 GENRON poll in Japan.“The percentage of Japanese respondents with a ‘Poor’ impression of China has seen no improvement over the last and currently stands at 90.9%. This number has remained high since the Senkaku Islands dispute flared up in 2013.” Its position on Russia’s invasion has not made it any friends.

China and the Party do not agree with Putin’s war, but they understand Putin’s rationale for the invasion and grievances towards the West, the U.S., alliances and NATO expansion, and U.S. hypocrisy. 

China and Xi Jinping could help themselves a lot by tilting away from Russia for the West. As Brian Wong recently argues in his essay in the Diplomat ‘Only Nixon Could Go to China’; Only Xi Can Go to America?, Xi visiting the U.S. and explicitly standing against Putin’s naked aggression would demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party’s China has limits to its interests in changing the international order.

The problem is Xi Jinping is not a strong enough leader to do this. He has made too many enemies in his anti-corruption drive,“There were other signs in late 2017 that Xi was clearing the way to indefinite tenure. Two up-and-coming officials whose career tracks had positioned them as potential successors to Xi — Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai — were both eliminated from the running. Sun was detained for alleged corruption in August that year, while two months later, Hu failed to win promotion to the Politburo inner circle at the 19th Party Congress, removing him from immediate consideration for the top job.” organically manifested and carefully curated patriotic nationalism is widespread, and Xi does not possess the authority or requisite leadership skills to stand up to nationalists, hardcore neo-Maoists and others. 

In a recent Chinese language article called “The Ark and China”, he was heavily criticized as “lacking in confidence, and comes across as a woefully incompetent country bumpkin—descriptions that are hard to square with the ruthless, Machiavellian strategist that he supposedly also is.”

Seen alongside credible insiders such as Cai Xia, a dissident and former professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and recently former Harvard–Yenching Institute scholar Huang Wansheng who criticised the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and top standing committee members, Xi Jinping, despite carefully attempting to cultivate authority, lacks the political capital to tilt away from the damaging Sino-Russian relationship to the West, a shift that would help stabilize the Chinese economy and potentially allow for a positive shift away from a securitized to more constructive and cooperative U.S.-China strategic competition.

As a result of these realities, we will see China continue to:

1) Support the Sino-Russo relationship without endorsing Putin’s invasion

2) China will position itself vis-à-vis Russia to maximize its energy and other imports at rock bottom prices

3) China will harden its economy and technology by a further selective diversification away from the West

4) After the 20th Party Congress and the 2023 National People’s Congress, China will work hard to soften relations with key U.S. partners including Canada, Australia, Japan, etc. to dismantle the growing number of states that are collectively crafting their China policy with a revisionists China in mind.  

Hemmed in by nationalism, political enemies, and a lack of political authority, China and Xi Jinping’s unwillingness to stand by its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and join the international community in condemning Russia will further accelerate the shift towards a bipolar international order.

The implications will include the bifurcation of institutions and standards. This will shape governance, civil society, and the use of technology such as AI, quantum computing, and cyberspace to maximize regime security and sustainability.