Culture Fop / Fast Cars, Fine Food, and a Visit From Othello: Israel's Italian Renaissance

Things may be tough politically back in Rome, but in Israel, Italians celebrated the past week with Verdi at the opera, Maserati's stylish new import, and a lot of Pecorino cheese.

Last year, Woody Allen wrote a love letter to Italy called “To Rome, With Love,” his latest film to pay homage to a glamorous European city. Allen's Italian romp opened the Jerusalem Film Festival and a delegation from the Italian embassy was on hand to take part in the honor, and to scrutinize the filmmaker’s depiction of their capital. (It was clear from the start that they were sold when they began singing along to the song accompanying the opening credits).

If recent cultural activity in Israel is any indication, the Italians are returning the amore.

“Every day you feel the presence of Italy in Israel,” said Lorenzo Ortona, Economic and Commercial Counselor for the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv.  Relations between the two countries have traditionally been quite good, he said, but in the past few years, “more trust has grown.”

There has been greater collaboration in high-tech and science, Ortona pointed out, as evidenced by a bi-national autism conference taking place this week in Jerusalem to share research and an Italian sustainable architecture week starting on the 28th.

“But culturally,” he said, “it’s always been great.”

Take the past week, for example: While politics in Rome were rather tense, with lawmakers banging their heads in a deadlocked election until President Giorgio Napolitano agreed to serve a second term, the Italians here were having much more fun indulging in their own cultural exports on this side of the Mediterranean.

Don’t cry for me, Desdemona

The fun started on Wednesday at the Israel Opera’s premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello,” based on the eponymous Shakespeare play (“Othello” in English if that wasn’t clear), where a large Italian delegation, ambassador included, was once again on hand. Othello, of course, is the general of the Venetian army who arrives in Venice and gets dragged into a violent whirlpool of suspicion and jealousy by his evil sidekick Iago. No spoiler here: The play, like many Shakespearean tragedies, culminates in a lot of death.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Verdi, the Italian composer who, along with Richard Wagner, was one of the most influential forces in 19th-century opera. Of course, since Israel doesn’t really do Wagner, we get a lot of Verdi. (Not only did the Italian not hate Jews, he even scored a gorgeous opera, “Nabucco,” chronicling their plight under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, featuring the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” one of his most celebrated numbers.)

Baby, you can drive my car

Next up, it was time to welcome a four-wheeled, three-pronged symbol of Italy's design, grace and style. Ladies and gentlemen, the new Maserati Quattroporte has pulled into the Holy Land.

Last Thursday, at the Marina Herzliya, more than 900 guests turned out to welcome the elegant new beast, a four-door mega-luxury sedan. Those who want to drool over the signature Triton emblem and oval front grille in person must make an appointment at the new Ferrari-Maserati showroom in Tel Aviv (if you were asleep at the wheel, the former rivals are now related by marriage within the larger Fiat family).

For the Riki Cohens of the world (Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s imaginary middle-class archetype) who can’t afford a vehicle that starts at around NIS 900,000, there is an accompanying museum, built, along with the showroom, just over a year ago.  The museum is a mini-version of the one in Maranello, Italy, where the cars are produced, and features trophies, small models, and car parts like steering wheels and the worshipped Ferrari engine.

It may not exactly jive with the tent protests that just two years ago called attention to the high cost of living in Israel, but apparently Tel Aviv has joined the likes of Abu Dhabi and Dubai with this rare showcase of privilege and high-end rides. And it seems people are buying: The dealer reports that, to date, 33 Maseratis and 26 Ferraris have been sold.

Ferrari-Maserati Showroom & Museum:

Beit Kardan, 154 Menachem Begin Rd., Tel Aviv / 03-944-9999

Chow, bello

On Sunday night, the popular Italian restaurant Rustico (the one in Basel Square, not on Rothschild Boulevard) paid homage to Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, with lots and lots of Pecorino, the world-famous nutty sheep’s cheese that is mostly produced on the island.

The event ostensibly aimed to promote the Mediterranean diet, which Italy has down pat while Israel, despite being on the Mediterranean as well, apparently hasn’t quite mastered. A Sardinian chef was shipped to the White City to prepare an exclusively Sardinian meal for the occasion.

But really, the product of the night was Sardinia itself and the main goal of the event was to add the island to every Israeli’s "Dream Vacation" list.

“It’s a part of Italy not everyone knows,” explained Clelia Di Consiglio, the secretary-general of the Israel-Italy Chamber of Commerce and Industry. But she pointed out that it’s become a favorite of traveling Israelis who, she says, “like something a little exotic.”

The trip will become a bit easier this summer when Meridiana Airlines, an Italian carrier, launches a new Tel Aviv-Olbia (Sardinia) route to complement the current Tel Aviv-Milan one (and, no, this is not an immediate result of the Open Skies aviation agreement between Israel and the European Union that has caused so much domestic turbulence already this week).

La dolce vita meets arte povera

Over the next few weeks, the party continues and takes on a craftier edge. The Ermanno Tedeschi Gallery in boho-chic Neve Tzedek will display 21 pieces of original, contemporary jewelry by young Italian artists, alongside its current exhibition of the Israeli artist Moshe Gordon. Gordon’s work intentionally uses cheap material, inspired by the arte povera movement and the jewelry featured will be made with recycled material.

“It’s not about luxury, not about gold or diamonds,” said curator Fabiana Magri. “It’s about contemporary art.”

And for those who prefer to eat off your art rather than wear it, May 4 marks the launch of the new line of Solimene Italian ceramics, celebrating 20 years in Israel. Buon appetito!