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Modena: Automobiles Vinaigrette

Vinaigrette!Aceto balsamico. All the rage now. Everything but ice cream has balsamic vinegar in it. (Actually on ice cream it is rather nice.)

As I dress my salad from a small smoky, octagonal bottle I think back to Modena – home of balsamic vinegar - and the war of the two Fs. Well, war is too strong a word. 

More a hand-gripping contest with slightly white knuckles. Only the participants lend it any interest. The two Fs were Fini – the name on the vinegar bottle - and Ferrari. You know who that was.

Fini was probably ranked as more important then, “then” being that time when the ‘50s tailed into the ‘60s. He dealt with food, had an excellent restaurant (probably the best in town) in a place where food was of finger-kissing importance. Cars were important too, of course. We speak of Italy after all.  And the Mille Miglia with its trailing roar vibrated historic buildings as it annually split through town, buildings that had also echoed the hoof beats of ducal horses (Este, you know.)

The Mille Miglia, the original one, had just a year or two before been erased from the racing calendar because of Portago’s devastating fatal crash into spectators not far north of Modena.

Enzo Ferrari.The city of Modena, not the dirt-tamped little hill town of Maranello, was then the headquarters of Ferrari. Sometime later I happened to be in Modena as the old headquarters was being unceremoniously converted into a parking garage. That was symbolic of the prosperity that has pumped Modena up in size and activity. Hey, back then shoes were the major product. That industry has long since shipped off to Brazil, or to whatever country happened to be at the shoe-production level of its economic maturing.

Anyway, Ferrari and Fini were vying to be the biggest formaggio in town. Besides Fini’s restaurant and food shops he took over the funky, lovable old Albergo Reale and marbled it into the Albergo Real-Fini. Many drivers stayed there, although Ferrari definitely preferred his drivers stay at the Palace in the next block. (Today, I think what was the Palace is the Hotel Fini and the Albergo Reale is a bank, metaphorically appropriate considering Modena’s prosperity.)

But the old Modena. An economic sink hole. I walked the deserted back streets amid shops shuttered and blank. It was like stepping into a de Chirico painting—arcades of empty curving streets, dark and mysterious. Hey, Ferrari himself drove a Fiat in those days.

Anyway, I asked Phil Hill what he remembered of this competitive undercurrent between F. and F. He remembered nothing. But at the time he was swathed in the tension of trying to get a Formula 1 ride. Maybe it was Pete Coltrin or Hans Tanner – both along with Phil now gone – with whom I talked about the war of the Fs. It must have been going on, I know I’m not clever enough to invent it.

In front of the Albergo Real-Fini the street was divided with a center park in which was a large fountain with the standing statue of a man. As I remember water was meant to pour from large ewers tucked under his arms.  Maybe not. Anyway when I first arrived in Modena the statue was a battered casualty and a multi-amputee. The fountain was bone dry, and caked with green calcium deposits. The next year, voila, healing. The statue was whole and water gushed forth. (Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn once donned wet suits and plumbed the fountain’s three-foot frothy green depths.)

But I bring up the fountain for other reasons. On its far side, opposite the hotel, was a large building set back from the street. I gather Ferrari owned it. Indeed, I think he lived there, or at least had an apartment somewhere in its dark depths. What he did in his competition with Fini was open a restaurant in the building: La Fontana. The Fountain. I think the restaurant ploy was what started our gossiping about the battling egos of the two Fs…

Ah, the sharp, sweet taste of aceto balsamico and look what opens up. Keep your Madeleines, Marcel Proust.

11/27/10 • 03:03 PM • Miscellany • No Comments


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