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June 26, 2024

A feast for the ages

With Luigi Tecce for his annual June bacchanalia
Robert Camuto with Luigi Tecce

I’ve been to a lot of Bacchanalias over the last 20 years.

But nothing I experienced before measures up to Luigi Tecce’s version of the June 23 feast of San Giovanni at his remote hilltop vineyard in Paternopoli  (pop. about 2,000) about 50 miles due east of Naples.

Tecce (to whom I dedicated 10 pages in “South of Somewhere”) is a seeming contradiction: an artistic dandy, who lives in the middle of the Campania countryside where he labors to produce one of the region’s most beloved cult wines from Aglianico.

Before the feast, Tecce hosted more than 100 people at a local restaurant to try the 20 vintages (2003-2023) of his iconic wine Poliphemo.

Then the group transported about a mile up the road to a field on a hilltop next to his small, unmarked winery and house.

In the evening sun, a military marching band led a procession through his vineyards as preparations were being made for what was to come. A side of beef that looked to be as large as the blackened rib cage of a brontosaurus, was suspended from a tractor’s boom lift over coals the size of logs. Pasta water boiled over wood fires. Milk was heating for the making of fresh ricotta and mozzarella. Tomatoes were cooking in large skillets that could comfortably seat a pair of human adults. A mobile wood-fired pizza oven was heating up. And this is just part of it.

San Giovanni’s feast throughout Europe is in general a kind of summer Carnevale: local, traditional, profane—a bit of a walk on the wilder side. Tecce’s version seemed aesthetically cinematic. And sartorial.

Elegant in a range of outfits and changes of his Borselino hats, Tecce seemed to be everywhere—a Fellini directing the spectacle in his head.

By dark the crowd had swelled to at least 500 persons who poured themselves cups of Tecce’s young Aglianico from 100-liter steel tanks.

After the first of many rounds of wine and food that evening, Tecce directed the crowd to a stage on the other side of the winery. There the musical evening began with a string quartet that played a twisted version of Bach to a piece by Frank Zappa. As the evening went on there was a 96-year-old accordionist, a duo including a hurdy gurdy player and harpist turned traditional Occitaine music into what could pass for dance rave tunes.

And there was more food. At midnight, as fresh rounds of pasta were produced along with fresh mozzarella, a group of bagpipers including a Franciscan monk piped in the glow of a house house-sized bonfire that had been set alight from mounds of straw and wood and farm refuse.

There is something dream-like, transcendent and magic-conjuring about such summer evenings by fire, far away from our modern narratives and cares.  

I’ve never been to Burning Man, and likely never will. But to me what was most remarkable is that Tecce did this here—while highlighting the people and the talents in a land that sees far too many people abandon for distant cities with more going on.  

We have Tecce and his friends to thank for their generosity and for creating this sense of community in his home terroir. For one night—until past dawn the next day—he made this hilltop in Paternopoli seem like the center of something.