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A Fine Stopping-Off Place in Italy

Driving through the regions of Liguria and Tuscany brings tastes of both past and present

ITALIANS are not sunning themselves the way they used to along this Tuscan coast.

The two-week and month-long stays at apartments along the beach are being replaced by weekend visits, says Angelo Paracucchi, chef and owner of Locanda dell'Angelo, a genteel inn on the Ligurian coast. Two-worker professional households and other social dynamics are invading even the Italians' leisure retreats.

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Politically and economically too, Italy has its challenges.

Stefano Paracucchi, Angelo's son, expresses a deep distaste for corruption scandals deepening around the country's leadership. Stefano, trained as a lawyer, has joined his father's hostelry enterprises.

He had just returned from a trip to Martigny, an old Roman camp and now a key city on the Swiss side of the Alps. The new European market is prompting Italian entrepreneurs to move about more freely for opportunities just as a recession is setting in.

A woman stopped in the large, modern, windowed restaurant to chat briefly with Angelo as we were seated. She owns 50 sheep and provides him with fresh ricotta, Angelo explained as he returned.

The Locanda sits in a grassy area that stretches from La Spezia, at the foot of the Ligurian hills, southward to Pisa. If one is dashing along the autostrada from Genoa, it is a fine stopping off point before starting a drive through the old marble- and granite-quarrying towns of Carrara and Massa.

In Carrara and Massa, and stretched between them, are miles of stone "caves" - commercial yards full of flats with thin sheets of stone set on end, and large blocks of quarried stone from which they are cut.

Above the towns, some of the mountains have had their tops flattened and lowered by generations of quarrying.

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Signs identify colonies of artists, who work the marble from the same source that Michelangelo preferred during the Renaissance.

But the dominant use of stone is in veneer form, shipped by the merchants here to all points of the world for counter, table, and building uses. From Massa one would drive to Lucca and Florence over the Apuanan Alps, an arduous trek, or quickly via the autostrada.

In some ways Italy is losing its culinary focus. The expansion period of the 1980s brought the more French and American tastes to bear: carefully arranged and composed dishes and higher prices. Cities like Florence have become inundated with tourists.

Many of the local pastries and breads available a decade or two ago are gone.

Italy now is having to take stock and settle back. A new culinary wave, not yet discernible, will follow.

But back in Ameglia, Angelo busies himself between running the kitchen and his various enterprises, which include a television cooking series and special cooking events in New York and elsewhere.

He is originally from the province of Umbria. After teaching in hotel schools and stops in London and Spoleto, he opened the Locanda in 1975.

Paracucchi's cooking features light sauces, crustaceans and fish from the Mediterranean, lentils and olive oil from his inland homeland, and fresh herbs and vegetables.

He likes to write down the orders himself, which is when you notice his thick hands.

There is time for discussing business conditions: the difficulty of managing a capital-heavy operation at a time of uncertainty and change.

Then he is off to the kitchen to lead the luncheon cooking.

Among his first courses are a ravioli in broth with fine strips of celery and zucchini; shrimp in a light sauce with sections of grapefruit; and shrimp with artichoke quarters and white sauce.

He prepares a filet of fish with braised fennel and a balsamic vinegar sauce; a pheasant stuffed with spinach and fresh mushrooms; and a dish of sauteed veal slices on a bed of lentils.

His desserts include a bitter orange tart, a coffee "spuma," a mint sorbet, and a chocolate semifreddo or mousse.

How Italy will settle down is, of course, a question it has had to live with since before the Romans. Nearby La Spezia, for example, is a medieval city, run by the Fieschi family until it was taken over by Genoa in the 13th century.

The layering of the past over the present here continues. Bathers will return to the nearby coast for their time at the sea, if not in the same time patterns as in the past.

The edginess of Italians, who are considering electoral changes at the same time they are enduring the reports of scandal, simply heightens the agrodolce, or bittersweet, social consciousness of this complex people.

* Locanda dell'Angelo, Viale 25 Aprile 60 - 19031, Ameglia, Italy

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