Descending into the garden-level restaurant, I noticed my cell-phone reception dwindling. Wi-Fi flat-lined.
Inside, the staff behaved more like librarians than servers and cooks. Dressed modestly in collared shirts buttoned high and tucked into pressed slacks and long skirts, they spoke in monotones. Except when they scolded me for trying to use my phone.
When I introduced myself to Antonio Ridolfi, the earnest owner of the place, I was probed with questions pertaining to guns, Obama, diabetes, and Native Americans.
I couldn’t help wondering: What’s eating these people?
In my quest to find a reasonable alternative to university cafeteria food, I had come to Un Punto Macrobiotico (UPM), an eating spot on a quiet Urbino street that is not your typical restaurant. It is one of about 60 identically named restaurants in Italy serving, selling, and sermonizing macrobiotics, a diet for health.
In 1980, Mario Pianesi founded the UPM Association, which, because it discourages flashy publicity and promotion, appears to be an underground operation and is susceptible to rumor and gossip. I’d heard it described as cult-like, weird, and suffocating, among other things.
“Nutrition is the most important act for life; approach it wisely.” That’s the first guideline of macrobiotics, according to one of the movement’s cornerstone documents.
The diet is about balance based on the Chinese theory of Yin and Yang. This balance is accomplished by consuming acidic and alkaline foods in proportion to personal needs. Yin foods are acidifying, dilating, and cooling, while Yang foods are alkalizing, contracting, and warming.
“But, it’s not just about you,” Ridolfi told me. “You must also balance yourself with nature. You should plant trees and help others.”
In order to dine, I would literally need to join the club; five euros got me a little folded-paper membership card that was stamped in ink for the year 2013. The card would give me access to all UPM locations.
The meal at UPM-Urbino, and all UPMs, is cheap, only four euros. The UPM association frowns upon large profits.
“Water is essential to living,” Ridolfi explained, “so we do not charge for it—or for Bacha tea.” I considered that a blessing during those hot summer days in Urbino.
The meal is always vegetarian. It begins with soup followed by a plate of mixed grains and vegetables such as chickpeas, rice, barley, spinach, carrots, and lettuce. Macrobiotics suggests starting with the grains and finishing with the vegetables for optimal digestion. But no one will scold you for eating out of order (as they will for trying to text under the yellow-and-white checkered tablecloths).
Fabiola Castellani said she enjoys the tech-free setting at UPM-Urbino.
“It’s relaxing because we don’t use phones or computers,” she said. “At other bars or restaurants you’re still able to work.”
Castellani said she and her boyfriend, Tomasso Corbelli, joined the UPM association four years ago because “it’s unique and inexpensive.”
“We go twice a week,” said Corbelli. That frequency is UPM’s suggestion for practicing vegetarians.
But Corbelli, an avid runner and swimmer, is skeptical of the macrobiotic diet as a full-time regimen. “I don’t think it’s very filling.” His petite partner, on the other hand, said she is pleased with the conventional meal size.
Francesca Di Luzio is one of several university students I met who prefer macrobiotic meals to the offerings of the cafeteria. Students, in fact, are the most recognizable regulars installed around UPM-Urbino’s long table.
Di Luzio’s favorite is dessert. “There’s always room for ice cream,” she said.
UPM-Urbino’s “ice cream” tastes sweet and creamy, despite its lack of processed sugars and dairy. The plain vanilla is churned daily, topped with either berries or nuts, and garnished with a graham cracker-like cookie that I found perfect for dipping into the last melting bites.
Many people come to UPM because of health problems. Restaurant owner Ridolfi is no exception.
“When I was younger, I played a lot of basketball and like most young men, I ate whatever I pleased,” he explained. At age 29, Ridolfi started suffering from chronic digestive problems and went to a macrobiotic clinic, where he found a solution for his problems and developed a passion for Pianesi’s work.
Macrobiotics has been gaining significant attention in recent years since studies led by Dr. Carmen Porrata-Maury of Havana’s Finlay Institute concluded that a macrobiotic diet successfully treated type 2 diabetes in Cuban patients.
“Global cardiovascular risk decreased and insulin consumption dropped by 64 percent over a three-month period,” according to Porrata-Maury’s 2012 report, “Interventions with Ma-Pi 2 Macrobiotic Diet in Type 2 Diabetic Adults of Bauta, Havana.” Today, whispers of treating cancer with the diet are tossed around UPM-Urbino.
Ridolfi envisions a world where people cultivate their own gardens and cook macrobiotic meals themselves. He explained why organic foods should not be mass-produced. “Without pesticides and chemicals, organic farms are more susceptible to contamination,” he said. “Small local and individual gardens are the key to growing and upholding quality organic products.”
In some ways, Urbino-UPM is reminiscent of a miniature Whole Foods Market. Shelves are stocked with organic goods such as flour, pasta, rice, flavorings, beer, wine, olive oil, crackers, and sweets. There are also soaps, lotions, clothing, and shoes.
But UPM is pickier about its organic goods than the American chain because each product carries one of Pianesi’s Transparent Food Labels, which describe the item’s source, ingredients, processes, and transportation.
And unlike Whole Foods, the Association is not interested in high-profile promotion. I came to understand the guarded behavior of UPM staffers as a defense against macrobiotics becoming the next fad diet to be touted on late-night infomercials. It is no coincidence that the UPM Association has no website.
Ridolfi was clearly disappointed when I told him that some UPM restaurants had joined Facebook. He believes it is best for people to find, learn about, and practice macrobiotics themselves without the hard sell. But he does his part to share the knowledge.
At Ridolfi’s UPM-Urbino, the kitchen doors are always open for regulars to visit with the staff; everyone behaves like members of a large family. And the restaurant holds occasional “cooking classes.” One night, I watched a demonstration of how to prepare basic organic dough for biscuits, pizza, and dessert crusts.
No written recipes were distributed that night. In the same non-restrictive spirit, the UPM network does not have an official cookbook.
Similarly, there are no strict rules that forbid all carbs or fats. Almost every raw food is listed in the UPM association book with simple suggestions on consumption. Strawberries, carrots, and barley are listed as “everyday” products, while beer and wine are pushed to the “one in 15 days” column.
But these are only guidelines so that people can create individualized diets. UPM founder Pianesi is known for avoiding specific answers. His common response: “It depends.” Quantity, frequency, products, and proportions are all subject to individual needs.
“It’s a mentality,” Ridolfi said of the macrobiotic lifestyle. One he knows is difficult to uphold, which is why he genuinely wants to help—perhaps too much.