La Festa

 

This event happened in October of 2015 in Lucca, Italy. It changed my life and I wanted to acknowledge all my friends in Lucca who have opened my heart and showed me that anything is possible. The story is longer than usual so sit back with a coffee or glass of vino and enjoy.

This story is dedicated to my dear friend Davino, who showed me the real Italy, who taught me how to eat chestnuts and who had the biggest heart, always filled with love and generosity. I miss you Davino.

Davino Lazzarini

1947 – 2017

 

The Festa
A celebration of friends and food

This birthday stung. I felt like I was being propelled from the comfort zone of my “middle ages” into the “senior” zone. A downward spiral. What would mark the “age of wisdom” was otherwise depressing. We all experience milestones in our lives. I would survive.

To make this transition bearable, my mom, our dear friend Claudia and I planned a trip to Italy for late September into October. A visit to Florence, a week’s stay in Pienza and the grand finale, a week with my dear friends Angela and Davino on their comfortable farm, La Mimosa, in lovely Lucca.
As always, Lucca invited us in with open arms.

La Mimosa nestles itself into a landscape of spring mix salad greens, rolling hills, olive trees, and villas. My favorite view from the property is a stark but peaceful and eye-catching white washed convent that seems to hover, like a pair of angel wings, at the top of a hill in the distance. La Mimosa’s vast property houses two living spaces. One home for Angela and Davino and a renovated barn we three would share for a week. To me, this is the most peaceful place on earth and I was eager to reunite with my friends, their dogs Pongo and Gilda, the many cats and three donkeys that call La Mimosa home.

I’d been to Italy many times before but on this trip I would discover why I am seduced into returning here, to Lucca, even when there are so many other places I yearn to visit. The seduction was revealed during a festa, or party, thrown by Angela, Davino and my mom so I could reunite with all the friends I’ve made here the past three visits. The party would also take the sting out of my birthday. How exciting!

***

By early October, the autumn weather has shifted dramatically from warm sunshine to cool breezes. Black skies loom overhead throughout the day giving the feeling of constant dusk. The coziest and warmest room in the house is the kitchen, and, at its heart, a wood burning fireplace tucked in at waist level, delivering instant heat. An old wooden and well-worn farmhouse table sits in the middle of the room becoming the square kitchen’s centerpiece. When friends gather, it is often around this table where wine or espresso is shared and conversation flows freely. An antique meat slicer rests on a corner counter ready to deliver paper-thin prosciutto slices whose recipients are often one of the many lucky cats living at La Mimosa. Angela’s favorite cooking gadgets and appliances line another deep counter and directly above, open shelving houses plates and glasses.

In the comfort of this kitchen, Angela begins making Zuppa Verde, a traditional Tuscan bean soup with Fagiolini, a brown bean with swirls of red and shaped like a kidney. In Italy, this labor of love has many stages, the first of which is to cook the beans in garlic and sage. She then passes the beans through a hand-cranked press that extracts the skins pushing out only the inner bean. Next, Angela makes a soffritto, the Holy Trinity of Italian flavor basics: onions, carrots and celery. These ingredients are sautéed then added to the beans along with some pomodoro or tomato water. Aromas of the soffritto, which flavors the beans, steam from the tall pot on Angela’s large rustic stove, as the soup simmers for hours. Next, Angela stirs in chopped kale, swiss chard, celery and leek and the soup continues its journey building flavor upon flavor. “We have a contest here,” she tells me, “to see who makes the best Zuppa Verde in Tuscany!” Like our chili cook-off’s, I think to myself, only more sacred.

Our friend, Nico, arrives late in the still-dark day. His contribution to the festa would be homemade spinach-stuffed ravioli. We need ingredients so Mom, Nico and I pile into the car for an adventure at COOP, a large grocery store with good prices on the west side of town. Nico carefully chooses all the ingredients to make his special ravioli and we also purchase olives, jars of marinated red onions, and bottles of Prosecco to drink with the antipasti. The Italians love their coffee and with one whole aisle dedicated to this tradition, Mom finds an espresso coffeemaker to take home. She has learned how to make espresso the Italian way and so will carry forth the tradition – way to go Mom!

The rain is relentless. On the way home, Nico wants to show me where he works, at a center for learning that encompasses acres of land for group or individual gardens. Here he teaches organic gardening to children and disabled people. I can see how this is a good fit for him as he is so patient and kind. The garden is a canvas of design, color and texture. Some rows are well-manicured housing healthy, gorgeous heads of green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and arugula. On the other end of the color spectrum, scraggly bean stalks are saying goodbye to the season. A few aging eggplants still hang on. Nico explains, “This is not only a garden for the center, but the community can use it too for the small fee of 10 Euro a year.” Nico knows all the families, which plots they have and advises them on organic gardening methods. An Armenian family has even created a large coop for chickens and turkeys. Nico points out a giant white “Cinderella” pumpkin making an appearance in an open field. Nearby, a pergola houses hanging gourds of all shapes and sizes. We duck inside from the persistent rain to be semi-sheltered. The long hanging gourds almost form a curtain in the doorway. Some gourds look white-washed with their necks stretching three feet long. Some are deep green with a skin painted like a watermelon and oblongated bodies, perfectly shaped by nature. One must weigh 10 pounds and still hangs proudly on its sturdy vine. We traipse through the beds, picking various lettuces for the party and nibbling the spicy, fresh baby arugula. I am enchanted by this special place, this little microcosm of nature outside of Lucca, like a painting with rotating artists creating their own picture, year after year.

We return to La Mimosa around 5pm to begin making the fresh pasta. Nico proudly shows off his culinary skills by cracking the eggs into the flour to make the pasta dough, and Mom, his eager understudy, rolls the dough into long sheets in preparation for the ravioli. Angela pours us all a glass of their house-made red wine and takes a break from cooking to share her zuppa recipe with me. Then, with Nico’s guidance, I make the spinach filling for the ravioli. This filling is an Italian variation using half cow ricotta and half pecorino ricotta which give it a pleasantly tangy flavor. In a large sinkful of water, we clean, then blanch the abundance of fresh spinach we’d plucked from the community garden. Yes, we will have plenty of filling! We roll the pasta dough into six long wide strands and then dot three of them with the perfectly seasoned spinach, ricotta and parmesan filling. Another pasta layer is carefully placed on top and then gently sealed with fingertips to hold in the filling. “Which ravioli cutter should we use Nico? The big one?” I ask. “Use the small one,” Angela chimes in as she stirs the Zuppa. “We could use the wheel to make squares,” Mom comments. Nico was set on round. So small round it was.

Pasta dries quickly in a warm kitchen so we add pressure to cut through both layers of dough. A dusting of flour on top and voila! we have a finished product. The dough does not make as many ravioli as we project to feed 15 people. Considering all the food that would be served, I think we will have plenty, but the good Italian, Davino, wishes copious amounts of food for his guests. “When Italians are invited to dinner,” he reminds me, “they expect to be fed well.” No cocktail parties here! Yes, a feast, an Etruscan banquet this will be. We share a light meal with Angela and Davino before heading off to bed.

Friday – Festa Day
In the early morning, Mom and I drive to the seaside town of Livorno to purchase olive wood products for my olive oil business. The rain has not let up and is actually even more deliberate in its full throttle shower. The drive is exhausting and I need a nap.

Soon Davino is at the door, asking me to go with him to pick up the sausages for tonight’s festa. The weather is behaving brutto-ugly with angry booms and cloud bursts of torrential water. Onward we drive, winding in and out of country roads, making our way to his friend’s machelleria or butcher shop. Tucked away down a tiny, rural road is a short driveway and a small store front, the butcher’s living accommodations upstairs. Davino says this is how they can make a decent living, by having their shop in their house. The butcher and his wife, a handsome couple in their 60’s, dressed in their matching white aprons, stand proudly behind the small counter. Davino chats away with them, sharing the stories of the day. I watch as the butcher cuts the sausages from a long string, counting out 35 or two per person. How can we possibly eat all this food? The cost is 29 Euro, not bad for freshly ground, fat, pork sausages. Another slice of life in Italy. Doing what you love, even if it means living upstairs from a room of animal carcasses!

We return home and Davino insists that my mom goes with him to pick out the pastries for the party. He tells me I can’t go. “But pastries are my thing!” I whine. “No!” Davino says with a smile. “Only your mom and I!” They will drive to Davino’s home town, nearby, and meet his sister, the baker. I learn later that they are picking up my birthday cake and didn’t want me to see it before the party. My mom returns with stories of Davino’s home town and a glimpse of his past life. I think they really bonded!

I wander over to the main house to see how the preparations are going. Nico is busily poaching the ravioli and a pomodoro (tomato) ragu, to accompany them, bubbles on the stove. They look divine. Davino teaches me how to use the large, antique slicer to make thin salami slices for the antipasti. Nico prepares a gorgeous Mediterranean farro salad with beans, mint, tomato and onion. I place this in bowls and set up the antipasti area in the next room before going back to the barn to change my clothes. I wish I’d had something more appropriate to wear but had not packed for a party. The weather has shifted, fall is early and all my dresses are sleeveless. I put on my garnet-colored sweater and matching tank, some eye makeup, my favorite dangle silver earrings, rose-colored lipstick and now am ready to meet and greet.

Annalisa, Angela’s painting friend arrives first, followed by Mattia and Michelle, the incredibly talented opera singers I had stayed with the year before. Simonetta and Federico, Mattia’s parents whom I had met last year at their Vendemmia (grape harvest) came next and then Antonio, a well-regarded Tuscan painter, Liliana, his dentist wife and their daughter, Francesca, a concert pianist. The two Germans staying in La Mimosa’s studio also join us. A diverse, educated and artistic crowd will make for a lively evening. It is a quiet sort of mingle for the antipasti. Everyone gathers in the living room for Prosecco and Nico’s delicious farro salad. Soon Angela calls us all into the kitchen for La Cena. The kitchen table is flanked by two more tables creating a dining space the length of the room. A white tablecloth, white plates and simple white cotton napkins line the table along with carafes of Tuscan red wine. The food is to be the centerpiece. The fireplace roars with crackling wood, filling the room with warmth.

Presentation is everything. Angela lines a very large green ceramic bowl with day old bread slices, spooning the steaming Tuscan soup, Zuppa Verde, on top to soften the bread. Fantastico! From this bowl, she then scoops out some of the bread and ladles the hot zuppa on top into individual bowls for the guests. We all complete the zuppa with a ritual drizzling of Italian extra virgin olive oil. There is a hush and the only sounds are of spoons clanking the sides of the bowl scooping out every savory, creamy drop. The bowls are cleared away and new ones appear. Soon Nico’s ragu-baked ravioli are placed into the bowls along with a slice of thin, meat lasagna. It turns out Davino didn’t think there would be enough food so bought a beautiful homemade meat lasagne just in case. I am already getting full. Our ravioli are bursting with the delicate spinach and cheese filling and every mouthful dances on my tongue.

Listening to the various conversations is challenging since everyone is speaking in Italian but I manage to understand quite a bit. Mattia is clearly the entertainer, making everyone laugh and occasionally bursting out into song. His wife, Michelle, obviously adores him and enjoys bantering back at him. Antonio is a quiet and serious man with a big heart. I imagine him constantly creating a new painting in his mind’s eye. I hear him chiming in to comment, adding only a few words here and there. He is mostly focused on the food and like any artist, appreciating, with gusto, Angela’s masterpiece of the zuppa.

Angela comes alive, leaving her soft-spoken self and with animation, recounts a recent news story of people in Austria (her home country) trapped and locked away in a house for years. She has the entire table under her spell. It is a time to continue the digestion before more food.

Again, Angela clears away bowls and fresh plates arrive. She must have a magic replenishing cupboard! While we devour the ravioli, Davino is busy grilling the fresh salsicca (sausages), over the open fire in the kitchen. A cat appears and rubs up against my leg. He apparently smells the meat and invites himself to the party. The hot, aromatic sausages are delivered to each guest by Davino. How could I possibly eat more? But every bite tastes so good! Still the food keeps arriving. It is a dream I never want to end.

Earlier, Nico and Angela prepared fagioli, beans, simmered with copious amounts of garlic, onion and sage. So rich in flavor, I could eat these everyday. This is the accompaniment to the sausage. Dio Mio! By this time, my stomach is swelling out of proportion. Thankfully, after this course, we all retreat upstairs for some entertainment.

Francesca, Antonio and Lilliana’s 19 year-old daughter, is a classically trained pianist and treats us to a Beethoven concerto. I am mesmerized as her slender fingers slide so easily over the keys, making musical notes leap into the air. It is a masterpiece only to be understood by those of us lucky enough to be present in her company. Mattia and Michelle sing “Ol Sole Mio” and with gusto, everyone sings along. I have goosebumps. How can an evening be more perfect? I am about to find out.

I follow the rest of the guests down the stairs and back into the kitchen. To my surprise, the kitchen is dark and on the table sits a large gorgeous cake with “Happy Birthday Mary” written on it. A tiny firecracker sizzles and I blow out the candle that read “60.” Everyone sings Happy Birthday. It is beautiful and I feel a surge of love for these Italians who have become my family. This outpouring of food and genuine well wishes is overwhelming. I make a wish (to someday live in Lucca!) and cut the first slice of “Svoglia.” The cake is a giant Napoleon. When Davino ordered the cake, from his sister’s bakery he asked for a cake for 15 people. Instead, he got a cake for 50 people! A thin cookie crust creates the base, followed by layers of puff pastry, then panna (cream) and a thick layer of dark, gooey, delectable chocolate pastry cream fills the center. The entire cake is frosted in whipped cream with pretty flowers piped decoratively along the edges. A pink rose garnishes each corner. It is fantastico!

My incredible birthday cake!

Davino loves gelato and no party is complete without it. After cake, he brings out his four favorite flavors: Hazelnut, Pistachio, Chocolate and Cassata. I am ready to explode. Oh, all this with more Prosecco.

Nico, who is sitting next to me, gets up and presents me with a beautiful white bag. Inside is a bottle of perfume encased in a gold and white box. I am stunned. “Nico, sei troppo gentile.” What a sweet, sweet gift from this gentle man. Michelle then stands up and comes back with another white bag. This one holds a tiny dark blue bag closed with raffia. Inside are a pair of silver earrings studded with two rounds of emeralds. “Bellisima!” Again, I am almost in tears. This outpouring of love and gifts is almost too much for this person who is so unused to attention. The group cries “Speech, speech!” With Nico whispering in my ear, the Italian words I want to convey, I thank my guests for coming, express gratitude for their friendship and then say “Amo i miei amici Lucchese!” I love my Lucchese friends. Everyone claps and the chatter returns.

I sit in between Nico, who speaks English, and Simonetta, who doesn’t and try desperately to carry on a conversation with her in my intermediate Italian. She is a fabulous cook as well as an accomplished Flamenco dancer and I love her confidence and style. She has made my favorite Italian dessert, her specialty of Semifreddo, an Italian frozen mousse. We don’t even get a chance to eat it – we already pushed the gastro limits beyond capacity. It will wait patiently to be appreciated the next day.

I have an epiphany at that moment. Italy itself is oozing out of this table, like a tube of oil paint and with each squeeze and stroke of the brush, coloring the event with art and artists. Everywhere, art is complementing art. I am surrounded by artists all in their own right. Three fine art painting artists, two opera singers, one concert pianist, one European architectural restoration artist, one dancer, three cooks, and one garden expert and historian. This is Italy. Living, breathing, art. I am a part of this art, drinking in all its humility on one side and its ownership on the other. It has taken me years to fully grasp this concept even as “art” keeps singing in my ears.

The evening is ending and I say goodnight to all. I will always remember this very special day and how my mom, Angela and Davino planned the perfect surprise just for me. That night as my mom and I lay in bed, she tells me how she had planned this party back in March as soon as she knew we were coming to Italy. She wanted me to feel happy and loved after the year of struggle and ill-health I experienced. I am learning to accept love and attention. This is a start. I am so grateful for my mom and all the friends who truly care about me. Lucca is a gift and a treasure and I cherish every moment I am here to experience her loving arms and joyful vitality.

Ciao for now,




“Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”

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The most peaceful, beautiful place on earth. Lucca, Italy

My heartstrings are tugging like a hug you don’t want to release. This feeling waxes and wanes but mostly waxes. It’s a longing to be in another place, another reality far different from what I’m used to. A chance to reinvent oneself, live in the moment and not be caught up in the hustle bustle and busyness of big city living. It hits me hardest after I receive a letter from my dear friend, Angela, in Lucca, Italy, who tells me the news of our mutual friends, her painting and the latest art exhibits, her pets and garden. I flashback to our meals cooked together, excursions to the countryside and festivals, and friends picking grapes for our wine. How I wish I could trade places with her for a year!

What spell, exactly, does the charming town of Lucca have on me that calls to my heart like a siren at sea? In my eyes, it’s the one place in this world where everything I love comes together so naturally. Ancient history, walled cities, pasta, gelato, sculpture, pecorino cheese, opera, olive oil, wine, art, cobblestone streets with narrow alleyways, homes of rustic reds and harvest golds, the beautiful sing-song language (so romantic), markets of fresh garden vegetables, espresso, scarves, Buccellato bread, prosciutto and the list goes on.

Whenever I feel the need to return to my dreams, I review my favorite photos of Lucca. I thought I’d share a few that tell a story about the countryside, people and food I embrace so tightly. I hope you enjoy them and are able someday to travel to this special piece of paradiso. I’ve included an amateur video I took of my friends, the opera singers, Michelle and Mattia performing in a small church in Lucca. Bellissimo!

In the words of  the famous song by Janis Joplin, [Lucca}, “takes another little piece of my heart” every time I visit.

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Dinner at 8, Lucchese Style

My beautiful new friends Mattia and Michelle

Once upon a time you meet people who forever change your life. Mattia and Michelle did just that. What originated as friends of friends, blossomed into a friendship and an Italian experience I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful. Both seriously talented opera singers, Mattia and Michelle shared their home and lives with me for 11 days this fall in Lucca, Italy. Besides their accomplished opera careers, they’re both amazing chefs, whipping up last-minute meals out of nowhere. And this is where my story begins…

Lucca, Italy 26 settembre 2014

It’s 7:00pm on a Friday night. Michelle and Mattia are throwing a dinner party and guests are due to arrive at 8pm.  I volunteer to bring the chicken, so before heading home, stop at a small family owned negozio di pollo, a shop that sells poultry. I tell the macellaio, butcher, how many people we are serving and without asking, trims the fat, debones and then portions the chicken, all while giving me cooking advice. The bird pieces are carefully wrapped in paper, the shop keeper, with a smile, generously tucking in seasonings of fresh rosemary and sage, herbs that show up frequently in Tuscan kitchens. Oh the charm of such exquisite customer service!

I arrive home to an empty and quiet apartment. Tick tock tick tock. Now it’s 8pm and no sign of Mattia or Michelle. A quick call reveals they have met an old opera friend at the Oratorio who has gifted them with singing lessons. Our guests have been notified that the party will now begin at 8:30. With a sense of calm, and very little prep done, Mattia and Michelle arrive home with joy in their hearts ready to prepare the dinner. The three of us work in perfect harmony, like a concerto, to produce a beautiful meal in 45 minutes! These two are now my role models for entertaining! Here’s what we cooked.

Infused with lemon, rosemary and sage, the chicken begins its journey

Mattia teaches me the Lucchese way to cook

Michelle, a native of Australia, prepares her specialty, Apple Crumble

A grating of fresh parmesan finishes the first course of pasta

Angela has a kitchen chat with Mattia

Il secondo. Tuscan chicken

A little vino, and charming company create the perfect ambiance

Mouth-watering apple crumble, Aussie-style

After dinner, Mattia shares his vintage record collection played on a gramophone. We loved the music and his singing!

Frank Sinatra inspires a dance

The evening ended with singing, of course, Michelle and Mattia at the piano, serenading us with Phantom of the Opera favorites. A night to remember!

Check out Mattia and Michelle’s website Lucca Opera Festival and when you are in Lucca, be sure to go to a concert to hear them sing!

My lesson for this day is to let the magic happen, and it will when you decide to just go with the flow!

Ciao for now!

Love,

Mary




La Vendemmia

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making

The red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

 

A yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

Ciao for now!

Love,

Maria




La Vendemmia

Grape vines

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca.

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Michelle & Nico

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela.

The master fire cook Angela.

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Future wine

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Copper vatsThe red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

I give it a go. It's not easy!

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm.

Ummmmm.

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food.

The art of wood fired food.

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Patate Pomodoro Pranzo Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

Simonetta's version of semifreddo with pinenuts.

SemifreddoA yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake skin. Eek. I hope we don't run into any with the skin on!

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico's transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

Napping

Even Buck is sleepy.

Even Buck is sleepy.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

duskCiao for now!

Love,

Maria




Lucchese Style Cooking

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Luchese.

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Lucchese, a style local to the area of Lucca.

Are you interested in learning some authentic Italian recipes from a bona fide cooking school in Lucca, Italy?  If so, read on. Davino, my host from La Mimosa, had arranged for me to attend a cooking class at the International Academy of Italian Cuisine in Lucca, just on the other side of the hill from my house. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was grateful for the opportunity to join an ongoing class. This particular course trained students for a career as a professional chef. 10 were Japanese, two were Chinese and one was Italian. Mama Mia!

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The instructor was Mariela. She patiently went through the menu with us all, a translator changing Italian to Japanese and then to English for me. The clock started ticking. We started at 10 am and lunch was to be on the table by 1:30 pm. Then the switch went on. I felt like I was on Iron Chef. It was chaos – for a while. Pots began clamoring, students, almost in a panic, grabbed ingredients and bumped into each other, all in an attempt to put their ingredients in place for their designated recipes. The first minutes seemed uncertain, a searching for confidence, then this sense of order settled in. Dishes started to unfold.

A teaching moment.

A teaching moment.

I was told to go here, and then there, do this, then that. I felt a little out-of-place hovering, assisting, chopping, straining, the only sounds being Japanese words. Some students tolerated me and some were curious. Why was I here, interrupting this “professional” class? It certainly was not what I expected but I must say I learned a thing or two.

Like how to make the Torta Verdura. I had been curious about after eating it at the Festa. Made with swiss chard, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, candied citrus, raisins soaked in liquor, pinenuts and a little sugar.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

So it is a little savory, a little sweet and served as a dessert. The crust is like a pâté sucre, a sugary crust, and heavy with egg yolks. These happen to be brilliant orange – must be what the chickens eat.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

I learned a new technique for decorating the crust to create little “beaks” by slicing the dough on an angle, then with a knife, folding it over the dough to its right.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty "beak' decoration.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty “beak’ decoration.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

The spinach, for the lasagna, was pressed through a tami, or strainer, for extra fineness – another good tip.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

This sweet Italian student must be getting ready to finish her internship. We rolled the pasta outside on the patio!

This sweet Italian student became my friend. We rolled out the pasta layers outside on the patio!

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagne as the first layer.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagna as the first layer.

A tomato sauce is swirled into the bechamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

A tomato sauce is swirled into the béchamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

I helped make a timbale of cardoons, which when cooked, have a similar flavor to artichokes. We squeezed lemon juice on our hands to prevent the cardoons from turning them black due to the iron in the vegetable. Cardoons look like tall, fat celery.

Cardoons are first stripped of their "strings" then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

Cardoons are first stripped of their “strings” then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

A last minute plating of the appetizer.

A last-minute plating of the appetizer.

Lunch was served on a lovely patio outdoors and I sat with the owner, Gianluca who has taught here for 10 years.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sauteed greens.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sautéed greens.

Gianluca’s students have eight weeks of training and then are placed in restaurants all over Italy for a 10-month internship. The students are not paid but receive room and board in exchange for this opportunity to learn from master chefs. His success rate is high and the students seem to thrive on this experience.

The owner and operator of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The owner and proprietor of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The next time I visit Lucca I will participate in the evening classes which are designed for people who enjoy learning from local chefs and just want to have fun! Contact Gianluca for more information at:

The International Academy of Italian Cuisine In Lucca

info@italiancuisine.it

www.italiancuisine.it

I’m working on perfecting the Torta Verdura recipe so I can share it with you. Look for it in an upcoming post!

Abbandonatil all’amore e alla cucina. Love and cook with wild abandon! And that I did!

Buon Appetito!

Ciao and amore for now,

Maria




Nicola Cooks Tuscan

The chef Nicola in his element.

The chef Nicola in his element.

My friend Nicola is a cook, gardener, artist, historian and proud  Lucchese – a person born in Lucca. Angela, of La Mimosa, introduced us while gathered around her rustic wooden kitchen table, a fire blazing in the open-hearth to warm us during a fall rainstorm. She was in the midst of preparing rabbit stew for lunch and we were the observers. I was drawn to Nicola’s enthusiasm and knowledge of traditional Tuscan foods, their heritage and cultivation.

I learned that olive oil from Lucca is lighter and softer than the spicy southern version I usually cook with. Tuscan bread is unsalted. The reason being, during the medieval times a high tax was levied on the salt and the bakers decided to go without. Romans used faro before wheat, so in keeping with their roots, many Tuscans use it in salads and soups. Tuscan foods have more of a French influence than other parts of Italy.

To become more familiar with typical, local ingredients, I asked Nicola if he would cook with me in my barn kitchen and teach me his family secrets. He eagerly agreed.

Here is his menu:

Antipasto of Artichoke Hearts, Olives and Pickled Onions

Pumpkin Risotto

 Faraona stuffed with vegetables and braised on the stove top

Rutabagas, cubed and cooked with butter, sage and garlic

A medley of sautéed greens, shallots, garlic and white beans

Unsalted Tuscan bread

Salad greens from Nico’s garden, dressed with local olive oil

Tuscan country wine

Our antipasto and my table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

Antipasto nestles between my Tuscan table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

When I saw the abundance of groceries overflowing on my countertop, I wondered how we would be able to eat it all. Good thing Angela and Davino were joining us!

Faison is a type of guinea fowl. typical of the region.

The Faraona, a guinea fowl,  is stuffed with leeks, garlic, carrots and celery. It is then trussed and wrapped with a layer of lard. According the the famous Italian culinary writer Artusi, the Faraona is native to Numidia and considered to be the symbol of brotherly love in the ancient world. How appropriate!

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved this paper it was wrapped in.

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved the photo on this paper it was wrapped in.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water and wine are added during the cooking process and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water just to coat the bottom of the pot, sage, garlic, pepperoncini and wine are added to braise and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The artist, Nico, set to work creating dish upon dish so effortlessly. It was as if he were floating through time, not rushed, just enjoying the moment. I watched (and helped) in amazement as each dish came together.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto, chopped greens with white beans.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto and chopped greens with white beans.

While the bird cooks, Nicola starts the pumpkin risotto. Italians call squash, “pumpkin.” Butternut squash is cubed and cooked in a pot of boiling water until tender but not overcooked. In another saucepan, sauté what else but olive oil, two minced garlic cloves, and  three chopped shallots until soft.  Add two handfuls of rice (arborio) for each person and water to cover. Stir and add water as needed. Drain the almost cooked pumpkin and add to risotto. When risotto is almost done, add white wine as the last reduction and salt to taste. Do not overcook!The secret is to cook al dente.

My kitchen was an infusion of mingling aromas – shallots, garlic, sage and roasting bird. In a soft tone, Nicola describes each step, keeping rhythmn with the courses. Rutabagas, which add a color contrast and bright flavor to our meal,  are cubed and cooked with garlic and sage in a small amount of water.

More olive oil, shallots and garlic are sautéed with a mixture of chopped greens, mostly spinach, that you can purchase ready-made at the store. This is all heated together, then white beans are stirred in. Very delicious and healthy.

Il primo. Creamy and al dented, it gets Davino's approval.

Il primo. Creamy and al dente, it gets Davino’s approval.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Angela with Tigre upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Angela with Lily upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Everything is perfect and so very delicious. The Faraono is delicate and succulent. Angela, Davino and Nicola ate it with fingers, devouring every morsel off the bones.

The conversation (and wine and Prosecco) continued until 12:30am. I will always remember this dinner, the new friendships formed and the enjoyment cooking brings when shared with others. By the way, do all Italian men know how to cook like this? I am impressed!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

So that’s my friend Nicola. The best part of traveling is meeting new people, discovering their artistic talents and sharing the journey. I wish you art and love everyday in your life.

Note: The photos in this story are off color. I had difficulty with the indoor lighting. They are not my usual standard!

Ciao!

Mary aka Maria




Artful Traveling

Beautiful and tempting macaroons lure me into this shop for a taste

As the years retreat, like soldiers who have lost or won a battle, I march forward down life’s path with a renewed sense of passion. My passion almost always lies in the discoveries that travel brings. This past year brought forth many new heart-opening journeys that are influencing me in new ways.

I love Europe for its art around every corner, so freely displayed. During my last adventure abroad, I felt the presence of art all around me, so strongly in fact that it stirred an emotion deep inside of me. I was struck with an awareness of how every person on this planet leaves his or her artistic mark in some way. It might be grandiose like the intricate baroque cathedrals; indulgent and visually stunning like the cakes and pastries presented in the windows that look too beautiful to eat; the street musicians who entertain with such a flair or the paintings on the village walls, simplistic and with a message. I was viewing the world through the eyes of the artists who created these personal works. This new awareness flooded my senses and inspired me to document and explore my experiences in all things artistic. My focus for the year is love created by art or is it art created by love? I dedicate 2014 to this theme.

Love this! Sorelle = Sister

A peek into a private garden revealed the owner’s passion for sculpture art

Nicola found this old piece of pottery under a tree along the pathway in Lucca. As the rain erodes the ground cover, these treasures are revealed

Italian bici. Very clever!

These dazzling creations catch your eye with intricacy

Nestled into a doorway in Florence, an accordion player sings for his supper

A friend that kept me company at La Mimosa

A chocolate lover’s paradise. I love the photo of the man. Who is he?

Brilliant reds lining the streets of Pietrasanta

Artisan bread – so white and organically displayed in Lari

Signage rustica and handmade. Your eyes want to read the entire menu

Wine dispensary housed in a small vegetable market in Lucca. The painting says “Try it. You’ll like it!”

A farmer at the local frantoio, or olive mill, waits for his olives to be pressed into oil

Layers of art. I wonder if one person created all this or if it was a collaboration?

Thanks for letting me share my view of art with you. Keep your eyes open. Art is everywhere!

Grazie and with love!!

Maria

 




Artisans and Angels

Pietrasanta, a charming artist colony, is a stone’s throw from Lucca. La Mimosa’s Angela, who is an artist, thought it might be an illuminating place to spend a leisurely day. She was right.

The first of many sculptures I was about to experience. How lovely to be enveloped in children and birds!

Pietrasanta is small and silent but powerful. Her heavy hand of all thing artistic propelled me into a past time of creative exploration.

We stumbled upon this sculptor’s paradise while walking down a lonely street. Curiously, there were no humans present. Only guardians of stone whose stories would remain a secret.

She captured my soul. Her gaze. Her beautiful, confident wings. The clock she embraced. It was as if she was there just for me. I named her Giuliana.

Flying into the skies leg first.

The main piazza is a sculpture garden in itself filled with marble creations. The entire color scheme took my breath away.

The Italians just know how to display vegetables.

Another favorite -chestnuts- are omnipresent. I’ve grown fond of them.
This archway sits in the middle of the street. It is adorned with pomegranates, an ancient and treasured food.
Pomegranates are a favorite of mine so when I noticed the arch lined with them, I just had to share the details.
This ristorante looked alluring. We took a chance and were rewarded. Ristorante Quarantuno. Excellent.
Amber digs into squid ink pasta with local Pietra fish. Absolutely delectable.
Up close version.
Pasta with a light pumpkin sauce. Equally delicious. I do love pasta!

One of the most creative and taste bud tingling desserts I have ever enjoyed. Wine poached pear, cross split and filled with a chestnut purée. Magnificent. Exquisite. I searched high and low for the purée but it alluded me. Perhaps it was homemade.

Domes and olives. My passions are fulfilled.

Colorful Italy. What’s not to love?
More marble art keeping company with the tall brick tower with interior staircases crafted by The Michelangelo.
Pietrasanta oozing with artistic flair.

We were there on Halloween, a day that is just emerging in Italia. I loved this restauranteur’s sense of humor.

So, go explore the hidden and find treasures beyond expectations. This tiny villa was exactly that.

Ciao for now!

Maria




Lucca Revealed Part I

I love traveling to cities with ancient walls. In France, I was enamored with the bastides and cathars. Perhaps that is why I am charmed by Lucca’s fortress and her medieval city walls. There are four Portas or doors leading into the city. Along the outside up high, a pretty tree- lined pathway provides a walking and biking venue with sneak peaks into the city. Inside, a parade of multiple piazzas, churches, towers, and narrow cobblestone streets invite you to get lost in its history.

This lovely angel sits high atop a church keeping watch and on guard to protect.

A statue of a famous sculptor gazes toward the piazza.
Typical downtown colors.
Bikes are the prefered mode of transportation.
I’m drooling for these right now.
Cookies to celebrate Halloween, a newer holiday for the Italians.
An example of Luchese Pisano, an architectural style from Pisa. So much beautiful natural stone here. Carrera marble is a stone’s throw away.
This labyrinth came from Ancient Rome and was included when the church was built. Story has it that it is a pagan symbol that the church adopted to please the masses.
Other decorum of Lucca!
A friend from the gardens inside an old convent.
This beautiful bush is a Corbezzolo whose red fruit is edible. Such contrasting beauty.
The red roof view high atop the Guinigi Tower. You can see for kilometers and kilometers.
My guida or guide Nicola was happy to show me his home town of Lucca.
Only a handful of homes enjoy a rooftop garden. This one looks well cared for and used. Can you imagine having dinner here with this view?
Street vendors roasting the Italian favorite of chestnuts.
Just a stunning piece of art and history.
I am enthralled by this color combination which shows up in almost every little town.
More photos to come. I just wanted to whet your appetite. My visits to this beautiful city have been interrupted by a Comics and Games convention for four days so access to the city was virtually impossible not to mention the bumper to bumper traffic. A reminder to check for events before booking travel dates!
Ciao
Maria

 




Cucina Italia

This morning Angela is cooking rabbit – coniglio- for lunch. I hear Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’ s Door” before I even enter and find Angela and her friend Nicola at the large wooden kitchen table, each with a glass of homemade wine in hand. At first my eyes popped. Wine at 11:30? Then I realized that this dinner was really a lunch. I soon joined them and am surprised at the light and smooth flavor of the local red. Nicola, knowledegable in food, produce and things agricultural, begins to tell me the history of Tuscan cookery.

Between Angela’s lesson on making the rabbit, I quiz Nicola on the various types of fruits and vegetables, learning their Italian names. It’s amazing how much Italian I understand. I learn that Tuscan food has a strong French influence. Just my cup of tea.

Braised Rabbit with Olives

  • Brown the cut up rabbit in olive with three whole large cloves of garlic and a few pepperoncini- small red chiles.
  • Add three carrots, cut into two inch pieces, two stalks of celery, cut into one inch pieces and one small whole onion. Let this simmer for one half hour.
  • Add about a cup of fresh (or canned) chopped tomatoes along with pomodoro (tomato) water to half way cover the rabbit. Simmer 15 minutes more.
  • Add one cup of white wine. Simmer another half hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper. A. slightly thickened sauce forms. Add more pomodoro water if too dry. At the end, stir in a handful of olives.

Olive trees outside the kitchen almost ready tp pick.

Angela and her husband Davino also make their own olive oil. Eager to taste the Tuscan variety, I found a spoon and poured myself a drink. Very smooth with a slight hint of heat on the throat at the end. Delightful. I learn that Tuscan oil is softer and lighter than its kissing cousin in Puglia which has a much more forward bite and heat. I love the diversity.

As the wine flowed, we eat an antipasti of marinated artichokes and olives both made by Angela. The baby artichokes are trimmed (they feed the trimmings to the donkeys which I haven’t seen yet) boiled 10 minutes in salted water and drained overnight. The next day they are submerged in a large jar of olive oil, dried peppers and peppercorns and left to marinate for three months.

Angela’s baby marinated artichokes

Olives brined with cinnamon sticks.

Fresh green beans are trimmed. Angela shows me how to “cook” the garlic and pepperoncinis in a small amount of olive oil just until they soften. We then add the beans and what else but tomatoes and cook on the stove 20 minutes.

Cooking the garlic and pepperoncinis in hot olive oil.
Fresh green beans added to the hot oil.

While we are cooking, Davino is slicing prosciutto on their red antique slicer to feed the cats and us.

The kitchen. On the right is the red antique prosciutto slicer.

We eat al fresco under an arbor of dangling grapes. The rain has cleared and the sun is breaking through. All the dishes are brought to the table and we serve ourselves family style.

This is Italian!

After a delicious lunch, the meal is finalized with dolce but just not any kind of dessert. Today we are eating chestnuts from this property that have been boiled with bay leaves and spices. They are served warm. Davino demonstrates how to peel first the outer layer then the inner to discover the soft white flesh inside. Delicioso!

Like mini bon bons! Dessert of boiled chestnuts.

Using a knife, carefully peel off the hard outer shell then again the thinner skin.

A cup of espresso and I am ready for a nap. Grazie Angela and Davino for sharing your home and bounty of La Mimosa with me.

Tigre doesn’t miss a beat taking every opportunity to look for leftovers.

Ciao,

Maria




La Mimosa

Buon Giorno from Lucca! This is the first in a series of my life on La Mimosa, an agritourisimo in the hills just outside of Lucca, Tuscany, Italy. This beautiful home is situated at the end of a long and narrow road, surrounded by olive and chestnut trees, wild herbs and flowers, lemon, orange and pomegranate trees and of course, rows of grape vines whose fruit was just last month harvested.
The renovated barn where I will live for two weeks. My room is behind the open windows.

The soft lit colors from my window.

One of the 14 cats on the property. The sweet life.

I arrived at La Mimosa not quite jet lagged yet and full of anticipation for the next few weeks. The roads were easy to navigate and I am feeling confident about driving on these narrow lanes. My hosts, Angela and Davino drew me a map and even led me to the supermercato in Lucca where I would purchase food. Fierce with hunger after eating meager plane food for a day, I went on a crazed shopping spree practically emptying the shelves! Gorgeous veggies – almost all Italian local- filled my basket: fennel, striped zucchini with flower tops, borlotti purple beans, cime rapi from Napoli which is a leafy green like a chard, large white mushrooms and fresh vibrant green spinach all to be given even more of a flavor boost with a gorgeous roped strand of small red onions, garlic and shallots. The cheese aisle lured me in next. Fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh butter from Lucca, and Caciotta Garfagnina cheese with its creamy, buttery delicate flavor to pair perfectly with crisp red Nurca Campana apples and William pears. My eyes continued to be bigger than my stomach when I spotted the fresh pastas. A spinach and ricotta tortelli packaged in small portions (yeah) and some scialatelli, a fatter linguine type pasta would be delicate accompaniments for the veggies. Olives, ciabatta, pancetta, porcini sauce, yogurt, fresh pomodoro sauce, tomato focaccia and Italian wine flew into my basket. What was I thinking with all this food and just me to cook for?

My shopping spree of local Italian foods. Where to begin?
I sautéed a shallot then added the sliced zucchini, mushrooms, some pomodori sauce and let is simmer whle I cooked first the scialatelli then the tortelinni. I tossed in a handful of spinach, let it wilt, then drained the pasta and added some of the pasta water to the veggies. Then veggies created a thick sauce from the tomatoes coating the pastas with a light touch. Although very simple, my pasta dinner of beautiful freshness sent me into a dreamy fog. Where am I and how did I get here so quickly?

The inspired dinner. After this delicious meal, jet lag finally kicked in!

Tomorrow I have been invited to make rabbit stew with Angela. I am exactly where I want to be!

Ciao until domani – tomorrow

Maria