Myra has not even been here a week yet and so far we’ve managed to go to an artichoke festival in the most precious hill town, have lunch with friends, attend the official opening of the Anghiari artisan market, and go to a luncheon reception with best-selling author (and native Georgian) Frances Mayes at a gorgeous Italian villa. Not bad for the first five days.
First Impressions, Italian Style
Myra has been to Italy with us once before and on that visit we did the Italian sampler platter – Rome, Florence, and Venice with some time spent in Anghiari and surroundings. Most people like Italy, some even love it, and for a few, like Myra, Italy becomes part of their soul. They’re the people that I say “get it”. They see beyond the tourist agenda and look at the people, the food, the traditions, and the culture. They appreciate the unique drumbeat that Italians march to and find life here fascinating. So, when she was planning this trip, she said she’d like to stay a month if we didn’t mind. I told her that not only did we not mind, but a month here would change her life. She got her ticket that day.
Like any vacation, the weather plays a huge part in determining not only what you can do, but how you feel about a place. Remember our Venice experience with the Romans? We picked Myra up from the Rome airport on a dreary, gray, chilly day. After being packed in a plane for nine hours, most people are ready for a nice rest. Not Myra. She was ready to go from the moment she got off the plane. And that nasty weather? Didn’t bother her one bit. Italy was calling and she was going to answer despite the weather.
We stopped for lunch in Orvieto, one of the favorite places of our mutual friend, Julie. Because it was a rainy Thursday in April, Orvieto was not yet the bustling tourist town it can become in the summer. We drove right up to the Duomo, parked, and took a short walk to La Grotta where we had the most wonderful lunch. I had sausage and white beans because, well, it’s sausage and white beans – two of the most irresistible foods on the planet. Steve and Myra had umbrecelli, a pasta from the Umbrian region (where Orvieto is) which is sort of a shorter, thicker, spaghetti. The sauce was the house specialty and I don’t know what all was in it, but guanciale (pork cheek) and pistachios played a big role. It was a creamy, meaty bowl of deliciousness. And a bottle of Decugnano, a wonderful white wine that a sommelier friend told us about years ago. It was the perfect welcome to Italy lunch.
The Tuscan Sun (and Rain)
Rain played a major role in the first couple of days of Myra’s visit. But on Saturday the rain abated and the sun peaked through the gaps in the still simmering clouds. Good thing, because we had been invited to the official grand opening of the Anghiari Arte Artigianato, an artist’s market spread over the town for ten days. The ceremonial host of the market was Georgia’s own Frances Mayes. Frances and her husband, Ed, live part of the year in Cortona, which is about 30 miles away. It was a very Italian affair with the mayor in his sash, the town band, and the priest blessing the whole thing. Many dignitaries spoke and our dear friend Giovanni Sassolini kicked everything off by saying that when Frances stepped into the piazza, the clouds parted and the Tuscan sun shone brightly. It was quite the dramatic moment. But the best part was when it finally came Frances’ turn to make her remarks, which she had carefully written out in Italian. She stepped up to the microphone and opened the paper she had in her hands and stopped. Searching the crowd for Ed, she said that she had grabbed the wrong paper from her bag. Ed rushed up and Frances scrounged through the bag, retrieved the correct paper and all was well. Later at the luncheon, we asked her what she had originally and she said an invoice for a toilet they had just bought.
After the ceremony, we went to lunch at Giovanni’s house. We had prosecco on the terrace overlooking Anghiari and lunch was served in the house. There was a buffet set up in the dining room and people then perched wherever they could find a spot. We landed in a smaller dining room with some familiar faces and some new ones. In addition to the buffet, many other dishes were passed and we succeeded in overeating to the point that we couldn’t face dinner. It was a delightful day and we were all a little awed by getting to meet and talk to Frances Mayes. In my eyes, she’s an inspiration – not only as a writer, but as an adventurer. And she just might love Italy as much as I do.
Lunch with Friends
When Myra visited Italy the first time, we had a pasta making lesson from our friend Rossella. This time, Rossella asked Myra to give her a lesson in New Orleans cooking, so we’re planning a gumbo night soon. We met Rossella and Michelangelo for lunch at a restaurant that serves a very typical Umbrian specialty called torta al testo. This is a flatbread cooked over a wood fire on a stone. It’s then stuffed with all manner of goodness. Mine was stuffed with sausage and greens. Yum. We had a great visit with them and when we left the restaurant the weather had taken a very nasty turn – back to the rain and cold. There was only one thing to do when we got back home – wrap up in blankets and take a nap to cure the carb coma we were in.
Artichokes and Vistas
Festas are Italian festivals and they celebrate all manner of delicacies and traditions. It’s artichoke season and I found an artichoke festival about an hour away. It was in a little town called Chiusure and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they decided to play host to this festival. It’s remote, tiny, and barely registers on a map. But people came from near and far to attend this festa. The small road leading to the village was jammed with cars on both sides rendering it virtually one-way. However, cars were still going two ways and pedestrians were trying to navigate through to make it to town. We parked about a quarter of a mile from town and it took us about 20 minutes to make our way through the throngs of cars and people to get to the action. This was one popular festa.
What we found when we got there was a long line to get to the place where you placed your artichoke order and got your food. A very, very long line. Steve scoped out a little trattoria, snagged us a table that we shared with a couple from Siena, and we had a lovely lunch outside overlooking the gorgeous Crete Sinese countryside. We struggled through a conversation with Giada and Alfiero, who were delightful people. Giada told us that she spent a month in New York many years ago visiting her cousin who was studying at Columbia. She said she loved the experience but that her impression of the US was that people were too focused on money and work. Giada is a wise woman.
We had fried artichokes and a cheese, salumi, and fava bean platter. We were expecting small, fresh, favas drizzled with olive oil. What we got was a plate of raw favas still in the shells. We peeled a few and ate them, then offered them to Giada and Alfiero. He ended up eating quite a few and didn’t seem to think it odd at all that we had been served produce in its natural state. The rest we took home and steamed to top a salad.
We strolled around the festa after lunch and bought a few things, including some ridiculously fresh ricotta cheese and gorgeous strawberries for dessert that night. Driving back we kept pulling over to take in the incredible scenery. This part of Italy is where you get the postcard views at every turn.
This is the kind of day that you can’t plan for and is completely spontaneous. We woke up that morning to clear skies and higher temperatures and decided to take advantage of it. We were rewarded with a drive through magnificent countryside, a visit to a new and charming hill town, and lunch with a delightful couple. I wonder what we’ll do tomorrow?