15 December 2013

LIFE; Weekend in Tuscany

Everyday life in Italy is made up of a patchwork of experiences, each patch enriching the whole in its own unique way. What follows is a true story of one weekend in April. I had been in Florence covering a fashion event for Women’s Wear Daily and instead of heading back to Milan on Friday, I opted to visit friends who live just outside of Lucca. It's a simple story of regular life in Italy.  

CAPANNORI, Tuscany - It's a late Friday afternoon in April when the big blue Lazzi bus pulls into the old walled city of Lucca and stops. Through the bus window I see Ray leaning up against his car, waiting for me. He waves. Making his way through the crowd of middle aged signoras and backpack toting students who shared the hour long bus ride with me from Florence, he pulls my bag from the belly of the bus and puts it in the car.  

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca, Italy
 "Nice to see you kiddo," he says as he puts the car in gear and circles Piazza Verdi. He drives through Porta Santa Anna, and once outside the city wall he heads home. He tells me we have lunch reservations tomorrow at a country restaurant that specializes in truffles. "You do like truffles?" he asks.  I nod. Twenty minutes later we are driving up the bumpy unpaved road that leads to the 300 year old farmhouse where Ray, and his wife Sandy, live.

The next morning Sandy and I take our coffee out to the garden. We duck under the tight bunches of acid green grapes and sit down at an old marble topped table under the grape arbor. The morning air is filled with the   sweet scent of flowers and fat bumblebees who must think they have died and gone to heaven. But the tranquility of the morning is broken by the unrelenting howl coming from the dogs penned up in the backyard of a villa directly across the shallow valley formed by the soft Tuscan hills.

Putting her hand to her forehead Sandy sighs and says the barking drives her nuts. And the worst part, she says, is that there doesn't seem to be a solution. The owner turns a deaf ear to their complaints and the local authorities say their only recourse is to get a lawyer and sue the dog owner. But given the speed of the Italian justice system, they'll all be in nursing homes, dogs included, before the case is heard, she says. She wishes one of the neighbors would go over and talk to him, maybe the message would be more effective if delivered without an accent.  With that she stands and says we'd better get dressed as Ray will be coming in soon.

Ray has been up for hours. He is busy pruning the 170 gnarly olive trees that grow behind their house. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to prune each tree and he is behind schedule. I don’t understand why, but pruning serves to encourage the trees to produce more fruit, and according to Ray, if he doesn’t get it done in time there won’t be enough olives to bother making olive oil. That would be a shame.

By mid-morning Ray has had his fill of tree pruning and we are soon on the road heading south toward the FiPiLi (FeePeeLee) the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway. We are in the Lower Arno Valley, halfway between Florence and Pisa. The countryside here is lush and green, the fields systematically marked off by rows of trees, a practice developed by the Romans. Many of the towns we pass are built over the ruins of old Etruscan and Roman colonies and you can almost feel the essence of all those thousands of years of civilizations past hanging in the air. 
Bientina, Italy
The next thing I know we are in a town called Bientina and Ray is looking for a place to park the car. Sandy and I head for the closest bar for a second breakfast while Ray heads in the opposite direction mumbling something about having to go to the hardware store. Just as we are wiping cappuccino foam from under our noses, he rushes into the bar and motions for us to come with him. We follow him to an antique dealer across the piazza.  

The shop Ray leads us to is stacked with rustic furniture, sturdy, practical furniture, sawed, sanded and put together by hand. For the next twenty minutes I stand by as Ray and Sandy talk price and appear to be interested in a 200 year old wooden chest. Then, with a "we'll measure the space and call you" we leave the shop and get back on the road. Direction: San Miniato al Tedesco.

Ray takes a narrow two lane road out of town. He knows the territory well. This is the pure heart of Tuscany, the territory of olive farmers, wine producers and truffle merchants. About one-third of Italy's prestigious white Tuber Magnatum truffle crop come from this area and every November the town of San Miniato al Tedesco hosts an important international truffle fair. 

My stomach is starting to make growling noises but lunch seems to be the last thing on Ray’s mind. Instead, like a shark on a blood trail, he hones in on a small antique shop directly across the street from one of San Miniato's best known landmarks, the 16th century Palazzo del Seminario.

San Minato al Tedesco
Unlike the shop in Bientina, the furniture here is a mélange of rural simplicity and European sophistication. The owner, Signora Bellini, tells us she often scouts the antique markets in France, and if we don't see anything we like she has another storeroom nearby that is full of other treasures.  

Ray, who is an interior architect, circles the shop once, twice. Then, without a word he leaps up on a dusty landing and pulls out a small table partially hidden in a dark nook.  Signora Bellini is visibly disappointed. She tells him the table is from one of the town's government offices and isn't very old, probably no more than a hundred years or so. No doubt visions of dollars have been dancing in her head, listening to our American accented Italian, and the table Ray is interested in is a small fish compared to other pieces in the shop. Ray jumps down, brushes the dust off his slacks, and begins turning the table this way and that.

"How much," he asks.
She hesitates. "125 euros".
"One hundred," he says.

Before she finishes nodding her head yes, he is out the door with the table tucked under his arm. Sandy and I can hear him chortling with glee as we head for the car, finally on our way to lunch. Apparently he’s bagged a bargain.

 La Giocanda Ristorante, La Serra, Tuscany
The restaurant, La Giocanda, is in the tiny borgo of La Serra, a couple of miles southeast of San Miniato and 5 miles south of the prestigious leather tanning district of Santa Croce sull'Arno. Sandy and Ray are regular customers and when Vittorio, the owner, sees them he greets them with open arms. Hearing their voices, his wife Valeria pokes her head out the kitchen door to say that she has just gotten in a fresh supply of white Marzoli truffles. Sandy, who is somewhat of a truffle expert, tells me Marzoli are spring truffles.

 “They are not the mythical, white Tuber Magnatum that sell for $1,500 a kilo (and up) at the annual San Miniato truffle fair,” she says, “but delicious nonetheless.”

We sit down. I open the menu.

Within seconds Vittorio is at the table putting down bottles of mineral water and wine. Then he begins to recite the daily specials. I look over at Sandy, and then at Ray.

"Ravioli filled with cheese, herbs and shaved truffles", says Sandy picking up a piece of thin, crispy Schiacciata bread.

"Gnocchi with sweet gorgonzola, butter and shaved truffles,” says Ray.

I'm uncertain, torn between wanting what they've ordered, and wanting something different.

"The fettucine with cream sauce and truffles is nice,” Sandy volunteers. 

Ray nods his head in agreement. They want me to make up my mind so we can eat.

"Okay,” I say. "The fettucine it is".

Sensing my uncertainty, Vittorio comes to the rescue. He suggests putting a bit of all three on each plate. It's a good idea. The offered tris will also prevent us from squabbling later over who's primo was best. 

 More Truffles, Please

The pastas are so exquisite we practically lick our platters clean. Then Vittorio brings on the main course. A succulent Florentine steak that has been seared over a wood burning grill, sliced, sprinkled with olive oil and herbs and blanketed with a cloud of truffle shavings. And just to round things out Valeria sends out a bowl of white Tuscan beans topped with, you guessed it, more truffles and their own home made extra-virgin olive oil.

Desert? Mmmm, oh my, well . . .  only if you insist.

As we waddle out the door, my cholesterol count on its way to the moon, Vittorio presses two bottles of red wine into Ray's hands. "For tomorrow", he says. And all for less than $30 a head. Satiated, I seriously question the wisdom of my decision to live in Milan.

With the sun getting low in the sky, we start back to the farmhouse. Ray makes one more stop, this time at Torri, a gelateria in Lucca.  Once home, we make sandwiches with the left-over steak we doggy-bagged, and then sit out in the garden savoring spoonfuls of Torri’s heavenly gelato, marveling at how we can still eat after our mid-day feast at La Giocanda.

Sunday starts full of bright sunshine and after a leisurely lunch Sandy and Ray drive me to Florence just in time to catch the late afternoon train back to Milan. Through the train window I watch the Tuscan landscape roll by. As we travel north the country side starts to flatten out, the hilly Tuscan panorama diminishing with every tunnel we go through, the light fading by degrees. All too soon we are in Bologna. Next stop, Milan. 

Via San Regolo, 84 - La Serra
56020 - San Miniato (PI) Italia
Tel. 0571.460318

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