Tales of a wandering lesbian

Foodies

Okay all you foodies. This one’s for you.

Yesterday, after accusing Italians of being descendants of Hobbits,I found myself proved temporarily wrong by my friends who decided to skip lunch. I’m pretty sure Hobbits don’t skip lunch. While I headed down the hill to make myself a couple of fantastic little grilled cheese sandwiches, they stayed to work. I told them to call if they wanted me to put the pasta pot on. I’m really glad they didn’t.

When they returned late in the afternoon, I’d had a little lunch and started afternoon tea. The ladies ran in, grabbed a couple of handfuls of bread and two bananas, and we were off to Lucca. We were going for business, but Lucca is home to some friends, so we got to have a bit of fun, too.

Lucca is a beautiful city at night. The shops sparkle as people pass by on bikes and on foot. We found our friends and started our trek through the city. The ladies were pretty hungry, and had missed afternoon tea, so caffeine was high on the list. We popped into a beautiful shop that had chocolate everywhere. Chocolate in the case, chocolate on the walls, and a vat of ciocolata calda stirring itself behind the counter. I noticed this beautiful liquid loveliness as I sipped my macchiato, and thought that I would need to sample some soon.

After trips to a couple of businesses, we made our way to another shop with chocolate lining the walls. A simple sign “chocolat” adorned the front. The little storefront was jammed with people after one thing – ciocolata calda. “Kristin! Con o senza pepperoncini?” With or without spicy pepper. Yummy. Our lovely friend Manuella handed me a plastic cup and spoon of super-dark liquid chocolate sprinkled with flakes of red pepper.

Manuella Calda

We all stirred our scalding cups, sending great columns of steam up, along with an amazing scent.  We spent the next five minutes standing in the street spooning mouthfuls of chocolate and scraping the bottoms of the little cups.

We crisscrossed the streets of Lucca for a couple of hours, everyone growing increasingly hungry and tired. We had plans to attend a friend’s art exhibition in Bagni di Lucca, but the thought of finding some food and heading home was growing increasingly appealing.

In the end, we made the turn to Bagni di Lucca, hoping that we could eat at the restaurant where the exhibition was happening. The wine and focaccia we were greeted with, and the long table set for dinner, were good signs.

After mixing, mingling and checking out the art, we seated ourselves at the table. There was a fascinating mix of people from Italy, Germany, Monaco, Greece and the US. This made dinner conversation excellent. While my language skills were probably the poorest of anyone at the table, they were all very good sports, and more than willing to let me muddle through in broken Italian while we consulted my little dictionary for vocab lessons. Of course, it helped that my family is from Greece, Germany and Chicago, where a couple of the Italian guys had spent time, and that I shared a special kind of kinship with two of the others. For the first time in this kind of setting, I felt able to be more myself. The barrier of not speaking the language really puts me in a place where I’m the observer, listening attentively, trying to work out the words, missing half of what’s said. Last night, I found myself able to understand quite a lot, and even allowed myself to speak a few butchered sentences, which were lovingly understood and corrected by those around me. It was lovely.

By the end of the night I had a handful of new vocabulary words, an invite to hold Thanksgiving dinner at a home in Barga, an invite to attend a book club, an invite to another dinner, and an invite to stay in the north of Italy. I need to try to speak Italian more often.

While we talked, food began to appear. The owner announced that, per Luccia’s request (she’s the artist and is a fervent vegetarian), the entire meal would be vegetarian. Wow. Deb and Sandra looked at me with wide eyes. How fantastic! I’d be able to eat everything without asking if it had meat. Amazing.

First was a lovely, delicate pastry filled with zucchini, and drizzled with a saffron sauce.

Zucchini pastry

When the owner came by with a dish to see who wanted more, I was very happy to oblige. It should have registered with me that Deb refused, saying she was full. Here’s a tip for non-Italians eating in Italy: If you are out with a group of people, and food that you have not ordered starts arriving, it’s very possible that you have begun what will be a 2 hour foodapalooza. Unless you are a champion food-eater, or are planning to head to a deserted island for the next month, do not accept second helpings from anyone. There will be plenty more. Have no fear.

After the zucchini pastry came polenta balls in some kind of a creamy cheese sauce, topped with black truffle shavings.

Polenta with black truffle

There were so many plates of these that I ended up eating 3, and almost had 4 before the plate (which had migrated, with others, to me) was taken away. Thank heavens it was taken away.

Next to arrive were long plates of pear and cheese salad. The slices of pear and pecorino were dressed simply with olive oil and black pepper. I had at least two helpings of this.

Pear and cheese salad

I believe I had a piece of bread at this point – or focaccia. Big mistake. While the brown focaccia you can find here is absolutely amazing – salty, nutty, yummy – it seems to be placed strategically to root out the non-locals. There were few of us who actually touched the bread. Fools, all of us.

Bread

As the first plate of pasta came out, I started to wonder if I’d make it through all the courses. The pasta, however, was so incredible, that I stopped thinking and started eating in earnest. Fortunately, I accepted only a few of the beautiful ravioli, which were filled with pureed squash (pumpkin, I think) and maybe caramelized onions, and covered in lovely butter, cloves and walnuts.

Ravioli

I was just thinking how I’d like a couple more when Deb turned to me. “Hey, you want mine?” She didn’t like hers. Joy! I shoveled her portion – which was about twice what I’d just eaten – onto my plate. Here’s a tip for Italian folks who are eating at a dinner like this with non-Italians (specifically Americans): We don’t know that there’s more food coming. Please don’t give us more food. It would even be kind to hide the food from us when we’re not looking. Really.

I’d just polished off Deb’s ravioli when the second THE SECOND plate of pasta arrived.

More pasta

More squash, more butter, more clove. Ancora, ancora, ancora.

At this point, my head was swimming a little. I had consumed roughly 10 times the amount of food that is supposed to fit in my stomach, and I could feel it expanding as I sat at the table, wondering what amazing plate would be set before me next.

Picture 1977

Instead of meat, the owner had prepared fennel baked in a béchamel sauce and covered in cheese (people, we don’t use fennel enough in the US. Its’ seriously good), a roasted tomato, braised radicchio, and baked tomino (cheese) with shaved white truffle and a mushroom that reminded me of a morel. All of it was excellent. I turned down seconds.
Then we sat. And we talked about how much we’d eaten. And how much we’d had to drink. And how much we needed a cappuccino. And then dessert arrived.

Blueberry cheesecake

The cheesecake itself was almost savory. Very little sugar and lots of ricotta. The blueberries on the top gave it its sweetness. Any other night, I would have had three pieces. But, it was the dessert that sent me over the edge. While I was slightly uncomfortable before, I began to wonder if I’d be able to stand up straight when it was time to go.

When we got home, we didn’t have evening tea. It was a short trip to bed, where my distended stomach was comforted by the excellent dinner conversation and the excellent camaraderie of the day.

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2 comments

1 Dad { 11.22.09 at 4:23 pm }

Ancora, Ancora…….I’m so full after reading this post that I can’t even think about my cup of coffee I am about to drink. And that’s another thing….since coming back from Italy coffee here doesn’t taste very good. Why do you suppose that is Kristin? And while I’m at it…..I had a donut at the new donut shop here in Ketchum yesterday and almost cried thinking of those wonderful Italian pastries we consumed in June……I’ll call you when I arrive at the Pisa airport!!!!!!

2 nat { 11.23.09 at 6:57 am }

great descriptions of food–and your meals– completely jealous as I eat my boxed italian meal.

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