We thought we knew where we were going on our honeymoon.
Honeymoon. The sound of it alone makes me feel a little glowy, like the pale-yellow sunset out the window as I write. After nearly four decades of being on this earth, I had nearly given up hope of meeting that man of my dreams. Now, not only have I met him, and have been living with him for eight months, but also he exceeds my dreams. We eat well, we have our health, and we regard every day as a laughing adventure. We are deliberately planning a low-key, goofy wedding, surrounded by people we love and enormously good food. It won’t cost much — we found the navy-blue blazer he wants to wear on that day at a rummage sale, for five dollars. Neither one of us stands on ceremony or walks through life with that many expectations. Why would we need an elaborate honeymoon?
Well, call me a girl, but I still want a honeymoon with him. Call him a girl, but the Chef still wants a honeymoon with me. We live well, but we both work hard. Two days off together, with no work to do, is a rare vacation. There are always stories to write, menus to plan, food to buy, emails to answer, and phone calls to return. He’s a chef — they may work harder than any professional I know. And I’m a freelance writer now, without a regular paycheck. There is always work to do.
The thought of ten days together, doing nothing but eating and walking and laughing and other honeymoon activities? Oh, yeah.
So, early on, we decided where to go. At first, we thought of Ireland. He’s an Ahern — as one of the readers of this blog put it recently, “He has a bit of the Paddy in him.” Oh yes. James is of Welsh derivation, apparently, but I’ve a good chunk of the Irish in me too. He has never been to Ireland. I went for a week, with Sharon, bouncing along the green fields in a little green rental car. I’d go back in a heartbeat. But Ireland without a Guinness? Oh.
Besides, we really want to go somewhere where we will eat well and be inspired. Of course, we would be inspired in Ireland, but the food? Well, food — it seemed to me on my visit — is not the primary sensory pleasure of the place.
We bandied about ideas, but then we both thought of it: road trip. Feet up on the dashboard, windows open, music going loud, and the wind in our hair as we sing. The thought of it made us both giggle, immediately. But where? We decided to follow the trail of great food. Then, it arrived, the idea that latched onto us for months. Seattle to Portland, one day to stuff as many meals as we could stretch into us. A jaunt over to the ocean, where we could fall asleep with the roar of the waves, and take picnics on the sand and lay in the sunlight for hours. Driving down the coast, the immensity to our right, music flying out the window. Into California, where we would tour the wine country, end up in Napa Valley, and eat at the French Laundry. After a bit, we’d wriggle over to San Francisco, eat at Zuni Café, meet up with food blogger friends, and end our trip in Berkeley with the meal at Chez Panisse I have always imagined.
We knew we would spend the entire drive up I-5, heading home, reminiscing about every bite.
Perfect, right? The Chef dreams of the perfect demi-glace, and I am endlessly happy with discovering new foods. Friends, good food, great wine, the ocean, driving while laughing, and eating at two of the best restaurants in the world — that’s a honeymoon.
We started researching places to stay. We started saving every penny we could. We planned ahead to plead with friends and acquaintances to help us get reservations. We had a plan.
That’s the funny thing about plans. They sometimes just go astray.
Really, I blame Jamie Oliver. I’ve been overly happy about the man for years now, and his enthusiasms and recipes have inspired me innumerable times. However, before I met the Chef, I wondered: is Jamie really that good? Maybe I’m just a naïve girl home cook, who likes a male chef who looks like he’d make me laugh. But when I started showing Jamie to the Chef, I realized I had been right all along. In our house, watching Jamie Oliver dvds is referred to as “crack.” The Chef confirmed it: that Jamie Oliver knows what he’s doing. Watching Oliver’s Twist isn’t a light diversion around here, because the Chef is always inspired and goes into work mode. (Thank goodness for South Park and SVU.)
So really, it’s Jamie Oliver’s fault that we changed our plans. The Chef bought me a copy of Jamie’s Italy for Christmas. Seduced by the photographs in sun-washed colors, I started making meals from it nearly every night. His radicchio and arugula salad is going to be with us every spring, for years. His caprese salad photograph inspired me to tear off pieces of fresh mozzarella with my fingers from now on, instead of neatly slicing it. One night, the Chef made us a version of Jamie’s hunter’s chicken stew, spontaneously. It tasted so redolent of the earth and tomatoes and sunlight in the dead of winter that we were both astonished. The Chef put his own version of it on his menu the next month. There was sausage carbonara, salt cod soup, sage and anchovy fritters, and a magnificent sausage and green lentils with tomato salsa.
Seriously, you should purchase this book.
Every morning, as I dipped into its pages, I read passages to the Chef as he tried to read the paper. “Since I’ve been a teenager, I’ve been totally besotted by the love, passion, and verve for food, family, and life itself that just about all Italian people have, no matter where they’re from or how rich or poor they might be.” Ten minutes later, I would nudge the poor Chef as we lay in bed, and interrupt his sports-page moment. “Honey, listen to this, ‘I wanted to find the food of the real Italy — not the place that conjures up images of olive groves and lemons — and to celebrate the recipes from the people I met along the way, from fishermen to family bakers, from the street full of mamas making fresh pasta to all those taking part in the local pasta competition in the town square. I wanted to experience for myself the spirit of Italy that makes cooking and eating absolutely central of family life, whichever part of the country you find yourself in.’” And then the Chef would look at me, and the photograph of what I planned to make us for dinner that night, and he would throw the covers back and climb out of bed. He had to make us breakfast, that minute.
It’s a dangerous book.
We both agreed. Someday, we would go to Italy.
Italy kept creeping into our lives. A friend of a friend who came into town. Friends at the restaurant for New Year’s Eve celebration, and one of them told us how much she loved the area of Italy where she grew up, Abruzzo. After I turned in the book, I turned back to reading. The first book I raced through was Eat Pray Love (I cannot recommend it enough), where Elizabeth Gilbert spends the first third of the year in Rome. I read more of that to the Chef in bed than I had Jamie’s Italy. The cover of one month’s Gourmet and a NY Times Wednesday food section arrived and seemed to leer at us, enticing us to come closer. Italian sausages and bottles of wine and lovely cheeses started sneaking into our home.
One evening, while I was still working on the book, I was editing a description of a meal I ate in Florence, the one weekend I visited the country. I shouldn’t tell you too much about it now — the story made it to the final draft — but suffice it to say that it involves a thunderstorm on the piazza in front of the Uffizi, the statue of Zeus staring down at me, and an unexpected plate of fresh smoked mozzarella. As I re-read it, I nearly started to cry. The experience was direct, and simple, and all about the ingredients. Writing it made me want to go to Italy, that minute.
Finally, our dear friend Merida (whom I have referred to on this site for years as my dear friend, but that pronoun is no longer true), came over one Sunday for movies and morir sonando. She was flipping through Jamie’s Italy, and we were espousing its glories. We were all oohing and ahhing again. Merida — in her infinite wisdom — looked up at us and said, “Why don’t you just go to Italy for your honeymoon?”
Oh. Somehow, it had never occurred to us.
Well, there’s the money. We don’t have that much. And there are the passports to renew and the clichés to overcome and the language barrier. But mostly, it’s the money. The Chef and the writer? We’re rich in living, not in cash.
But, Merida said the clincher: “Look, you two are hoping to have kids soon. Road trips? You can do those with kids. But a trip to Europe? Once you have the kids, that’s going to be on hold for awhile. And how often do you have a honeymoon? Go.”
And so, we looked at each other. Something felt released. We both smiled, and then giggled. “Of course,” we said. “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Italy.” We hugged each other, and then we hugged Merida. Sometimes, in life, you have to take leaps, and make decisions that don’t feel rational on the surface, but resonate underneath.
And just this morning, we started laughing, on our drive to the restaurant, remembering. The Chef’s restaurant, Impromptu, changes its food focus every three months. The cuisine he was creating when we first met? Italy. This is why, in one of his first emails to me, he told me that he had to do some research on Tuscany that night. Feeling emboldened by our first kiss the day before, I made some suggestions to the Chef:
“Tuscany? Don’t forget — chestnut honey on pecorino. It’s unbelievably good. Just a little drizzle. There’s also smoked buffalo mozzarella. Spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce. Fava beans sauteed in olive oil, with truffles. Pappa alla pomodoro. Chicken breast stuffed with fresh ricotta, ribbons of basil, and sun-dried tomatoes. Caprese salad. How about chianti ice cream?”
This is why the first food the Chef ever fed me was white beans braised in great olive oil and rosemary. The first time I ate dinner at his restaurant, he fed me Italian food.
There it is — Italy for our honeymoon.
However, it turns out that deciding to go has been the easiest part. Right now, we are hounded by a desperate question.
What part of Italy should we visit?
We know one thing only — we want to go to Rome. After reading Eat Pray Love, I have to walk those streets with the Chef. Our friend Francoise insists that Rome is her favorite city in the world. And the Chef? Well, he was an altar boy when he was young. Of course, we have to visit the Vatican.
Okay, that’s two or three days of the honeymoon. But where do we go next?
You see, it seems that everyone who has gone to Italy has fallen in love with the area he or she visited. Judy told us, “Go to Sicily. There are stands with fresh mozzarella by the roadside.” And I could tell by her face as she re-lived the memory that this had been one of the best trips of her life. Nina said, “Bologna. The best meal I have ever eaten was there. I even have the business card from that restaurant still. I’ll give it to you. Bologna.” Okay, put that on the itinerary. The man I hired as my accountant, when he heard our story, said, “You have to go to Emilia-Romagna. Here, borrow my copy of this book.” And he ran into his kitchen and dug out his copy of The Splendid Table, which he put into my hands proudly, as though he were handing over a bible. I read it for ten minutes and added Parma, Modena, and Reggio to the list. Anna grew up in the Dolomites, and she insisted we had to visit.
We both started growing a little dizzy.
But wait! There’s Naples, where pizza as we know it was born. (The Chef insists, however, that pizza was actually invented in Greece. “It was,” he just told me. “The Italians just put red sauce on it.”) Certainly the Chef needs a slice of real Neopalitan pizza. Maybe there is even a pizzeria making rice-crust pizza for me. Italians, as I understand it, have a higher incidence of diagnosed celiacs in their culture than does the US, and a much more advanced understanding of how to cook great food gluten-free than almost anywhere else in the world. Paradoxically, I might be safer in the land of pizza and pasta than other regions of the world.
You see, that’s all we really want. We want to eat. We want to eat the best tomatoes in the world (many people have assured us that’s in San Marzano). We want to eat sardines and mussels fresh from the ocean. We want to eat gelato every day. We want fat lemons, warmed in the sun. (Sorrento.) We want to drink truly great espressos. We want great cheeses and creamy risottos and crispy polenta and just-caught poultry and meals in tiny little trattorias and restaurants that only the locals know about. We want to eat well and memorably.
Some people go to Italy for the art. I’ve stood in front of the David, by myself, for half an hour, and I am satisfied with that. Some people are suggesting we go to Venice and ride in gondolas, or go to the island of Capri, for the romance. I’m sure that both places are stunning, but our romance takes place over a plate. We want to avoid the tourist spots, as much as possible. We want to live like Italians for ten days. We want to eat Italy.
Is that Sardinia? The Cinqueterre? Umbria? Siena? Padua? Bari? Puglia? Positano? Portofino?
We have some time to make up our minds. We have decided, sanely, to enjoy our wedding and all our friends and family visiting, in a spacious manner. We’re going to be married in July. We’re going on our honeymoon in September, after the tourist season has ended (and just before the book tour). This will also give us some more time to save money for the trip. (If people want to give us gifts for the wedding, we are hoping they will want to contribute to the honeymoon instead.) This might be the trip of our lifetime, and we want to do it right.
But still, we need your help. Does anyone out there have suggestions? Where have you eaten well in Italy? What have been some of the most memorable meals? If you have been reading this site for awhile, you probably know us pretty well. Where would we enjoy our time most?
We thank you, in advance, for your kindness.
And if nothing else, we can promise you this: we will come back with photographs, stories, and glorious new recipes inspired by our time there. You can count on it — we will be sharing them with you.
Crispy polenta with fennel sausage and tomato sauce
While we have been pondering where to put our feet on Italian soil, we have been cooking. The Chef made dishes for me nearly every night for weeks, when I was finishing the book. He came home after an eleven-hour work day to stand in front of the stove and cook again. But once I turned in the last draft (for the moment), I started standing in front of the stove instead. Since we decided to go to Italy, it has been polenta and pasta sauce galore around here.
This dish is the culmination of all those experiments. The Chef taught me how to make polenta well, much better than I had been making. Tomato sauce from canned tomatoes isn’t nearly as brilliant as the sauces made from fresh tomatoes, but the taste is a teasing reminder in the dead of winter. And sausages, in little irregular-shaped patties, are much easier to make than you might imagine.
Last week, when I made this all for dinner, the Chef stood in the kitchen, eating and groaning at the same time. He didn’t stop chewing and scooping more food into his mouth for awhile. When he did finally come up for air, he looked at me with avid hunger and adoration in his eyes, and said: “Baby, this is good.”
Sometimes, that’s all I need.
1 pound ground pork (the best and freshest available)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
¼ cup fennel tops (those leafy greens at the top of the white bulb), minced
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped fine
½ yellow onion, fine diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Mix all the ingredients into the ground pork. Put your hands in the pork and really mix it all in. Set the bowl full of sausage meat into the refrigerator and let it marinate for at least two hours before cooking.
When you are ready to cook the sausages, preheat the oven to 450°. Put a skillet on high heat. Shape the sausage meat into small balls —perhaps two inches across — and pat them each down to make small patties. When the pan has come to its full heat, put in a tablespoon of canola oil. When the oil runs around the pan easily, like water, add the sausage patties. Cook them on high heat for three to four minutes, or until they are browned. When they have browned on the first side, flip over the sausage patties and immediately put the skillet into the hot oven. Allow the sausages to cook until they have reached an internal temperature of 160°. They should be sizzling and enticing at this point. Pull them from the oven.
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ yellow onion, small diced
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 3/4 cup milk
1 1/4 cup water
1 cup polenta
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/3 cup grated parmesan or Asiago cheese
Set a saucepan on medium-high heat. When it has come to heat, add the oil. When the oil has become hot, add the diced onion and cook it for a few moments, stirring occasionally. When the onion starts to soften and release its smell, add the rosemary and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally to avoid burning. Within five minutes, everything will start to smell wonderfully redolent.
Add the milk and water to the onion and herbs. Stir. Allow the liquid to come to a boil. Immediately add the polenta and stir it all together, turning down the heat to medium to medium-low. When the polenta has thickened, and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan (the time will vary, depending on the kind of polenta you are using), pull the pan from the heat. Add the salt and pepper, as well as the cheese. Stir it all in. Immediately pour the polenta into a casserole dish or roasting pan. Use a rubber spatula to spread the polenta out evenly, about one inch thick. Put the polenta into the refrigerator to chill, for at least two hours.
When you are ready to cook the polenta, preheat the oven to 450°. (If you are making this entire dish, you will do this simultaneously with the sausages.) Cut the polenta into thick wedges or triangles. Bring a skillet to heat, and then add a tablespoon of olive oil or canola oil. When the oil has come to heat, add the polenta wedges to the skillet. Cook the polenta for three to four minutes, or until the underside has browned. Turn over the wedges. Cook the polenta on the other side for two minutes, and then immediately transfer the skillet to the hot oven. Cook for about five minutes, or until the inside of the polenta has reached its heat.
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small, dried red chile, seeds removed and chopped
1 small nub ginger (about one-inch long), peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
28-ounce can whole tomatoes (try San Marzano tomatoes)
splash red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Put a large saucepan on a burner, on medium to medium-low heat. When the pan has come to heat, pour in a glug of olive oil. When it has heated, add the chopped onion, the garlic, and the chile. Cook them for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. When the onions have softened, and the garlic smells warm, add the fresh herbs and ginger. Cook for a few moments more, until the herbs have released their smell. Chop the tomatoes and add the chopped tomatoes, plus the juice from the can, into the saucepan. Turn down the heat to low and let the tomato mixture simmer for at least twenty minutes.
Put the tomato sauce into the blender and puree it all together. Season with salt, pepper, and a splash of red wine vinegar. Taste. Perhaps add a bit more, until it tastes perfect to you.
Return the sauce to the saucepan and let it simmer again. Add a glug of good olive oil, and taste again.
Now, to put it all together….
Ladle a small portion of the tomato sauce onto a plate.
Place a wedge or two of the crispy polenta on top.
Throw some sausage patties around it.
Sprinkle some drops of your best-quality olive oil on top. Add some fresh mozzarella, if you wish, as well as some shredded parmesan. Top with fresh herbs.