We are counting down the days.
The Chef and I love our lives. By halfway through the day, his fingers are itching to get into the kitchen. Driving into the restaurant, he twitches a bit. As happy as he is with me, that kitchen has been his home for his entire adult life. He sighs into his knife and feels alive when he’s on the line. And me? I’m at home, tapping on this keyboard, trying to learn how to market a book, watching apples drop from the trees in the backyard. Life constantly surprises me. There is so much to learn about food, about how to love him.
We feel blessed.
Still, of all the benefits of being married to a Chef, long vacations together is not one of them. In the first week of January, the Chef had five days off from the restaurant. However, that’s when the book was due to my publishers, the time of not much sleep. We have not shared more than three days together without work. When we have two days off in a row, as we just did, we feel like millionaires.
Imagine the richness of twelve days together, in Italy.
In seventeen days, the Chef and I will be skipping onto a plane, for our first long trip together. Our honeymoon.
When I first wrote about our plans, for this once-in-a-lifetime splurge to the land of tremendous food, dozens of readers responded in droves. We didn’t know where we should go, since every square foot of that amazing place seemed to offer sensory experiences that would take us somewhere new. Fresh mozzarella. Sorrento lemons. Pools of warm olive oil. Prosciutto cured on the premises. Wandering down the streets of Rome, following the knowledge of our noses, and staying in a trattoria for hours. Everything seemed possible.
We were astonished, and moved, by your suggestions and offers. Some of you sent us presents for our honeymoon registry. My goodness, dear people. We cannot thank you enough.
You see, we really couldn’t afford this trip, with our daily budget. True chefs are working-class heroes, not the glitterati you see on tv. And freelance writers? Well, there is no Bentley parked outside our door. We own a trusty little Honda with over 200,000 miles on the odometer, and we pat the dashboard every time we turn the key. Common sense says to stay close to home.
But love rarely feels like common sense.
And I keep thinking about how much our notions of food will be changed — the Chef in his kitchen; me at my keyboard — by this time together, in Italy.
And so we are taking the leap. Our friends and families were generous at our wedding, with their presence, and their presents. Someone I know said: “Did you get a lot of cookware?” No, not really. We have a decent kit already. What did we get? A honeymoon.
And my passport arrived in the mail a few days ago. Whew. The Chef received his a month ago, but the passport office suggested I wait until after the wedding to apply for mine, since I changed my name. When we opened the mailbox and saw that flat package, we both wanted to dance a jig. We are really going to Italy!
We know where we are going now. Even though a hundred places in that land called our name, we really listened to the people who have been there, and especially to the people who grew up there. Over and over, the people who came from Italy told us one place for the food and wine: Umbria.
We will be staying at a little agriturismo outside of Assisi, a working farm with an apartment for us. From the sound of it, they will bring us bottles of the olive oil they grow there, as well as fresh fruit and herbs, in a basket when we arrive. The idea of waking up there, and sitting on the balcony with cups of strong coffee, looking out over Mount Subasio? The image of that brings lightness to my chest every time I imagine it.
We’ll be renting a car — and hoping it has fewer than 200,000 miles on it this time — to putter around the Umbrian fields. Music on, windows open, and only the barest plan for the day ahead of us — we are ready for adventuring. There are so many little villages where we could go, towns to explore. Spoleto, Orvieto, Norcia, Perugia — my mind smiles at the sound of them.
The other day, the Chef and I spent the afternoon with my parents. Unbeknownst to me, they have developed a passion for searching Google Earth for close-ups of the world. Eager to show us the technology, they clicked on cities where we could be eating soon. Quickly, we were hooked too. We’re going there?!
We don’t have a definite itinerary in mind. We’ll make it up as we go along. As the Chef likes to say, “That’s the best way to live.”
But we do know there will be a day in Florence, as the incredible Judy Witts has offered us a private tour of the markets and lunch at her house.
We will spend at least one day in Modena, at one of the balsamic vinegar factories, since a dear someone sent us a check, and said, “Buy yourself the best bottle of balsamic vinegar you can find, the one you would never buy for yourselves.”
One of my favorite former students, the wonderful Monica (who took most of the photographs for our wedding) has a grandmother in Italy. It’s possible that she will be there at the same time we are. We might end up in a tiny village in the Abruzzo, where her grandmother will cook for us all day.
And it’s also possible that our friends Don and Michelle — the ones who made the incredible lamb for our wedding — will be visiting Volterra while we are in Umbria. We could end up in the kitchen of the villa, cooking with both of them.
After that, it’s three days in Rome. (But no car. No thanks.)
You can probably sense why we are jumping up and down together whenever we talk about this trip.
I hate to shock the art lovers among us, but I’m pretty sure we’re not going to visit a single museum. (Except for the Vatican. We have to go see the Pope.) We don’t have a checklist of Important Sites to see. We are not seeking the perfect visit, the epochal experience, or the archetypal honeymoon. We just want to greet every moment, laugh together, and eat well.
We can’t wait to meet the people who make our food. The butchers, the olive oil farmers, the cheesemakers, the vintners, the truffle hunters. I am forever enchanted by the people who make food. Those are the experiences we can’t wait to have.
Mostly, we want to eat.
Of course, eating in Italy (or eating anywhere, for that matter) is more difficult for me than the Chef. Eating gluten-free in Italy, I have been told, will be easier than it might seem. I’ve been doing some research, and asking around, but I have much, much more to learn.
So we would love to hear any suggestions that anyone has. Have you eaten gluten-free in Umbria? Oh, please send us names and addresses. Did you eat gluten-free pizza in Rome? Found the best rice pasta in the world in a tiny restaurant in a village no one else would visit?
Oh, and if anyone has the name of a tiny hotel in Rome that charmed you, but didn’t empty your wallet, we would love to know that too.
What I can tell you, for certain, is this: whatever we learn, whatever we eat, we will share it with you. Expect juicy pieces of writing, and photographs galore. We know, without a doubt, that this time together will yield surprises, and joy. And joy only expands when shared.
We may not know entirely where we are going, but we cannot wait to go there.
Pasta with potatoes, zucchini, and shrimp, adapted from Adventures of an Italian Food Lover by Faith Willinger
This recipe is only loosely adapted from a recipe by Faith Heller Willinger. Her addictive new book — Adventures of an Italian Food Lover: With Recipes from 254 of My Very Best Friends — has been my favorite guide book to Italy so far. Instead of listing places to stay or the best restaurants to eat in, she has written little essays about the people she knows, all of them passionate food lovers. I’m making notes of the places we could drive for bottles of golden olive oil, or vineyards that grow organic grapes, or butchers that create pork products that could make us cry. That’s my idea of living.
And boy, would I love to be her 255th friend.
At first, you might think this dish sounds strange. Who makes potatoes with pasta? Let me tell you, I will, from now on. These julienned potatoes cooked in sea-salt water stay slightly crisp with this techniue, but they wrap around the pasta like a lover in the morning. The zucchini does too, a little green taste amidst the comfort of starches. The original recipe called for spaghetti, and I only had gluten-free shells in the house. But I actually love the differences in shapes in my mouth. Add fresh prawns, and a splash of lemon juice, and this tastes like the Pacific Northwest, transplanted to Italy.
Just like us.
2 Yukon gold potatoes
3 tablespoons sea salt
14 ounces gluten-free pasta
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound prawns, peeled and deveined
juice of ½ lemon
2 ounces chevre
Cut the potatoes and zucchini into julienne shapes. (Here’s a recommendation: buy yourself this Messermeister julienne utensil. My goodness, I feel like a chef with this in my hands.) You should have about 1 ½ cups of each when you are finished.
Bring 3 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add the sea salt. Cook the potatoes first, until they are tender. (About two to four minutes.) Take the potatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and set them aside. Cook the zucchini in the same water. When it is tender, put the cooked zucchini into a colander and rinse cold water over it.
Put the pasta in the still-boiling water. (Follow the directions for your favorite gluten-free pasta as to timing.) While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet. Add the olive oil. When it is hot, start to cook the garlic. As soon as you smell the garlic — but long before it burns — add the shrimp. They should start to curl and darken immediately. As soon as they have turned solidly pink, add the vegetables to the pan and turn off the heat.
When the pasta is cooked almost al dente (do not turn it to mush!), drain it. Reserve at least one cup of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the skillet with the shrimp and vegetables. Turn on the heat and cook it all for about five minutes, or until everything is sizzling. (If it all feels too dry, add some of the pasta water to the mix.)
Take the pan off the heat. Squeeze the lemon juice on top. Taste and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. Add dabs of the goat cheese and serve.