Everywhere we went in Italy — hundred-year-old wine bars tucked into tiny streets in Florence; butcher shops in Norcia with walls full of prosciuto; humble osterias in
Umbrian towns — we met the same reaction. When we shyly explained that this was our honeymoon, we saw faces stretch wide into knowing happiness.
“Ahhh….” They all said. “La luna di miele.”
La luna di miele — the moon of the honey. This phrase feels entirely right. What we experienced, in those eleven days, was a sacred time of fullness, sweet and filled with light.
Now, I know. There is nothing like a honeymoon. We were married in July, but we waited for this singular experience until September. Both of us are glad we waited. Not only because Rome would have been even more of a madhouse in July than it was in September, but also because we had the chance to absorb our delicious wedding, and clear ourselves for more treats.
A treat it was. I knew, before we left, that it would be years before we could luxuriate in this much time together again. The Chef — he works hard. Restaurants don’t give out long vacations. This sanctified time meant eleven days together, by each other’s sides, to play and explore, indulge ourselves in fresh buffalo mozzarella and fabulous wine at lunch every day, and play Parcheesi at night. We held hands all day long. One moment, about halfway through the trip, I looked over at the Chef, reading the paper, as we sped on a train to Florence. I realized that — even though it was obscenely early in the morning — I had never seen him look so relaxed. We both dropped down into ourselves, and into each other, in a way we could not do before.
We are more for each other than ever before.
And damn, we ate well.
I will be writing about this trip for the next couple of weeks. Simply, there is no way for me to encapsulate it all into one (albeit long) blog post. There is so much I want to share: how graciously easy it was for me to eat gluten-free in the land of pasta; the joys of Umbria, the region of Italy you might never have considered visiting before; wandering through Rome and watching thousands of years in buildings before our eyes; the best meal we ate, at a little osteria in Foligno, and an astounding day with the amazing Judy Witts of Divina Cucina, at the Central Market and her apartment in Florence. I will be writing about this trip for weeks, because I could easily write about this trip for the rest of our lives.
We flew into Rome, squeezing each other’s hands as we peered out the airplane window at the coastline, and the rapidly approaching city. We couldn’t believe it. We had been planning for so long, dreaming of this land that was fast going to be underneath the wheels of the plane. We were together.
The fast train into the heart of the city (after the ticket seller shouted at me for not having our payment in exact change), and then we emerged into Rome. Days before, I had emailed our friend Monica to say, “Meet us under the R in the huge Roma Termini sign outside the front door.” It turned out that the sign I had seen on Google Earth stood on both sides of the station. Which one? And where could we check our luggage?
(Unlike my experiences in Manhattan, I had no problems finding a place to store luggage for the afternoon. No wandering for museums or trusting a hot dog vendor in this city. Just an underground, humid cubicle and Italian men shouting for payment.)
It was like a Laurel and Hardy movie for a few moments (wait, now we’ve lost him), but eventually, the Chef, Monica, and I were striding out of the main Rome train station, heading for some lunch. We were exhausted, jet-lagged to the point of eyelids feeling haggard, but we were in Rome.
When the Chef ate his braised veal cheeks with stuffed squash blossoms, at Trimani Wine Bar, he groaned a guttural sound. He was happy. So was I. Lentils with smoked mussels, a cheese plate between us, a saucer full of salumi that instantly made me regret every piece of American prosciutto I had eaten before that — this food made me wake up. And Monica let me nibble on her rice-crust tart. I mean that literally — a tart crust made entirely of cooked Arborio rice. Already, I had food ideas.
And all I had done to eat safely was say, in Italian, “I have celiac. What can I eat?”
Umbria. Ah, Umbria.
In the two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Assisi, the Chef fell asleep against my shoulder. I can never sleep on planes, so my eyes had been open for over a day. But one look at the Umbrian countryside woke me up again. Plains of green, covered in fields of sunflowers and grape vines. Hills with grey-green olive trees. Small mountains, rising toward the sky, with tiny towns made of honey-colored stone clinging to their sides. I could not stop gawking out the window.
Over the next week, we saw olive trees so many times that I grew used to the sight. But I never grew tired of it. Umbria is called the Green Heart of Italy. Green and heart — that’s what it felt like to us. Umbria, you have our hearts.
Imagine standing in the piazza in Assisi, after tasting olive oil so green that your tongue rolls up to capture the last drops on the roof of your mouth, after walking down alleyways so narrow that you think the cars are joking when they want to drive down them. And you look up, at the Temple of Minerva, knowing that thousands upon thousands of people have stared up at the same sight, for nearly one thousand years. Suddenly, you feel small, in the best way.
Walking down the main street of Norcia, I grabbed the Chef’s hand. “My god, my love, that smell.” He nodded and kissed me. Truffles. The entire street smelled like truffles. When the Chef first kissed me, he came up for air and said, “You taste like truffles.” At that point, I had never eaten truffles. In Norcia, we ate truffles together.
In Bevagna, we gawked at the tiny streets, the dark shadows in the alleys. (The Chef and I took so many photographs of light falling in patterns down alleys in tiny towns that we decided we could do an entire book of photographs called “The Alleyways of Italy.”) This town, built in 700, has not changed much in the past 1300 years. We joked about how adolescent everything in the States felt to us now. (“This was built in 1920!”) Our friend Jen led us to a gush of water splashing out of the ancient-looking faucet on the street. As we watched, horrified, Jen cupped her hands and drank the water. When she came up for air, she explained. These were built by the Romans, and the water comes directly from those Roman aqueducts, continuously flowing since then. We shook our heads and then cupped our hands for drinks of that cool, clear water.
On the piazza in Montefalco, we sat at an outdoor wine bar. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and good friends with us in the sunlight. Sagrantino tastes bold and huge, filling the entire mouth. We didn’t want to leave.
We sat outside a little bar on the main piazza in Foligno, drinking Negronis and eating salumi. The dusk was descending, the sky a dark translucent blue. While we waited for friends, we watched families walk together, friends greet each other, and young men and women checking out each other’s outfits. This was the passagiere, a beautiful, quotidian custom in every small town in Italy. Each night, between 5 and 7, the entire town leaves its houses and walks the streets. They have no goal in mind. They are not going shopping. People are simply walking, slowly, and seeing each other, as they do every evening.
Everything felt like that in Umbria. Sunlight, a sense of community, great wine, good friends, salumi, and slowness. Everything slow.
Often, here in the States, I feel baffled by this culture’s propensity for convenience and speed. Seattle is home, no doubt, but sometimes I don’t feel at home in the wider culture I see around me. In Umbria, I felt at home. So did the Chef.
We never had a lunch that lasted less than two hours. We were, in every moment, surrounded by people who live in food.
We loved every minute of it.
Our home for the week was a charming little farm called Brigolante. Italy has a recent tradition of the agriturismo — staying on a working farm. Working farm this was. Our accommodations were spacious and clean, wonderfully welcoming. We lived in the top-floor apartment, the one with a small balcony, a couch by the window, a big bedroom, and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. (Did we use it? You bet. It was our honeymoon, after all.) But before you believe this was too luxurious, know this. We could look out the window of the bedroom and see the barn stacked with bales of hay. The older Italian mama wore her housedress and work boots as she walked toward the fields with a huge piece of farming equipment slung across her shoulder. And in the animal barn across the path, a giant pig (we never saw him) squealed at times like scenes from Deliverance.
We loved Brigolante.
Staying in our own apartment was an excellent choice for eating gluten-free. Every morning, we rose together and made a pot of coffee. And then we dined on locally made proscuitto, fresh cheese, and chocolate croissants. That’s right — gluten-free chocolate croissants.
I love Italy.
Our first morning at Brigolante, we enjoyed the most local meal I have ever eaten. We had scrambled eggs, laid by the chickens outside the door. We walked outside to pick the tomatoes and zucchini from Brigolante’s garden, and scrambled up the eggs with olive oil produced on the farm. Man, that tasted good.
Wonderfully for us, the woman who runs Brigolante, the resourceful and ever-friendly Rebecca, is originally from the States. She grew up in Chicago, but she moved to Umbria to marry Stefano, and they have been living at Brigolante ever since. Being able to ask her questions in English made our week in Umbria much easier.
Living on their property for a week was a gift.
We were also given this extraordinary gift of the friendship of Jen and Federico. You’ll hear much more about them in later posts. But let me tell you — we should all have such guides to a beautiful land.
And then there was Rome.
One of my friends in Seattle described Rome as “…New York on crack.” That’s pretty apt, but in a good way. The thousands of people, the layers of buildings, the little gnat sound of a dozen mopeds going by (did you know that mopeds have their own lanes on Roman roads?), restaurants on every corner, the bustle of people with somewhere to go (but still more slowly than anywhere in the States), and the smell of great food with every step.
We stayed at a magical little bed and breakfast in the Trastsevere neighborhood of Rome. (the quiet half of that neighborhood, thankfully.) Eduardo and Maurizio, the friendly brothers who run B and B Orti di Trastevere, are eager to lead their guests to a citizen’s trip to Rome, were more than accommodating to my dietary needs. When Eduardo found out that I could not eat gluten, he brought me a plate of prosciutto cut from his own reserve. He spread out maps, gave us restaurant recommendations, told us which touristy places to avoid, and eagerly awaited our stories every morning. Staying there felt like living in a family home.
Cups of cappuccino from Caffe Sant’Eustachio, every day. (I’m sorry, David. We tried to get to Tazza D’Oro, but this place just wouldn’t let us go.) Fresh mozzarella, bright-red bites of tomato, and glasses of good wine. We didn’t need much more than this to feel utterly alive.
Going to the Vatican with the Chef was deeply moving. He was once an altar boy, long ago, and his eyes filled with tears as soon as we stepped into St. Peter’s. When we stood in front of the Pieta, I was the one who wept. He stood beside me and held me.
And in the Pantheon, staring up at the sky through this symmetrically perfect building, I had no words. Only awe.
We walked five to fifteen miles a day, in humid heat, the sweat on our faces still not obliterating our smiles. By the middle of the second day, we relented, and jumped on a tourist bus. Even though we had feared it would be horrid and cheesy, it turned out to be one of the better decisions. We sat on the top, and looked at the scope of this magnificent city, the buildings from 500 BC, the columns and churches and piazzas and steps. And the fountains — oh my goodness, the fountains. We fell in love, with the city, and with each other all over again.
And we ate gelato every day.
With that much creamy goodness, available on nearly every street in the entire country, it would be a sin to skip it. Pistachio, limone, melon, and cassata — this is my new mantra.
Unfortunately, I can’t find any gelato in Seattle that comes even close.
And the food. Oh, the food.
Tender risotto, strewn with black truffles, and delivered sizzling to the table. The sweet dreaminess of fresh buffalo mozzarella, in creamy ropes on small saucers, available seemingly everywhere we turned. Paper-thin slices of proscuitto, folded in on themselves, with a porcine smell and a small layer of saltiness. Heirloom tomatoes, in saturated colors: lime green with dark-green stripes; yellow mid-July sunshine; warm oranges like terracotta tiles on Umbrian roofs.
We have never eaten better in our lives.
How did this happen? It wasn’t because we were eating in the best restaurants in Italy. Sure, we ate a couple of expensive restaurants during the trip. The honeymoon, we’d say to ourselves, and splurge. Most of our meals did not cost that much. It wasn’t because we hung out with “foodies.” As far as we could tell, no one in Umbria or Rome was a “foodie.” Frankly, the mamas were the best cooks of all. It’s just that everyone in Italy seems to live in food.
In Italy, food is a way of living. Eating produce in season, using local products, everything organic — these are recent trends in North America. But in Italia, generations have been making the same red sauce from the recipe passed down from mother to daughter. And each region of the country has one food of which it is fiercely proud: lemons from Sorrento; lentils from Castellucio; prosciutto from Parma.
You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian” food. We ate Umbrian food, Tuscan food, and Roman food. Eat in Trentino, and you’ll swear you’re in an entirely different country than when you were in Sicily. And you are. Italy was only formed as one country in the early 20th-century. Regionality rules the land. (Except in Rome, where masses of tourists insisted on pasta carbonara — pasta with bacon and eggs — in droves every night. But we stayed away from those places.)
What does this mean? Fresh produce, only what grows in the area. No insistence on seafood in a land-locked region. And reliance on tradition and what has been available for generations.
I never once saw an Italian citizen eating in her car. Or eating on the street between one appointment and another. No one seemed to snack.
Even the McDonald’s in Rome had little café seating outside the store. (I still didn’t eat there, though.)
In Umbria, the Chef and I found our life of food, easily.
In the culture that loves and lives in food, eating gluten-free is graciously easy. Besides pizza and pasta, food in Italy also means grilled sardines, chickpea crepes (the treat pictured above is called cecina in Florence), chewy salumi, and forest chicken roasted in myrtle and wild thyme. Since a percentage of Italian people suffer from celiac, the food producers intend to create the best gluten-free food in the world.
In ten delicious days of eating through Italy with my darling husband, I never once grew sick. We ate in restaurants for lunch and dinner, every day, and I never suffered from cross-contamination. I have never eaten so well in my life.
All I had to say was “Io sono celiaco,” and people took care of me. Not only that, but no one made me feel freakish or set apart. Eating gluten-free — safely and gloriously — was simply a fact in Italy. I will share many more details of this, in the next post. I have so many stories and memorable bites to share. But mostly, I returned home with a new vision of the world.
I want to do everything I can to make it as graciously easy to live gluten-free, here in the States, as it was for me in Italy. I won’t stop until this is true.
La dolce vita, senza glutine. It’s possible, people. Let’s live it.
Of course, the honeymoon wasn’t all perfect. In fact, there were pretty hilarious and even harrowing moments. But as our friend Pat pointed out, it’s always the things that go wrong on a trip that end up being the best stories.
Forty-eight hours before we left for the trip, I was tying up the last loose ends. A few more shopping trips, loads of laundry, some last-minute pieces of writing. Everything seemed ready to go, and we couldn’t have been more excited.
At our local AAA office, I bought my international driver’s permit. Afterwards, I sauntered over to the travel agent’s desk, to double check on the reservation we had made on a rental car for the Umbrian countryside. Since I had just renewed our membership, maybe we could save some money on the car.
Well, we saved money all right. You see, I found out that afternoon that we couldn’t rent a car in Italy.
It turns out that you can’t rent a car in Italy if you have a debit card with a credit card attached. (I found out later from Federico that the two systems are entirely different in Italy, so the Italians think you’re trying to rent a car with just an ATM card.) The girl at the travel desk was surprised. The manager at my bank was flummoxed, because he’d never heard of this before. The three rental car agencies with whom the poor girl tried to arrange a car for me all said the same: no.
We could have done a cash-rental, with one company. But they required a payment in full, plus a $1500 deposit. And get this — we would have been required to arrive with that money, in cash, in an envelope at the Rome airport. When we returned the car, the company said they would mail us back a check, six weeks later.
It sounded too much like a mafia deal for our taste.
So we arrived in Rome without a car, or even a plan. When we arrived at the train station in Assisi, we took one of the taxis standing outside and made our way to Brigolante to collapse into sleep.
But the next morning, we realized we were a little lost. Brigolante is six kilometers from the main town of Assisi. Hearing that, we thought we could walk every morning. When we arrived, we realized that really wasn’t possible. Brigolante is straight up a mountain from Assisi. A windy, narrow, curve after curve of road up a mountain. We woke up without any real idea of how we would see Umbria. I even wondered, for a moment, if we would just stay on the farm the entire time.
Thank goodness for the beautiful beings you see in the photograph above: Pat and Hubert. We love you.
On our first morning, after a walk around the hills, we decided to risk being rude. The evening before, I had heard a couple arrive in their car and move into the apartment downstairs. Even in my drowsy state, I heard them speak English. “Honey,” I said to the Chef, “let’s ask them for a ride, if they are going down to Assisi.” We knocked on their door with enormous trepidation — hi, we’re stranded, and we need your help — but we should never have worried.
Hubert greeted us with his wide grin, an open face. When we asked, he said, “Of course.” When Pat climbed into the car, I felt immediately comfortable. She pulled out her camera to take a photograph at the same time I did. We all laughed as though we had been friends for years.
We will be friends for years.
After an hour of wandering the streets of Assisi together, it was clear this was more than a kind ride. We all liked each other. We ate lunch in a little trattoria — I had half a gluten-free baguette with my risotto that day — and laughed through the long wait and the fabulous food. We shared a liter of wine, and we were friends.
Pat and Hubert have been married for nearly 35 years. We were on our honeymoon. And yet we all laughed at the same absurdities, wondered in awe at the beautiful hills, and ate with the same gusto. It was like we were mirror images of each other. At the end of that first day, it was clear we were just going to go adventuring together. We spent three full days together in Umbria. And they gave us rides to Assisi on nearly every other day.
On our last afternoon in Umbria, we were eating gelato on the piazza of Assisi with Pat and Hubert. The Chef and I looked at them and said, “You know, we really feel like it was fate that we couldn’t rent a car. Otherwise, we would have just nodded and smiled at you in the mornings, and never become friends.”
Pat laughed and said, “You know, we feel exactly the same.”
Thank goodness we weren’t allowed to rent a car. We would have missed our friends.
Well, there were two times that not having the car was more than an inconvenience.
On one of the most magical days of the honeymoon, we took the early train from Assisi to Florence. We spent the day with Judy Witts Francini, otherwise known as Divina Cucina. Oh my god, what a gift.
But I’ll tell you about that part later.
Coming back from Florence, we reached Assisi about 10:30 at night. We unfolded ourselves from the train and walked out to the taxi stand to take a quick ride home.
There were no taxis.
We walked around, watched a bus go by, and waited for a minivan taxi to arrive. No taxis.
When the Chef walked inside the train station to look for some assistance, a police car pulled up. Oh thank goodness, I thought. They can help. When I asked the male and female cop for some answers, they looked at the little telephone box with all the numbers in it, talked amongst themselves, and said to me, “Taxis are asleep.”
What? When I asked them what we could do, the male cop shrugged his shoulders, exaggeratedly. As he walked off, the female cop said, in broken English, that one taxi company was still operating, in Perugia. About forty-five minutes away. We would have to pay them to drive from Perugia, drive us up to Brigolante, and then drive back to Perugia. After she told me about them, the cop put her thumb and fingers together to suggest, “That’s a lot of money.” And then she walked into the station.
When I told the Chef, he was dumbfounded. When we realized we had missed the last bus up to the basilica, we were scared.
The train station at Assisi is several kilometers from the town. Drive up winding roads and one-way street, zig zags through narrow alleyways, and there is the basilica, glowing atop a hill. Brigolante, remember, is six kilometers up a mountain from there. I stood at the train station, looking high into the sky at the glowing lights of the basilica. We would have to walk to the stars, seemingly, before we could start that walk up the mountain in the pitch dark.
I’m pretty sure I whimpered at this point.
Just at that moment, a minivan pulled up to the station. “Taxi?!” I jumped at the tall, bald man who came out of the car. No. He was just picking someone up. He looked at us with sympathy, however, so I asked him for help. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at the phone box. The cops came out again at this point. I asked them again for help. I assumed, at this point, that they would at least drive us up to the basilica. But they looked at us, and shrugged their shoulders, and got into their car. They drove away.
The tall man tried to be kind, but he could do no more. We weren’t about to hitch hike. The hotel across the street was closed. What the hell were we going to do?
Like a sudden ray of light, my mind remembered. A few nights before, our taxi driver home had been a crazy man who tried to speak with us in English. He spoke just enough to think he spoke, and not enough to have a real conversation. When he found out it was our honeymoon, he told us about his divorce. He was the only Italian I met who actually said Mamma mia. We had tipped him, which most Italians do not. He was so pleased that he gave us his card. It was still in my wallet.
I ran into the station and asked the tall man to call for us. (Oh, and the Chef’s cell phone, which he brought in case of emergencies, did not work in Italy.) He dialed his phone, spoke quickly in Italian, and hung up.
“He’ll be here in ten minutes.”
When we pulled into the darkness of Brigolante, in that taxi cab, we were so happy that we would have named our first-born child after that man, no matter what the child’s sex. Luckily for any daughter we might have, I never caught his name.
A few days later, our friends Jen and Federico said blithely, as they drove us up that same road in the dark, after an evening in Foligno: “Oh, it’s a good thing you didn’t walk up this mountain. There are wild mountain cats all through these hills.”
Before I could fully contemplate the idea of cougars pouncing upon us as we walked in the dark, Jen said, “Oh yeah, and the crazy mountain people.”
Apparently, because Assisi is such a religious center for all of Italy, a sizeable population of devil worshippers live in the hills outside of Assisi, trying to counteract the spiritual energy.
If we ever have children, maybe we’ll just name the first one Assisi Taxi Driver.
And then there was the walk.
The morning after our late-night return from Florence, the Chef and I woke up late. We had a slow morning, ate chocolate croissants, and laughed hard at the memories of the day before. Pat and Hubert had left early, to meet with a travel agent in Assisi. They had offered to drive us, but we just couldn’t stomach the 8 am call. So we said, “Go ahead without us. We’ll just walk.”
The day was sunny, our feet were full of springy steps, and we were feeling adventurous. We walked through leafy-green countryside, laughing and holding hands.
But when we descended, past Giovanni’s grocery store, the road narrowed. Within moments — the church bells ringing in our ears — we realized that we were in dangerous territory. There we were, high up in the mountains, on a road no wider than two cars on either side. Just to the right of the road was a thin strip of dirt, and then a metal guardrail. On the other side of the guardrail? A sheer drop down the mountain.
I swear, even though I’m not at all religious, and I really don’t speak Italian, in one particularly curvy patch (a sheer rock cliff to our left, a drop down the mountain to our right, and the curves so sharp that we could not see around the corner), my brain started chanting Per favore, San Francesco.
We made it to Assisi alive.
We made it as a team. When the road grew harrowing, we walked single file. We stopped talking. We opened all our senses to listen for the sound of a car screaming down the mountain behind us. And when we heard one, we flattened ourselves against the guardrail and held hands as we stood stock still.
Honestly, in my mind now, sitting in the safety of Seattle, that two-hour walk was one of the most beautiful times of the honeymoon. We were alive. We were together. And in our awareness, and teamwork, we made it through just fine.
Lunch certainly tasted of sweet life that day.
Perhaps every honeymoon should have an experience like this.
We have been home for more than a week now. We jumped right back into life at home, and the new life that awaits us. (Details of the book tour soon, as they are finalized.) We have been talking about the honeymoon for days. We still can’t wrap our minds around it. We sort of wish we were still there.
Still, we did leave Italy.
But oh, we will carry this experience within us. The Chef is already making food differently after coming home. I have been re-aligning our lives, and eating plenty of heirloom tomatoes with green Umbrian olive oil. I am a changed woman, with a new mission to make living gluten-free a joyful, gracious experience.
The honeymoon will live within us. (And Italy? You’ll see us again, as soon as we can.)
Honeymoon. That it certainly was. Sweet and full and light.
La luna di miele.
Via Costa di Trex, 31
06081 Assisi (PG)
Bed & Breakfast Orti di Trastevere
Piazza Bernardino Da Feltre 1
Tel: (0039) 065896794