You might want to plop down in that chair near the table and sit a spell. This one’s going to take awhile.
But look at that light. Why would you want to go anywhere else?
Danny, Lu, and I returned from Italy over a week ago. Ever since, smy mind has been a blur of images: beautiful morning light, ripe tomatoes, laughter in the communal kitchen late in the evening, driving through the lush vineyards of Chianti, a spoonful of pistachio gelato, and mostly the faces of the open-hearted, generous people with whom we spent a week in a large villa just outside of Lucca.
This week — I just wrote “magic week” and erased it because it felt like a cliché, but really, it was magic somehow — was sponsored by the good folks who run Jovial Foods. As you might remember, Jovial is one of the sponsors of this website. When Danny and I began the sponsorship program on this website, we decided to work only with companies whose food and businesses practices we like. That means we turn down a lot of companies — and money — but it also means we truly feel like partners with the companies you see on the right-hand side of this site. That’s what we wanted — to work together.
So, when Jovial asked us if they could have a contest for a week-long trip to Tuscany, and make us and our cooking classes the prize? We kind of fainted. We couldn’t wait to see this place where the pasta is made, meet the people who make up the company with whom we work, and experience this place that seemed like a dream.
It’s real, this villa in Tuscany, on a steep road 15 minutes outside of Lucca. But that week, even from this brief distance, still feels like a dream.
I mean, look at this place. Walking up to it, I kind of felt like I was in Downtown Abbey. Except, with people who were less prim and far more open. More gesticulating, to be sure.
And this is the kitchen where we taught three classes, where people sat around the table and talked with us, where dozens of hands shucked beans and and plucked leaves of basil from the stem, sliced tomatoes, and toasted gluten-free bread for crostini. These classes were not intended to feel like Danny and me at the head of the class and everyone else taking notes. They were communal gatherings, around the table.
We became friends around that table.
And we made chestnut-buckwheat crepes with honeyed apricots. A frittata with fresh English peas and fava beans and dollops of local Garfagnana cheese. Whole-grain pizza with that same cheese, caramelized onions, and kale. Pasta with roasted eggplant and all the fresh vegetables we found at the wholesale produce market that morning. Grilled local lamb with rosemary and basil. Roasted vegetables with Tuscan olive oil and Sicilian sea salt. Cherry crostadas with fresh marjoram and honey.
We ate well around that table.
This vivid-blue imagining of a pool is where Lu spent much of her time. She always wanted more time in that cool water, brought in from springs high up in the hills, heated by solar panels. The passel of kids who were staying at the villa — sons and daughters of the owners, guests, and the photographer for the trip — played at the swings near the vineyard, kicking their feet high toward the sunlight. And then they would run, with their parents close behind, to dive into that pool. Lu doesn’t know how to swim yet, but she’s close. She spent hours dancing in the shallow end, dreaming of being a bigger kid someday.
Mostly, I just wanted to sit here, at a faded blue metal table, just outside the kitchen at the small villa where our family stayed. (It looked almost exactly like the one you see across the way.) When we woke up, we three walked downstairs, threw open all the windows, and let in the light. Danny made a French press full of dark coffee. Lu danced around outside, waiting for breakfast and looking for the other kids. I sat at that table, taking in this view. I tried to memorize the warmth of the air on my skin, the stretch of those cypress trees toward the sky, the riot of birdsong that surrounded us in those early morning hours.
I never wanted to leave.
We sat at many a table that week in Italy. As soon as we returned, people began asking, “What was your favorite meal of the trip?” I don’t mind the question. It’s the kind of question I would ask. But I don’t know the answer.
Was it the quiet meal at a restaurant in Lucca, the three of us the only ones there because Italians eat dinner at 8 and we had a tuckered kiddo who needed food at 6:30? It was my first time eating pigeon. I’m sold. Or the lunch we had our last day there, on the walls of Lucca, sun out, seated on a patio on green grass, two Italian kids befriending Lu, so the two of us had an almost-date, eating salumi and beautiful eggs. Maybe it was the lunch in Panzano we shared with our friend Judy, where they brought us a tasting menu of meat, and Lu ate all the pork cooked like tuna before we could try a bite. (That day in Chianti merits its own post. Next week.)
If you forced me to choose one, I know what I’d choose, though. The first night we stayed in the villa, we walked to the other house for dinner. Carla and Rudolfo, their darling daughters, and Danny, Lucy, and I were invited to dinner. Lorenzo, who helps to run the pasta factory where Jovial pasta is made — more on that in a moment — had spent all day cooking us dinner, along with the help of his sister, Paola. To our amazement, he seemed a little nervous. Jet-lagged and bedraggled, we were hungry and happy to be at that table. I think Lorenzo was a bit intimidated to cook for a chef.
And of course, he needn’t have been intimidated at all.
This was the pasta he cooked for us, the Jovial gluten-free penne with a rabbit sauce that had been simmering all day. Delicate and barely clinging to the pasta, this sauce appeared with a whisper, not a bang. It hinted at the life, the simmer, the seasonings. It was perfect.
There was also a roasted lamb, slaughtered the day before, served with tiny roasted potatoes with crisped brown edges. And a cake I have not been able to stop thinking about, mostly because I have never tasted its like in America. It was made with chestnut flour, which has its own inherent sweetness, olive oil, salt, and fresh rosemary. It was flat and crackled, nothing like an airy inflated American cake. It looked like a brownie, without any fudgy interior or cloying sweetness. Utterly wonderful. Sort of haunting.
Mostly, though, we sat around the table, the light spilling in, and talked. We began to know each other, this group of people.
We were well fed and grateful.
The next morning, still slightly full from the meal the night before, we sat outside our kitchen and ate handfuls of fresh cherries.
They were so sweet. They were all we needed.
That’s the thing about food in Italy. It’s all good. In the two times I have visited Italy, and eating many, many meals, I have never eaten a mediocre meal.
In Italy, ingredients matter. The preparations are simple. If the ingredients aren’t the very best they can be? There’s not much to that meal.
This salumi plate? Yes. This was good.
The waiter in this restaurant called these “mountain eggs.” I wish I had taken a photo of the yolks. They were like a small child’s dramatic scrawl in outrageous orange crayon or bright-orange poppies just opened to the sun. Those eggs were enough. The fresh vegetable and tomato sauce in which they had been slowly simmered was lovely too. But really, those eggs.
Here’s how easy it is to eat gluten-free in Italy.
We were in a tiny town called Pietrasanta. It’s known for all the marble in the area, plus it’s near the coast. But mostly, we wanted a small town where tourists don’t seem to go as often. We wanted to wander for the afternoon. Our ever-present GPS male voice (whom we nicknamed Colin) guided us there, around roundabouts and a minimum of fuss. (Have you ever noticed how huffy the GPS guy sounds when you make a wrong turn. There’s a long pause, and then, “Recalculating.” As though he’s saying, “Fine. You don’t get it, do you?”) And there we were, in a lovely small town in the hills, the only Americans there all day.
Lu was hungry so we stopped at the first place with food. Pizza. Pasta. It was tiny, this place. There was a mama, whose baby was sleeping in his stroller in the broom closet while we were there. She took our order, with a lot of hand gestures between us. Her mama, who looked to be nearly 80, was cleaning off the tables outside when people left. The kitchen had to have been small as well.
When I said to her the magic words for someone who needs to be gluten-free — “Io sono celiaco. Senza glutine?” — she pointed at the salads. “Insalata.” Okay. I’ve done this before. A salad will work.
Instead of the tired white-green lettuce with a handful of vegetables and dressing I’ve come to expect in the States, she brought me this beautiful plate. Artichoke hearts, endive, thin slices of ricotta salata, and blood-red bresaola. This was a real salad.
This place wasn’t any place special. They didn’t have a gluten-free menu. They certainly didn’t look at me funny when they asked. The Italians just get it.
Of course, gelato.
We promised Lucy gelato every day. We keep our promises.
She ate her strawberry gelato (fragola) with meticulous attention. The tiniest of bites. She savored every one.
Here’s a tip for those of you who are celiac. In each gelato place, I said I was celiac. Which are gluten-free? All of them, you might think. Ah, but gelato is often made in the same place as pastries. (Many employees called those kitchens laboratories.) Cross-contamination. The Italians we met understood it in detail. Often, the woman at the gelato place would point me to the first flavor made that day, before the pastries were created, and then she reached for a clean scoop. Vanilla. Pistachio. I didn’t care which one. They all tasted even more delicious for being safe.
When we were in Italy in 2007, on our honeymoon, I took a lot of photos of Danny walking on narrow, cobblestoned streets, between buildings with arches and windows made hundreds of years ago.
This time, Lu is by his side in our photos.
And this time, we put our feet into the Mediterranean. The water was warm. We were alone on the beach, standing in the surf in front of hundreds of green-and-white striped lawn chairs, waiting for the crowds to descend. That day, we were the only ones there. Danny swung Lu out over the water and back again.
I can still hear her giggling.
Even with all the adventuring, one of my favorite experiences of the trip (and Danny’s, perhaps even more) was going to the wholesale produce market in Lucca. Because we were brought there by a local chef, we had the chance to buy crates of purple artichokes, enormous lemons, tender squash blossoms, ripe fava beans, English peas in the shells, and fuzzy soft apricots that glowed in that morning light. It was heaven for someone who has been mouldering in rain and perpetual winter vegetables in the Pacific Northwest.
More than satisfying my hunger for spring and summer, that morning in the market confirmed what Danny and I had been noticing. People in Italy don’t eat vegetables or fruit out of season. When did we come to accept strawberries that are white on the inside, flavorless at best, sour at the worst? Just because we want them in January? Perhaps this is the reason most Americans come home from Italy in a daze, saying, “The food. The food!”
Maybe it’s just that Italians insist on eating great food every day. Not just on feast days. But every day.
This is Aurelio Barattini, the chef who took us to the produce market. He also produced a magnificent meal the second night we were in the villa, for everyone who had gathered. He’s a sweet man, determined to feed us well. He’s also as passionate about ingredients and good food as anyone I’ve ever met.
Perhaps this is because his family, for generations, has run the restaurant where he is the chef now. His great-grandfather first ran the restaurant on that spot, in a building constructed in the 1300s.
(It’s hard to come back to the States and hear people talk about the pride their small town has in the building created in 1920.)
Aurelio cooked an incredible meal for us all.
There were polenta crostini with porcini mushrooms, house-made head cheese, sformato di verdure (a spring vegetable pie we’ll be making here soon), wild asparagus risotto (the chef went into the hills and picked the wild asparagus himself that morning), and chicken cacciatore with Lucchese olives. We were all up late into the night, our bellies full, the room full of laughter from strangers who had just met and become friends over good food.
Look at this table. Good conversations happened here.
I want to introduce you to Carla and Lorenzo.
Carla and her husband, Rudolfo, run Jovial Foods. (They also run Bionaturae foods, which has been in business for 18 years, bringing good organic foods from Italy to the United States. We love their olive oil. And their pasta used to be our favorite until the Jovial one came along.) Carla is soft-spoken, humble, and a hard worker. She’s also determined to bring good food to people, even if it means being a stickler for quality.
She’ll be horrified that I’m talking about her here. She doesn’t want the attention. But you should know that it was Carla who pushed for a whole-grain gluten-free pasta, who insisted it be so good the Italians in the factory would eat it, that it be packaged in a box made of recycled cardboard, with a bag inside made of compostable materials. This woman pays attention to details. She told me that when they were starting Bionaturae, she deliberately bought a box of pasta from every single pasta factory in all of Italy, just to see which one was the highest quality with the finest taste. In her estimation, that was the Mennucci Brothers factory outside of Lucca.
Lorenzo is a Mennucci. His father and uncle, both in their 80s, still run the factory, working 12-hour days, six days a week. (When we visited the pasta factory, we loved listening to them bicker back and forth about the details of the family story. Brothers.) Their father and grandfathers before them made pasta. This is a family business, a business that makes 18,000 tons of pasta a year.
Carla and Lorenzo have this wonderful sibling relationship, constantly bickering, pushing each other to be better, than laughing. The two of them arranged this entire experience. We are madly grateful for their work.
Visiting the pasta factory fascinated me and Danny both. They showed us the gluten-free section, an entire building, separate from the rest of the factory. It’s goofy fun to watch spaghetti being made, thousands of strands hanging to dry.
As Carla explained to us, the Italians are obsessed with rancidity. They know that once you grind a grain, it can go rancid quickly. And so, the organic brown rice that is grown for Jovial pasta is ground into a flour the day it is harvested. It’s taken to the Mennucci factory and made into pasta within 2 days.
Lorenzo told me that every single batch of flour is tested for the presence of gluten. If any gluten ever shows up — say a worker forgot and ate a sandwich before bagging the flour — any higher than 10 parts per million, they don’t use that flour.
These folks are dedicated to making gluten-free pasta.
For Danny and me, it’s quite clear: Jovial is the best gluten-free pasta in the world. It’s the only one we ever use anymore.
This is why we were so happy to be part of this trip.
Well, and the being in Italy part too.
These folks made us happy as well. The folks who gathered for the trip were extraordinary. Open to the experience, funny, kind-hearted, and loving the moments of sunlight and good food. After every meal and cooking class, dozens of hands reached for dishes to clean and put away. No one slacked. Everyone was present.
We were so excited to meet Carole, one of the winners of the trip, who brought her sister with her. The first time we met Carole, she cried. I don’t think it was about meeting us, so much. It was the beauty of the place, the fact she had finally made it there. Every morning, when we met Carole and her sister in the kitchen, their eyes were more wide open from the adventures of the day before. Their savoring of the experience inspired us.
Liz, the other winner of the contest, also brought her sister along. Those two embrace life. They never stopped smiling. Every time we saw them they were plotting another adventure while making a feast of the simple leftovers in the walk-in. I’ll never forget their faces.
And there were dozens more people, all of whom we laughed with and shared stories with in the kitchen. On the last evening, in our big communal feast, we sat outside in the darkness, at a long table lit by candles. Susan, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, had been telling me earlier in the evening how much this trip meant to her. (We were all changed by it.) Quietly, she let it drop that the day before had been her birthday. This had been her present. At the table, before we ate the grilled lamb and roasted vegetable salad, I asked everyone to sing Happy Birthday to her. It was a rousing chorus, our voices buoyed by the joy we shared, the knowledge that we would be leaving the next morning. I saw tears in her eyes, even in the darkness. I felt the same.
It’s amazing what can happen when you gather at a table together to share food.
Even when it’s gluten-free crostini with fresh goat cheese, ripe tomatoes, and basil.
On the last day we were at the villa, Lu woke up and came running into our room. After hugs and conversation, she stood at the window, looking out at the yard. “Mama, I want to stay here,” she told me. (And she repeated it at least 5 times that day.)
For Lu, Italy meant a vivid-blue pool, wonderful kids playing together, ice cream every day, all the pasta she could eat, warm air, fresh cherries, and a merry-go-round she loved to ride in Lucca. Of course she didn’t want to go home.
But I understood what she meant. Italy feels like a home to us. We met at least 3 Americans on this trip who have moved to Italy. Each one of them said the same thing: “I wanted to stop feeling like a freak for caring about great food. Here, everyone loves food.” There’s no divide in Italy. There are no foodies. Everyone, everyone loves food. There is no guilt, no withholding, no sense that certain foods are forbidden. (Unless you’re celiac, of course.) There is simply everyday feasting, long lunches with family, produce in season, great ingredients, dinners that stretch far into the evening, and great conversations around the table.
“Lucy,” I told her. “I understand. I kind of want to stay too. Our home is on Vashon Island. But we’re coming back, all right?”
I promised her we will be at that villa outside Lucca again, somehow, someday.
(And it looks like it might be as early as late September of this year. Stay tuned for details. We’re all working to make the Jovial Cooking School a twice-yearly event. This time, we want you there too.)
* * *
I did warn you, right? This one was long. I couldn’t figure out any way to write this without all these stories.
Thanks for listening. Thanks for sitting around the table with me for awhile.
Jovial Foods paid our way to Italy and put us up in the villa so that we could teach cooking classes there. All opinions, photographs, and enthusiasms here are our own. If you would like to see Jovial’s accounting of this incredible week, click here.