Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Happy Returns

We're back home in Cannara after an overnight in Florence to pick up our twin sons. Today will be a short post. We have a house full of 16. With a group this size there's not a lot of time to think or write.

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When we last left you, we were devouring huge piles of undercooked beef. As we resume our chronicle, we are still digesting that massive protein infusion. Good thing my doctor advised me to eat more red meat.
Our Florence plan, as it usually is, was dictated by food. Arrive in time for lunch, make sure you have a reservation for dinner. Originally we were going to depart early the next morning so we could be back in Cannara with our guests, who consist of family, family's family and friends of family, possibly even friends of family's friends (plus their families). You get this sort of concentric ring of guests when you tell your brother in law to come join you in Italy and that there's plenty of room. It's sort of like when you throw a pebble in a pond, except you get to make breakfast for everyone.

Our plans to rush back to the villa to spend time with friends and family (they really are a delightful crowd!) is sidetracked by the one thing that seems to have an inexaustable ability to sidetrack us - food. With the addition of the twins to our group, we are too numerous to all drive back together to Umbria, so Simone and our oldest son take the train in the morning, leaving us the daunting task of finding lunch and eating it. We have an idea, however. We decide to kill some time in the morning, doing a little touring and a little shopping before heading over to the world's greatest circolo, la Teatro del Sale.

I'm sure that I have written about the Teatro del Sale before. It is a sort of junior varsity/second string version of the famous Florentine restaurant Cibreo, owned and managed by the same family. I say JV because it is much less formal (and less expensive) than its parent, and serves as a sort of prep kitchen for it. The Teatro is just across the street from Cibreo, located in an old theater that had formerly housed a salt warehouse, hence the name, Theater of the Salt. It is a circolo or club, as it serves meals - lunches and dinners and now, I believe, breakfasts as well - to its members. The nice part of it is that you can become a member simply by paying a small annual fee (apologies to Woody Allen). Seating, at least at lunch, is open. You find a place to sit down, often sharing a table with other members and wait as the kitchen staff begins to announce and serve dishes as they are prepared. Service is buffet style, which in this country that has not yet fully comprehended the concept of lines and queueing, requires a certain amount of aggression and territoriality, but you can eat as much as you like. This has always proven to be a huge problem. Good thing for me my doctor advised me to gain a lot of weight.

So we decided to stick around in Florence so we could self inflict a food coma over lunch at the Teatro, always a good thing before getting in the car and driving for two hours. Off we waddled toward Sant'Ambrosio, working off a few of the kilos of chianina we had consumed the night before. Finally we arrived at the Teatro only to find a sign posted outside the front door - Closed for a Private Reception. How is it possible for a private club to be closed for a private reception? I though my membership counted for something. But no worries. Right up there in the pantheon of great eateries with la Teatro del Sale is one of our favorite little restaurants for lunch in Florence, Buca dell'Orafo.

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The Buca dell'Orafo is hidden, and I mean hidden, just a few paces from the Ponte Vecchio. To reach it you have to wind down a little street or two, get lost a couple of times and then look down, because the restaurant itself is in the basement of building in an enclosed alleyway, reached by carefully climbing down a steep staircase. But when you reach terra firma it is always worthwhile.

We like to come to the Buca in the spring. Their menu is simple but fresh and authentic. In the spring they often feature pasta with fresh peas, which is what a majority of us ordered. You can taste the spring in every pea and their secret technique imbues each strand of pasta with real, well you get the point, flavor. Finish off the meal with a plate of mixed fried specialties - rabbit, chicken, artichokes and you've forgotten that the Teatro no longer loves you.

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Two hours later we are pulling into our driveway, the calm of the past day and a half (if you can describe the crush of tens of thousands of tourists in Florence calm) shattered by this group of 16. But as we unpack and head into the living room a strange sensation comes over us. Despite the large group lounging around the fireplace - babies, teens, young adults, parents, cousins, uncles - the whole scene is calm and comfortable. Only days before, when Suzy and I had arrived here from Abruzzo, we were the only two living here. The villa seemed to shrink then to accommodate us and not make us feel lost in a cavernous space. We cooked together, ate together and relaxed in front of the fire, feeling as though the house was designed just for the two of us. Now a baker's dozen plus was coming and going from the living room, sitting and chatting by the fire, occasionally going to the kitchen to get some snacks or another bottle of wine. Music played and conversations ebbed and flowed. The same room that seemed so intimate just days before somehow expanded, but remained intimate, making everyone feel as though it had been designed just for that group. That is some of the  real genius of our villa in Umbria. In our home here.

Likewise at dinner, the table which is generally arranged to seat 10 felt intimate had felt comfortable when it was just for 2. Tonight we separated the tables slightly and 16 magically had room to slouch and make themselves comfortable for the onslaught of food that Wendy prepared for us. For nearly three hours we munched on local produce, meats, cheeses, pastas prepared according to traditional local recipes and chicken grilled in our monstrous outdoor barbeque that was last summer and fall's special building project. Afterwards younger group members retired to a different sitting room to play guitar and chill out (that's what the young folk do these days, I'm told), while others moved on to check email, while the rest of us, succuming to the awesome power of inertia, remained at the table for the next several hours, making sure the wine pitcher did not have to be rinsed out.

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In Italy, where ever there is food and wine, people are sure to follow. And where ever there are people, there is joy.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy


M in SC said...

I have just discovered your blog which was in my spam. I can't wait to go back and read all the entries. As one who has stayed in your beautiful villa in Umbria, I love reading about your adventures and have signed up to receive future ones via email. Thanks.
M in SC

Bill Menard said...

Thanks for your nice words. We were just reminiscing about your group's visit with some mutual friends from Brevard, NC. It's a small world indeed!