Eating, Italian style

autogrill_1000Italian truck stop

Like the number of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican, the culinary delights of Italy have been presented to us so abundantly and so often that we are overwhelmed. They just keep coming, one piled on top of the other until my senses are no longer reacting properly to the opportunities before them. Food in Tuscany was just not like food in America. To put things in perspective, our original itinerary called for a stop in Orvieto to eat on the way from Rome to Cortona. Schedule constraints apparently didn’t allow for the four course meal referenced in our trip planner, and we pulled off to take a quick break at AutoGrill, an Italian roadside rest area. Since by this time we had grown pretty accustomed to four course meals, we were pretty disappointed that we weren’t getting into Orvieto for lunch. So we trooped into the Gas Station to see what we could find. Rather than the Subway or McDonald’s or day-old sandwiches one might find in the US, Autogrill had an espresso bar, a panini station with fresh-made sandwiches pressed to perfection, a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, a pasta bar with several types of homemade pasta, and a grill to serve up beef or veal, cooked on the spot however you like it…there are grilled patatas and carrots, and all manner of other items to complete our lunch. The fragrance of light garlic, sweet grilled onions, and coffee waft over the racks of chips and gum and candy, beckoning us to try one food station or another. We make our selections, with members of our group getting everything from wine and cheese to prime rib to fresh pasta and ravioli. The grilled carrots and the potatoes are excellent. As we eat, our disappointment over not stopping in Orvieto dissipates, and as we compare our menu selections, sampling from others’ plates, it’s official: food at a truck stop in Italy is better than a lot of Italian restaurants in America. In Rome, we fell in love with gelato and began adjusting to the Italian tempo for eating, getting acquainted with not peas, but with the “p’s” of culinary Italy: Prosciutto, peccorino, paninis, pasta, parmesan, pairings, panna cotta, and patience. Meals are savored, not in the wham-bam American way, but more like a time spent lingering over your lover with sweet kisses and conversation. Our time in Rome, more restaurant oriented, less familial than our stay in Tuscany, only prepared us for our time in the country. Although we didn’t realize it, we needed some transition time to prepare us for Tuscan food, much the way divers need to decompress on their way to the surface. Had we jumped right into the food at our villa, there might have been some sensory overload that would have actually limited what we could eat there. As it was, we were able to ease towards gastronomic excess like finely tuned Olympians coming to the games. The Villa Laura schedule and meals have not only surpassed my expectations but have pushed back the boundaries of my food fantasies. I have been on cruises where I could order 3 appetizers and 3 entrees if I wished, but I have never eaten this quality of food, this much, this often before. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of cooking have so many cooked so much that was eaten by so few. The Villa Laura brought in two sets of chefs to prepare our meals, probably because of the sheer impossibility of one set being able to perform the pure physical labor of cooking for our group alone. There is Francesco and Christiano, two young Italian chefs who learned to cook from their grandmothers. They don’t look like chefs in the sense that they are buff and seem very young to have so much experience in their profession. But man, can they cook! Francesco has most of the English, and he tells us on request about how they watched their grandmothers and mothers cook, then worked in the family olive business (so of course they grow and press their own olive oil, which they claim is absolutely the best in the world), and who learned their craft in restaurants before starting their own business, catering and cooking. I’d say they are no less than world-class Tuscan chefs. Then there is Terracina, who we all call Mama, a pleasant, happy woman who has brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend to staff our kitchen. Mama is, if possible, probably an even better cook than Francesco and Christiano. She doesn’t speak much English, but we all fall in love with her instantly, enjoying her sunny disposition, her hard work, and her luscious culinary delights. Her bread salad and panna cotta were some of the best things I have ever tasted. So it is a Tuscan tag-team of chefs gone wild, each presenting us with dishes made from local produce and ingredients in “typical” Tuscan fashion. For breakfast, there is always coffee, homemade bread, various kinds of cheese, eaten with homemade jam or preserves, yogurt, fresh granola, fruit, juice, and breakfast pastries. At dinner we feast on bruschetta, artichokes blessed with parmesan, zucchini soup, fava beans made several ways, several kinds of cheese, and all sorts of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth homemade pasta and ravioli. There is bread salad, balsamic glaze, roast and grilled meat (beef, chicken, pork medallions–rumored to be perfect for late night snacks, 28 seconds in the microwave–and one night even a little rabbit!). We had wood-oven pizza, spelt, stuffed zucchini, and a souffle or two. There is creamy, delicious panna cotta, and a couple of kinds of tiramisu. We had the reknowned Chianina beef, which is presented with a certificate detailing the cow’s birth date and date of death. I really didn’t want to know that my cow’s name had been Matilda, but she still tasted very good. The famed bistecca alla Fiorentina, a big T-bone cooked rare, was delicious, although I’d have to be honest and say that Texas beef is pretty dang good by comparison. Buddy might say that the pork medallions in Italy are superior to ours, but the beef–while good– did not just blow our doors off. There is a bit of wine partaken with every meal, usually a local vintage in red AND white(and of course, I am only describing our average LUNCH here). We had biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. We tried grappa. We drank prosecco(ha! another “p”!). Sadly, I was not a wine connoisseur before going to Italy, but I can honestly say that I now know far more about how wine can complement a meal than I did before. I can also honestly say I probably drank more wine over the last two weeks than the rest of my life put together. I did NOT, however, drink enough to diminish the memory of the amazing tastes of our Tuscan vacation. I wish that my words could do justice to the cuisine of Tuscany, because the local, natural culinary delights we experienced there were a huge part of our immersion into the culture and flavor of the region. I can only describe the pure impact of Villa Laura’s gourmet meals by reverting to a final “p”, which succinctly provides a summary of the fact that Italy has stayed with us, how we have brought home delicious memories of Tuscany, how we are reminded daily of all the wonderful things we got to eat there. That “p” word: pants. I can’t get in ’em anymore.

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