Every day in the early evening before dinner, cities in Italy undergo a change. Italians normally dress really well, but during this magical time of the day, they up their game. Women slip into even higher heels and livelier dresses. Men totally pull off their fitted bold colored pants and leather shoes. The streets become louder, fuller, and every person has an orange colored drink in their hand. I’m not exaggerating. This is “aperitivo” and it happens on a Tuesday just like on a Saturday. This is not dinner. Dinner comes much later. In fact, they will not serve you dinner during this time and they won’t serve you aperitivo during dinner time. You have to be on their dining schedule, no exceptions. I have learned this.
What is this ritual and what’s the purpose? It consists of a light drink… Prosecco, white wine, or the most common ever popular “spritz.” There are two main ones: Campari spritz, or Aperol spritz. Both are bright orange. Campari is more bitter and my preference. Italians do not drink without nibbling on something, ever. They will always bring you at least potato chips or nuts. This time is a social opportunity and seen as a way to prep yourself for dinner, get your appetite going.
I have experienced aperitivo in grand places like Rome and Turin, Venetian islands, hilltop renaissance towns, and seaside cities. I’ve had it in fancy Florence hotels poolside and tiny trattorias on cobblestone side streets. Like everything in Italy, each region has its own version. But they all have the same feeling… this makes sense.
Teatro del Silenzio
Tuscany and one of the most magical nights of my whole life. The world-renowned (blind) tenor, Andrea Bocelli, is from a Tuscan town called Lajatico. He convinced the local officials to create a theatre in the middle of the countryside that he would perform at once a year in July and the rest of the year it would remain dormant and the stage area would be transformed into a lake (crazy, huh?). It is appropriately called Teatro del Silenzio (Theatre of Silence). There are roughly 10,000 seats, which considering he’s the best tenor in the world and people come from around the planet to this event, that’s not that many seats. The tickets cost, well, let’s just say I closed my eyes, took a huge gulp, and pressed the buy button. Sometimes you just need to do these things.
As described, this place was actually in the middle of nowhere. The only views were rolling hills and Cypress trees. My ticket included dinner. The dining area was created by stacking straw bales to form walls. I got in line. As usual in Italy, the plates may have been disposable, the “tables” were stacked bales covered with white linens, but the food and wine were top-notch. It was a very Tuscan spread complete with wines from Bocelli’s family vineyards. This was the coolest people watching scene ever. There were Australians, Brits, locals, Swedes, you name it. The ground was dirt and hay, but all were dressed like they were at the NYC opera house.
As the scorching sun went down the orchestra began to warm up. I looked around again, still amazed that all of this was just plopped down amongst grassy hills. And as if it couldn’t get any better, the moon that was rising behind the stage was a full red blood moon. I mean you just can’t make this stuff up! From the moment Bocelli opened his mouth, the feeling that washed over me was that this evening, this moment, was special. You just don’t forget experiences like this.
We had a guide one day in Rome. He asked us what we would like to see. The normal response involves attractions like the Coliseum, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain. Those are all amazing sites, however, when I have a local at my disposal for the day, I use the opportunity to learn about something even better… culture. I told him to take us to the places that the tourists don’t go to, teach us about what it means to be Roman.
The place that took my breath away was the Rome food market. I walked in and my jaw just dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I got teary-eyed over the thought (dream) that I could shop at a place like this every day. It was like a carnival. There weren’t 4 varieties of peppers, there were like 17. There weren’t 3 fish stands, there were 12. The average person I know has no idea how many different varieties of eggplants there are or basils or clams or walnuts or tomatoes or parts of a pig. It’s mind-blowing. There was a stand where you could fill water bottles with different wines, no joke! Figs were the size of my fist. Pastries looked like they came from some high-end restaurant.
There are some great farmers around here, and good markets. But the ones over there are a whole other animal. And I have asked, why? I think it’s because the markets there are meant to be shopped at every day by a lot of people. They aren’t viewed as a Saturday morning fun excursion—rather, they are a permanent staple in life.
Here is one of the ceilings in the house where this balsamic has been made for over 100 years. It was an honor to meet this family and hear about their story and their heavenly vinegar. It was like I’ve never had balsamic before. This stuff was the definition of aged (12 to over 25 years), patience, richness, complexity, reduced down soul of the grape. You knew you were tasting the skill and wisdom of these artisan producers. I’m in awe of products like these and Italy is filled with them.
The bottle that I ended up buying was called Carlotta 1986. The man giving me the tasting and tour said that it was his favorite. It is the family’s tradition to start a vinegar when a family member is born. So when Carlotta was born in 1986 this vinegar was also born. I asked the man who is Carlotta? He smiled and replied…she’s my wife. We all let out a sigh. What if all the food we ate had a story like this? I guarantee we wouldn’t be frantically stuffing it in our mouths at a red light. We would sit and enjoy it. And then imagine what that would in turn do to our health, our well-being. I’m just saying.
Looking over the hills of Barolo and Barbaresco, I was amazed that this extremely small area produces such powerful wines. I’ve always enjoyed wines from here but now I am flat out in love with them. Drinking a Barolo in Barolo changed me. It was a seductive experience because it engaged all my senses. The personalities of the wine and the land played off of each other and made it that much more intense. Oh and the color, that glorious color… red, orange, rusty, earthy, aged. This wine is not for “ladies who lunch” or for the timid. They are intense… dried red fruits, truffles, cinnamon. Their aroma is in your face, assertive… mushroom, forest floor, earth.
When you drink it, you remember it forever. This is my wine.
Doors of Torino
I marvel at the doors in Italy. This is in Torino. They are all so unique. This is true from big grand cities like here to sleepy islands like Burano. Carvings and etched glass and marble and paintings, like works of art, and each one different. I would be walking and just have to stop all the time and say “wow, now look at THAT one.” I imagine coming home to a door like that. How special that would make me feel. Is that why they took the time to design all of these? Maybe the question is not why they did it, but why wouldn’t you do it. They are artists. It’s just how they see the world: put beauty everywhere.
I’ve dreamt about this moment for months – ok actually, for years. Yes, I’m that obsessed. What Barolo is to wine, Parmigiano is to cheese. It simply just doesn’t get better. The doors opened and as I walked inside, the aroma filled me up. I swear I left the ground for a moment. I was not expecting the smell to be that powerful. After all, the cheese is encased in the rind. It’s like every wheel let out a sigh for me as I entered. This cheese has it all… salty, sweet, umami… it satisfies every taste need that you have. I adore it. If I could only eat one cheese for the rest of my life, this would be it.
Piazza Duomo, 3 Michelin Stars, 16th in the world. Restaurants like this are hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been. This is my second one. The first being Osteria Francescana, also 3 stars and eventually 1st in the world. This is where food meets art meets genius. I wanted my travel companion to experience this. You can’t imagine what is about to happen to you. When they placed down the first couple small plates I just looked at her as her eyes widened and she was in shock. Words just can’t describe the beauty of this food. The emotions that you go thru, the places and times and memories that the dishes bring up in you is overwhelming. You are no longer just eating, you are living, feeling. The technical side of the food is of course extremely impressive but to me how it moves you is even more so. That is art, that is passion at the highest level. A chef who can do that is truly gifted. This ability to connect a diner like this is what I’ll always strive for.
Our tour was to go to a vineyard in Barbaresco, have lunch, and then go to a vineyard in Barolo. The vineyards were of course a dream but the lunch in between is what touched my heart.
We pulled into the place that we were to eat lunch. I whispered to myself… “holy shit, this isn’t a trattoria, it’s somebody’s home.” My spirits soared because there’s something that I know for sure, something that I’ve experienced my whole life… if you want to really KNOW a place, then eat in someone’s home.
As we walked up the steps I was absolutely giddy in that I realized the gift I was about to be given. And it got better. This was the home of a pasta maker. He made dried pasta out of whole grains in his basement and then sells them. We got to see his operation. The smell of the ground grains was earthy, intense, sublime. Upstairs, his wife was waiting to cook us three pasta dishes using his pasta. Oh glory day! I watched her like a hawk, wanting to soak up everything. This is where regional culinary magic happens. She could have easily been my aunt or my grandma in Hungary. They all move the same, serve the same, wanting to just make you happy.
She wondered if we wanted the pasta cooked softer (AKA American). I proudly told her “no, I want it al dente (AKA the correct way).” This made her happy and surprised. There were two wines on the table, a white and a red. Both were basically unlabeled. Who knows where they got them from. Maybe a neighbor or relative? They were probably very inexpensive and yet they were of course extraordinary. The white wine did something to me that no other wine has ever done… it brought me to tears. You see there is a smell that permeates the tiny village that my dad is from in Hungary. I have analyzed this smell, have had conversations about it with my brother, and know it intimately. To best describe it is that it’s a cross between wet rock, moss, and barnyard. Well, this wine smelled exactly like it. I couldn’t believe it.
Nobody else but me could have had that experience with that wine. I understand why people devote their lives to wine. It’s because of moments like this. I was so emotional. It’s just grapes, right? The pasta dishes were lovely and VERY al dente. Then I look over and saw dessert. My jaw dropped as I asked “is that a bonet?” Yes, it was. It’s an extremely regional dessert, only in Piemonte, that was on my “I must eat that in Piemonte” list. I’ve tried to make it but it’s hard to find a recipe. And here I was having it in someone’s home. It is like a chocolate coffee Panna Cotta with amaretti cookie on the bottom. All very Piemontese ingredients.
I was in heaven. No, better. I was in a local’s kitchen.
Osteria dei Sognatori
I thought I knew hospitality. I thought I’ve experienced it completely. But an Osteria in Alba raised the bar with their version.
Osteria dei Sognatori was about a 30 second walk from my apartment and was highly recommended to me by locals, so of course I had to go. It’s small, unassuming, great solid weathered wooden tables, dim lighting. You immediately knew you wanted to be there. We got there around 10:30pm, it was our second restaurant stop of the evening. A bottle of Barolo started us off, and pasta dishes… tagliatelle and agnolotti, 2 items on my “I need to eat this in Piemonte” list. Our servers had already won me over with their welcoming kind spirit, but I soon realized that they were just warming up.
These pasta dishes did not include truffles, however, a woman comes and starts shaving fresh ones over my pasta. She doesn’t ask me (very un-American, I mean what if I was allergic to truffles, Ha!) she just starts doing it because why would someone not want fresh truffles (is probably what she’s thinking). I tell her that’s enough, I was just being polite. She laughs and says no, no and keeps shaving until I have a glorious aromatic mountain. She leaves and comes back with another one and performs the same act on my friend’s pasta.
When it comes to dessert, we can’t decide which to choose so our server takes matters into her own hands and brings us a plate with some of each. After an espresso she comes by and without saying a word, places a whole bottle of Barolo Grappa with two small glasses on the table and just leaves. This is what Italians do. They just come in and out of your meal effortlessly and without disruption bringing you gift after gift, only positive things. No need to bother you with junk over and over like “do you need anything else?” or “how is everything?” Italians already know these answers. They are watching from afar and can tell if you need something else and they already know everything is delicious. Or how about here’s the bill staring at you but please take your time there’s no rush, really? Really! Then you’re sending me mixed signals. But I digress. My friend and I just look at each other stunned and delighted. Can you imagine this happening at a restaurant at home? We didn’t ask for this, weren’t paying for this, and we could pour how much we wanted. She comes over again and takes the grappa because we were finished and goes and places it on another table. Then comes back to our table and puts down two more glasses and an icy bottle of Limoncello, same deal. I’ve seen this time and time again in Italy where they just know what you need and they bring it to you. And they’re always right!
As we lingered well past closing time, the staff just start to do their cleaning and closing chores. We hear the cooks singing in the kitchen. But you never, ever feel like you have to leave or that they even want you to leave. Never. We finally ask for the bill and as we expected there was no charge for truffles, extra desserts, grappa, or Limoncello. In fact the total bill for this extraordinary experience was about what you would pay at a sandwich shop in Boulder.
Our culinary-starved American minds were once again blown.
Collezione Umberto Panini Motor Museum
I was there to experience the magnificence that is Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I have to admit that there was something else at Hombre Farm just as exciting… a vintage Italian car museum. The founder of Hombre, Umberto Panini, started off as a mechanic and loved cars. When he heard that the Modena-based company Maserati was going to auction off 19 vintage models in another country, he couldn’t bear the thought of them leaving this region, so he bought all of them and added them to his growing collection.
After our cheese tasting, we were led to a refurbished barn. The huge doors opened and oh baby. There they all were… Lamborghini, Maserati, Ferrari. All lined up looking gorgeous. This region, Emilia-Romagna, is known for their fine cars as well as their fine food. Even the bottle that has to be legally used for Balsamico was created by a car designer.
For me it was love at first sight, like it was the only car in the room. I went straight to it, a 1954 silver Maserati. I may not know a lot about cars, but I know beauty, and everything on this thing was beautiful. I admired it from every angle. As much thought was put into the lines of that car as the production of that cheese. My imagination took off. Marcello and I (I had already named the car) were driving thru the Modena countryside, a bottle of Lambrusco and a full 75 lb wheel of Parmigiano in the back seat filling the interior with its salty perfume. I yearn to be surrounded by this kind of high quality craftmanship, artistry, mindfulness of detail. That’s why I make my own stocks and grow my own basil, why the tart fresh yogurt with homemade slightly sweet raspberry jam I just ate here made me sigh and gasp, why I could write (and have written) a poem about the stunning flowy dresses in the shops of Bologna, why a fine silver car on a cheese farm could make me so happy. What if everything in my life, what I ate and drank, what I wore, what I looked at each day, were this exquisite?
Hey, everyone has their fantasies.
This happens to be mine.