Monday, November 30, 2009

Il popolo

Jet lagged but happy, we gathered at Antica Taverna Casagrande for our favorite Tuscan meal - bisteca alla fiorentina. But would our favorite waiter, the one we have privately called Yosemite Sam for 3 years in reference to his mustache/beard still be there? We needn't have worried, we opened the ristorante door to see his smiling face. He told us his name was Frank ( it's not, it actually is Stefano per Vivi the daytime waitress) and then he put on Sinatra in our honor. The wine flowed and kept on flowing. As patrons left their half filled bottles would mysteriously find their way to our table and glasses. "More gasolina" said YS.

As we wound up the hill towards lunch at Verrazzano winery (Getti en Chianti), lunch not a tour was on our mind. We didn't understand, lunch was only included with a tour. The words hung out in the air, just as two giant tour buses were heading to the large parking lot full of our countrymen. The guide who met us at the road said, "I am leading this group, I will speak to my colleague", When Felipo came around the corner, we all smiled. Felipo had toured us around the grounds on our last visit. He looks like an Italian Tom Cruise, hates French soccer teams, and has lived at Verrazzano his entire life. Felipo's father was the farm manager and today Felipo is assistant to the owner. He normally doesn't do tours and to get him twice was very unusual. He promised we would stay away from the crowds, just as a couple from CA whose GTS had lead them wrong would join us. Our group of seven had a personal and up close view of the winery. We joined the large group for a typical Tuscan meal of 5 courses. As we left David and I thanked Felipo again. David told him the last time we met in 2006, he bought a bottle of Verrazzano Chianti Classico. He had just started his doctoral degree at the time and he vowed to keep it unopened until he completed. He explained to Felipo that on December 18, 2008 he defended his paper via phone conference in our kitchen. The first thing he did after hanging up the phone was to uncork the Verrazzano Chianti to celebrate. Felipo thanked him for allowing their winery to be a part of such an important moment.

Full of culture and feeling empty of food, our group was leaving the Palantine Gallery at Pitti Palace when one of our members fell face first down two steps. Pitti staff translated as the EMT placed our friend on a back board and loaded her into an ambulance. Sunday was the Florence marathon and they did not know which hospital could take her. Many people pulled together to get us the hospital information and directions. Those of us left behind went to a cafe to regroup. When we asked our waiter for more driving directions, he got one of the bartenders who worked at the hospital to draw us a map and show which exit. When we realized our phone was not working, we asked if we could pay to make a call - they dialed the number and would not accept any payment. Upon leaving, they all wished us well and hoped our friend was ok. The night manager at Villa Casagrande is not as fluent in English as the rest of the staff. But, when we had not heard anything about our friend and were very worried, he called the hospital to find out she had been checked out and released.

After a morning spent practicing some retail therapy at both the local leather outlet and the wonderful Co-op(a grocery store with everything in the world), we returned to the villa to pick up our friend who had been resting all morning after her stressful day before. Our 2006 lunch at CD Cafe was part of the reason we decided to return to Figline Val D'Arno. Local Tuscan foods served in an unusal way and we returned for dinner that same evening, we were greeted as old friends and served champagne. We shook off our umbrellas and came in from the rain, it was comforting to see the decor was exactly the same. The delicious meal affirmed our decision. I explained to the owner about our decision to return to Figline was due in part to our wonderful lunch in 2006. He smiled and said thankyou. His beautiful wife chicly dressed in a wrap sweater, stilletto boots and a silk scarf had just come from the kitchen and he translated our compliments. We realized then our Penne with funghi and Ravioli con Chingahle had been prepared by this lovely creature. (I think Giada DeLaurentis and Nigella Lawson should watch their backs). After the meal, the owner and his wife walked us to the door, shook our hands and asked us to return again soon.

It is Europe's history, culture and cuisine that make me wax poetic. And I am sure in an upcoming post I will recount our days in Assisi, Cortonna, Greve and Florence so far. But, I wanted to share Tuscany's greatest resource, the force behind the Renaissance, the David, and Chianti wine - it's people.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

La Dolce Vita

"Bella Vista, no?" said the gray haired Italian gentleman. David and I were walking back to our carved out of a mountain parking spot in Cortona, and the Tuscan light made us pause. The valley, farms, olive trees, villas and churches were all bathed in a golden glow of pre sunset making the picturesque landscape breath taking. For a long moment the three of us were caught up in it's magic. And then he nodded his head and we turned towards the car saying 'Buono Sera".

"And then Lindsay, I went to the party and even though I wasn't looking forward to it - Oh my God it was so much fun!", said the two American college students walking behind me on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The jewel box shops filled with gold jewelery, the lone rower as he broke the surface of the Arno, all were lost on the young ladies.

As the high speed train returned us to Figline from Fierenze, I reflected on both encounters. The second was the familiar and easy. It could have be me and a friend. Happily discussing the previous evening's activities. Walking, talking and texting at the same time. Multi-tasking as we rush to our fast food and fast lives.

The second was less so. When we happened on the gentleman at the mountain overlook, he was quietly enjoying a view that it seemed he had seen many times before. And the thrill was the same - whether this was the first our 1001st time. Those of you who know and love me, realizes this is not standard operating procedure for Pam. How often in my garden have I focused on the single weed rather than the multitude of flowers? Or while seated on the front porch overlooking Lake Huron, did I run and get my computer so I could I check email one more time before going to bed? Or pick up a cell phone call and interupt a perfectly lovely conversation with someone I care about who was right in front of me.

La dolce vita. The sweet life. Mine is, but could it be sweeter, richer? Perhaps tomorrow's Tuscan sunset will remind of exactly that. The bella vista in my own dolce vita.

More to come....

Monday, November 16, 2009

Soon we'll be on our way!

Day 1 - Leave Detroit via Air France. Change planes CDG in Paris (only a one hour layover). Arrive in Florence at 3pm, pick up 7 person van and arrive at Villa Casagrande by 5pm. This time we have reserved apartment 'Type B' for our stay. That evening dinner at the villa ristorante - Bisteca alla Fiorentina for 5!

Day 2 - Our apartment has a full kitchen, so we'll get up early and hit the Co-op for Italian goodies. Salamis, cheeses, fresh bread, wine and olive oil. Later that day we're off to Greve en Chianti. We'll hit a couple of the local wineries - lunch at Castello di Verrazzano - . Later that evening, a tasting of Villa Casagrande wines.

Day 3 - We're off to Umbria and Assisi! I am so excited to see the monastery where St. Francis lived.

Day 4 - Today is Cortona the land of Frances Mays and Under the Tuscan Sun. Today is market day. We'll load up on fresh produce and cheeses.

Day 5 - Ah Fierenze, Florence! We'll shop at Mercarto di Percarillo near the Ponte Vecchio. Gelato near the Uffizi and our first visit to Pitti Palace.

Day 6 - We'll stay in town today (Figline Val D'Arno) since this evening David, Joan and Andrea will take a cooking class at the Villa. They have previously studied with Paola and her associate Daniela in 2006. They learned biscotti, gnocchi, pork loin boiled in milk, crostini and a Sparschu-Phillips family favorite, ragu! Paola is already determining their new class menu.

Day 7 - Lucca Garrapa from Hills and Roads will pick us up at dawn to visit the Cinque Terre. In 2006 we toured the Umbrian jewel, Orvieto with Lucca. We're all looking forward to spending the day with Lucca - we know he'll make the Italian Rivieria that much more fun.

Day 8 - San Gimignano is close and it will be a nice easy ride from the villa. The medieval town is known for its towers.

Day 9 - The serene walled city of Lucca or back to Florence? Both are favorites - we'll decide that morning.

Day 10 - We'll spend the day in lovely Figline Val D'Arno. Walking the city streets visiting the lovely cemetery and parish church. We'll dine at the villa tonight and bid our hosts sadly good bye.

Day 11 - Back to Detroit via Paris (hopefully there will be time to pick up some French wines at the Duty Free). We'll go to bed at 3am Figline time (9:00pm at home) to dream of Tuscany again.

Can't wait to tour the grounds of Villa Casagrande and mingle with our lovely hosts, ride the train to Florence and take in the Renaissance (using a validated ticket this time), and drive through the picturesque countryside of Tuscany. Impossibly fresh pasta, rich tasty wine, and great culture and people - who could go wrong.