When Not In Rome

The author and her family share an unexpected meal in an unfamiliar Italian town.

We went to Italy in August, the month when the whole country closes its shutters. My brother had been cooking at Nogarazza in Vicenza, and my mother and I flew to visit, to spend time all three of us together, eating and drinking and getting to know each other a little.

I find something gratifying in the silence of Italy in August. One feels, in the empty stores and empty streets, a justification of the traveler’s sense of outsider-ness. You are literally left out, but also left, with no one there to rush you or stare, with time to rub dust off darkened panes of unfamiliar glass and peer inside.

We were staying in the tiny, hot town of Sant’Ambrogio di Valpolicella. We seemed the only people on the dry, sweeping grounds. There was a large, friendly dog who would accompany me on my long walks around the villa’s orchards. There might have been a German couple, too, or I might only have imagined them, draining tiny glasses of sugary orange juice and obediently eating the ugly, sweet crescent rolls served for breakfast.

We spent our days strangely, driving to nearby Mantua or Verona, charmed by the Capulets’ balcony, the airy Roman arena where we watched La Bohemè, then sometimes tired of other visiting Americans, who tromped around loudly, eating ice cream and not caring about one or another family restaurant closed just in time for their visit.

We accustomed ourselves to the quiet sort of traveling where one never has the best of anything, or gets to know a place, but spends time looking around with the eyes and ears of someone unguided, knowingly a little blind, hearing only echoes of a place’s music.

We ate fairly well: bowls of risotto mauve with red wine, braised duck with pappardelle. We were always grateful we found anywhere open, and that made the food taste better.

But we were all a little sad, too, because we were in the heart of a wine region. We had, foolishly and without admitting it, imagined ourselves sitting, in August solitude, in its cool, musty cantinas, eating chicken liver crostini and sipping young wines. But, we learned, there is little wine tourism in the Veneto, only remote, serious winemakers, who make excellent wines far away from visiting eyes. So there were not even cantinas for us to visit, but more hot driving around and our sulking fantasies of entering dark, cold hallways to taste a deep, cherry Amarone or fragrant Soave.

After four days of it all, the three of us began to snipe at each other.

So, after one of my walks with the friendly dog, I resolved to make my fourth such appeal to the concierge at the main villa from whom I’d gotten sullen advice before. She must have sensed something desperate in me, because with a great sigh she let me ask her, guidebook in hand, to please look over the names of local restaurants and call the best ones to see if they were open.

Her tense white finger rushed down the page, then stopped. “Questo provo,” she said, and tapped at Trattoria Groto de Corgnan. She made a call, had a clipped conversation, and looked at up, irritated. They were back from vacation, she told me. They were expecting us.

It was very warm and we drove with the top of our rented convertible down, arriving at a shabby stone house with a fluorescent sign, not yet illuminated, and two tables out front with oilcloth tablecloths and plastic chairs.

We each noted silently that we’d driven past the place on previous days, seen the old plastic, the oilcloth, and wished we were traveling in spring, had planned better, had stayed in a town with more restaurants.

I led the way toward the little patio, already ashamed. Then, a pretty teenager ran out of the building and neatly pulled three chairs out from one of the tables. We each noticed the oilcloth was pressed. The air smelled strongly of warm, dry wood, like cedar, or desert herbs. The girl emerged again, with three thin, stemmed glasses filled with light yellow wine, and looked restfully into each of our eyes before she set down the glasses.

We each sipped, beginning to rest and revive. She returned, not five minutes later, with two oblong platters. One held translucent ribbons of lardo, the creamy fat from a pig’s back, and a sweet, nubby salami, rich with big chunks of goose fat, and a pile of raw baby dandelion greens, dressed with lemon and olive oil. On the other platter were rosy pancetta, sliced thin and raw, and cooked dandelion greens in a pile, doused in sharp vinegar, and a stack of hot, grilled bread, smelling of garlic and soaked with olive oil.

We drank and ate, tasting for the first time all week something deep and resonant. We draped the thin ribbons of fragrant fat over the bread, ate greens and goose salami together, our fingers dripping with fat and vinegar. I ate the bitter, fresh dandelion with my hands and my mother seemed to consider reprimanding me, then to forget.

We ate everything on the two platters and drained our glasses twice. As we began to breathe the breath of the sated, a tan man with a white moustache emerged from the door, a long, jacketed menu in his hands. He stepped toward our table. Keeping the menu pressed against his chest he asked in Italian if we were hungry. We weren’t, but we nodded at him vigorously. Were we thirsty, too? He asked. Of course, I replied quickly, very thirsty. Perhaps, he said, a little theatrically, we’d just like him to cook us dinner and not worry about choosing. We all nodded.

The man opened the menu to the last page, where there was a short list of wines. He pointed first at an inexpensive Valpolicella Classico, which he said we would drink to begin. My brother and I quickly looked at our mother, who was woozy and full after the platters and big glass of cold Soave.

Yes, my brother said. And then, the man said, his dark hand moving down the page, this one, pointing at a Valpolicella di Quintarelli, 1997. “Si lo fa il Maestro,” he said. It’s made by the master. We’d heard of the master. He was a local wine maker who made the best wines in all the Veneto. So the two wines were brought out and opened, a few drops more Soave poured into our glasses so our mouths wouldn’t dry while we waited for the red wines to warm.

Then it began.

First there were goat cheeses, each a few inches around, very soft and fresh, with long, sweet chives, and drizzled with buttery olive oil.

Then a plate each of raw, red beef, with a few leaves of bitter escarole, raw zucchini the same thickness as the beef, a handful of tiny, wild strawberries and a little hard Parmesan atop it all.

The wine was fresh and young and the night dropped down. The air stayed warm and the other table filled with a couple, who accepted the elaborate apperitivi and antipasti, then ate pasta and chicken, peacefully and happily.

We finished our first bottle of wine, and knowing we had no choice, nodded to our waitress, waiting patiently nearby, to begin pouring the next.

Big plates of dark-yellow tagliatelle followed, with wild mushrooms, butter and soft, cloudy herbs that tasted like the night smelled.

Then came three filigreed plates, each holding a large, nearly bloody slice of beef fillet, its surface thick and dark with shavings of black truffle. Next to it were more leaves of escarole, and carrots and the tiniest bulbs of fennel, cooked in the beef’s juices.

Our second wine was thick and a little dusty and perfect. My mother smiled in her daze and looked, almost proudly, at my brother and me as we ate and drank like voracious, adoring animals.

Once our plates of beef had been cleared, and we sat, sipping at our wine and looking at each other, feeling close and known.

When the man with the white mustache returned, he held a big wedge of cheese and a little bowl of something the color of amber and glossy. “Il formaggio si chiama Monte Veronese,” he said. I asked in hesitant Italian where it was from. He laughed and bent in toward me and touched my head so that we could peer together out under the restaurant’s awning. “E di la,” he said, and I followed his finger to the shapes of a dark mountain that began a slow climb in the distance. He said that the sheep grazed on the mountain in the summer, and were led back down to the valley in the winter, and the cheese aged in caves all around Sant’Ambrogio.

The cheese was soft and nutty. It tasted like grass and brush and the pits of fruit. “And that?” I asked, pointing at the bowl. “Mostarda di mele,” he said. Apple mustard. Then we each tasted it. It was something that tasted alone and of its place. It belonged, and so did we.

My brother and I asked too many questions. We asked about the mountains and the shepherds and the weather. But mostly we ate—the whole wedge of cheese, all of the mostarda, and the very end of the wine.

Finally, a great ice cream bomba emerged, candles stuck into its gelato, carried by the man and his daughter, both laughing. The spectacle, with its chestnut crème and chocolate and melting gelato was placed, sparkling and plump, in the center of our table. We ate with big spoons directly from the great mountain. Grappa came out for me and my brother.

We finished the bomba. And then it was over. And we stumbled out into the night, toward our car, which let us go on breathing the air of the night, and I drove slowly back to the big estate. And we were happy.

 Tamar Adler is the award-winning author of An Everlasting Meal. Her brother, John, is co-chef at Franny’s. They live 10 blocks from each other in Brooklyn.

 

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