Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Final Bites

Behold: the Mediterranean Sea of mozzarella.

I have to admit, Naples was not what I'd expected. Julia had warned me of its grittiness multiple times through the planning stages of our journey, having visited before; yet the city's identity as the birthplace of pizza made it, for me, a nonnegotiable destination. As we made our way out of the train station and through the city, I examined the urban tangle of dirty streets through scuffed skyscrapers and storefronts, a far cry from the pristine, historic cityscapes I had been spoiled by in San Sebastian, Bordeaux, Florence, and the like. Even the monuments in Naples came across as somewhat shabby, their graffiti-scarred stones a stark contrast to those we'd thus far encountered. Nevertheless, we reminded ourselves that we were there not for the ambiance, but for the pizza.

Well aware of the lackluster charm offered by the city's center, Julia had secured us a hotel on the coast, and our arrival to the more scenic harbor helped to soften Naples' edge. Mount Vesuvius slept stoically across the sea, and the shimmer of the Mediterranean was captivating, its dramatic clouds rolling lazily overhead. We checked in, happy to discover that our room had a balcony offering the same views of dazzling sea and sky, not to mention the majestic Vesuvius. We spent the last bit of the afternoon enjoying these views before heading out for a stroll to scout pizza options. We were armed with over a dozen restaurant names collected from various friends who'd visited Naples, but eventually we began to realize that fantastic pizza is pretty ubiquitous in the city (especially after some conversation to that effect with a few locals on the train ride in), so we asked the hotel front desk to point us in the right direction and we were on our way.
Fact: everything is better with prosciutto.

In heaven, this would be my swimming pool.
We ate pizza all three nights in Naples, and each was better than the pie before. We kept our decorations simple, going with classic combinations like prosciutto and funghi, spicy Diavola, and of course, Margherita. Every crust was laced with char, pocked and blackened here and there by the wood fires that birthed them, and their tender, bready insides leavened the faint flavor of flour and wheat that endured as we chewed. Sauce was lightly applied, just a whisper of sweet and tangy tomato across the paper-thin layer of dough below. And around it all, among it all, above it all: there was the cheese. There is only so much one can do with the human lexicon, and I regret to say it is not sufficient to capture the experience of eating that cheese on those pizzas. Images of flowing fresh cream and melting butter flickered on the back of my eyelids as I processed every mouthful of flavor and unmistakable texture, chewing for what felt like minutes at a time. It stretched, and oozed, and sprung back devilishly, amplifying the sensation of its enjoyment. For any lack of welcome or warmth Naples may have exhibited, we forgave it all amongst those heavenly, chewy cheekfuls of pizza.

The next day we took a hydrofoil to the island of Capri. It was my first time on a hydrofoil, and I was completely unaware of the perils involved in sitting toward the front of the boat. Even after a gentle warning from a passing tour guide prior to departure, I thought little of it; after all, I had never experienced even the slightest flirtation with seasickness. But as I mentioned, this was my first time on a hydrofoil. For those of you unfamiliar with the gut-curdling watercraft, a hydrofoil is a boat that is designed to repeatedly lift out of the water as it gains speed, as less contact with the water reduces drag and allows the boat to move faster. Essentially, the craft moves like stone being skipped across the water, its hull often spending several seconds in the air before crashing back into the (in this case) already choppy sea. And though great swiftness is, in fact, achieved, its side effects warranted attendants who constantly circled the ship's cabin, offering sickness bags to all those in need. I only wish I could say the bags stayed empty.

Slabs of sexiness.
Thankfully, I was able to hold at bay the re-emergence of my own breakfast, but just barely. I was a  lovely shade of green by time we arrived, and Julia suggested we forego the bus ride that could take us to the crest of the island, opting instead for a brisk walk uphill through Capri's cobblestone alleys, rife with fresh air and exquisite views. We stopped every few minutes to snap photos of the panoramic sea, the surrounding islands, and the gorgeous fig and citrus trees that seemed to populate the yard of every house we passed. By the time we reached the top, any trace of nausea had left me and I was ready for lunch. We did some exploring and eventually found a restaurant that lay a bit off the beaten path, its menu offering plenty of the two foods we sought: pasta and seafood. We sat looking out over the Mediterranean, watching clouds take shape and dissipate against a sky of brilliant blue. Our meal was equally lovely: a caprese salad to start, then spaghetti with clams for me and thick, handmade noodles tangled around an array of shellfish for Julia. When I inevitably finished my plate first, I pilfered tasty morsels of calimari from Julia's and sopped up savory clam juices with my bread, contemplating that the bites I presently chewed had likely spent the previous night swimming in the very sea upon which we gazed. It was a comforting and delicious thought. After lunch we wandered the streets for a bit more, and then made our way down the mountain. To our immense relief, the boat ride home was not nearly as illness-inducing as the trip out, and we were able to sleep for most of the way back to Naples.
Like untangling Christmas lights… only more delicious.

I spent the next day in bed with a minor cold while Julia sought out a nearby spa for a bit of pampering, and we both turned in early (after another incredible pizza) in preparation for a pre-sunrise cab pickup. By ten the next morning we had landed in Olbia, on the island of Sardinia. It quickly became evident that Olbia was far from a bustling metropolis: mid-morning and the airport was a ghost town, populated only by those of us who had just landed. We collected our luggage and made our way to the car rental desk, eager to travel in control of our own destinies after so many trains and planes over the last month. And though I had painstakingly documented every leg of our journey across the island in the hopes of navigating us with swiftness, after a few miles it became clear we would need to rely on our instincts more than our preparations. The signs for route numbers were painfully inconspicuous, and in a language not our own, common words were often indistinguishable from place names. Nevertheless, we aimed the car west, using a large mountain range to the north as an orientation point, and zoomed off into the countryside.

The landscapes that whizzed past our windows along the rural roads were not ostensibly remarkable, but they were certainly beautiful. Ubiquitous flocks of sheep dotted and flowed about the green and golden meadows like splatters of spilt grey paint, and apparently represented the most numerous portion of Sardinia's population. Autumn vineyards struck across the spectrum as we traversed the island, from earthy, vibrant purples and maroons, to glinting pale yellows, to electric greens that still clung to the fading fingers of last season's warm embrace. The highway never grew to more than two lanes, and it rarely stayed straight for very long. As the coast grew closer, we watched our surroundings climb from sheep-specked hills into woodsy mountains, then roll down into a valley that spilled toward the sea. In the coolness of the valley a dense fog had collected in the distance, settling over everything and pooling like thick chowder. We rolled up our windows as the temperature dropped and the vast, white blanket drew closer. When it enveloped us, the world vanished, and the sun above cast smoky shadows in the fog. Their muffled forms whipped by in fast-forward, morphing into clarity mere feet before we passed them and then evaporating. It felt otherworldly, and I drank in the cinematic experience.

We made it to the sleepy, picturesque seaside town of Alghero by mid-afternoon. Famished and a bit haggard from the early rise and subsequent ten-hour journey that lay behind us, we sought out a bustling cafe sporting an enticing array of focaccia sandwiches and outdoor seating. Each sandwich was built on a massive slab of halved focaccia that measured several feet in either direction, the size of a small coffee table, before being cut into smaller (though still rather large) portions. I had a brief and amusing vision of Moses descending from Sinai, holding two halves of focaccia solemnly above his head. Meanwhile, Julia ordered a couple of sandwiches for us while I grabbed two beers at the bar and found a sunny table outside. Finally able to exhale, I took in my surroundings: the familiar cackle of seagulls; the distant but unmistakable sound of lapping waves; clear waters stretched to the horizon and met sky, while a wispy net of clouds softened the sunshine. We had officially arrived at our final destination, and nearly a month of nomadic memories lay behind us.

There are certainly worse ways to end the day...
The sandwiches, rustic and freshly made, most definitely hit the spot; the focaccia bore the unmistakable Italian soul in its crumb that comes from scant salt and good olive oil. Mine was filled with creamy goat cheese, prosciutto, and arugula: simple and satisfying. Julia ordered a bit more boldly: a tuna sandwich with chopped soft-boiled egg, tomato, anchovy, raw onion, and barely cooked pancetta. Her boldness was apparently rewarded, as she continued to gush praises for its nicoise-reminiscent combination. We ate ravenously, recharging our bodies and souls with sandwiches, sun, and sea air: what else does a human need? When we arrived to what was to be home for the next five days, we couldn't have been more delighted. The property of Villa Mosca was tucked inside a flourishing garden, peppered with flowering succulents and tangles of green plucked straight from the seaside dunes themselves; it all sat perched atop a hill and looking out to the Mediterranean, an actual oasis amidst the unassuming Alghero, with some of the best views we'd seen yet.

Moments later, she was 300 feet out at sea!
Though dropping off our rental car at the nearby airport sounded simple enough, the unpredictability of Italian small-town life unfolded: as had been the case in Olbia, the Alghero airport was completely deserted, including taxis. Several apathetic airport employees, two broken pay phones, and over an hour later, Julia was miraculously able to procure a lone cab driver to take us home, where hot showers washed off the long day of travel. We napped, waking just after sunset and already feeling settled. Though the day had been warm, the evening was cooling fast, weather reminiscent of Northern California; and as I surveyed the sea and the surrounding cliffs, I was momentarily transported to the Golden Gate, and it felt like home. We walked into town along the town's turreted coastal wall as night fell, observing several antique catapults along the way. Though they looked like they belonged in museums, young children clambered about the ancient weapons like jungle gyms while their parents chatted nearby. I was beginning to like Sardinia.

King me!
We found a restaurant called La Lepanto, and though it was sparsely populated, the menu appeared promising. As we settled in, I perused the wine list with excitement: Sardinian varietals are not frequent on the typical American wine list, but my experiences with the crisp whites and character-rich reds the island is known for have all been outstanding. I selected a bottle of Canonau Riserva grown nearby; Canonau is the name given to Grenache in Sardinia, and the bottle was every bit the mouthful of red fruit I'd expected. Spice on the nose and hints of oak on the palate, its tannins were gentle and fleeting, though its flavor clung to our cheeks after we swallowed. As we sipped our wine and buried our noses in its bouquet, an amuse bouche arrived: a tidy cylinder of caponata sitting on a shard of the impossibly thin and crispy Sardinian flatbread known as pane carasau. Simultaneously elegant and rustic, the dish was a cozy nod to an Italian classic, and a tasty start to the meal. By the time our plates were clear, an entire basket of pane carasau had arrived to the table, and we delighted in clicking and clacking our teeth through its contents.

Flexing my mussels...
Our next course was mussels, far and away the best I have tasted in my life. Their flesh bore detail and intricacy that was downright sensual, and their briny flesh was as plump and juicy as pork fat. As you chewed, their flavor melted onto your tongue, delicate sweetness and sea salt decorated with roasted cherry tomatoes and a handful of fresh Pecorino. We made tiny bites of mussels with pane carasau, the textures contrasting playfully against one another; clinking our Canonau, we toasted the island of Sardinia as we introduced it to our stomachs. Next came more shellfish: juicy clams decorated a plate of handmade spaghetti in front of me, while a head-on prawn took center stage in front of Julia; beneath it was a nest of cocoa fettuccine hiding tender chunks of juicy prawn and thinly sliced baby artichoke that whispered of anise. The sweetness in the shellfish blended with the earthy cocoa in the pasta as you chewed, synthesizing a beautiful new way to appreciate chocolate. The dish was as inspiring as it was delicious.
They huddled together in fear when they saw the look in our eyes...

The show-stealers of the meal, and on par with Julia's veal chop from Paris, were the Gamberi Rossi, head-on red prawns. We paused momentarily as the dish was placed on the table, savoring the aromas that drifted off the autumn-hued shellfish, then went to work disassembling the prawns like yummy little puzzles. As we sucked our respective heads, their robustness overwhelmed us, seafood flavor as sweet and clean and pure as I've ever experienced, the very essence of prawn captured in hot liquid form. It's impossible to attempt description of the experience without breaking the damn of sexual innuendo wide open, so I will show some restraint. Suffice it to say, they were spectacular, and could convince even the most squeamish diner to suck some head.

Holy moly, it's a cheese donut!
Dessert was a seada, a traditional Sardinian dumpling of soft, springy, fresh sheep cheese nestled in a pocket of puff pastry and drizzled with honey. It was our first experience with the regional treat and we we were infatuated with its textures and flavors alike: flaky surrounded chewy, smeared in sticky; meanwhile, mellow fruity notes from the honey faded into the buttery dough before finishing with a salty punch and a hint of tang from the cheese. We devoured the seada and finished the Canoneau, then struck out into the night, following Alghero's seaside turrets back to our hotel.

For my birthday, we kept things simple. After chocolate croissants and exquisite cappuccinos at the hotel, we got lost among the inner alleyways and cobblestone streets of Alghero, window shopping and getting a feel for the city and its people. By noon, we had been walking for a couple of hours and decided it was time to seek out lunch options, ideally to bring back to the hotel and enjoy in front of the view. No sooner had we considered our mission than we were stopped dead in our tracks by the familiar, intoxicating aroma of roast chicken, its perfume penetrating directly to our brains and hitting all the right buttons. We followed our noses into a nearby store and discovered spits of roasting chickens, spinning lazily and dripping their miraculous, browned, umami juices onto chunks of potato below. My stomach rumbled as I eyeballed the well-done corners and cripsy edges spiked throughout the potatoes, and I communicated to Julia with urgency that she absolutely must specify the crispy bits when she ordered. In addition to a whole chicken and only the brownest, most amazing potatoes of the batch, we also got some caponata and a couple of cippolini onions that were roasted and stuffed with buttery breadcrumbs. We picked up a loaf of bread and a chilled bottle of Vermentino at a market on the way home, along with some mineral water and snacks for later. It was the least extravagant, most unassuming birthday lunch I've ever had, and it just might have been the best.
Few are aware that Boston Market got its start in Sardinia.

Dinner was kind of a bust: upon arriving to the restaurant we'd been excitedly anticipating for my birthday, we discovered it closed for the season, so we settled on a small trattoria tucked inside a quaint alley. We at some good fettuccine and drank some decent wine, but when a very large, very beautiful pizza arrived to a nearby table, it became clear we might have erred in our order. Not ones to waste time on menu regret, we comforted ourselves momentarily with memories of Naples, and then enjoyed the rest of our meal. The next day we spent the entire morning strolling once again, taking in the historic and seemingly undisturbed status that Alghero had enjoyed over the last few centuries. One got the sense that little had changed since the city's catapults were operational; between that, and its location on the edge of a seemingly endless sea, it felt isolated and protected, like a city sitting on a cloud that existed outside of time. It occurred to me that such a place was not a bad spot to spend a few days before plunging back to earth and returning to our lives at home.

We snagged a couple more sandwiches from the focaccia shop on our way back to the hotel, returning to our panoramic terrace for the the rest of the afternoon. When it came time for dinner, Julia used the leftovers from the previous day's picnic to make a hearty chicken soup; it was the first home-cooked meal we had eaten in weeks, and it couldn't have been more appreciated. Putting the warm soup in our bellies as night fell and the temperature dropped, we were as content and elated as we'd been at any point on our trip. After dinner, Julia found Dumb & Dumber in English on television, and we nearly did backflips with excitement. Falling asleep on our island in the cloud, it became clear that we were gaining appreciation for the simple things.

Pacific Northwest in the Sardinian Northwest.
Sunday we woke up refreshed and full of energy. After breakfast we took a couple of the hotel's bikes through town and out toward Alghero's beaches. The ride was an easy one, and it felt good to be on a bike for the first time in over a month. I put some distance between Julia and myself, as she tends to prefer a more leisurely speed when she rides, but eventually I stopped to wait for her near the beachfront. To reach the sand, one entered through a small patch of forest, uncannily reminiscent of Northern California, and once again I was back in the bay area. Had I not known better, I could have easily mistaken my current surroundings for the edge of Baker Beach. But a few more steps and my feet were in the sand, bringing me back to Alghero, completely mesmerized by the impeccably clear sea that lay before me, beckoning. I began our interaction with innocent flirtation, taking off my shoes and socks and rolling up my jeans, but that lasted less than five minutes: I craved more. I dashed back to the sand and threw my jeans and t-shirt over a tree. Diving into the cold water charged me with electricity, and I spent the next half hour splashing around like an otter. Julia, being part mermaid and rarely shy about her body, donned a 'European' bathing suit and joined me. We air-dried in the sun after we'd had our fill of saltwater, then made our way back to town. Swimming had filled us with the hunger of beasts, and we took down several beers and two very large pizzas, dining outside of a pizzeria at the edge of town. A day at the beach and all the pizza we could eat: I felt like it was still my birthday. We were so full stuffed our final gorge in Sardinia that we ended up skipping dinner, falling asleep with bellies full of pizza and dreams full of sand and sea.
Is there anything more beautiful on a Sunday afternoon?

I see you checking out those curves...
The next day we flew out of Alghero early and were in Madrid before noon. It had been 27 days traveling, sleeping in other people's beds, living in other people's languages, and we were ready to head home. But we had unfinished business in Madrid... very delicious unfinished business: El Mercado de San Miguel. When we'd been in the city nearly a month ago, a day full of eating (shocker) had brought us to San Miguel too full to take advantage of such a culinary playground. This time we had eaten minimally all day, arriving to the market armed with hunger and ready to do some serious damage. We started with an array of overstuffed olives: tangy sheep cheese, chorizo, sun-dried tomatoes, and pickled anchovies were among some of the treasures within, each an almost overwhelming mouthful of flavor. Smiles stretched across our bulging cheeks as the first bites of delicious sustenance made their way into our bodies, fireworks on our tastebuds kicking off our last big meal in Europe. From there, we strode purposefully to a crowded bar at the other end of the market, where we were able to get glimpses of a lone, badass chef behind the scenes pumping out a familiar lineup of traditional Spanish eats. We started with a hefty portion of tortilla, all soft potato and sweet onion, that reminded us what Spain does best. Next were seared scallops, still attached to their shells and caramelized to a spectacular, rich reddish-brown on their ends and dusted with paprika, as visually stunning as they were succulent. We followed up the bivalves with some good old patatas bravas, Spain's spicy (and better) version of french fries with ketchup. As we finished the last bits of tender potato, my eyes were drawn to a tantalizing cone of fried squid walking by in the hand of a passing woman. I had been eyeballing this particular treat since our first visit, and as I took my last swallow of wine, I decided we had to have it. A beeline for the vendor with Julia in tow, I ordered a large, opting for tentacles over rings. A squeeze of lemon was all it needed, and we tore through the crispy, chewy knots, sitting outside on the market steps and people watching. Baklava and honey cake were our sweet kiss goodbye as we bade Adios to El Mercado de San Miguel.
It's nice to let the scallops feel right at home until the moment we devour them...

We took our time walking back to the hotel, savoring our last day abroad. It seemed poetic to me, however unintentionally so, that we began and ended our adventure in the same city; like arriving to the last page of a book and then nostalgically flipping back to its first. I drank in the street's views and smiled, both for the memories behind us, and for home that awaited us on the other side of the ocean.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Little Piggies on a Truffle Hunt

Beauties and the beast.

Our first jaunt through the country shaped like a boot was to begin with a short stay in Florence and then a weekend in the minuscule mountaintop village of San Miniato, home to Pepenero, where Julia had worked, and host to the (be still, my beating heart) San Miniato Truffle Festival. Though lesser known than the famous Alba Truffles, San Miniato Truffles are no less delicious, and no less prized among those who know them. The festival draws upwards of 80,000 visitors to the tiny town over its three weekends, and though Julia’s nostalgia was a big part of the pull for our return, I'd be lying if I said that truffles weren't the main draw.

We flew into Florence, landing after dark and hailing a cab to our hotel, which sat outside the city on the banks of the Arno. Tired from a long day of travel, we took advantage of the hotel's spa facilities and decided to stay in for dinner. Despite (or perhaps due to) a minimally populated dining room, we were welcomed warmly and escorted to a table. It didn't take long to scout the menu, our hunger (both literal and metaphorical) for feel-good Italian food dictating our choices. The wine list was another brief perusal as we quickly encountered a reasonably priced bottle of Montepulciano, our favorite Tuscan varietal. Clinking glasses of voluptuous, violet elixir, we toasted our arrival to Italy and settled in.

Perfect for snuggling!
The meal began with crostones (like a crostini but full-size) topped with the simple, yet exquisite, duo of prosciutto crudo and mozzarella di bufala. This was what we had been waiting for: salty, fatty, yet somehow laced with levity, the prosciutto hit our senses first, then faded dreamily to cream as the mozzarella enveloped our every tastebud. The combination was as old and charming as Tuscany itself, and it occurred to me that we could have made a meal out of this and nothing else. I consciously savored every nibble, every chew, every elastic string of cheese and toothsome bite of tender pork, wishing it didn't have to end. And this was only course one.

Pasta courses only raised the bar: Julia's was oversized ravioli filled with eggplant and ricotta, formed with artisinal craft and looking like delicate, pale yellow handkerchiefs draped about their ingredients. My plate was beautifully simple: spaghetti and tomato sauce crowned with precious dollops of mozzarella di bufala. A mere three ingredients, and somehow each nearly outshone the others. The al dente spaghetti was springy and tender, the tomato sauce tangy and herbaceous with a hint of sweetness; and the mozzarella (oh, the mozzarella) was buttery and mellow, belying a bounty of flavor as it melted into the pasta. Our forks moved slowly and deliberately as we ate, and we admired our plates like great works of art, exchanging glances both incredulous and ecstatic. Despite the culinary and sensory heights we had heretofore experienced on our journey, the pleasure of Italian simplicity could not be overstated. Minimal ingredients prepared with abundant love: this is what Italy does.
Take a ride on the chew-chew train...

The Branzino we enjoyed next was superb, bearing an Italian soul: oregano flecked its delicate filets and the plate was sprinkled with a handful of capers and gently roasted cherry tomatoes. Though Italy tends to serve a fish like Branzino whole, in all its glory, the filets were a welcome surprise for me (I'm admittedly not so good with pin-bones), and their clean flavor and simple accents nourished our souls along with our bellies. Who knew a piece of fish, uncomplicated and minimally embellished, could make a person so happy? Tiramisu closed the meal, its cookies and mascarpone cream prepared traditionally and served in a bar glass. Everything about the dessert was delightful, from its intoxicating amaretto flavor, to the attractive cross-section of lady-fingers and custard carved out by our spoons.

A shuttle took us into the city the next morning. We were in Florence for but a day, with much to accomplish: Julia was on a mission for a pair of boots and a purse for her sister, I needed a new wallet, and we had plans to meet friends for lunch. Not to mention the most important mission of all: finding the sandwich that first introduced Julia to the wondrous, magnificent, more-perfect-than-heaven creation known as porchetta (see my first post on this glorious food if you're unfamiliar). Though breakfast at the hotel had been ample, this infamous porchetta sandwich was the absolute highlight of Florence as far as we were concerned, and it would make a perfect second breakfast (to borrow a hobbit's term), nestled between (first) breakfast and lunch.

Julia remembered that the sandwich lay within a large indoor market beside Florence's leather district, a perfect location in light of our aforementioned errands. Thanks to her ever-impressive sense of memory-based direction (it had been over five years since her last visit), my wife lead us through the city, instinctively weaving her way through its tangle of streets, until we found ourselves facing a long, tapered path between innumerable stalls stocking all things leather. Doing our best to play it cool among the vendors that thrust their goods in our faces, we walked among the stalls until I spotted a wallet that suited my tastes; a few moments and some minor haggling, and it was mine. After a quick transfer of credit cards and other assorted contents, I tossed its predecessor in a nearby trash bin. It was time for porchetta.

The market was right where Julia had remembered it, and we climbed its steps excitedly. Upon entering, it became clear that we'd need to take at least one lap to survey and admire its myriad booths, stalls, and counters, a veritable foodie heaven. There was nothing one might want to cook or eat that couldn't be found in this market: staples like bread, meat, and produce were displayed from corner to corner in all their fresh, vibrant glory, baskets and bins comprised of every variety and varietal Italy could offer. But beyond the standard market items the average shopper might hope to procure were harder-to-come-by specialties that got me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Most unexpected and awesome was the "Triperia," a booth selling nothing but offals and only the oddest animal parts. I stood in front of the captivating landscape of creature features for several minutes, taking it all in: pig and chicken feet, liver and kidneys from all walks of life, stomachs, ears, testicles, and other items unidentifiable. It was a chef's playground, and I only wished we had a few days and a kitchen at our disposal: the fun we would have had!

Snap, crackle, pork!
Battling further digression, we made our way through the market. As we turned a corner, I caught sight of a massive, gorgeous log bearing the unmistakable amber hue of porchetta. A few steps more, and the aroma of pork, herbs, and garlic took hold of my olfactory sense; I could focus on nothing else. As a puddle of drool collected at my feet, Julia ordered, making sure to ask for an extra helping of crispy skin. The Italian cleric behind the counter grabbed a soft, white roll and split it open, slathering golden porchetta juices on both sides, then began shaving thin slices of meat from the behemoth mass. He finished by cracking off several pieces of honey-brown, stained-glass skin, breaking it up on his cutting board before topping off our sandwich. Every single bite was like a visit to church: silence, awe, prayer, and worship intermingling with gratitude and joy. We ate as slowly as possible; mouth-filling richness demanded it. The texture and flavor of the sandwich were equally moving: crispy skin clacked between our teeth, giving way to tender, juicy meat, and soft, yielding bread, our taste-buds all but overwhelmed by the different forms of salty, savory pork. I now understood how this sandwich had made its mark on Julia, and why she'd insisted we come here.

We walked around Florence a bit more, scouring storefronts and window displays for the remaining items on Julia's purchase agenda, without success as of yet. Eventually it became time to head toward our lunch destination, an out of the way trattoria on the other side of the river that Julia had scouted. It was there we were meeting up with Lindsey, another friend of Julia's from her Torino days, and Lindsey's husband, Albert, plus their new baby. Having gone weeks without conversing in English with anyone but each other, we looked forward to the change of pace, and to the social prospect of a communal meal. When all were present and accounted for and warm salutations had been exchanged, we gathered around a cozy table in the corner and Julia went to work, ordering for us all. Having personally lead the charge through Spain, I was happy to sit shotgun in Italy, letting my better half speak the language and take the lead.

As conversation and house wine flowed around the table, the food began to arrive. Plates and spoons clinked and clattered as they worked their way from hand to hand, orchestrating a noisy, delightfully messy ballet. There was pici (an eggless Tuscan pasta like spaghetti, but thicker) in tomato sauce, piled high and generously punctuated by sizable chunks of garlic. The sensation of slurping the fat, chewy noodles was wholly satisfying, in spite of the unavoidable spatter of tomato sauce that ended up around your nose and lips. Half a chicken, seasoned simply, was pulled apart in true family style, reducing its plate to a sparse pile of bones. Roasted potatoes accompanied the bird, uncomplicated, hearty, and tasty, while separate plates of artichokes, fennel, and arugula with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano were combined into a salad and doused liberally with vibrant, piquant olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Sharing the love.

For a little extra comfort, a bowl Tuscan Ribolita with its pleasantly thick, bready texture and dark, leafy greens, that tasted as homemade as anything I've ever eaten in a restaurant. But for me, the true star of the table was the Trippa alla Fiorentina (tripe, Florence style), another shining example of transcendence achieved through otherwise common ingredients. One would not expect much from cow stomach, a handful of herbs, some chicken broth, and a few vegetables; yet when put together by the right hands, and with the right technique, the result can taste like a bowl full of love. With a texture all its own (think succulent, cooked chicken skin) and flavors that come straight from grandma's kitchen, tripe done right is a beautiful thing. I gobbled up the pile in front of me and shamelessly went back for more until the plate was clean.

After lunch we found some gelato (which is never not delicious), and strolled around the city a bit more, working off our meal and perusing souvenirs to take home to friends and family. When it was time to bid goodbye to our new friends, Julia and I continued the search for her boots, ultimately finding them mere minutes before our shuttle arrived to take us back to the hotel. After a little downtime in the room, we returned to the hotel restaurant for dinner, our sights set on another Tuscan classic: Bistecca Fiorentina, the T-bone steak of jaw-dropping proportions.

T is for 'tasty.'
Surprisingly, we opted to go with a repeat of the night before and begin with the prosciutto and mozzarella crostone. Though menu repeats are a rarity for us, the appeal of this particular gem was too great to pass up, and as our teeth sank into supple mozzarella and meat once again, we knew we’d made the right choice. Aware that our meat course was to be ample, we shared a plate of porcini ravioli next, the artistry and pleasure of the pasta no less glee-inducing than before. When it came time for the main event, our waiter brought the steak out whole, allowing us to marvel at its size and beauty, before slicing portions for us. I whispered an inquiry to Julia, wondering if he would be leaving the bone; to my delight, he placed it on its own plate and set it beside me, suppressing a smile as I eyeballed it ravenously. There’s just something about meat bones that brings out the id in me, perhaps a result of my fifteen years locked in vegetarianism.

The steak was all we’d hoped it would be: flavorful, tender, and just bloody enough. As I look back on the process of eating it, I can’t help but recall John Candy in The Great Outdoors, taking down “The Old 96er.” And while our chop wasn’t quite the monster John’s was, my romantic mind will always think fondly on it as equally sizeable. The grilled vegetables that accompanied did so aptly, the radicchio being particularly memorable: a far cry from the tongue-stinging chicories I have come to expect in the states, it was pleasant, its flavor actually existing beyond simply ‘bitter.’ Better stated, its flavor actually existed.

We passed on dessert, as the steak had been more than enough to leave us full. To our surprise, however, the chef sent out a small plate of biscotti and a glass of Vin Santo into which to dip them. We turned our heads toward the kitchen and saw him smiling; he acknowledged us, watching with obvious pleasure as we enjoyed his gift. On our way out of the restaurant we stopped to thank him, and after a bit of conversation that eventually revealed our profession, he invited us into the kitchen for a look. We marveled at its cleanliness and delighted in poking around an environment familiar, yet foreign, talking shop with the soft spoken but gregarious chef. In our element, we were reminded of the wonderful connections that flourish among cooks and within kitchens, capable of traversing language barriers and international boundaries. Our new friend bid us goodnight and safe travels with classic Italian effusiveness, and we retired for another night of satiated sleep.

The following morning, our excitement was palpable. Julia was feeling butterflies as we prepared to return to San Miniato, a place and time in her life that had affected her deeply, both as a chef, in skill and technique, and as a human, in self-reliance. I was experiencing similar emotions, though my thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only: truffles. The very idea that we might be able to purchase and cook with white truffles, was almost too incredible to be true. Though I had certainly eaten my share in restaurants, and gotten my hands on plenty while working, I had certainly never called any my own, due to both their rarity and their typically exorbitant cost.

Case in point: I remember one Thanksgiving, shopping at a gourmet grocery store in Maryland that happened to be selling a very limited supply of truffles, at the literally unbelievable price of $10.99 a pound. I could barely contain my excitement: truffles for Thanksgiving, what a treat! “How is it possible,” I asked the clerk, “that they’re so inexpensive?” He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization dawned on him and he started belly-laughing. Apparently, I had misread their price, fabricating a decimal point in my mind out of sheer (and silly) hope. The actual price of the truffles was $1,099 a pound.

Indecent exposure?
As our train pulled in to San Miniato, rain had begun to fall. Once again, we felt undeterred: all the truffle booths promised to be tented (Julia assured me she had observed as much when she’d visited years earlier), and if anything, the rain would thin the crowds at the otherwise crowded festival. As we waited for a taxi in the bar at the base of the mountain, Julia bought us a couple of sandwiches. During the majority of the year, said sandwiches would have been pretty ordinary; but during these special months, in this special place, everything gets a little fairy dusting of truffles, and the sandwiches were no exception. Prosciutto cotto was replaced by truffled prosciutto cotto, and ham and cheese became ham and cheese with truffle mayonnaise. We took little for granted and grinned like idiots as we chomped our sandwiches. I dared not use a napkin, lest I waste the precious delicacy, and instead wiped the mayo from my face with a greedy finger, licking it clean and barely believing the blessed circumstance: this was nothing compared to what was in store.

We arrived to our ‘agriturismo’ a bit distressed, as the rain continued to fall, that its proprietor was nowhere to be found. After a bit of minor fretting, Julia performed some light breaking and entering, found a phone, and eventually procured his arrival. A few hours and a couple of showers later and we were right as rain (yes, pun intended), refreshed and ready for dinner. A short cab ride later, we had arrived at Pepenero.

Everything looked just as we remembered it, and after being seated at our table, we headed to the kitchen to say hello to Gioberto and Salvatore, chef and sous-chef, respectively, and Julia’s former mentors. They embraced us like family, chattering excitedly about our return and the meal to come. I was able to pick up bits and pieces of their colloquial Italian, and Julia filled in the blanks when necessary. As food orders started to come in, they offered more hugs and wished us “Buon Apetito.” It was time to eat.

First up was the amuse bouche: creamy, dreamy leek soup beside a black sesame puff pastry. The soup warmed our insides, obliterating the rain outside from our memories and pressing reset on the day. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful a good soup can make you feel (even an amuse-sized portion), and I wondered if the rain had inspired the chef’s choice, or if it was just fortunate circumstance. Either way, we were content as could be, the stage set for the meal to follow.

Enough is never enough.
Next came our first courses: beef carpaccio for Julia and buffalo mozzarella-stuffed squid for me. When our server set the carpaccio on our table, my jaw literally fell open. There was more shaved truffle on the dish than I had ever seen on one plate; it almost entirely covered the beef, mingling with parmesan like it was no big deal, yet offering aromas that were a very, very big deal. Julia offered me bite after bite, generous soul that she is, and each made my heart flutter. It occurred to me that the menu's description ought to have presented the beef as minimal, nigh inconsequential: the truffles were the dominating star, in quantity and in flavor. I thought to myself: This would never happen in the states.

My calamari was no slouch, oozing liquid mozzarella all over the place that mingled with a delicate broccoli puree. But if I’m being honest, it didn’t hold a candle to Julia’s truffle-laden beef. She admitted to knowing exactly what to order, having worked at Pepenero during the season and remembering the majority of the restaurant’s go-to items. Considering our unspoken restaurant rule against ordering the same dish in any given course, I had a feeling I was in store to feel more jealousy than just my present portion.

"On top of spaghettiiiii…"
I was right. Julia’s next course was about a simple as it gets, and yet it was one of the most delicious plates I have ever encountered. Even now, weeks later, I can see, taste, and smell it as if it were right below my nose: handmade tagliatelli, tossed in butter and covered in (yet again) an obscene quantity of shaved white truffle. Eating it was like briefly dying, glimpsing heaven, and returning to earth once each bite was finished. The texture itself was particularly whimsical: pasta of perfect firmness mingled with impossibly delicate truffles that cracked like dragonfly wings between your teeth. As I pilfered bite after bite from Julia’s plate, I wondered how we got so lucky.

And to think: a pig found these.
This course, my plate stood up to my wife’s with a bit more clout than the last: tortellini packed with parmesan cream in a black truffle sauce and buried under a pile of shaved black truffles. I regressed to a childlike state as I slowly ate the tortellini, gleefully poking each with my fork and watching the molten parmesan begin to flow out before mopping up sauce and popping the succulent morsels in my mouth, biting down to release a proper river of flavor onto my taste-buds. The sensory experience was downright exciting: temperatures and textures wavered, rising and falling in crescendos that made my eyelids quiver with delight. I reflected: little more than flour, water, cheese, and a particular tuber resided on my plate. And yet the technique and vision of a few special people transformed them into something transcendent. God bless Italy.

Doesn't it look like the best candy bar ever?
Our final savory courses centered on pork, though represented in markedly contrasting preparations. Julia’s was truffle braised pork loin, accompanied by an ethereal celery root and potato milleifoillie, and topped with (what else?) shaved white truffle. My plate, as visually striking as it was tasty, was centered around a hearty chunk of roast suckling pig, its scored skin flawlessly crispy with a deep honey hue. After a moment of reverence, I tore the trophy apart, making sure to disperse the riches of crackling skin around my plate in order to lace every bite of juicy pork with that unmistakable, soul-tingling crunch.

Though we had little room for dessert, we knew we weren’t likely to make it back to Pepenero until an essentially diabetic age, so we made a selection that involved mascarpone and amaretto crust. As the plate was set before us, it resembled a cheesecake topped with one precious gooseberry. On bringing first bites to our lips, however, we could think of no better way to describe it than a deconstructed cannoli. Creamy mixed with crumby, sweet with nuances of punchy tang, it disappeared far faster than we expected it to. As we waited for our taxi, we shared a glass of Vin Santo before returning to the kitchen to thank and bid farewell to Gioberto and Salvatore, promising to stop by the following day when we returned to San Miniato for the truffle festival.
Imagine our surprise when a tiny comet landed on our dessert!

Schiacciata: hard to spell, easy to eat.
The next day began with the usual (first) breakfast of pastries, meats and cheeses at the hotel, but initial stop in San Miniato was to be a small, family-run café that we knew to serve an absolutely fantastic schiacciata (say it with me: “skya-CHA-ta”) topped with pancetta, rosemary, Fontina cheese, and potato. Schiacciata, whose name literally means ‘squashed,’ is a classic Tuscan flatbread somewhere between pizza and focaccia. This one in particular had convinced me, all those years ago, that the otherwise counterintuitive (for me at least) combination of starch on starch could, indeed, be delicious. We returned to the café to find that our beloved schiacciata had changed very little, much to our delight. We ordered a couple of slices, and as we sat in the tiny, bustling shop savoring our scrumptious second breakfast, the owner, a portly, jolly man with a bulbous nose and tousled white hair, recognized Julia (she had been a regular while living in San Miniato) and came over to say hello. They chatted for a few moments, laughing and catching up, and before he returned to the kitchen he brought over some tasty gifts: made from rich chocolate and mixed nuts, the sweets were like a cross between fudge and brownies, firm in our hands but melting in our mouths. We thanked him effusively on our way out, the velvety chocolate still clinging to our tongues and lingering inside our cheeks.

I'm calling it 'Tuscan Toothpaste.'
Completely fueled for the day (how many carbohydrates can you count?), we descended on the numerous tents set up around town, Julia guiding me like a wide-eyed, wonder-filled puppy on a leash. Thank goodness for that, as her restraint was all that kept me from emptying my wallet to the myriad vendors we encountered. There were salumerias offering truffled salamis and meats of every shape and size, along with truffled porchetta the size of wine barrels and even, at one stall in particular, a small mountain of truffled lard: the very epitome of decadence. The truffled cheeses we tasted were all over the spectrum, from creamy, tangy gorgonzola to salty, crumbly local sheep cheese, and everything in between. It was, honestly, a bit overwhelming when it came time to decide what we would be bringing home, and we perused as discerningly as we could, tasting every condiment, deeply inhaling each product’s perfume, and poring over the labels that listed ingredients.

Enough truffles to feed an army; a very, very fancy army.
I could wax poetic for days on the further assortment of all things truffled that delighted our every sense as we wandered though each tent’s hallowed halls. Equally lengthy is the list of purchases we considered for gifts to friends and family, as well as dinner that night. By the end of the day, our bags were filled with truffled honey, truffle butter, a truffle condiment for Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, truffled focaccia, sausage with truffles, several bottles of truffle oil, and the crowned jewel: one ping pong ball-sized San Miniato truffle. I held the dirt-flecked, otherwise unassuming gem to my nose and its earthy, nutty aroma seemed to envelop my head; I inhaled deeply, almost frantically, breathing in its magic like an intoxicant as the rest of the world faded into the background. A truffle slicer was the last necessary purchase, and we were at maximum capacity, ready to make use of our bounty. It was safe to say we had taken full advantage of this blessed opportunity.
Just another day at the market...

For the rest of the afternoon, we lazed about our cozy apartment, depleting a magnum of Chianti Riserva (courtesy of Gioberto), and snacking on pickled garlic and meaty Castelvetrano olives. With an arsenal of Q-tips, I painstakingly cleaned every nook and cranny of the truffle, transforming its surface from mottled gray and brown to pristine beige, the hue of bone beside candlelight in a painted still-life. Never in my life had I reveled so in the minutiae of preparing a foodstuff, taking nothing for granted amidst the gift of its experience. It’s not every day you get to clean your very own white truffle.
When clean foods give you dirty thoughts...

In Italy, this is a small serving of pasta.
For dinner, Julia cooked fresh, handmade pasta and tossed it in butter, finishing our bowls with every last bit of the fragrant tuber, sliced impossibly thin, to the point that I thought they might dissolve into the pasta. Every bite was a gift, eliciting incredulous, joyous laughs and eyes shut tight in an effort to better hone our relevant senses. I split open the truffled sausages next, spilling their contents into a waiting pan and adding thinly sliced red onion and chunky, springy Porcini mushrooms. I also threw in some spinach, ever craving a serving of vegetables (which, in a small mountain village approaching winter, were expectedly hard to come by). By the time the food had run its course, we were emptying the last drops of Chianti from the bottle, satiated and glowing from the exceptional meal (splitting a Magnum of wine probably helped our glow as well).

By late morning the following day, we were back at the train station, our suitcases considerably heavier from the spoils of the Truffle Festival. San Miniato had provided an exceptional (and aromatic) stay, one that I would think on fondly for a very long time. But it was time to say goodbye to Tuscany and head south, my mind already swimming with thoughts of gooey, melted cheese pooled inside a char-flecked crust. We were off to Naples, the birthplace of pizza!

It was to be my Graceland.