I am excited about the day ahead. I arrive at Santa Maria Novella and although the 9:22 train says “Arezzo” I am familiar enough to know (think strongly) that Arezzo is its end point and my stop, Pontassieve, is somewhere along the way. Just to be certo, I show my ticket to a representative standing on the platform. He gives me the universal “thumbs up” and I hop on.
It feels a bit strange traveling on a train with only my borsa. The Ferrari will accompany me soon enough. As Constanza said, the journey is corto and I arrive at Pontassieve in about 35 minutes. Costanza meets me on the platform. She is looking Italian Casual in her navy linen pants and navy cami. I am feeling a bit warm in my newly purchased thin Zara sweater, but she had warned me the air around her home “would-a not-a be hot-a”.After stopping to get petro in her piccola macchina gialla, we head to her favorite market. She tells me as it is Sabato, it will be very busy.
The small market is occupato and everyone but me moves about with purpose. I just gawk, take photos and get in the way. On our list are pomodori, peperoni, melanzane, ciliegie e vino, naturalmente. I admire the fiori di zucca and hope to have some fritta before I leave for home.Once again, I hit the road this morning before eating anything, and cannot resist getting a slice of schiacciata cotte e fontina. Although I am too embarrassed to stuff my face with it at the moment, you will notice it comes in hand later.Before we entered the market, Costanza laughed as she told me that wine, both rosso e bianco were served from a “pump-a…like-a you do-a the petro”. And sure ’nuff…Fill ‘er up!
Speaking of “speak”, a little side note here. Remember Massimo’s friend Elisa2 who is an enterpreter? She said the people that are the absolute worst (she was very adamant about this) are Texans. You should have heard the way she mimicked us. Also, when Elisa1 read part of the blog and noticed the way-a I-a write-a the way-a they-a speak-a…she said, “Eees that-a the way-a you hear-a us-a?” She got a kick out of it. I assured her it was meant with love and not poking fun at-a.We arrive at Costanza’s bella casa and I am immediately in love.
The views…The olive trees…The views….did I already mention the view? Costanza apologized many times for the haze and the clouds telling me this did not make for perfect viewing conditions. I’m good, I assured her.Inside, I was met with delight at every nook and turn. Costanza’s mum, Antonella has many gifts and a flare for home decor is one.After my welcome and tour, Costanza shows me a crostata she has made in my honor, but tells me the rest of the cooking is waiting on me.We (Costanza, Antonella, Aunt Carla and me) tie on our aprons and waste no time. Pasta first. This is Carla’s domain for the day.I am in awe and also very intimidated by her expertise at rolling out paper thin dough. It was fascinating to watch. Things I learned- Let gravity help you, allowing half the sheet to hang off the table while you roll the other half. Also, when you have a couple of rolls around the pin (we are talking a 3 foot long one here) gently smooth the dough on the pin outwards, making it grow as you go. To be honest, for my first time at this method, I did a pretty good job. It was difficult to tell the difference in thickness while eating. I think I surprised them as well.
Now folding the ravioli was a different story. Several of mine had ricotta and spinach oozing out of the sides. At one point, Antonella laughed, looked at the others then told me, “Si pou mangiare che uno adesso”. (You can eat this one now.) We all laughed.Constanza was surprised to notice we were ahead of schedule. This allowed us to go ahead and prepare the summer vegetables au gratin that are planned for dinner. (Yes, we are eating AGAIN after the ravioli!) As the four of us worked in the kitchen, Carla’s method was very direct. She would demonstrate a technique once, then hand over to me to complete. I felt trusted and one of the famiglia.This is the grande cucina, there is a second piccolo one attached to another wing in case they ever choose to rent part of the casa.After looking at the photos, Antonella and I coordinate pretty well.It looks like I am on the set of a cooking show, but this is their everyday cucina!Here are the gratin ready for cooking. Costanza says it is important to mix the vegetables on each tray. This way the flavors blend creating depth to a simple dish. In the breadcrumbs (fatta in casa, certo!) we added the juice and seeds from the pomodori and a dash of salt.
At last the table is set. Mauro, Constanza’s father arrives, we sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labor.For lunch our ravioli is served with pomodori sauce and parmigiano. I am so hungry that I made the foolish, foolish mistake of helping myself to a second serving. What WAS I thinking!? I should know by now that pasta is only a primi dish. There is always more to come. Of course there was affettati, a fresh mixed salad with mozzarella and a new cheese for me stracchino…oh and pane of course. AND…lest I forget, we enjoyed the local white straight from the pump to their bottiglie.Costanza’s crostata was tart with a shortbreadish crust. Molto buono! At this point, I was VERY happy to see the espresso offered. More cafe philosophy was shared as we sat back from the table, proud and full.Traditionally, this seems to be the time mid-day where people retire for a bit. I was confused as to what was expected and acceptable. Constanza showed me to the study and Antonella offered me a look through her extensive library of art books. As the white cotton curtains billowed in the breeze, I knew this was a place I could get comfortable…maybe a little too comfortable.
With no one else in the room, I was fighting to stay awake. I feared if I closed my eyes for a mere moment, I might wake to the famiglia standing over me. Sunshine and fresh air would be best, so I found my way to one of the terraces. The sun was warm and the air heavy with the scent of jasmine and ginestra.
First I light on a wooden park bench overlooking the hazy hills, I hear a siren so far off, I think I am dreaming. Then, I remember seeing a hammock hanging in a shady spot between two trees…it called my name. I could have stayed here for hours. It was so perfect. But the brief rest was enough to revive me and when I heard the door to the house close, I got up and was ready to explore.
Inside the house, Costanza, Antonell and Carla were huddled around maps and books. A volley of conversation ensued. I assumed they were each proposing brief excursions for my enjoyment. I assured them I was currently molto contenuti right where I was.
But a light jacket was handed to me and Costanza and I were headed to the mountains. After many turns and curves we approach the comune of Reggello. Reggello is about 30 km south-east of Florence in the Apennines Mountains. Passed the village in a forest of beech and firs you come upon the Abbey of Vallombrosa.
Vallombrosa is a Benedictine abbey founded in 1038. Over the centuries additional buildings and towers were added. In the 17th century the wall around the abbey was erected. A cool, misty day seemed the perfect ambiance for such a setting.
Both Constanza and I were happy to find mass beginning and decided to attend. Not only was attending mass in such a beautiful, historic church special but we were fortunate enough to have stumbled upon a special mass in which the Bishop was presiding over. From what we could gather, two new priest were being ordained or receiving Holy Orders. The spicy smell of incense filled the dark space. The frescoes on the ceiling were painted in the Rococo Period. Rococo manner is characterized by graceful, enchanting, lighthearted themes of the European upper-classes. To me, this often light-hearted, rosy-tinted view is at odds with traditional religious themes. They are pretty, yes, but to see Christ seated on a golden chair with fancy pants, socks and shoes on was just confusing to me. When we returned to the house…guess what…it was time to mangiare again!
Our ravioli was now served with brown butter and sage. Hard to believe, this light sauce was even better than the pomodori sauce. The taste of the spinach and ricotta as well as our light pasta was allowed to take center stage.
The summer vegetable au gratin will be wonderful to make at home on a warm summer’s evening. I look forward to going to our Thursday market, buying what is in season and making this for mi famiglia.
Although there was crostata left from lunch, Costanza made a custard ice cream. Each of us had the choice of espresso or cioccolata calda to drown it in. It was a holiday in a cup!
Once again, words cannot express my enjoyment and appreciation for being allowed to share in this special day with this special family. Their kindness and genuine interest exceed every expectation I had. As with Elisa’s family, I look forward to creating future memories with la famiglia di Costanza.