With my treno to Firenze leaving at 12:15, I slowly wake, enjoy a cappuccino, leave a small tip for Verusca and wait again on the stoop for my taxi to the statzione.
As the taxi approaches, I see the driver is using his voice and hand gestures to convey his discontent with…something…when he gets out of the taxi, he is still mumbling as he grabs the Ferrari and tosses it in the back of his car. I get in the back seat and notice the meter is already at 7.30 euro…I tell him yesterday’s driver arrived with the meter at 5. “Che five! Che five!” he kinda shouts with fingers brought together under chin. At this point I try the tactic Franco taught me in 2013 of taking out my book and writing the taxi number down. Along our short ride, he continues to gripe about me, no doubt, but others as well.
The meter reads 15 euro when we arrive to the stazione. He tells me, “diciotto”, eighteen. I am shaking at this point, telling him that is “troppo” as I continue to write any numbers I see posted in the cab. I get out, as he does thinking he is going to throw the Ferrari or drive off with it. As he walks around the car, he is shouting to the other cab drivers, “Scrive!, Scrive!, Scrive!” (She writes, She writes, She writes). I take hold of the Ferarri, hand him 15 eruo, neither of us are happy with that, and walk away. I’m a bit angry yes…but there is also an excitement or pride thing going… feeling one with the culture as well.
I board the treno and sit in a carriage with an extended family of Americans. How people can travel like this, young kids, aunts and uncles, is beyond me. The entire way I listen to them complain about the heat in the train, sure ours is the only carriage without air and how they have spent all day on it…it is only 1:00. At one point, one of the dads announces to his spread out group that he has had enough of trains and is going to grab an Uber back. The kids reply, “Really?”
I arrive Santa Maria Novella and walk directly to my last B. I do not call Bencidormi a B&B because there is no 2nd B…no breakfast offered, although they do have a small kitchen visitors are welcome to use. It is listed instead as an “Albergo”. This is the most economical of all the places I have stayed and that is why I choose it. I like the location- in between the stazione and San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale and situated on a street, Via Faenza, with molto trattorias and enotecas. I stayed here two years ago and Mom and Dad have as well. The owners, Roberto and Paola are molto gentile and happy to help. I think they have six or so rooms, each color coded. Can you guess what my color is?
Roberto greets me and gives me the low down. I crank the air down in my room and complete a post to you. When I hit the streets, my goal is to find the art store again and buy several of the palette knives with the shop name on them. I think using these for cheese knives is inspired! My memory tells me the shop is to the left of the Duomo. I walk and weave, weave and walk. After a while, my weaves are within the street. I am having no luck and again am Hot and Hungry. I go WAY past where I think the shop is, finally concede defeat, then turn around. I head to Mercato Centrale to grab a bite to eat and consider the remainder of my day.Burrata and a spritz in me, I am revived a bit. Going to Mercato Centrale to cool off, does not work as well, although I am sure the space has some air conditioning, because of its size, it is impossible to keep cool.
After my aperitivo, I decide to go see what the chalk artist are up to today. Again it is Girl with a Pearl earring….mix it up a bit Firenze! Vermeer was not Florentine AND the painting is at The Hague in the Netherlands not in Firenze! I can’t quite figure out the fascination (ok…besides great colors and global recognition) to the chalk artists.
As I approach dinner time, I intend to work my way back to Via Faenza where Trattoria Katti is. I want to enjoy pappa pomodoro one more time before I head home home. But instead I look up and see I am in front of The Yellow Bar. I overheard a couple from the US raving about this place a couple of weeks ago. They said they liked it so much they ate here two days in a row. Thinking it is nice to broaden my dining experiences, I enter.
I ask for a tavolo per uno. The waiter at the door walks me through the larger seating area and into a smaller one off to the side. This one only has due tavolos. A small one by the window, which he seats me at, and a larger one. In this area there is also the pasta station, where a girl is working away and a window that opens to the cucina. When the waiter brings me in, the chef gives him a look, a short conversation ensues. Not sure what the issue was, but finally the chef slacks his shoulders and welcomes me. In very broken english, he asks me my name and where I am from. I say Texas and he asks, “China!?” I say Texas again, louder and clearer and he responds, “Aaaahhhh Tekkkkkssssaassss!” Then he says China/Texas a couple of times with funny hand signals. He then asks me what I will be having tonight. “Pasta or Pizza?” I pause only for a moment and he adds, “Aaahhh Pasta…bene!”…OK…pasta it is. He then declares he will be making me, Pici con vegetables. Sounds good to me. When he then asks, “Pajjjj…do-a you-a like-a the vino?” I nod Si. “Rosso or Bianco?” I look at him as if to say, you tell me….so he does, “I-a theeenka-a…. for-a you-a……tonight-a….(head tilt considering) bianco.”
I ask him his name. He says, “Il mio nome e Luigi.” Certo it is!
It is SO VERY CALDO in this place. I am slipping off the booth almost. I take out my fan and attempt some relief.
Every once in a while, Luigi would call out from his window, “Paajjj….you-a OK-a?” as I waited.
Then the waiter, Sergio, presented me with my piatti. I look up and Luigi stands proud and says, “Solo per te.”….Certo Luigi….certo! The pasta girl rolls her occhi at his antics.Wednesday morning I slept late, wrote a bit, then thought about what I still wanted to experience or accomplish during my last few days. I half-heartedly checked into a couple of tours, but found they were all booked. I have been entertaining the idea of a day trip to Venice. Venice has never been on my list of places I want see, but after spending quite a bit of time with locals, they have put it in my mind that it is a beautiful place that one must see. So I check into train schedules and costs. Roberto helped me secure a round trip for tomorrow, leaving around 8:30 returning at 20:00. He suggested I try Italo instead of Trenitalia, their cost is a bit less and he says the trains are nice. When he is helping me on their website, he says, “Do-a you-a want-a to watch-a the cinema?” They have a movie during the trip? This really would be a step up from some of the trenos I’ve been on…I’m in. He prints off my tickets, puts them in a little plastic sleeve and I am set. I feel good now that I have a bit of an agenda. Floating around is good, but I like an anchor here and there.
I have yet to make it over to the true market of the San Lorenzo Mercato. So I walk the 2 blocks to take a look at what they have to offer. First stop, I need a bit of caffeine and sugar. Then I just roam through the market, once again amazed at the beauty of some of the things,And the oddness of some of the others….yes…that is every part of the cow you can imagine…and yes, yes…that’s his face down there too.A couple of days ago, Elisa contacted me again and told me she and some friends had a few more “programs” to offer me. I wanted to take advantage of ALL of them, but narrowed it down to one last night with Elisa and her mother. Tonight, I am to meet Elisa and a predetermined spot, gather our ingredients at local shops around her apartment and then cook there with her and her mother Mara.
Although I am paying for these “programs”, I feel like a friend too, so while at the market I want to buy some wine to bring. Lucky for me, they let you try before you buy.I chose a rosso from Bolgheri as a remembrance of Elisa’s family taking me there. But then I also see these great looking bottles of Prosecco, so I get one of those as well.I take the heavy bag of wines back to the room and return to the streets for an afternoon of shopping for the famiglia.
Gucci perfume for Avery as well as a copy of her favorite book. She collects copies of the Great Gatsby and I try to find her a used one when I travel. I have looked at several used book shops during this trip and have not found one, so I made do with a new copy from a regular bookstore. It was the only one they had.
I stash my goodies in the room, take a quick look at a map to see where I am heading, grab the vino and go. I am to meet Elisa at Piazza della Liberta at 18:00 and it is a little more than a mile in a direction I am unfamiliar with. I would hate to be late so I get going.
As I am walking it feels hotter in this area. Even thought it is almost 6:00 in the evening it is still smok’n in the sun. I arrive at the Piazza and it is bigger than I thought it would be. It is basically a traffic circle with a cement park in the middle of it. I try to remember where Elisa said to meet. I think there was something about a post office, so I ask a girl waiting at the same cross walk as me. She tells me yes there is a post office across and kinda tucked in the corner. I cross through the piazza, through the traffic light on the other side, where there is of course no shade. I look around and even though it is just now 18:00, I text Elisa to let her know I am here. She texts back saying she is running about 10 minutes late. I cross back over to the edge of the piazza, sit on a curb in the shade and wait.When Elisa arrives (She says she is late because it has taken her longer than she thought it would to get her apartment ready for a guest. Mara is there now preparing for me…what would we do without our moms.) we catch up while we walk. She tells me she has been busy with school and has another test scheduled soon. She also is applying for an internship in France. I tell her about the cities I have visited since we last saw each other.
During our walk, we pass through a tunnel Elisa had previously told me about. This is a place that changes all the time she says. You will come by one week and there is a certain art, then the next, someone else has used the same “canvas” and created their work. She says there is a homeless man from Sicily that is usually here. He takes it upon himself to keep the area nice and clean. She says he plays the harmonica as well. The size of each work of art is very large, for example the deer head is 8 feet tall. It is very cool to see so many different styles coming together to create this unique “exhibition”. I know there are some real questions about the legalities of urban art…but I am drawn to it.We emerge from the tunnel in Elisa’s neighborhood or zone, I think she called it. Here we begin gathering our ingredients.
We stop at 2 cheese shops, because 1 shop dedicated to only cheese is not enough. I could have stayed all day and made a meal out of the cheese and crunchy bread in that lower right photo.
While Elisa was talking with the proprietors of each shop, I admired how they take pride and are so knowledgeable about their products. They are not just selling you something, its like they are there to help make whatever you are making better. The second shop we went into had this recipe booklet hanging. Inside, customers share recipes they make from what they purchase here. What a great idea! I took a couple…certo!And we arrive at Elisa’s apartment. Her parents own the building, and Angela lives in an apartment below Elisa’s.As it is HOT, HOT, HOT everywhere, I put the Prosecco in the coldest place I can find…Elisa’s frozen shut freezer. It takes all Mara’s might to pry the door open, but when she does, I linger for a moment.Mara appears from upstairs and welcomes me. Throughout the evening, there are words between her and Elisa. The same kind of words my mother shared with me at Elisa’s age, and words I used to have with Avery… on the kind of “organization” I was choosing to live with and in. Throughout of cooking lesson, Mara would ask for a specific implement, Elisa would pull out something Mara was clearly not happy with and similar short, discussions would follow. My italian is not good, but I can recognize “bisogno”…you need. I would laugh and continued to tell Mara that now she knows what to get Elisa for Natale.
Elisa gives me a brief tour of her piccolo appartamento. When you walk in, there is the cucina and a small area for eating or sitting. Out the terrazzo door there, Elisa has a few herbs and pomodoro plant…this should make her mother proud. A quick turn and up the stairs is her bagno, then her room. Up tre more stairs is a piccolo terrazzo, just big enough for a piccolo, round table and tre sedie…just big enough. The view from Elisa’s terrazzo is bella. To the right, the hills of Fiesole and to the left, I am assuming is back to Florence proper. Straight in front of me, the sun is beginning to set.
Now, to work. To night we will be making gnudi. Gnudi is basically the inside of ravioli with the its clothes or pasta. I had seen someone eating this dish early in my trip and wondered what it was. Anna had also mentioned it in Castagneto Carducci. Here you will see the ingredients you need; spinaci- blanched and cut up, uova, farina, parmigiano, sale, noce mascata, and not pictured here to Mara’s disappointment is of course ricotta. The noce mascata or nutmeg is optional.You mix all of these ingredients together. Mara only used tre uova. The combination needs to hold together but not be too wet or dry. The parmigiano was grated but we also enjoyed little hunks as we worked at Mara’s encouragement.
When you are ready to create the gnudi, you need to put little piles of farina on a wooden board (Mara travels with her own….get ready Daddy), scoop of dollop of the mixture and gently roll in the farina. Now this is where I had to ask a question. The dish I had seen earlier in my trip was perfect little balls, I was wondering wether we were going to cut into pieces, ma no. Mara says you can do it the way you would like, but this is her famiglia’s version. As you can see, we have way more than the tre of us need. Mara says you can freeze for a week or so, then pop into boiling water when you are ready to eat. Mara adds salt and a piccolo bit of olive oil to the water. Olive oil in the pasta water is usually NOT done in Italy, but in this case, you do not want the gnudi to stick together.
With our gnudi, we have a piatto di formaggi, a insalata, macedonia and pane.And let’s not forget the Prosecco in the freezer! I was thinking we would enjoy this while we prepared, but I had to be patient. I got confused when I was trying to open the bottle. I assumed the little string around the cork was going to aid in removing it, ma no. At home, Prosecco comes in bottles with corks that pop…I learned there are due kinds here. I am sure when Mara was using the corkscrew to open the bottle, she thought I was crazy. I kept approaching with caution, worried for her but for me as well. When she easily slid the cork from the bottle, asked why it did not pop. “Frizzantini” she said. Oh big bubbles in frizzante and little bubbles in frizzantini I guess….learning something new everyday!
When the gnudi boiled and floated to the top, Mara poured butter that had melted with bits of salvia in it. I tell you, I am a huge fan of salvia (sage) now! And then for a final touch, topped with molto parmigniano.
Conversation is easy with Mara and Elisa. Mara’s english is not as fluent as Elisa’s and often, she is content to listen. We discuss the differences between college in Italy and American universities. Elisa would love to experience the American version. She loves the idea of all the social camaraderie usually such a bit part of one’s years there. I showed her a video of us at an Alabama football game and she was amazed!
Some of the topics are as Elisa says, “difficult”. When she see’s America through Michael Moore’s eyes, it is hard for me not to try to counter. She had a professor who was obviously a fan of his and would share his views often. I am sure after a few of our conversations, Elisa sees me as an American that only looks out for myself and my family, not wanting to assist those less fortunate…as she says, it is “difficult” dinner conversation, but stimulating none the less.
So onto something we can all agree on….gelato. Mara and Elisa take me to a shop that has recently won a festival in London, Badiani. I chose the flavor that won them their fame, Dolce Vita and pistacchio…I’m becoming a pistacchio unfficiale.In front of the gelateria, we run into Angela and a friend…piccolo mondo.
Mara and I drop Elisa off near her appartamento and make the short drive back to Via Faenza to mine. It is difficult, due to the language barrier, to fully express my gratitude to these people. I do my best and Mara does hers…it feels warm and right. I lean back in the car, asking Mara to please also give my best to Luigi and Anna.
I go into my room, wash the sticky off and call it a notte.