Brendan and I went to Italy in late October of 2009 to spend the winter, writing. We lived most of three months in the large stone villa where Brendan’s aunt and mother had lived as schoolgirls, a former convent up in the Florentine hills, an hour’s walk from the city. We watched the dawn on our first morning, standing out on the bedroom terrace, listening to roosters yelling all over the valley while the sky over the wooded hills turned neon pink and orange.
The place has its own vineyard and olive grove, as well as persimmon trees, rosemary and sage bushes, potted lemon trees, a few scraggly chickens, and a vegetable garden. It was olive season. The air was smoky from the olive branches burning everywhere. Nets lay under the olive trees, and men stood on ladders reaching into the branches all day. When it was time to press the villa’s olives, we went with Fabio, the caretaker, to the Cooperativa Agricola. The huge truckload of olives was dumped onto a conveyer belt that took them into the washer and sorter; they embarked on a long, intricate journey of pressing and turning until finally, two hours later, streams of fresh golden oil poured from a spout to fill eight or nine enormous, stoppered vats. We came home with a glass bottle of freshly pressed, super-virgin, organic oil to keep by the stove. It was bitter and rich and tasted like nothing else on earth. We poured it on salads but didn’t cook with it – it was too raw. For cooking, we used oil from the last year’s pressing, which had mellowed and aged a bit.
The wine from the villa’s vineyard was thin and light and very subtle, almost like liquid Valium. Fabio filled wine bottles for us from the demijohn in the tool shed and corked them with a manual press — he put the bottle in and set a cork in and pulled the lever and presto, a bottle of wine. We drank legendary quantities of it – apparently it was the talk of the village.
There was a tenant in an attached apartment, a Botoxed, boob-jobbed, trout-lipped So-Cal 40-something divorcee who might have seen “Under the Tuscan Sun” one too many times. She held spiritual meetings for her expat friends and didn’t speak any Italian although she’d been there for 2 years. Her poor cringing little son was obviously yearning to be back in L.A. with his friends. She wore a shawl and twitched it self-consciously. I was fascinated by what I took to be her hilariously cartoonlike personality — until she cooked us dinner near the end of our time there. She turned out to be funny, vulnerable, and self-deprecating, totally impossible to dislike. I had probably looked askance at her because I was also a 40-something divorcee, and in those days, I was sad and raw and shell-shocked still over the end of my marriage. All I wanted to do in Italy was escape. Laura’s own situation reminded me too sharply of what I’d just been through.
And that winter under the Tuscan rain turned out to be a great escape from the past, exactly what I needed. After a euphoric but sometimes rocky beginning, Brendan and I became true friends there. We had a lovely, solitary, productive life in our hermitage in that beautiful but freezing-cold place that cost a small fortune to heat. We were like wacky children together, laughing and singing and babbling in various accents, wandering around in our bathrobes, cooking meals, playing Scrabble by the fireplace.
We took the same walk every day, at around two o’clock: along a high ridge through vineyards and along tiny Tuscan country roads, a big loop that brought us through the village, where we often had a little coffee and bought supplies — clementines, a whole chicken, a broccoflower — and then climbed up the steep hill through a big olive grove and came home again a slightly different way, two hours’ fast walking. On the ridge, there was a memorable view — Florence down below on the left of the ridge and on the right, a lush terraced valley and mountains with long fingers of fog in the high gulches.
We slept in the master bedroom with the doors to the terrace closed, the heat on. We slept deeply in the absolute darkness and silence that was broken only by the zanzara tigre, “tiger mosquito,” but the English translation doesn’t convey the kamikaze-airplane-like quality of this animal. When I heard the zanzara tigre speaking in its hideously intimate deep voice right in my ear, I offered up my arm and hoped it would feed, be appeased, and go back up to the rafters to sleep it off, but its bloodthirstiness was unrelenting; it liked to stalk its perfect spot for hours.
We set up small worktables in the two deep casement windows, side by side against the wall opposite the big, cozy bed, separated by a trunk and an armchair. We spent our days and nights in this room, writing, listening to music, sleeping, watching movies. The huge kitchen was down a stone staircase and at the other end of the house through a long tiled hallway. We cooked enormous feasts in that cavernous room every day, some of the best food I’d ever had.
In January, we went with Brendan’s father, Michael, to Perugia, the medieval mountain town where Michael and his 5 siblings grew up while their father was translating The Odyssey. We had lunch in the Fitzgerald villa, a vast, drafty, very beautiful place with a view all the way across the valley to Assisi, apparently, although we couldn’t see a thing because the day was dark and foggy, so I took Brendan’s word for it. It was a bitterly cold day, and the massive stone house was as cold as a walk-in refrigerator. We all sat hunched for warmth by the fire in the kitchen hearth at a long wood table while Brendan’s aunt and uncle, who lived there with their son, served an Italian Sunday lunch – spaghetti al pomidoro (I gave up and ate gluten in Italy and was therefore bloated and churlish much of my time there, but it was absolutely worth it), then flank steaks and cauliflower — they grilled the steak on the open kitchen hearth. We drank prosecco first with olives and cheese, then Chianti with lunch, then vin santo with dessert: pears poached in red wine and cinnamon and sugar, and the pignoli we’d bought in town before lunch. It was a dreamlike, memorable afternoon.
While he was growing up, Brendan learned to make classic, simple, rustic Italian dishes from his father, who’d learned many of them from Marcella, the villa’s now-retired cook and housekeeper: roast leg of lamb served with green pepper-apple-onion curry, Arborio rice, and Major Grey’s mango chutney; tender osso buco; an eggplant-pepper peperonata so silky it melts in your mouth; lasagna made by alternating layers of two sauces, Bolognese and Bechamel; breaded veal cutlets, crisp and thin, with fresh chopped tomato-and-basil sauce. Brendan also makes a Sicilian eggplant pasta known as alla Norma, a pure alchemy of olive oil, garlic, eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata, mixed well into a bowl of hot, freshly cooked pasta and served with more grated cheese.
Together, Brendan and his father reproduced the recipe for Marcella’s pizza, which is the best pizza, and I mean this, that I have ever had. They were never able to replicate her crust; the recipe is a secret, but they do know that it involves the usual flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and water. So all I can say is, make a perfect dough and roll it out perfectly, however you can; I invented a gluten-free facsimile that is of course in no way as good as wheat dough but which is perfectly edible.
Next, open a can of crushed tomatoes and pour it into a bowl. Add olive oil, dried oregano and basil, crushed red pepper, black pepper, sliced garlic (optional), and a touch of salt. Finely chop a handful of black olives, four or five anchovies, and a handful of capers and mix in a small bowl. Slice some fresh mozzarella and roughly chop some prosciutto cotto. First, layer the salty-savory mixture of olives, anchovy, and capers onto the lightly oiled dough. Then the sweet, mild cheese, then the ham, and last, the tomato sauce on top. Bake it hot and fast.