il cuoco della villa


    Several years ago, NPR ran a story in which they asked several award winning photographers to describe the best photograph they never took: a moment when they saw the picture and didn’t raise the camera. Then they asked them to tell why they chose to simply hold the image in their respective memories. Most all of them, in one form or another, spoke of coming face to face with the sacredness of the moment called them to be participant rather than observer, which meant they had to put their cameras down and just be.

    The Wednesday after Labor Day, Ginger and I joined friends for ten days in Italy. Just to type the sentence feels opulent. Still. We spent two days in Florence as preamble to our true purpose: a week together in a villa in Tuscany. No, we weren’t in a movie. For a week, this was our lives. Our group numbered sixteen in all. The villa was on the outskirts of the town of Lucca, which dates back a millennium. Both town and villa ere surrounded by farms and vineyards and olive groves. Walking the grounds around our temporary home I picked pears and figs. At night we gathered around a large table just outside the kitchen covered by an arbor. And it was good.

    I went not only as one of the group but also to be il cuoco della villa — the chef of the house. My invitation was to create our evening meals out under the stars and arbor, and  to help create a memory. I did my research into Tuscan cooking, brought a few ideas of my own, and learned some new things once we got to town. The menus included risotto with roasted chicken and grilled vegetables, chicken limone, spaghetti bolognese, and chingiale (wild boar) stew with polenta; for dessert we had apple pie with limoncello glaze, tiramisu, and risotto al cioccolato (that’s right — chocolate risotto). Each afternoon, my designated sous chef, Terry, and anyone else who cared to join us gathered in the kitchen and we cooked and talked and laughed and shared a littler pre-prandial vino rosso. As the sun began to fall behind the trees, the others began to fill the circle of chairs next to the dining table for appetizers, and then somewhere around eight we moved to the table where we stayed long after the food was finished.

    When we left to go to Italy, I had plans to blog everyday. Somewhere in the middle of the second afternoon of preparation I thought about those photographers and realized I would write about it someday, but not in real time. My job, if you will, for the week, was to share food with friends in Tuscany and remember everything I could. I was not there to write a book; I was there to cook and incarnate the very things I have written about. “As often as you do this,” Jesus said, “remember,” as he sat around a table with his friends. We have been back a week and those memories seem to just now be ripening into words I can share.

    Part of the reticence in writing, I think, comes from the sheer extravagance of the trip. As soon as I write, “I spent a week in a villa in Tuscany,” I feel as though I’ve separated myself somehow. I’m old enough to feel as though Robin Leach should be bellowing it out. That feeling is mostly drowned out by gratitude. Alongside the thankfulness I’ve also returned with some disquietude. The pace of life in Tuscany — even in the cities — was kinder and more spacious. The people of Tuscany understand what the word enough means better than I do.

    The housekeeper at the villa was a woman named Issa. She was in her sixties, I guess mostly because she said she had a forty-year old daughter. Her eyes sparkled with the same worn vibrancy of the Tuscan sunset and her hospitality was unflappable. She came by the house for a couple of hours each day and we had a chance to ask her some of our questions about life in Lucca and beyond. One day I asked her how to say, “Don’t eat alone.”

    Non mangiare da solo,” she answered.

    I wasn’t sure how to explain the blog or why the phrase mattered and I wondered, after seeing the lives lived around us, whether it was an admonition that carried any necessity at all in Tuscan life, which seemed aimed at tables filled with people who were committed to taking time to be together. Almost seven years into this blog and on the eve of a book about what it means to be at the table together, I understand it in ways I have not before.



    1. Your words are magical, as always, and I am envious of your time in Italy. My father’s family came from Gromignana (very near where you were) and the last of our relatives live in Lucca. It is a beautiful and wondrous place.

      Most of all, I remember being there, at meals such as the ones you describe, and feeling that it was all too perfect to be true. The table is the heart of Italian life, just as much for the company and conversation as for the food. I grew up in a home like that (thanks also to my Irish mother who was an excellent chef and storyteller)and treasure the memory. This is why I feel at home when I read your blog…you know why it is so important that we not eat alone. Blessings on you and your writing; I am anxiously awaiting your book. Grazie mille!

    Leave a Reply