It was only a summer and a half ago, when our current times were unimaginable. The dozen guests arrived for dinner alfresco on the terrace overlooking Florence, floating mystically down in the valley, bathed in a lavender light.
How proud I was to serve my Tuscan meal. Fettunta, to start. Neighborhood bakery bread, saltless of course, because the bread is but a palette for absorbing Tuscan flavors. I grilled it lightly, then gave a generous rub with fresh garlic, an equally generous dressing of olive oil culled from the very garden beneath the terrace, and no more than a half-grind from a little pepper mill. A bottle of Chianti picked up from a wine stand discovered on a “lose myself on the ancient winding roads of grapevines, olive groves and cypress tress”. Tomatoes, more like God’s red candy, offered from the garden just below the kitchen window that afternoon. Fresh basil from the windowsill. Wild asparagus, from the patch on the hill that refused not to be generous, even though it was summer and asparagus season was over… And baked flaky baccalà, cod, picked up at the local grocery store, tender, ever so white.
The guests were eager to visit the new resident in the neighborhood. (Will this newbie respect the local traditions, or will he make a mess of things with his ‘foreign ways’?) Loving everything Italian from childhood, dreaming of making a life in Florence since childhood, the answer was respect for tradition above all!
As the layer of lavender that embraced Florence took on an orange red, the sun taking its leave, the city began to twinkle. The fettunta and wine, a success. Now for the baccalà accompanied by a fresh tomato and basil salad, alongside grilled asparagus, a refreshing meal before the homemade caramelized-apple gelato and biscotti accompanied by espresso. In the kitchen, I took a fork to the baked baccalà, perfectly flaky with tiny beads of olive oil among the barely visible ground pepper, and invisible ground salt, with which I had barely touched the beautiful gift from the sea. Elegant, simple plating, and off we go. How proud I was of the Italian freshness set before my neighbors and a couple of our guests from across the ocean.
A moment later, my table partner, a friend, looks at me with a stare so pointed, there was no choice but to catch my attention before I had lifted my own silverware. She then whispers, “It’s a little salty, you know.”
“Impossible!” I say. “I barely touched it with one grind from the mill!”
I rush into the kitchen to taste one of the remaining pieces. No! It tasted worse than the Dead Sea. Or that drink that you are forced to ingest before a colonoscopy. An unpleasant picture, but spot on.
I tiptoe back onto the terrace, look at the guests and the table, forks laid down in resignation on their plates, fish pushed this way and that, but certainly not eaten. I muster the courage, find a lull in the conversation, and apologize profusely for making such a mess.
The guests sit quietly, which seemed like forever, until one, a native of another land, but a longtime resident piped up, “Don’t worry. We’ve all done it. Welcome to Italia. You are now a full-fledged local!” Even the Italians agreed, except for one, who said in his halting Italian-tinged English, “I ate all mine! I thought it was excellent!”
I suppose, if you enjoy a bucket of salt, with nothing on the side. Everyone laughed. And then a neighbor said that the next time I go down the hill to the Sant’Ambrogio market, which is where the “real locals” go, I must ask for baccalà bagnato, bathed cod, for unlike the other side of the sea, all cod is relentlessly salted. The alternative is to buy salted cod and bathe it myself for two days in milk, rinse and prepare. I loved the term bagnato. Only the Italians “bathe” their fish.
But it was the hint of Sant’Ambrogio market that really piqued my curiosity, especially if I one day wanted to become a “real local”. The next day, I made my way to this world of food magic in Florence. The underground parking guarantees that there is always place and the location offers access to the entire center of the city. While the market offers everything one could possibly dream of to prepare a Tuscan meal, the neighboring specialty food shop, C.BIO, is a miraculous find. The owner is the famous food king, Fabio Picchi, chef, lover of honest food, lover of life, entertainer, character, restaurateur and purveyor of a food empire in the Sant’Ambrogio district. I’ve become a regular there, whether looking for a perfectly balanced ribollita or pappa al pomodoro, both hearty bread-based soups, one vegetable, the other just tomato, or pure garden vegetables, homemade condiments, lasagnas, meat dishes, beautifully sourced proteins, chocolates, breads and cakes, always different, fresh, new and elegant. If one is lucky, the great Fabio will be holding court, in his soft-spoken Tuscan Italian, instructing his staff how something should be created and sold: “The ingredients are of the highest quality and very expensive, so do not sell it for a lower price in its entirety. Sell it in pieces, little by little, to maximize!” Nowadays, Chef Picchi’s neighborhood restaurants are closed due to the safety rules. Until things open up some more, the man can be found in his marvelous specialty shop, quietly but unabashedly dropping hints of wisdom about the food he loves.
That dinner night a summer and a half ago, not long after my arrival, didn’t end in complete shame, for the homemade gelato, an invention, saved the day. Caramelized apples, with a dash of Parmigiano, milk and cream, the sugar from the apples served to sweeten the salt from the cheese. Now I know where to get the perfect ingredients, just across from C.BIO, at the Sant’Ambrogio market: apples from L’Angolo della Mela, the “Apple Angle”, and a full range of the most glorious Parmigiano, or whatever aged cheese might catch your fancy just inside the market at Innocenti Urbano.
My, what a magical place!
Hershey Felder as Sergei Rachmaninoff in Anna and Sergei
With Ekaterina Siurina as Natalia Alexandrovna Rachmaninoff and Igor Polesitsky as Dr. Golitzin
Anna and Sergei takes place as a memory play in the house in which the Russian Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills, this is the story of a very strange meeting between Rachmaninoff and Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole surviving member of the Romanov Dynasty, the Princess Anastasia. Featuring Rachmaninoff’s most beloved melodies and music.
Sunday, May 16, 2021 at 5pm Pacific / 7pm Central / 8pm Eastern.
(Includes extended viewing access to the recording through Sunday, May 23)
A percentage of ticket sales will be generously donated to The Florentine and other cultural organizations.
This article was published in Issue 277 of The Florentine.