Fifteen years ago, I tucked my fresh, unstamped passport into my purse, closed the small travel locks on my brand new Kelty pack, made sure my iPod was loaded with plenty of John Mayer and Maroon 5, and headed east on an overnight Air France flight. My travel companions and I landed in Paris, only to realize very quickly that we should have thought about exchanging money, or how we were going to get to our hostile, long before landing. In these days, cell phones didn’t work in Europe, the online-world wasn’t really a “thing” yet, and American debit cards wouldn’t work in foreign countries.
I spent a lot of that month crying as I very gruffly and painfully learned how to navigate Western Europe. The multiple pickpockets, bomb-threats, union strikes, and robberies certainly didn’t help. By the end, just one last travel companion and I remained, and we often joked about duck-taping our passports into our underwear and never coming back. A lot of our anguish was due to my youth and naive view of the world – I’d never ridden a subway, never navigated train travel or large cities, never learned how to be aware of dangers that naturally swarm to travelers. Some of these lessons came hard. Here’s one for you: the men dressed up in gladiator costumes outside the coliseum in Rome certainly don’t want their picture taken – at least, for free. Duh.
The first stint of our trip was spent in France. That’s a story for a day when I’m, perhaps, feeling a bit more charitable. In our attempt to leave France, the airport had a bomb threat, which caused us to miss our flight, which caused the airline to say “Sorry, sucks to be you.”, which caused me to have a complete, sobbing, meltdown in front of the airline begging them to have mercy on us. “I have nowhere to go!” I sobbed. So I sat in front of their desk until eventually, the stewardess printed fresh tickets for us and quietly shoved them across the counter towards me.
Our crew arrived in Italy hungry, tired, and weary. I tried to call Stuart from the payphone upon our arrival in Sienna using a prepaid calling card (anyone else remember those dinosaurs?). The buttons wouldn’t work and for all my effort, I couldn’t get the call to go through. An old Italian man, hunched over with age and with plenty of sun-wrinkles to spare, walked over to me amongst my struggle. At first, I was sure he was coming over to yell at me… or rob me… but instead he explained to me in broken English that in Italy, to get the payphone to work, you had to press the buttons like you meant it. Like it’s a matter of life and death, he said. He quietly showed me how to press each button, slowly and intentionally and fiercely. The call went through and I beamed a smile his direction as he shuffled away, pleased with his humanitarian efforts for the day. Perhaps he had seen the weariness on my face – I, unfortunately, have never been one to hide my emotions well.
Through tears, I talked with Stuart. I vented about the French transportation strike and my hunger – the croissants and chocolate bars of France had done little to curb my protein-hungry American appetite. I did happen to enjoy a meat sandwich somewhere in France, but the meat was so impossibly tough we dubbed it the “shoe leather” sandwich and I had to settle for just nibbling the butter brushed bread instead. Stuart, who had spent plenty of time traveling in Europe himself, encouraged me to carry on. Chin up.
After our phone call, I slung my pack over my back once again, now accustomed to the heavy weight of it, and marched to join my fellow travelers. We happened to arrive in Sienna in mid-afternoon, when a majority of the shops and restaurants are closed for an afternoon rest. Unaccustomed to this ritual, and very hungry, I found the closest restaurant I could and knocked on the door. Perhaps this is a restaurant that you had to ask for permission to enter? I didn’t care. I was so hungry.
No one answered.
I sat on the porch of the restaurant, completely defeated, when an Italian woman, sturdy and vibrant, came to the door. She turned the archaic key and the forest green door swung up. Her thick arm motioned for us to come in and we weakly obliged.
The restaurant was completely empty. The lights were shut off and the drapes were closed. We sat where she told us to and she lit the candle on our table before promptly walking away into the kitchen. We didn’t order anything – she never asked, never showed us a menu. Instead, we sat there, sipping our water in silence.
Moments later, plates began to arrive at our table. I remember there were about four different rounds of food that arrived – warm, salty, nourishing. Only one dish I remember in particular, however: gnocchi.
She sat the plate in front of me. A plate of little, grape size pillows, covered in a sauce. Was it a tomato sauce? It was so orange. Is this some sort of squash? Is this a vegetable? I didn’t know at the time. But I devoured it. My eyes grew wise and I declared to the group that this was the dish of my lifetime. I had found my golden city, my Mecca.
Sure, it was the tender, soft gnocchi that I loved. It nourished my body. It was absolutely delicious. I licked my plate clean (literally – sorry about those manners).
But it was so much more than that.
My arrival in Italy as a young-naive-wanderer was met with community. Strangers meeting me in my moments of need. Offering what they had, simple as it may be. There was an openness, a passion, a coloring of life, a humility. It was as if everyone they had all endured struggle, lived to tell the tale, remembered the lessons learned, and offered what they could to their fellow humans. There was a vibrancy in Italy – a pulse of life – that drew me in completely.
I have found this to be true on my subsequent trips to Italy. That vibration, that pulse, still remains.
My small, cottage kitchen is filled with the same as many Italians: harvests of vegetables grown in my home plot, economical cuts of meat, seasonal fruit, fresh flour, good salt, good wine. Perhaps this is what draws me in so deeply. While we’re a world apart, we share an affinity for many things (wine, of course, being only one of them).
Intensely local, fresh food.
A table filled with friends and open to strangers.
Laundry on the line, a small garden tucked in back.
A pot of flowers on an apartment windowsill.
Appreciation of fellowship.
An appreciation of a homecook’s labor.
I have unfinished business in Italy. I lost my friend, Carla, one year ago this past May. I was supposed to be visiting her, in Bologna, the following month. This trip has gnawed at me. Her death has gnawed at me. Like many of you experienced during covid, it felt brutal to not be able to say goodbye. Carla and I had many plans in Italy preceding her death. We shared an affinity for simple food done exceptionally well and she, perhaps more than anyone, pushed me to have a deeper, richer appreciation for food and to seek simplicity and perfection in our Cooking Community. “Make it simple for them.”, she said, “But make it perfect.”. I remember writing her advice down in my phone so I wouldn’t forget that. Simple, but perfect. She had a special way of channeling her passion into her breads, her pastas, her dishes. I remember every single thing that I’ve eaten made by her hands. Like my first gnocchi in Italy, they were dishes made with a deep and honest desire to share something beautiful with a fellow human.
Italians do that very, very well.
So as a home cook, as a small-scale farmer, as someone who opens my table up to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and as a fellow human, I’ll be delighted to find my feet on Italian soil again soon. I hope it helps me to recover a piece of the world that I thought was lost forever to pandemics and the death of my friend, my “home base” in Italy. I hope it helps me to find new ways to bring this simplicity, this comfort, to our community of home cooks we teach each month. I hope it creates a nourishment, passion, and education in me that I can translate to my workshop attendees. I hope it opens doors to host in-person workshops there in the future.
The way the waitress made me feel when she brought my weary bones a plate of warm, hand-rolled gnocchi? I hope I can make people feel like that.
If I can distill, bottle, and share Italy’s humble and home-grown comfort with you all, our homes, our kitchens, our tables, our fellowship, will be all the better for it.
Can’t wait to share this adventure with you all.