Who love Italian Cuisine, Important part of Tuscan cooking and paying homage to the region
Florence. Sun on gold. Art on fire. Florence still captures the ultimate in human creation for me.
I hailed a taxi and asked for “pensione” as if I were asking to be hauled to a Holiday Inn. I didn’t realize that pensione wasn’t a brand. He took me to the center of Florence and dropped me off. I found a pensione within a few hundred yards of Il Duomo and to this day, I still stay in the same place when I visit. The proximity to the famous cathedral makes it more expensive now, but the bonus is four gelaterias within a short walk.
I sat on the steps of the cathedral and felt the vibrant blue, gold, and rust of the tile. Anyone who sucks in energy through your eyes must see Florence, from a tiny tile to a view of the skyline with Il Duomo jutting up to heaven. And the people—Florence has residents and scholars and tourists all moving with a purpose, and sitting on the steps of Il Duomo with a purpose, even if it’s simply to enjoy the colors in the steps.
I walked and found myself in a park area near the Ponte Vecchio, the Medieval bridge with shops along it. I sat on a bench in a cool spot by the Arno River. A small, round woman—plodded toward the bench, sighed, and sat down on the other end. I gave the river and the people crossing the bridge my full attention at first, but then I kept glancing at her. She stared at the river and did not utter a word. For an hour or more, I glanced and cocked my head toward her, thinking she would say something. Nothing. She didn’t look left or right, only straight at the river. I got up and walked back to the pensione.
The next day, I went back to the bench. The same woman lumbered to the bench, but this time she had a brown paper bag. She sat. She pulled bread and cheese from the bag with strong hands that must have kneaded pasta dough throughout her life. She sliced the cheese and put some on the bread, brought it close to her mouth, and stopped. Her hand jutted toward me with the bread and cheese: “Mangiare!”
I took it and nodded with a “thank you.” The cheese that burst into different flavors in my mouth and the bread with holes in it did not fit my definition of bread. Angels slept in this bread.
She ate very slowly. And then, with the same imperative she had delivered the last time, she thrust her hand toward me with bread and cheese and ordered: “Mangiare!” As I gratefully accepted more, she talked to me. Shaking my head, I tried to let her know that I had nothing for her in terms of conversation in Italian. A young man strolled toward our bench, sat down and spoke very intently with her. I was still holding the bread and cheese, nibbling at it.
“She says you should eat,” he finally said to me.
“Please thank her.” He spoke to her. I added, “Are you related?”
“Yes, this is my grandmother.” They had more words in Italian. “She wants to know where you’re from.” I explained that I was from California. “Are you here with your family?” I told them I was alone.
She went crazy. This is a mother by nature. A short conference ensued.
“My grandmother says you should come stay with her.”
“I have a room. Near the dome!” I didn’t even try to pronounce the name of the cathedral properly. I asserted my independence and stopped.
“My grandmother thinks that’s unacceptable. You should not be alone. You must come and stay with her.”
There was no discussion. The four-foot-tall woman with powerful hands and flavorful cheese had ordered me to come home. And so I did. For all I knew, when I threw my clothes into my backpack and checked out of the pensione, I could have been moving to a cardboard box. But no. I came home with the matriarch of one of the most prominent families in Florence.
Old, beautiful, and amazing—that’s how I would describe both Antonia and her home. Stuck in the center of Florence, the narrow building stretched up three stories and hugged the buildings beside it. Everything in the center of Florence is tight and vertical. The rooms were about ten feet high. After putting my backpack in my bedroom, she used the friendly version of the gesture I’d seen in Rome. Instead of a palm down with grabbing fingers, it was palm up, with a clearly recognizable wiggle of the fingers: “Come here.”
We went to the kitchen. A large kitchen that had the smell of home in the stone. We would prepare lunch. She handed me knives and spoke in Italian while her gestures gave me some clues about what she expected me to do. I wonder if that’s what we do with our cats and dogs: Speak sentences, move our hands, and expect them to figure out that spotting the carpet is bad.
Several times, she took my hand, put a knife in it, and placed my hand in front of a vegetable. I assumed that meant that I should chop it. When she sidled up beside me and clenched her teeth with a “Ch, ch, ch!” I knew I was doing it wrong. Maybe I would have more skill pounding veal; she handed me a mallet. Hours later, we had made lunch.
When we had completed the courses and prepared to put salad, soup, pasta, and veal on the table, Antonia smiled for the first time. Within moments, members of the family poured through the door. She pointed to me and many of them uttered words I understood, mostly words of welcome in English.
The next morning, the process of preparing lunch began again, this time with the grandson I’d met at the river coming early. “My grandmother would like to know if you would like to learn how to cook?” he asked.
“Yes! But I’m learning now from her.”
“Yes, but no. Would you like to learn how to cook?”
“How long will you be here?” I explained that I did not have to meet my friends for another week. Communicating that to his grandmother, she grabbed my hand and walked me out the door. We walked about six blocks to her family restaurant, Il Latini—for decades, one of the most popular restaurants in the city.
From the doorway, we saw waiters rushing back and forth, and then everyone came to a full stop when they saw Antonia, as though her very presence made time stand still. Hugs and kisses all around. She pointed to me, gave orders in Italian, and no one said a word. She had just instructed Signore Narciso Latini that he should put me to work in the kitchen. Not one face had a smile. She slapped her hands together with a brushing motion that meant, “We’re done” and with that, pushed my back firmly until I lurched into the kitchen. Signore Latini gestured to follow him, but he walked right out of the beautiful kitchen and took a left. With a point, he showed me my station in the slave quarters. Eyes up to see who entered; eyes back down on their potatoes and carrots. He slapped a peeler into my hand and stood me in front of a pile of potatoes.
What happened? I’m on vacation, I thought. How long do I stay? Do I get paid? At one point in the mid-afternoon, all of the peelers stopped peeling and walked out. I heard laughing and peeked around the corner to see all of them at one long table eating lunch. Then they came back to the slave quarters. No one came to talk to me for four hours until Signore Latini announced, “Go.” The next day, I walked me back to the restaurant and into the kitchen.
Turnips. The plan might be to teach me cooking one vegetable at time. Hours later after the patrons had finished lunch, the peelers once again walked around the corner to a long table. Signore Latini motioned for me to come. Everyone stood around the table and waited. As my rear end dropped closer to the chair, I heard “Ch, ch, ch!” No sitting until the boss sits down—and then Signora Maria Latini came to the table and sat. Watching the protocol made me feel as though I had entered the king and queen’s court and at any moment the Signora would slice the air with her fat hand and order, “Off with her head!”
“Ch, ch, ch!” I didn’t know how to hold my knife and fork. “Ch, ch, ch!” I didn’t know how to eat my soup. And I certainly didn’t know the signal for saying “no thanks” to the wine. Jugs of Chianti sat in the center of the table and as long as my hand or napkin didn’t cover the glass when someone poured, he saw no reason to stop pouring. No “ch, ch, ch” with the wine; just nods and smiles.
With the experience of one only glass of wine in Rome, I didn’t know how happy an 85-pound girl could get on three or four glasses of Chianti. The transformation into an Italian happened in my head. I saw colors and tasted flavors just like an Italian. I laughed big laughs and made gestures with my hands just like an Italian. An employee interrupted and in broken English whispered that I had a responsibility.
“You are the honored guest. You must make a toast.” I didn’t know what a toast was so I asked him to explain. “Say something to honor the meal.”
“Make a toast.”
“What should I say?” Eyes flashing, squinting, shoulders shrugging—we got nowhere. He sighed.
“Say thank you.” I understood and started to open my mouth. “Stand up with your wine glass and say it.” I jumped up—teetering left, teetering right. “No! Not now! I’ll let you know.”
More pasta, more wine. I laughed at whatever other people laughed at, and then I saw my cue. Slowly I rose. Fifteen sets of eyes focused on me, but to me, they looked like sixty.
I burped. Picking up my wine glass, I raised it high and shouted a full-bodied, “Grazie!” before I fell back down on my chair. Everyone cheered and applauded. I was the proudest drunk in Florence. A proud drunk who was about to return to her turnips and handle a sharp object. That is the day I learned how to cook in Italian .