We drove into Sant’Angelo in Colle late, much too late, the result of a GPS that only spoke Italian and us, a couple who spoke none. The Tuscan countryside was dark.
Of course it was; no street lights. Barely a street; a winding, meandering trail we snailed along cautiously while, in the car, we bickered and soapy Italian ballads played.
I now know to blame hunger for this sour bit of our honeymoon; we had not eaten since Rome, and Rome was hundreds of kilometers ago. I chewed my by-then-tasteless gum furiously while you and your stomach grumbled. We had to find something to eat. There would be none in the room we had rented.
The village we were entering may have been charming – every guidebook and review had said so – but just then we could not see the vineyards, the rippling hills, the quaint limestone facades and their terracotta roofs. We made it to the top of the hill.
A dead end. The village square. A church. Sant’Angelo’s? One or two lamp posts exuding a honey light, a bench strategically placed at the square’s most panoramicò of puntos. You turned the ignition off.
We opened the door and unfolded our legs. They tingled, as did our backs. We stretched and, still crabby, each walked in a direction. I walked toward the bench. I could see the stars. It had been months since I last had. A faint breeze. It smelled of wine. Perhaps that was my hungry imagination.
Turning around, I saw you gesture and point to the only house lit, the light spilling out of its windows, golden, onto a wooden table and two chairs. I walked over. A restaurant?
“Normally, yes, but they are closed,”
You sighed. I sighed too, at our misfortune. We still had to find the inn where we would stay a few nights while, by day, we would explore the area, drink wine, eat cheese, and be in love. Such was the plan, though nothing thus far along the trip had respected it.
We were about to re-enter our rental car when we heard someone calling.
“Venite! Venite qui!”
An elderly gentleman with a beard and cane and – well we were in Tuscany – suspenders and a pipe, was walking toward us.
Bringing his hand to his mouth, then down to his belly and, pipe and all, rubbing it to make sure we understood him.
“I thought you said the restaurant was closed.”
“It was! That’s what the sign said.”
The old man had reached us.
“Benvenuti! Benvenuti! Nonna sta cucinando. Vieni mangiare!”
La nonna and he had seen us disembark from the bedroom where they were sleeping, on the top floor over the restaurant they had, all their lives, been running. She cooked and he greeted, served, and conversed with those who, like us, stumbled into this little, remote village on a hill where food and living were simple.
In broken English, he sat us down at the wobbly wooden table. It felt good to sit. A jug of water, a basket of still quite respectable bread, and two wine glasses.
“Rosso o bianco?”
Rosso. Rosso always.
In equal parts Italian, English, and mime, he informed us that the wine was his own, and that dinner would take a while,
“Perché i picci si fanno adesso. Freschi.”
Was she really making the pasta from scratch? I had to see this. I mimed my request to the gentleman. He mimed back his permission.
In the kitchen – hanging garlic, dried bay leaves, copper pots and pans and all – the nonna was indeed rolling out long stripes of yellow dough. Into a pot of boiling water, then she turned to peel tomatoes that sat on the wooden counter, steaming. I could smell them from the door.
Tomatoes have a smell. The basil too, that she picked from the plant that sat on the sill looking away from the direction of the square, onto a terrace. Picci ready, a breath beyond al dente – how did she know I liked it so? –, the tomatoes crushed with her hands, a sprinkle of oregano, a few cloves of the garlic, mashed with a precise, obviously well-practiced bang with the side of her knife.
The basil was chopped and sprinkled last. And that was it. Finito! The dish came together, sheer magic, in front of me, it and I escorted back out.
You were waiting, too sullen and tired to even look up at me. The man placed the two dishes on the table and bubbled:
It took one bite. I saw your face change. An explosion of flavors. We were on a hill in Tuscany, on our honeymoon and in love again.
Picci marinara. Pasta with tomato sauce. A light, berried wine. Your company. Everything was fresh and simple. We talked and laughed and filled our bellies. I could taste every ingredient and the rain and sun and land that grew it. You grated some parmesan over your plate, but it did not even need it.
Nor did we need anything beyond each other and that table, that night. Or since. Five years exactly have gone by, to the day, since that dinner. The couple that had roused and hosted us, two strangers, had told us that they had been married for fifty years. Forty-five more for us to go.
You had and have since taken me on so many dates to starred and starry restaurants in which we dressed and behaved lavishly; dishes came on silver plates and paired with long descriptions, expensive wine; sophisticated music played, sophisticated lights were dimmed. Their memories blend in and out of one another, all lovely, but none will ever surpass that night we had picci marinara on a hill in a Tuscan village.
To the reader:
“The pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.”
- Charles-Pierre Monselet
Take us to the memory of the best meal you ever had.