It rains tonight in the Italian town of Pavullo where I stay with the Baldoni family in their large home on the hill. It has been almost three weeks and we are friends now, a comfort between us has grown and I like it. I know this because I made dinner twice for them, pizza last night and right before Gio left to study in Madrid, a roast chicken with gravy and mash potatoes. This was Gio’s favorite meal when he lived in America, “Oh man, I love gravy!” Gio told me the day he asked me to make it for him. And today in Roberta’s kitchen, I made her a cup of tea. I worked my way around her kitchen knowing where to find the pan and cups, the milk and sugar, it felt familiar and good. I am at home in this gracious, warm house.
In the Baldoni home we all gather at 1pm to eat lunch and at 9pm for dinner. The table is set with a tablecloth and white bowls and the meal starts with a call from the kitchen from either Vito, Roberta or their daughter Anna who is an impressively committed student, she studies day and night for her medical exam, like her mother she will be a Doctor one day, “Johnny it ready!” Whether I am writing in my bedroom or under the giant terrace that overlooks a landscape of mountains spotted with apricot colored farm houses, I run. I run quickly because every day as I sit typing the anticipation of what I will be eating almost torments me to the point where I lose focus.
It always starts with pasta, mostly Tortelloni in a butter sauce with sage that Roberta picks from her garden (and what a garden it is! It sits quietly, almost magically next to fig trees! Figs! (I have eaten enough figs to turn into a Fig Newton!) The pasta can come in many shapes and is served with pesto, butter or a rich tomato sauce that Roberta makes with her tomatoes, she grinds them and reduces it until thick like a paste (nothing else is added) she tosses it with the homemade Tortelloni her mother Pina makes (the pasta dough is feathery and filled with spinach and ricotta, the taste of the filling is faint and perfect, they are soft and tender and delicate on the tongue, a hint of nutmeg wakes the palate. Honestly, describing them as heavenly would be a gross understatement. Roberta in her broken English says, “I cook like a Doctor, not a chef” A second opinion is needed here, the Doctor is wrong!
When we eat, I sit and listen to the family speak, trying to understand words of their beautiful language. Sometimes I understand a word or two and they say in unison, “Bravo Johnny! ” One day I said in the best Italian I could muster-up, “I love figs and prosciutto” everyone laughed hysterically. I was bewildered and my eyes shifted. They couldn’t stop laughing. Gio told me I said, “I love pussy and ham” I was horrified and they still tease me about it…
After Pasta there is cheese and plenty of it, my favorite being the creamy-soft and somewhat buttery Stracchino. I eat it on bread and if there is prosciutto and more than likely there is, I eat it with that too. Then there is wine, homemade from Roberta’s father Leno, deep red, strong and good, or white, refreshing and light. Then the fruit comes (a big bowl of it!) Mapos from Calabria, their skin is the color of a lime, but inside the color is pale, pretty yellowish-orange, almost like the hues of a sun setting. Mapos taste tart, slightly sweet, the cross between a lime and an orange. I eat one a day. –And I adore the chubby peaches that are golden and moist, soft to the touch and along with the family I peel the skin off them looking like a kindergarten kid learning to use scissors for the first time. This family has this peeling fruit thing down to a science, graceful and methodical I could watch them peel fruit all day. When I peel fruit, my hands get covered with sweet juice and this kind, lovely family pretends not to notice and when they’re not looking, I lick my fingers clean. This morning when no one was around, I bit into peach like the slob I am and juice ran down my chin and shirt and bees followed me when I walked the grounds of the house. I think my mother would be proud of me, she says I never eat enough fruit. Well, Mom I have eaten enough fruit in Italy these weeks to make up a life time of not eating it. Did I mention the special Apple’s Roberta buys? Huge! They are the size of small melons! They scared me as first, I though them some weird Italian science project, but they are crisp and sour and I can’t eat enough of those freaky large apples.
Most days I write at my desk and every so often I’ll get up and I’ll wander the enchanting Baldoni house and grounds. I’ll look out the windows and marvel at the spanning green hills, glare at the mountains that are a deep dusty blue, sometimes I’ll walk along the garden and I’ll pick a fig if the large and intimidating hornets allow me (they are HUGE!). I look at the cars on the road below as they speed on past (they look like the tiny cars I played with as a boy). I play with the large, heavy wooden shutters (six foot windows!) that Vito and Roberta shut at dusk, my room becomes so dark at night that I feel like I am floating in space, a kind of surreal world of peace and contentment far away from the world I know back home in Boston. When I close my eyes, images and smells of the day invade my mind; a single yellow daisy in a field of green, a sauce cooking on the stove, the tangy taste of local cheese, a lone ruby red tomato hanging off a vine, the same white dove that dances on the stone walkway each morning, the small pink chapel (built in 1672) that sits in the back yard and a few steps away from the main house, an old farm house also built in the 1670’s and of course the flower boxes filled with vibrant red crawling geraniums and a wine barrel filled with colorful wild flowers. Then there is Anna’s beloved pets; her orange and gray cats that rub themselves against my legs and her black dog Zooey that runs around the yard and the other dog, an old and tired Dalmatian that lives in the garage who like clockwork comes out late afternoons for its slow, leisurely stroll around the stone driveway below the terrace.
Tonight the fog is quickly covering the mountains, the farm houses in the distance are disappearing, the cement telephone poles look mysterious as they span outward endlessly into the white night. Thunder is heard, lightening flashes. It is time for bed. I leave for Rome in the morning. When I wake I will open my bedroom shutters and flood my room with the gorgeous Italian sun. Below me I will see a small rolling hill with fruit trees and further on the range of mountains and when I see all this I usually sigh and smile as I have every morning since being here because here in Italy the days are long and life is lived.