It was like I had come home: the long-lost grandchild they'd never met, but smothered in hugs and kisses and passed from person to person none-the-less.
Rapid-fire Italian flew about my ears, a cacophony of unfamiliar voices crashing like waves about my head and disorienting me – but in a nice way. Like that moment after you've caught a wave, land on the shore and spot the familiar red-and-white striped umbrella.
I was introduced to Marisa and Anna, both daughters of Ercole, Rafaella - Marisa's daughter, Dritan - Rosanna's husband, Denise and Dorian – Dritan and Rosanna's children and finally, our translator Rosanna - daughter of Anna, the sole English-speaker. Rosanna, in an accent flavoured with an American twang thanks to cousins in New Jersey, embraced me and began translating all that had been said to me. The general gist was that everyone was so happy to meet me, and did I speak Italian? The answer had become apparent without my even needing to acknowledge it, but I did impress them with my counting skills (all the way to 12!!) and a bit of 'ciao, buon giono, ciao, buon giorno, come stai?' to the tune of Frère Jacques. Thank you my sole year of Italian classes at age five!
With welcomes and introductions out of the way, we rushed to our awaiting table at a restaurant located literally in the middle of a field.
If the name L'Aquila sounds familiar to you, it may be owing to the 2009 earthquake which devastated the small town, injuring some 1,500 people and ending the lives of just over 300. Some 65,000 of town's residents were left homeless as a result of the quake, many of whom were forced to move elsewhere due to the Italian government's slow-moving recovery plan. Speaking with some former-residents now living in towns nearby, they will be lucky if their homes will be rebuilt within another three to four years. Considering it has already been three years since the event, it's a long time to be living in temporary accommodation. Businesses, unable to wait that long to star up again have begun popping up on the outskirts of the city, sometimes in groups and sometimes in random fields.
Inside the restaurant - an epicurean island in a sea of green fields - we sat at a long, rustic, wooden table. Obviously early, the wait-staff routinely clanked down plates, silverware, glasses and two carafes of red wine, giving us attention while we were still among the few occupied tables. Rosanna commented that this was a very popular restaurant and that we had come early to secure a table – something I'm glad we'd done. Not half an hour later, the restaurant was at capacity. I'll repeat that: a restaurant, full of Italians, at capacity. If you think the Germans do merriment and cheer well, the good-natured, easy-going Italians give them a run for their money!
Accepting my first glass of red wine (another fantastic drop for house plonk) baskets of fresh bread, prosciutto crudo and formaggio were brought out and passed around the table – the cheese mild and the prosciutto moist, almost like a sliver of carpaccio. Before I could even blink, it appeared that the rest of the table had inhaled their antipasto, and I quickly scoffed my meat and cheese to the approving eye of the older ladies.
Round two arrived quickly, this time warm terracotta bowls of a tomato based meat and vegetable dish, like a ratatouille, and plates of grilled eggplant. More bread was passed around, and chunks taken and used to mop up the stew-like offering. Fresh basil and lashings of olive oil mixed with tender bites of beef, I was urged to take more and I gladly obliged.
If only I knew.
Eye blink, plates gone.
Hearing grew increasingly difficult as more parties arrived and children grew fussy. Over talk of their memories of my grandfather, new plates had arrived and a server with a dish of steaming risotto came to each person to ladle the fresh offering. One scoop. The server gave me the eye that said “unless you say so, I'm going to put at least another three spoon-fulls on your plate”. Second scoop. I gave Rosanna the “I don't know if I can eat this much” look. Before scoop three could occur, Rosanna muttered the word I needed to know 'basta' - that's enough, stop. Grateful, I took a deep breath, inhaling the steam of the spinach and spring onion risotto, which looked nothing like the gluggy, glue-like imitations of back home. Instead, it was light and tasted mildly of stock, and once I'd had my way with the parmesan bowl, parmesan.
Thoroughly satisfied, my eyes grew large when the server came around with yet another set of fresh bowls (I pity the dish-pig!) and another steaming dish. Fresh, home made tagliatelle served with ragù; I don't believe I have ever had pasta this good, and I doubt I ever will again. The pasta itself was soft, yet firm to the bite, and wasn't drowned in sauce. It was all a bit Goldilocks – just right. Of course, despite absolutely loving every minute of this meal, I was once again the last to finish. Not wanting my Italian hosts to think I didn't like the meal, when offerings of a second helping came, I accepted happily.
Sometimes I think I should have worn a more appropriate outfit to my meeting with the Farinosis. At the end of the fourth course, there was definite strain on the high-waisted fastening of my skirt, and I was wishing for something with more of an empire line, or at least an elastic waist band. Still, I soldiered on in the name of good manners (of course). When the fifth course arrived, I damned myself for that second helping of pasta and the slices of bread I'd feasted on earlier.
|In between courses, my dear friends the Farinosis|
The fact that I smelled this course before I saw it should speak volumes. Large roasting dishes of slow-cooked meat were placed before us, tenderness visible, swimming in juices of deliciousness (I know that's a bit of a nothing word, but it was amazing – more flavourful than any stock or gravy I've ever tasted). Next to the meat dishes, tureens of garden peas with speck and generously doused in olive oil offered one of the few vegetable components of the meal (the other being a salad served with the pasta). Knowing I would regret it if I didn't, I placed two matchbox sized pieces of meat on my plate, and a serving of peas, wishing I could stomach more. The meat melted, dissolved into separate pieces in my mouth, stringy bits of fat falling away with a mere nudge of the tongue. If only, only I could have fit more in!
Finally, I was done, well and truly finished. I had overdone it and began swearing that I'd never eat again (ha!) or I'd at least be eating salad and soda water for days. Of course, this meant little to the Italians, who were already planning dinner.
After throwing back an espresso, turning down a piece of fruit and then in-turn a piece of cake, much to Signora Maria's disappointment, it was time to hit the road, and start digesting before the next epic meal.
This experience has taught me a couple of things – primarily what an amazing thing the human body is to be able to put away the above meal, then a couple of hours later at least four slices of pizza, a meat stick, salad, and two slices of Vienetta ice cream cake. Oh, and some cherry liquor to top it all off.
How those Italians do it, I'll never know, but at least I'll know for next time – basta!
xoxo Fifi von Strudel