I would rather be immersed in boiling oil (extra virgin, of course) than rent a car in Italy. Unfortunately, my itinerary is so far-flung in central and southern Italy that a car is a necessity. And that doesn’t even count my guest appearance at Justin and Jessica’s wedding in Puglia.
Jonathan, my car freak husband, carefully arranges the rental of a VW Golf with GPS for pick up on October 13 at the airport in Pescara. Fearing that the GPS wouldn’t materialize, he has it pre-shipped to us in Brookline, a wonderful option, we think, and I carry it over.
Here’s what I get in Pescara: A Lancia Muso (essentially a minivan) in which the charger for my GPS does not fit, that, according to the agent, Stefania, was reserved for October 15, which is two days from now.
Stefania, by the way, is all of five feet tall and 90 pounds. Dressed in a camouflage-colored uniform that could pass for combat fatiques, she has the attitude of an army sergeant. She is just returning from a 2½-hour lunch break, and is besieged by a phalanx of angry car renters even before she unlocks her kiosk. Given my present circumstances, it is not difficult to understand their frustration. One side-ways glance through squinted eyes from Stefania quiets us all into a semblance of order.
I overhear the story of one poor American woman, who has accidentally knocked off her driver’s side mirror navigating the narrow streets. She is instructed to find her own replacement car at one of the sister car agencies, or she can just continue driving the damaged car and take her chances at being stopped by the Carabinieri. Suddenly, my administrative difficulties seem inconsequential in comparison.
For the price of the TomTom rental, I should have Kate Winslet riding shotgun. Or Cate Blanchett. Or Kate Moss. Or, for that matter, Duchess Kate. Better yet, why not all of them? It would be a great time and we could split the cost.
Forget Thelma and Louise. How about Linda and the Kates? Or is it that I just want to drive this d$%# car off a cliff?
I travel south along the seaside from Pescara through the town of Ortona keeping an eye out for the trabocchi, giant fishing rigs that extend far out into the startlingly turquoise water. From a distance, spindly and lean, they appear like enormous daddy-long-leg spiders perched atop the barely rippling waves.
Trabocchi are something of a tourist attraction now, often fashioned into restaurants, bars or small lodgings. Some are still worked in the old style, their nets cast into the sea, scooping up thousands of small silvery fish. The spoils are used to make a fabulous fish stew called Brodetto di Pesce alla Vastese.
I am on my way to village of Fossacesia, where my friends Laura and Mario live. Laura and Mario are two of the amazing people who shared my enthusiasm for my epic Italian pilgrimage, and were introduced to me by my neighbor, Kristen. The itinerary for this trip materialized largely on the goodwill of my friends, their friends, and strangers who have now become friends.
Laura has reserved a small but welcoming agriturismo, the Casale di San Giovanni, for my stay. She accompanies me as I check in, introducing me to the owner, Nicoletta. I am incredibly late, due to Stefania’s lunch break, tired, and a little confused.
Nicoletta walks me to my room and asks in Italian, ‘At what time would you like breakfast?’ Not missing a beat, I respond, ‘I don’t eat a lot for breakfast, thank you, but I would love coffee at 7 am.’
Nicoletta’s eyes grow large, and, too late, I recognize my mistake. I have forgotten myself. I am not on a business trip in a big city, I am in a small village, in a small agriturismo, run by a family. And tomorrow is Sunday. The only day of rest in Italy. At once, despite my best efforts, I feel culturally incompetent.
Laura rescues me (as she often will over the next few days), saying ‘I think she’ll be ready around 8 am. She’s tired, she’s going to sleep in. Va bene, Linda?’ Is that okay, Linda?
‘Si, si, grazie,’ I say, relieved. By the time I arrive the next morning, a lovely plate of sweets and a hot, strong cup of caffe lungo await me. I have learned during this trip that everything is brighter, more welcoming, more pleasant in the light of day.
Today, we take a walking tour of Lanciano, a village that has had multiple lives. Originally a Roman town, like many other places in Italy, as the years progressed, older environs were built upon, creating layers of civilizations.
Laura is an amazing cook. On our first night together, she prepared sfogliata di melanzane, crispy slices of eggplant layered with her own chickpea puree and topped with marinated red peppers and fresh basil.
The main course was gnocchi alla Romana, sliced rounds of polenta, set in a circular pattern in a baking dish and layered with butter and cheese, like a gratin. It is crunchy and has a nutty, rich flavor and luscious creamy texture. I have two servings. I am not shy about eating great food, although concern for the already stressed seams of my jeans makes me feel a little guilty. But just a little.
My favorite dish by far is a sweet and sour butternut squash Laura makes for our dinner on Sunday. Thin slices of orange-fleshed squash are lightly fried, patted dry, and layered with a mixture of minced garlic, mint, and breadcrumbs. A couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar are sprinkled on top, and the entire dish is left to sit for several hours for the flavors to cure. How can something so simple be so satisfying?
For our lunch, Mario makes sfincione, a stuffed Sicilian pizza. The bottom crust is layered with melted, gooey, cacciocavalo cheese. This is topped with another piece of dough, then layered with salty, flavorful chopped anchovies, tangy tomato sauce, fresh oregano, sweet onion, parmigiano and blessed with a little extra virgin olive oil. Breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top to absorb any flavor that might have the nerve to consider dripping off the side.
Too good for words, and lucky me, I get to take a slice for my lunch on the road to Termoli tomorrow.
Lucky you, all of the recipes will be shared once I get home an have a chance to convert them to American measurements. Stay tuned.
Ciao for now.
Even more importantly, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generous, intimate, sharing spirits of the people I’ve visited. I want to take the time to present their stories to you in the same spirit in which they were offered to me.
Not to worry, though, I’ll include every detail in blogs in the upcoming weeks.