Sunday, January 7, 2018

Eataly: Tackling Tuscany Through Food & Friends

Who could've known that just over one year after dropping him off at an airport, he would in turn be picking me up from one - only this time on the other side of the globe. The adventures I shared with Luca during his brief PhD exchange program at UC Irvine were certainly not destined to conclude with his departure from California at the end of 2016. Surely, every great story deserves an equally great sequel. With an invitation to spend the winter break on his Tuscan family farm, conveyed with all the usual sweet talk of homemade olive oil, Mama's lasagne, and free-flowing wine, how could anyone in their sane mind refuse? For a year, Luca lured me with the idea of an exciting Christmas-New Year combo package courtesy of La Famiglia Baldesi, including all the trimmings of a hallmark European winter holiday down to the rainy, two-degree weather. I'd get a chance to finally reunite with old Italian party animals, meet an exciting menagerie of new ones, and still manage to hang with some of the same animals I see daily back home - only this time in their natural habitat. And to add to the already long list of incentives, it would be my golden moment to dive right into the heart of Italian culture through its food, to savor genuine regional recipes that have not been corrupted by blasphemous American practices or prices. With my Italian passport in one hand and a gourmet bucket list in the other, I anxiously embarked on a 10-day, food-focused, local-life extravaganza that would find me literally eating my way from Pistoia to Pisa, and beyond. Keep your Colosseum, Italy... but give me some cantuccini!

Christmas With Family On a Tuscan Farm

The arrivals gate slowly slid open, and not even six steps into my winter holiday, I was already being handed a prosciutto sandwich from the left and a quarter liter bottle of red wine from the right. Benvenuto a Italia!

Seeing Luca after a year felt like coming home to a friend. But seeing Luca after a year, clutching cured meat and a recent vintage just for me, felt like coming home to a fratello. He wasn't alone. After an equally long period of absence, I finally got to embrace dear Marco, who stood by holding a box of delectable chocolates he had brought me from Switzerland. What made this meeting even more memorable was the fact that this was actually my very first time seeing Marco in the flesh, despite more than a year long social media friendship that, unsurprisingly, grew from a shared passion-turned-obsession for delicious food. In sentimental spirits, we toasted in the provincial airport to my long anticipated arrival and a heartfelt reunion with a chug of Papa Baldesi's home brewed Vino Arturo. It was 10 in the morning.

Prosciutto and wine at the airport... God bless my Italian brethren!

By 11 AM on Christmas Eve, I was already unusually talkative and slightly dizzy as we cruised our way through rolling Tuscan hills towards the small hilltop town of San Gimignano, its stone towers soaring over an archetypal landscape of vineyards, cypress groves, and red tiled roofs. I had last walked its labyrinthine cobblestone alleys over a decade ago, but the nostalgia of this quaint medieval village returned me to a moment that could very much have occurred merely yesterday. By noon, we wandered past 14th century houses of pottery shops and pizzerias to a tiny enoteca, where I was handed a second glass of wine accompanied by crostini topped with spreads of creamy artichoke and black truffle. After the prosciutto sandwich earlier, I was quite satiated by these dense small bites and energized for climbing one of the many towers competitively constructed by medieval trading families asserting architectural dominance. And truly what a vast and prosperous land to dominate: hues of rolling green and gold interspersed with olives and grapes sprawling towards a cloudy horizon, rays of sunshine piercing through as radiantly as golden halos adorning the saints from the tower's murals. As the center of the Catholic faith, it clearly made sense why God chose Italy.

After more than a year of friendship, I finally got to meet Marco!
Finally reunited with Luchino in his homeland!
Taking on the towers of San Gimignano

By 2 in the afternoon, I found myself sitting down to a third glass of wine in an alley deli nestled within the stone citadel of Volterra. Apparently Marco was still hungry, the rumors of him being a human food disposal gradually becoming more of a reality before my widened eyes. He dove right into a bowl of stewed cinghiale (wild boar) while Luca and I split a wooden tagliere of affettati - various cured meats, cheeses, and olives dressed with sweet fig and honey dips - a charcuterie explosion for two advertised as a meal for one. More prosciutto and crostini filled me, which proved to be more problematic than pleasing only because Luca neglected to remind me that a large Christmas Eve meal was still awaiting me once I arrived at the Baldesi home. I had already made plenty of mistakes during my previous trip in Italy - filling up too soon on antipasti, failing to remember what constitutes a first or second course, craming infinite more food into an unfortunately finite body, then ultimately suffering from sweet regret. But with smokey meats, savory cheeses, and crisp warm breads as appetizers, can one really blame me?

Affettati... A blessing from the god of snack bites

Driving up the dirt road in the darkness of night, the warm light of a rustic country house glowed in a dark sea of olive tree silhouettes gracing a steep hillside. Situated on the outskirts of Pistoia, the Baldesi family home was practically cinematic, a living scene taken right out of Under the Tuscan Sun, with its stone walls, terracotta amphorae, and villa-esque layout above a narrow forested river valley. The two-story structure was spacious and contemporary, while still maintaining a rustic buttermilk facade and cottage-like ambience complimented by a wood burning fireplace and aromatic alpine Christmas decorations. Upon entering, my eyes naturally gravitated to the most important room of the house - the kitchen - where Italian dreams and miracles are made. Small and cozy, it was a simmering symphony of seasoned pots and pans, aged utensils hanging above a vintage coal-burning stove, with fresh farm ingredients filling the voids between olive wood cutting boards and coffee brewing paraphernalia. If there ever was a stereotype founded in truth, it is surely the romantic concept of the Italian country kitchen.

Arriving late at night to La Casa Baldesi
Dear Olive Garden: This is a what a real Italian kitchen looks like

Mama Baldesi, absolutely adorable with a fierce need to feed, exclaimed in delight at our arrival as she welcomed us into the warmth of her savory domain. Equally jubilant, Papa Baldesi gave a bellowing and boisterous "Ciao!" thoroughly expected of a strong mustachioed man of exceptional jocular charisma. The couple had the blessings of country living written in their faces, delightfully youthful and expressive with every gesture and uttered word its own unique visual performance to accompany the inherent musical tonalities of the Italian tongue. Having finished settling and unpacking into a cozy private room upstairs, we were summoned to the family room beside a decorated tree to toast to Christmas Eve with sparkling prosecco and even more crostini topped with smoked salmon, caviar, and classic Tuscan fegatini (ground chicken livers with anchovy). I made a mental note that this was the antipasti, rigorously restraining myself from overeating the bite-sized morsels despite already being stuffed from everything I'd taken earlier in the day. After posing for family photos, the five of us sat down in the casual kitchen nook to a delectably mouthwatering spread of red smoked lox in lemon and capers, large sauteed prawns with garlic and herbs, and a sliced octopus seafood salad. In the feasting frenzy, Mama continued to pull out yet another tray from the oven, rows of baked mussels garnished with breadcrumbs that sizzled and steamed as she plopped a handful onto our plates. Thankful to have not filled up prematurely, I shamelessly gorged on the frutti di mare extravaganza, pondering both the intricacies of its culinary preparation as well as the possible bill such a feast would rack up had we been at a mediocre Italian restaurant back in the US. Both thoughts were simply mind-boggling.

Then terror struck me. The center dishes were cleared only to make space for a whole new set of entrees. I was confused, as Luca had assured me not more than ten minutes earlier that I was free to finish what I presumed to be the main courses. He subtly smirked with a mischievous glimmer in in eyes. Horrified, I realized that the elaborate seafood spread was in fact still the antipasti, with Mama only now bringing the main course to the table. A large casserole containing a slab of rock-salted salmon followed by a dish of potatoes with braised octopus tentacles were placed before me, as I secretly muttered under my breath against my host for such cruel yet delectable deception. I continued to stuff myself with the real main courses, as well as finish my fourth glass of wine for the day. Tipsy and bloated, I tried to escape away from the table when I was blocked by a wall of dense fruity panforte, a chocolate filled pan briaco, and more Swiss sweets, all of which I was naturally expected to try with some shots of grappa. What a truly satisfying way to drop dead if I ever had to.

Primi - A seafood extravaganza!
Secondi - Even more seafood!

The divine cake of heaven known as Pan Briaco

If I felt Christmas Eve was an overwhelming feast for the senses, then I certainly was far from prepared for what lay ahead of me on Christmas Day. Awaking long after the rooster's crow, the house was already alive with more aromas and clanking cookware as Mama toiled in a toasty kitchen. There was something mesmerizing and subtly hypnotic as she effortlessly juggled the simultaneous preparations of antipasti, primi, and secondi, her little form whirling with her spatula from pot to pot like an orchestra conductor. Pulling me and Luca into assembling the lasagne with her, Mama playfully cooked to the tune of her own soundtrack, whistling the movements of Carmen's Habanera as layers of pasta, meaty sugo, and creamy bechamel gradually filled to a mouthwatering peak worthy of an operatic climax. A knock at the back door revealed old Uncle Antonio standing by with a giant leg of wild boar recently hunted in the surrounding forests, its glowing red flesh quickly set to grace a wooden pedestal upon a counter-top splattered with colorful traces of parmesan, butter, and tomato sauce. As we admired the massive slab of meat, Papa pulled out a deli-grade mechanized meat slicer conveniently stored next to the china cabinet to slice more prosciutto and spalla to satiate our salivating mouths. Pork is a venerated meat in these lands.

Helping Mama assemble the lasagne in her magical food laboratory

The chunks of cinghiale (wild boar) Uncle Antonio brought over

Another knock on the back door revealed Luca's sister and her family. Little Francesco hid behind her, clutching her legs as he laid his wide eyes upon my fat foreign face. His shyness would ultimately be broken once he discovered what Santa had brought him from America - a baseball and leather mitt. Age is merely a number for the Baldesis, for once the toddler had tired of them, it quickly became Papa's turn to play around. Gifts were exchanged before the twinkling tree, with Mama even gifting me a red Italian moka pot to help boost my personal cappuccino output once I returned home. Following the exchange, we were seated again in the kitchen to partake in a grand Christmas Day lunch, a meal for which I prayed to be better prepared. Plates of crostini with a new variety of buttery spreads, pickled vegetables, and affettati toppings were served. The struggle was real, and I tried intensely to limit myself and conserve space for the first primo of meat-filled tortellini in a savory chicken broth (purportedly from a chicken whose testicles had been removed, though I never really learned the significance of this insight). The second primo was the lasagne Luca and I assembled, baked to a meaty cheesy perfection that paired wonderfully with Papa's homemade wine. Following this, a double secondo of roasted faraona (guinea fowl) and seasoned pork ribs were piled onto the table, complimented by a dish of fried potatoes taken straight from the garden. While everyone else appeared at ease, I wrestled to make it to the main courses, nearly on the verge of passing out in time for dessert, another flavor of carb-heavy panettone and deliciously teeth-breaking torrone. As one of the few people I know who are seemingly "bottomless", I failed to ask Marco before he left my biggest question: where was all of this food coming from and where was it going? It never ceased to amaze me where Italians store every morsel they consume from a single meal, making me suspicious of whether the possession of four stomachs is limited solely to bovines.

A selection of Tuscan antipasti
Meat-filled tortellini in a savory chicken broth

The lasagne that I helped make!

Pork, poultry, and potatoes... the three P's of the proper second course
Buon Natale from the farm table!
To help digest, Luca and I took a small hike around his vast hillside property, admiring the views through the olive orchard of river valley residences below and the hilltop church above. The skies were overcast and the air chilled, a moist refreshing winter for a sun-smothered Californian. Higher up the hill, through fern lined trails and dense deciduous forests whose leaves had long fallen, we climbed to catch the last trace of light fading over Pistoia. And in many ways, both of us were fading as well, our eyelids heavy from the lunch that also spilled over into dinner. Returning to the house, I peacefully fell asleep to the light patter of rain on the tile roof, the day finished for me. Or so I thought.

View of the spectacular Baldesi farm and surrounding residences
Strolling through the olive orchard, which Papa uses for homemade olive oil

Violently shoved from the left, then carelessly flung from the right, I lost myself in a chaotic blur of bodies physically bombarding me to a deafening pulse and scintillating lights. Screams, laughter, and unintelligible groans floated above and below, occasionally interrupted with an elbow to the stomach or a crushed toe. It never occurred to me in my life that I'd find myself spending the night of Christmas in the pounding heart of a pogo, the quintessential Italian concert mosh pit. Tatto laughed and pushed me into Pippo, who grabbed my arm and pulled me directly into the middle of the maelstrom, my desperate attempts to flee thwarted by the yank of yet another mysterious hand in the darkness. The night was already late when Luca and I awoke from our post-Christmas lunch naps, only to be persuaded into going to Florence with a group of friends for some energetic Euro style nightlife. Pippo pulled up to the house, one hand on the steering wheel while the other clutched a bottle of wine. He was extremely chatty that night, in stark contrast to the much quieter guy I had met a year earlier when he came to California to visit Luca. I frankly missed Pippo and his comical antics, which were delightfully heightened for the holidays with all the fanfare of a classic party animal. We immediately flew off to Florence, the wine casually passing in circles as we ourselves passed around countless traffic circles, towards an area not far from the University of Florence. Digestifs of strong artichoke-flavored cynar awaited us at Circolo Arci, a popular snack bar where we met up with Tatto, Giulio, Sarah, and Arianna, among other amicable friends reuniting during the winter break. That night's show at FLOG, a popular venue for rock concerts and regional mayhem, was the hyper bouncing musical stylings of the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, followed by an eclectic mix of Euro dance, electronica, reggae, and even classic American hits. It felt refreshing to let go of myself and embrace a new experience that plunged me completely out of my element, both in the figurative and literal sense. But at the same time, the entire evening felt oddly familiar and nostalgic, possibly as a result of recognizing many songs from Luca's road trip playlist, in combination with clubbing alongside my Catalan friends back home. Having danced the night to exhaustion, I finally crawled into bed after 4 AM in a full, dizzy, and slightly bruised state. Now the day was finally finished. Or so I prayed.

I survived my first pogo!
Grazie ragazzi for a groovy time at FLOG!
Daily life in a country home may be hard work, but it is never short of rewarding. An overall ambience of tranquility is even infused into the tasks the family would likely consider mundane. Walking through the vineyard, as Papa was carefully trimming its barren vines, Mama strolled around her little produce farm with basket in hand, gathering fresh vegetables and herbs to use in her classic Tuscan recipes. Bowls of brined olives, fennel root, and artichokes sat outside on the kitchen window sill in the natural fridge of the brisk Tuscan air. I was hypnotized again in watching her prepare rape leaves, washing each of her garden treasures ever so delicately, a small green caterpillar gingerly interrupted from its meal and safely relocated. As she polished each fresh egg that she purchased from another farmer down the road, Papa lugged in a crate of chopped firewood to be thrown upon the fireplace. On the stove, a simple but richly flavored pasta con broccoli and tortino di carciofi fritti were slowly sizzling. Some dear family friends briefly dropped by unannounced, gifting a rather large sack of potatoes to be shared. The scene before me was so wholesome and natural to the point that it seemed almost unnatural, as if we as a society have forgotten the sweet pleasures and health benefits of simple living. Luca later showed me the subterranean cellar of the house, a large room of several enormous metal wine vats, bottles, and miscellaneous tubing for fermenting and brewing reminiscent of an alchemist's secret laboratory. While it costs Papa just as much to make wine as it does to buy a good reputable bottle, the product of his passion is nevertheless present on the table at every meal, becoming one of my favorites tasted on my trip to the modest surprise of the family. The other half of the cellar felt more like a rural supermarket than a home basement, a large bench with a crate piled with fruits and vegetables taken from the garden, giant canisters of rich home-pressed olive oil, and dried grapes dangling from the ceiling. A large trunk freezer stood by, filled to the brim with fine cuts of pork and wild boar to rival even America's most gourmet butcheries. The cellar was a hidden bastion of Italian abundance and sustainability, the place you'd most likely find me in the event that Kim Jong Un presses his large red button.

Mama preparing rape leaves
Fresh, chilly Tuscan air is the best fridge

A simple lunch of pasta with broccoli and an artichoke heart tortino

 Holiday Wanderings Around Tuscany With Old Pals

The week between Christmas and the New Year was a whirlwind of activity that consisted of visiting close friends, exploring the best of Tuscany's rich historical sights, and savoring a kaleidoscope of classic cuisine. In the hustle bustle of Florence's train station, Sam stood out a clear head above the others, wearing his typical fishing hat and sporting a large camera around his neck. While he may have looked as much an American tourist as the others around him, Sam is in fact a Florentine native. It felt surreal seeing him only a week after partying with him back in California, but this time on his adolescent turf. With him was lovely Francesca, another UC Irvine Italian that I was determined to track down while on their Christmas break. My favorite Tuscan couple had much in store for me, with a comprehensive itinerary of Renaissance treasures and old stomping ground sites entwined with delicious local eats, a program that already exceeded even the most deluxe organized tour. I had already seen the famed Duomo and other monuments like the Ponte Vecchio and Uffizzi edifices during a previous trip, however, exploring them again with local friends somehow made everything come alive and become more relevant. I eventually found myself not only admiring the innumerable churches, Graeco-Roman statues, and scenic piazzas that define Florence, but also appreciating even greater the lesser-known landmarks of Sam's former flat, the bars Francesca used to frequent, and the portions of the Arno River that Sam used to row along in his canoe. Every alley seemed to possess not only an ancient story, but also a contemporary personal story that gave a more human quality to a city comprised of silent marble and brick. Recounted memories, like hitting up secret bakeries after clubbing into the early morning, or drinking with friends on perilous bridge ledges, were frankly more intriguing to hear than the standard city history that comes with standard tour guides. Certainly one destination not included on the generic tourist itinerary was the sacred Florentine institution of the lampredotto stand. A classic street food of the city, this hot sandwich of savory diced cow stomach had been on my gastronomic bucket list essentially since the first time I met Luca in the US. After navigating through a maze of narrow alleys that Sam and Francesca inherently committed to memory, the three of us finally found a stall for lunch. One juicy lampredotto, one spicy panino di trippa, and a glass of red wine were all it took to give me the same level of inspiration and love for Florence that likely sustained the great Renaissance masters.

Outside the famed Duomo of Florence with my favorite Tuscans


Strolling towards the Ponte Vecchio

Lampredotto party in a back alley!

Taking an espresso in a wonderfully hidden rooftop bar with amazing views
Passing through Piazza Santa Croce

As the sun began to set behind the rain clouds, we drove up the hill of Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the famed city skyline to watch its shades of pink turn to purple, then ultimately to illuminated orange. Despite being entrapped by a train of cars on one of the city's many narrow roads, we still managed to keep our sanity and make it to the wonderful Romanesque church of San Miniato that crowns the hilltop. Deep in its inner sanctum, rich Gregorian chants echoed off of mural walls and mosaic floors that drew us back into antiquity, the melancholy gaze of the Madonna hovering over all in its reverberating air. To return us to modernity, we later chose to seek refuge in a sanctum of another kind, one that more Italians tend to make pilgrimage - the pub. Unlike back in the US, the pubs we entered around Piazza Santo Spirito were cozy and crowded, artistically decorated with artisanal delicacies in a warm and social atmosphere. As the drinking hour approached, the pubs began to serve their elaborate buffets of aperitivi, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of small dishes and finger foods that is essentially free with the purchase of any drink. While Sam and Luca stuck to the stronger negroni, Francesca and I settled for the lighter spritz, a classic cocktail of Prosecco, Aperol, and a splash of tonic water. We snacked on a variety of marinated olives, pickled artichokes, warm breads and dips before moving on to beers at another pub, complimented with a salty prosciutto, creamy stracchino cheese, and fried coccoli dough. Though the night was still young by Italian standards, a full day of walking and gorging had prepared me for an even more fulfilling sleep, casually bidding farewell to Sam and Francesca with ease in knowing that I'd soon be seeing them again once the new academic quarter commenced.

Catching a late mass in the church of San Miniato

It's Happy Hour... bring out the aperitivi!
Fried coccoli with prosciutto and stracchino... simple bliss!

Another day was devoted to visiting the famed city of Pisa. But while many come from afar to pay homage to its slightly tipsy tower, my devotion was set on reuniting with one of the first Italians I met during my studies at UC Irvine, the lovely and brilliant Paola. While technically only six months had passed since her emotional farewell from California, our reunion was as heartfelt as if it had been years. From humble UCI postdoc to rising principle investigator at La Scuola Normale, perhaps the most prestigious institution in Italy, Paola had found a way to return to her home of more than a decade and start a new chapter. As with Sam and Francesca, it was exciting to not only visit her, but to see her in her native home as she took us along Pisa's fortified walls and through its narrow alleys to show us the rich architecture of her university, whose campus is essentially the entirety of the old city. As we strolled, I was suddenly troubled by the realization that I had been in Italy for four days and still had not had a single slice of pizza. Paola delivered us to a small pizzeria near the university's administration building, treating me to overwhelming trays of pizza with prosciutto and artichokes, pizza with arugula, and a warm cheesy focaccia stuffed with more prosciutto. As someone who almost never eats pizza back in the US, it was a deliciously satisfying and belly-stuffing meal that only confirmed for me why I'll likely continue to avoid American pizzas. Though I may have gone only a short while without pizza, it baffled me to learn that Paola had gone the entire portion of her Pisan life without having ever ascended to the top of the Leaning Tower. While waiting for our time slot, we explored the city's famed Romanesque Duomo and the gorgeously detailed, rotund Battistero di San Giovanni, which oddly reminded me of a God-sized marble panettone. Amidst the large group of tourists taking photographs in the piazza, we shamelessly subjected ourselves to the cliched pose giving Pisa's tilted masterpiece a "helping hand", a kitschy image I intend for no one to see lest I lose my reputation as a serious traveler. The sun began to descend as the three of us finally began our spiraling ascent up one of history's most famous engineering fiascos, a dizzying climb along worn marble steps that was further exacerbated by its dramatic tilt. The tower has been one of the most vulnerable pieces of architecture for centuries, the threat of toppling or implosion due to earthquake, wind storm, or sinking ground a daily contentious issue for conservators. But if this should be the year of its demise, it would likely be at the foot of one plump tourist who clearly ate too much pizza for lunch. The views from the top were worth the small fortune it cost, as we looked out above the city just in time for the orange glow of the setting sun over the historic square, the snow-capped Apennines seen towering above in the distance. I'll admit that it was quite an exciting experience, though Paola was clearly far more expressive with her gasps and wide-eyed countenance, having only just recently discovered a treasure in her own backyard. We were so enthralled while circling the highest level of the bell tower that we somehow missed the exit leading back down, encircling a second time before being personally directed by a guard who probably thought of us as hysterical buffoons. It was likely the first time in history anyone had gotten lost at the top, but sharing that whimsical moment with Paola will always be one of the highlights of my holiday. Before saying farewell, Paola found for me a small Sicilian bakery to check off my search for sweet and crunchy cannoli siciliani. It was yet another priceless gem that still has no comparison back in the US... much like Paola herself.

Strolling around Pisa's old city
Second UCI reunion with Paola!

Pizza with prosciutto and artichokes, pizza with arugula

Focaccia with prosciutto

Top of the Battistero, God's giant stone panettone
A new take on the cliched "Leaning Tower" pose

I've never played video games like Mario Kart, but ten minutes behind the wheel in Italy was all I really needed to get my blood pumping and switch on defensive mode. Luca thought it would be a good idea one day for me to drive his car to the city of Lucca (yes, bring on the puns), which proved to be far more engaging than any computer simulation. Simply leaving the area around Luca's house was my first obstacle, where a road wide enough for two cars suddenly narrowed down to one lane before opening back up to two again. Apparently, deciding which of the two approaching cars has to yield to the other takes place almost on the verge of collision, though I had successfully evaded it this time. My other challenge predominantly involved issues of space on narrow roads in the towns, with me nearly clipping off Luca's side mirror on a parked vehicle. Aside from this and my Los Angeles tendency to have a heavy foot on the gas pedal, my Tuscan drive was relatively smooth. The aspect I appreciated the most was the use of traffic circles, a lesson the US still refuses to learn in facilitating vehicular flow. The aspect I hated the most was the plethora of toll roads that make it nearly impossible to drive anywhere in Tuscany without having to pay at least once. Despite the convoluted spirals that define Italian road infrastructure, we arrived safely and just in time for a lovely picnic lunch on the city's defensive walls. A cute town with even more medieval towers and richly decorated churches, two attributes of Lucca will forever be immortalized in my memory - deep fried anchovies and the sweet cream-filled bombolone. Our mini road-trip continued through the mountains until we finally reached the beach town of Viareggio on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Though quiet during the cold of winter, Luca showed me one of the many beach clubs that line the coastal promenade, of which his family were members. Viareggio's beach had all the classic traits of a European resort, with its ongoing stretch of trattorias and bars, shops and solariums. Before returning home, we stopped at a renowned confectionery shop, where I discovered that the Italian concept of hot chocolate is literally equivalent to drinking a melted bar of pure chocolate, thick and rich with flavor without an overwhelming sweetness. It was absolutely divine, though the god of food later blessed me twice that evening when I arrived home, this time in the form of Mama's homemade organic pizza. It struck me as hilarious that during every dinner I've had in the Baldesi home, Mama and Papa would discuss what to cook next for me, keeping the seemingly endless flow of food moving in my direction. Naturally, the scale in the upstairs bathroom still hadn't been touched. 

Views of Lucca from the top of the Torre Guinigi

Ceiling design of the Cattedrale di San Martino
Bombolone - The king of the fried doughnut family
Surfer attempting to ride the passive waves at Viareggio. Even the sea has an attitude of dolce far niente

Mama's homemade pizza with fresh ingredients has forever ruined American pizza

When she finally walked through the Arrivals door, it was the start of another long-overdue reunion. Sweet Jana, Luca's girlfriend who I had also met back at UC Irvine in 2016, had finally flown into Florence to spend New Year's with us after a family Christmas in her native Slovakia. She was exactly as I had last remembered her, testimony to her timelessness and elegance that was sure to add yet another pleasant aura to my stay at the Baldesi home. Mama had already spent the day preparing special dishes in anticipation of her arrival, which needless to say served in my favor as well, as I stood salivating over large pork livers seasoned with wild fennel flowers and sauteed in a sweet tomato and red wine reduction. Papa also treated us to some delectable salsiccia cruda, a spiced pork sausage, that we freshly savored in both its raw and cooked forms. Finally for dessert, Mama prepared a classic Tuscan castagnaccio, a dense and delectable cake from chestnut flour. With Jana finally here to redirect Luca's attention, I had more opportunities to interact with Papa on his farm, his Italian and my Spanish finding some decent means of mutual understanding as he gave me a tour of his tractor and olive collecting tools. It was soon to be the last day of 2017, but for once, it didn't even cross my mind while lost in a reverie of pure Tuscan country bliss.

The pork livers and salciccia cruda

Livers cooked in wine and salciccia sauteed with rape leaves

Mama's divine castagnaccio chestnut cake

New Year's With New Friends In Rural Tuscany

One hand de-veining shrimp, another mincing fresh herbs, a third marinating giant prawns, and a fourth stirring a myriad of pots on the stove - World, meet Giro. When Luca had mentioned to me that a friend of his would be cooking New Year's dinner for 13 of us, I didn't know exactly what to expect. A young bearded actor known for playing the likeness of Michelangelo in Rome, Giro's many talents extended far beyond the stage and ultimately converged in the kitchen, where his culinary skills in combination with his animated cinematic personality completely caught me by surprise. Comical, charismatic, and with no lack of flair or finesse, he made me feel as if I had somehow wandered onto the set of an Italian cooking show. He was certainly someone who knew his way around a kitchen and how to conjure up an elaborate menu of fairly technical dishes. From the delicate slicing of a lemon zest to aggressive pasta flipping in a simmering pan, multitasking Giro gave a thoroughly entertaining performance worthy of an encore. Despite having assistance from Magno, Giulia, Jana, and myself, the head chef behind the planning and preparation of this fanciful production whimsically directed us with roles for peeling, washing, boiling, and chopping. 

Nonna Giro whips up a zesty ravioli in seafood bisque!
Giro marinating the monster prawns
Magno preparing the tuna pastries

Two thumbs up for Team Cucina and the mad New Year dinner rush

The wonderful setting for this act was a remote country house situated in the tiny forested village of Elmo, near Sorano in the deep south of the region. Biso, Luca's friend with an uncanny resemblance to a young Steve Jobs, was generous to host a group of close mutual friends, in addition to Jana and myself, at his grandparents' rural home-turned-vacation house to spend the last night of the year in Tuscan folkloric fashion. Meeting early at their former high school in Pistoia, our four-car caravan journeyed two hours across stunning landscapes of rolling prairies with vineyards and cypress-lined villas, fortress-crowned hilltop villages, and thick woody forests. Perched on the top of a ridge surrounded by olive groves, Biso's house was a quaint two-storey structure, whose open living room contained a long table of wooden bench seating, a traditional wood-burning hearth, and a tiny kitchen with a miniaturized propane fueled stove. The house was humbly decorated in provincial style, ceramic plates adorning the walls and copper metalware hanging above a fire pit sporting a large cast iron cauldron. After off-loading boxes of ingredients and various alcohols in the kitchen, we selected our beds from one of three small upstairs bedrooms, opening up the dusty sealed window shutters and sweeping away the occasional spider. It was certainly the most ideal accommodation and location to celebrate a rowdy New Year's Eve without disruption. But before any dinner preparations could commence, a relaxing afternoon of affettati and friendly introductions was spent in the nearby medieval village of Pitigliano, straddling a rocky plateau whose stone walls and ramparts seemingly grew out of the sheer cliff side. In the heart of the citadel dubbed as Italy's Little Jerusalem, I became better acquainted with Luca's amusing gang of diverse friends: doctor Biso, actor Giro, chemist Magno, and ancient Greek papyrus scholar Giulia, as well as silly Papa, humorous Fino, and charming Francesca. Everyone was exceptionally warm and welcoming, greatly attentive to ensuring that enough English was employed to comfortably integrate Jana and myself into their close-knit group. We strolled through the picturesque village taking advantage of its breathtaking elevated vistas before heading back to the house for a night of Italian indulgence.

Heading into the deep south of Tuscany
La Casa di Biso
The soaring medieval village of Pitigliano
Michelangelo selfie!
Village butchery
My dream car, the Ape

A light snack of affettati and wine in the heart of Pitigliano

Snugly seated at a long wooden table beside the roaring fire, Giro finally showcased his multi-course menu. The antipasti, of which we kitchen minions spent the bulk of our assistance, was comprised of buttered crostini topped with lox, mini tuna-paste filled pastry shells, and creamy seafood cocktail lettuce wraps. This was followed by the primi, ravioli with fresh shrimp in a seafood tomato bisque, coupled with chicche, a smaller relative of gnocchi, in a creamy ginger-infused sauce. Finally, the coals in the fire pit were spread out to make way for the secondi, giant prawn skewers grilled to juicy perfection with a side of herb seasoned potatoes. We started eating at 9 PM and the entire meal lasted nearly two hours. In between courses, everyone playfully followed a delightfully kitschy New Year variety show airing on a small television screen at the table's end, occasionally breaking out into raucous song that seemed to grow even louder as the bottles of booze gradually depleted. Even I felt the need to sing what little I knew when Tiromancino's "La Descrizione di un Attimo" somehow found itself in the live performance lineup. In the final minutes of the year's end, Giro handed out sparklers while Magno set up the fireworks he purchased outside on the front patio. 

New Year dinner with amazing Tuscan friends in a cozy country house!
Grilled prawn skewers in the fire pit
Sweet Biso, the Italian young Steve Jobs

Magno and Giulia, doctors of chemistry and papyrology

3...2...1... The typically tranquil Tuscan countryside was suddenly set ablaze with glowing sparks, colorful streams of light, and intermittent ear-piercing explosions. Giro's inner hyperactive child pranced around the patio with his shimmering wands to loud exclamations of "Buon Anno" from all directions, while Papa played the daredevil holding onto the combustibles in his hands as they screeched and exploded with fiery brilliance. The girls huddled together in laughter as the guys anxiously ignited anything with a fuse. It was quite cold that night, but I somehow felt exceptionally warm on the inside, contemplating the thought that this was perhaps one of the most unique and special house parties I've ever been invited to. When the ammunition had finally run out, we returned to the cozy living room to celebrate with sweet slices of pandoro, which Magno had generously doused in layers of egg cream and nutela. The rest of my night was spent teaming up with Jana in an attempt to beat the Italians at round after round of Texas Hold'em. Time had stopped for all of us, even though the first dawn of 2018 was not long from breaking. In essence, New Year's Day had already become my shortest day of the year, as we didn't wake until noon nor have breakfast until nearly 1 PM. The sun was already destined to set by the time we hit the road, another golden moment to take in this time from the citadel village of Pienza, known for its scrumptious pecorino toscano. Bidding farewell to my newest friends of 2018 was challenging, but sometimes the shortest moments make for the most long-lasting memories. 

Going bonkers with sparklers
Lighting the fireworks and bombs
Sunset from the village of Pienza

Still recovering from the mountain of food we had eaten the previous night, the three of us entered Luca's house well after 8 PM, just as Mama was about to serve yet another massive feast for the New Year. My resolution to diet at the beginning of 2018 was already broken in under 24 hours at the hand of an Italian mother, something I had come to simply accept as expected in this country. We warmed ourselves with courses of hardy vegetable soup and tortellini before plunging into the stewed lentils with pork, an Italian New Year tradition with every lentil ideally representing one coin of the potential fortune one hopes to gain in the coming year. With that reasoning, I likely ate my weight's worth in gold for 2018. 

New Year lentils
Savory stewed vegetables

Cheesy baked casseroles of fennel root and artichoke

My final day in this food paradise was relaxing and filled with refreshing walks. From hiking through emerald olive orchards above the village of Vinci to the birthplace of Leonardo, to strolling around the narrow streets in old town Pistoia to the birthplace of Luca, I reflected on the past week that had truly seen me grow as a person, both in positive perspective as well as physical width. From a life of travels, I was already aware of the differences between Americans and many other parts of the world in the perception of Life and its priorities. However, my time spent in Tuscany further reminded me to take greater pleasure and richer appreciation from simpler things and briefer moments. As Luca once told me, "Sometimes less is more". It also continued to convince me about the importance of emphasizing quality over quantity, whether one chooses to apply that reasoning simply to food or extend it further to friends, or even beyond to other significant life choices. With the world becoming a far more tumultuous place in 2018, the experiences I had in 10 days gave me some hope that, with a better personal outlook, maybe the next 10 years won't be so bad after all.
View from the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci

With immeasurable gratitude and appreciation for Luca, Mama & Babo Baldesi, Marco, Sam & Francesca, Paola, Pippo, Giro, Biso, the Bombolone woman, and all of the other amazing Tuscan family and friends who generously made this culinary holiday adventure possible. Additional thanks to Paolo and Selma for serving as my personal complaint department during the messiest flight fiasco I've ever experienced in my travel career. Grazie mille mille mille a tutti!