My Big Fat Tuscan Dinner Fail - Zeneba Bowers
Last March, we spent two solid weeks in Tuscany. We opted to rent an apartment in a little hill town not far from Pienza. The apartment was huge for two people – three stories, multiple bedrooms, kitchen, fireplace, a little balcony, right in the center of this tiny medieval walled village. The cost was around $600 for the entire two weeks – one of the benefits of small-town travel.
When we arrived, the incredibly gracious owner – we'll call her Donatella – was there to greet us and show us around the place. She made us a couple of espressi on the stove as we chatted – she was patient with our less-than-fluent Italian language skill. She had also made us a huge fig tart – enough for a whole wedding reception, but it was just for us. (It was delicious, and we ate it all week.)
It turned out that Donatella was retired after working for decades at one of our favorite rustic restaurants in nearby Pienza. As she realized that we were big fans of cucina Toscana (Tuscan cuisine), she invited us to join her at her house in Pienza the following weekend for dinner. Of course I said we'd be delighted; it's a great honor and privilege to be invited into someone's home for a meal. I had been hoping for an invitation just like this for years; it was a dream come true!
But she left without us nailing down a date or time for dinner, so we assumed the offer was just a vague courtesy.
We spent the next week touring around southern Tuscany, and indulging in many of the foods we never eat at home: white pasta, roasted potatoes, pastries. We love these foods, but our bodies don't – and after a week of eating them, we've definitely had our fill. Saturday turned out to be a gorgeous day – not a cloud in the azure blue sky. We stopped for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants in San Quirico D'Orcia, and decided to make it an epic meal when we saw that they had a bacon-wrapped leg of pork on the menu. We started with a couple of pastas – I had pici cacio e pepe (hand rolled pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper), Matt ordered pappardelle with a spicy tomato sauce. Then came the main course: the pork leg, looking like something Fred Flintstone would enjoy. I always beg for dessert, so we finished the meal with a creamy, sweet panna cotta topped with caramel. Completely sated, we took a nice long walk after lunch through the medieval walled town. After this huge meal we decided the best idea would be to have a very light dinner. So we stopped at the local fruit and veg vendor and bought some fresh peas; in early spring they were just in season. We drove home, changed into our pajamas, made a pot of peppermint tea, and sat around the table shelling the peas. The plan was to have some steamed peas and tea for dinner, then go to bed and read ourselves to sleep.
As I was sitting at the table shelling peas, I heard the town bells chime, indicating it was 7:30pm. At that moment, there was a knock on the door. That could not have been more unexpected – in this tiny Tuscan town of just 200 residents, over the course of the week we'd only seen 20 people, tops. At night the streets were deserted. Matt got up to answer the door, and there stood Donatella's daughter, Mariella. "We are looking forward to seeing you for dinner tonight, in a half hour!", she said in lilting Italian, handing Matt a note with the address.
As Matt closed the door, we both panicked. We were both still stuffed from lunch, not at all prepared for a dinner party. We had nothing to bring to dinner as a gift, and the local grocer's was already closed. Obviously canceling was totally out of the question, so we changed out of our pajamas, drank a little sparkling water to settle our stomachs, and set out for the drive to Pienza.
It was only a 5 mile drive from our hamlet to Pienza, but at night that could take a little while, as there are no street lights on the way, and the tiny rural road often had deer, wild boar, or porcupines wandering the way. I rolled down the passenger side window to let in the cool night air and tried to settle my stomach a bit. I was also pretty nervous about the dinner because we would be conducting the entire affair speaking in Italian, and I wasn't sure if I was up to the task. Once we arrived in town, we set off looking for a gift. Stopping in a local bar, I bought two bottles of the best red wine I could find. I hoped that Donatella was a forgiving host; if I had known we were going to this special dinner I would have brought a very special wine, or artisanal chocolates, or something more considered. But these would have to do.
We walked over to Donatella's house and knocked on the door. She greeted us with her effusive, welcoming charm, and my anxiety eased a little bit. She seemed genuinely delighted with the wine, and I started to breathe out.
…That is, until I saw the dining room table. She had quite the spread laid out. Beautiful place settings, crystal wine glasses, linen napkins. Multiple trays of food covered the entire table. Each tray was roughly the size of a large pizza, and every tray was completely full. The only dinner guests were me, Matt, Mariella, and Donatella, so I was stunned by the amount of food. A tray of Tuscan deviled eggs, bruschette with melted pecorino, bruschette with truffles, crostini with sardines, marinated artichokes, a big tray of slabs of local pecorino and salumi.
Donatella sat me down in the place of honor – right in front of the open wood fire. The room was pretty small, so my back was just a foot or so away from the fire. Matt sat at the head of the table, just in front of the TV mounted in the corner, which was blasting an Italian game show. Mariella sat opposite of Matt at the other end, and Donatella remained standing, as she was going to be chef, hostess, and server that evening. The kitchen and dining room were really just one room together; as Donatella got up from the table, she could just turn around and she was in her small kitchen.
I knew this was just the antipasti course, and that there would surely be a pasta course to follow, so I tried to pace myself. Donatella hovered over us with her trays of appetizers, heaping them onto our plates. I ended up with three deviled eggs, one crostini with sardines, a few artichokes, a big slice of pecorino, two pieces of salumi, and two bruschette before I could get her to stop. Donatella was pretty aggressive about piling food on our plates. Matt had a bit more, naturally; she expected him, as a man, to eat a lot. Mariella had one egg and one bruschetta. We tucked in, and the food was indeed delicious. Donatella had made the salumi and the artichokes herself, and marinated the sardines. We ate with relish and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves – everything was fantastic. Donatella sat down for a moment and joined us, eating a couple of bruschette, an egg, and some artichokes. Finishing off the last of my antipasti, I was ridiculously full. I thought I could make it through the pasta course if we had just a bit of time to relax, and luckily, the Italian pace of meals is always quite slow, with plenty of time between courses.
Right then, Donatella got up and turned around to the stove. She picked up a large iron pan, full of bruschette that were topped with raw sausage, which was partially cooked by melted pecorino that topped it. The oil from the cheese and the meat soaked into the bread. Needless to say, this was not a light dish. She gave us each one large helping, and at this point, I started to get worried. In my very full state, I didn't know if I could handle this semi-cooked sausage. And I knew we would be served a lot of pasta shortly. I took a few big breaths in, and powered through it.
Now Donatella, who herself had chosen to skip this bruschette course, told us it was time for the pasta course. She had made pappardelle, a long, thin, flat noodle. She was going to serve it with wild boar ("cinghiale"). This really surprised me. I had wanted to make a traditional Tuscan stew of wild boar all week, but every butcher we stopped at told us it was out of season. One butcher said I might be able to get some if I knew a hunter personally – I assumed he was pulling my leg. Now Donatella had wild boar, and I wondered how? Matt asked her, and, of course, she said it was because she knew a hunter personally. (Of course! So obvious!)
I watched Donatella pile huge amounts of fresh pasta into the boiling water, and I realized I was really in trouble. The multiple bruschette, eggs, cheese, and sausage were starting to set in, and I knew I could not make it through the pasta course. The heat from the fire was not helping matters, and the blasting sound from the game show was putting me in to total sensory overload. I knew that telling Donatella I was too full to eat was not going to work, and I dreaded insulting her by passing on her food. Plus I wanted to experience her ragu of wild boar, so there was only one option.
I excused myself to the restroom. I stood over the sink, holding both sides and bracing myself for what I knew I was going to have to do. Then I put my head over the toilet, stuck my finger down my throat, and vomited. A few times.
Luckily for me the blaring TV covered the sounds of my retching. I stood up, rinsed my mouth out with cold water, and dabbed my teary eyes. Took a few deep breaths, and went back to the table, where my place setting now boasted a heaping plate of pappardelle.
With my newly-empty stomach, I had renewed confidence that I could DO THIS! I looked over at Matt, who knows me better than anyone on earth, and I could tell he knew what I had been up to. He shot me a look that was equal parts pity and envy, as we both filled our forks with the steaming, delicious pasta. The warm pasta actually felt good on my tortured stomach, and I really enjoyed this course. The nerves I had about not being able to satisfy Donatella were ebbing, and I thought I could even handle a dessert course, which she would surely have.
Mariella, a veteran at these meals, knew how to manage it. When Donatella approached her, Mariella firmly held her ground. "Mama, non troppo!" she would exclaim – "Not too much!" and "No, Mama, no!"
And Donatella would begrudgingly back off. Then she would take the food intended for Mariella and drop it on one of us. We would both try to temper the amount of food Donatella was giving us, but that was a battle we were never going to win. I internally had to laugh at the irony — I had waited years to experience just such a meal, and here I was, desperately figuring out how to avoid it! In life, timing is everything.
Speaking of timing, the comfortable pauses between courses that I was counting on to help my stomach were not happening this evening, because Donatella had a late evening appointment to help an elderly friend, so she needed to conclude this meal by 9:30. An hour and a half for a dinner of this size is unheard of, but she was determined.
The rest of the evening is kind of a blur for me. After the pasta course, I was stunned to discover that Donatella had a meat course. Plates filled with large portions of wild boar stew were the next to appear, with roasted potatoes and rosemary. Mariella tossed another log on the fire, my head began to spin, and I prayed for the sweet release of death. Finishing the meat course, to my great dismay I learned that Donatella had prepared a SECOND meat course, this one slices of tender veal in a carrot and caper sauce.
At this point any protectiveness or thoughtfulness I had for my husband went out the window. It was a do-or-die situation. When Donatella had her back turned I would drop a couple of potatoes onto his plate, ignoring his withering looks and secure in the fact that he couldn't file divorce papers until we returned to the States, by which time I was sure he would forgive me.
During each course, as we were both able to eat less and less, Donatella would hover over, asking why we were so weak. She would shape her hands into a little ball, mockingly saying "Oh, you have such a tiny stomach!" or "Little bird eaters" (as I understood it).
Last up was, of course, the dessert. Donatella had made a zuppa inglese – a rich cake, soaked in alcohol, interspersed with her own jarred figs and marinated cherries, hunks of dark chocolate, and mascarpone. With this she poured us large glasses of her homemade limoncello.
As I was talking to Mariella, I turned my back on Matt for a moment. Matt and Donatella were having their own conversation. When I turned back around, I saw to my surprise that Matt had a second heaping helping of the very heavy dessert. I assumed he had gotten a second wind.
The evening ended with lots of kisses and hugs, and promises to visit again. We rolled ourselves out into the cold night air and hobbled to our car. It was at least 10 minutes of deep breathing before Matt thought he was safe to drive. We rolled the windows down, grateful for the crisp air in our lungs. Matt drove slowly, as if the car were a part of his bloated body. I don't think he got over 10 miles an hour. Halfway home, we had to stop for a wild cinghiale in the road; I apologized to him for eating his uncle — twice.
In the car, I asked Matt about that second helping of dessert. Turns out the conversation he was having with Donatella was all about how much she wanted him to eat another helping. He tried to refuse, but he lost. Donatella is a powerful woman.
Though the evening had its challenges, it remains one of my most treasured memories. To be invited into someone's home, and treated with such love and respect, is no small matter to me. Even in my weakened state, I did enjoy the food immensely, and was grateful to learn about Tuscan cooking from a master. And the warmth, generosity, and kindliness will stay with me forever, even if not all of the meal did.