An alarm sounds before the sun is awake, before the bells of the nearby church begin their morning song and certainly before I am aware of what day it is or where I am. Like waking up on Christmas morning, the details suddenly become clear and coax me out of bed. We have an adventure ahead of us. Although by day two we’ve had very little sleep, we can’t wait to explore Italy.
As we journey north, the old and rustic evolve into the urban landscape of Milan where a building appears, seeming almost to mimic New York, looking somewhat out of place in comparison to a masterpiece such as the Duomo. On our way there we stop in Parma for lunch simply because we can. It feels like such a privilege to eat parmigiano and prosciutto right there in the city of its birth. Once in the center of Parma the streets are small and the town is quaint. We’re so overwhelmed that before heading to Milan, we forget to buy parmigiano to bring back home. Surely this means a return trip.
In Milan we arrive just in time for cena. We’re met by my cousin Flavio who I haven’t seen in 10 years, but quickly it feels like it’s only been weeks. He greets us at the grandiose Centrale train station, a truly spectacular piece of architecture, and immediately I recall to myself such beauties as Grand Central in New York and 30th Street in Philadelphia. It’s not a competition but I’m silently proud that we can hold our own.
Flavio, who is from my dad’s hometown of Montenero di Bisaccia, now lives in Milan with his partner Antonio, an amazing chef from Sicily who has prepared for us a mouth watering meal made of fresh ingredients Flavio has just brought back from his family’s farm. To start, we feast on cima di rape and sausage that has an unmistakable taste of Montenero. I’m shocked and delighted by the familiarity the taste bears to another delicacy of my dad’s town which we will describe to you in the next post. The dishes to follow are comprised of farm fresh tomatoes and potatoes and onions and peppers, and are enhanced with 8 day old olive oil, pressed of course from the family’s olives, and are equally impressive. I find myself grilling Antonio for step by step instruction which he happily obliged, although I sadly forgot as wine and stories filled my head. Once again our desire to document is outweighed by our appetites.
After dinner we headed to downtown Milan. First to Grom for gelato and then a long lovely walk through the Navigli District, an area of trendy cafes, night clubs and restaurants along the canals of Milan. Much like the Village in New York, artists once flocked to this area attracted by the gritty low rent atmosphere, but just like the Village, this neighborhood is no longer affordable to them. By New York standards however, the prices we encounter feel like the equivalent of finding a rent controlled apartment with skyline view.
The next morning we must head back to Rome, but first we make a stop in Florence via the Freccia Rosa, Italy’s high speed train. Most European travelers rave about the train system in Italy. Although the trains are beautifully clean, quick and convenient, the way the system is managed still has the unmistakable air of a government-run operation. We are unimpressed by this part, and find it a rude and disorderly practice when our tickets are cancelled on us for no reason and we then incur a hefty fine on top of the inconvenience imposed upon us. I’ll spare you the details of the ordeal that my dear cousin in Rome is still fighting on our behalf. That unpleasant experience aside, we still have a lovely afternoon ahead of us with all of Florence to explore before returning to Rome. Our stop in Florence was among the most memorable parts of our trip. Awestruck by Renaissance masterpieces such as the Duomo and the David we spent the afternoon wandering the impossibly quaint medieval streets and alleyways, shopping and eating and trying our best to absorb the beauty of the town.
Mike was pleasantly surprised to discover that the pizza in Florence was his favorite. Unbelievably fresh and flavorful tomatoes and basil shared center stage with creamy mozzarella that tasted like it was made that morning. The dough was light and thin but somehow still substantial enough to bend only slightly under the weight of the sauce which we eagerly scooped up with the remaining pieces of crisp crust. In my family this is known as “scarpetta,” a tradition of using bread to scoop up leftover sauce in your plate. My dad taught this to me years ago when I was a kid, finding it unbearable to let even a drop of my mom’s sauce go to waste. I look across the table to see Mike happily practicing “scarpetta” with the crust of his favorite Italian pizza. Maybe it really was the best pizza or perhaps it was simply sitting outside in the amazing Tuscan air in the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella that swayed his opinion. We sat with no phone, no internet, enjoying our pizza and drinking Moretti beer that bore no resemblance to what is sold back home. At that moment we were completely unplugged and truly on vacation. No family dilemma, political rant or work problem could reach us. It was a feeling I wish I could have bottled and brought back home with us.
Thank you for continuing our Italian journey with us. In our next post we will tell you all about our time in Montenero di Bisaccia, a tiny town, barely on the map that was home to my dad and his family. We can’t wait to tell you all about it.