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July 1, 2024

Ciao a tutti,

To jump right in, I had dinner with my host (grand)mother last Sunday. Vanna is an amazing woman. She lives on the bottom floor of her building and has a personal garden full of fruit trees, herbs, and flowers. Her entire family (mostly) lives in Florence and they connect every Friday for dinner and many bottles of wine. Vanna’s kitchen is a narrow rectangle (about 2 by 10/12 feet). The tiled space is flanked by expansive floor-to-ceiling cabinets on the river-right side of the space and a four-level trash container, refrigerator, and spice rack mounted to the wall on the left.

The Italians have a reputation for their struggles with efficient bureaucracy. A tale I have told time and time again is when I spent an hour (63 minutes) waiting in line to send one letter at the Poste Italia when there were four people in front of me. This reputation is balanced by the silent army of Italian matriarchs who employ every square inch of their galley-sized kitchens as if they were military commissaries. Vanna could make a tiramisu with her eyes closed. She has spent 30 years feeding study-abroad students, which is small potatoes compared with the decades she has spent feeding her children and now her children’s children. There is a harmony she shares with her kitchen, not unlike a temple of blood, bones, and olive oil.

Living at Vanna’s for 100 days, two years ago, reframed my perspective on how to approach food. Slow, simple, seasonal. Comfort, well salted, with wine. Always buy anchovies under salt (sotto sale) and the bigger the fish, the better. Enter: bottarga-dried tuna eggs. People, please procure this delicacy. The humble bell pepper, under the care and attention of Vanna’s methodology quite literally melts in the mouth.

Let’s set the table:

1.       Prosciutto and salami with melon. Classic and timeless but exponentially enriched by early summer melon.

2.       Pecorino fresco and honey. The wave for me right now is the pecorino fresco. Vanna claims it is easy to procure in stores but I have not seen it yet and, yes, I have been looking.

3.       Fennel salad with pistachio. Speaks for itself.

4.       Panzanella: Tuscan bread salad with seasonal vegetables. In this instance, tomato, cucumber, spring onion, garlic, EVOO, and vinegar.

5.       Eggplant with tomato sauce.

6.       Regrettably, I can’t remember what this was called but pork and pistachio center wrapped with pounded chicken basted in some kind of rich broth thinly sliced into cross sections displaying a fascinating pink gradient.

7.       Deep glasses of wine.

Ambiance: Canale 7 recapping the nightly news. The news in Italian is more approachable for me, mostly because I understand 30% of what they are saying. Vanna does not speak English. She is accustomed to hosting Americans and understands how to tailor her Italian to those of us still in the learning stage. There is so much to say about the practice of Italian and no one has written it better than Jhumpa Lahiri, In Altre Parole. Vanna was born following the Second World War. She is deeply concerned by the Ukrainian conflict and sympathizes with the Palestinian cause. She does not stand with PM Giorgia Meloni as the current leader, who she thinks is a symbol of a burgeoning extreme right wing in contemporary politics.

There is a beautiful, strange comfort that washes over me sitting at Vanna’s table listening to an iPhone video playing on the news of young adults chanting ‘il Duce, il Duce, il Duce’ around a bonfire while eating the best bites of Tuscan bread salad.

“Are you going with delicious or impressive?”

“Delicious is impressive.”

~The Bear, Season 1

The meal.

My old roommate Natasha and Vanna walking back to Vanna’s house after a day trip to Fiesole.

Vanna's garden. See left-hand side of the frame: massive rosemary bush.



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