From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 51
In or Out? I’ve Got the Gout
When we first cross the French border into Italy we, like Pavlov’s dog, start to drool in anticipation of the belly-bursting feasts that we will soon be partaking of. Normally, I can’t drink anything with caffeine in it after noon. But, no matter how late it is when we cross that line between la cuisine française (French cuisine) and la cucina italiana. (Italian cuisine), we hit the first bar on the autostrada (toll road) and tell the barman, “due o tre o quattro cappuccini per piacere” (“two or three or four cappuccinos please”)--however many people there are in the car.

Of course it is almost a cultural offense to order a cappuccino after about 10 a.m., but we foolish Americans violate that unwritten rule with a vengeance. Last week we were sampling the fixed-price luncheon menu at La Cantina Restaurant which includes a caffè espresso at the end of the meal. We hadn’t had a cappuccino that morning, so we asked the waitress if it would be possible to order two of them.

“Sì signore, è possibile.” (“Yes, Sir, it is possible.”) What I didn’t know was that “possibile” meant a 15-minute wait and a plea to the owner of the restaurant. If we had followed the old rule “a Roma, fa’ le cose che fanno i Romani,” (“in Rome, do as the Romans do”) we would have had our coffee in no time. For cappuccino, however, we had to wait for the milk to be found and the steamer to warm up.

The first day or two after arriving in Gioviano, there is an orgy of feasting on virtually anything we can shove into our mouths and swallow. The morning starts with cappuccino and briosce (pastries), that Anne calls “sticky buns”. By then its time to start figuring out which restaurants are open and which are closed that particular day. On Mondays, most restaurants are closed in order to rest up from the busy weekend. Our choices then are limited to Al Cantuccio at the bottom of the hill or to the Valle Verde about a mile down the highway toward Borgo.

Many of the restaurants along the Serchio cater to the multitudes of truck drivers that deliver raw materials to the paper factories and then haul heavy loads of paper goods to market. These drivers of extra heavy rigs, which have to dodge one another as well as cars and campers on the sometimes one-lane highways, are extra hungry by the time the lunch hours, (yes, I used the plural on purpose) come around.

Therefore, you shouldn’t eat more than one sticky bun or you’ll be sorry, because the pain of an overstretched belly will offset the pleasure of the feast. In fact, we have learned that it is best to skip breakfast altogether if we plan to eat out at lunch, especially if we go to the Circolo dei Forestieri in Bagni di Lucca where the waiter brings a complimentary aperitivo (aperitif) along with a plateful of mortadella (bologna) on a huge fresh lettuce leaf. At the same time he brings some pane schiacciata già caldo dal forno (salted hot bread from the oven). Don’t eat but a tiny sampling of the bread or you’ll be sorry, not because it doesn’t taste delicious, which it does, but because it will fill your stomach before the feast begins.

Next there is a choice of: penne al pomodoro, (penne with tomato sauce) fusilli al tonno (corkscrew pasta with tuna), spaghetti al ragù (spaghetti with meat sauce), or tagliolini prosciutto e panna (flat noodles with ham and cream sauce). It’s not just a forkful like you might get in some high dollar Italian restaurants back home, but enough to fill you up and then some. Most restaurants will allow you to switch sauces to a different pasta if you ask.

For example, at Al Cantuccio, gnocchi con salsa di asparagi e panna (potato balls with asparagus and cream sauce) is on the menu, but eating a huge bowl of gnocchi with any kind of salsa on it will make it impossible to get up from the table without the help of a crane. The asparagi e panna sauce is out of this world as is the homemade maccheroni (flat squares of pasta), so we order maccheroni con asparagi e panna. Since the maccheroni was made in heaven, it is as light as a cloud, and we not only don’t need a crane to pull us up but we actually have room for the carne e contorni (meat and vegetables) that come next.

Now back to the Circolo. After you have stuffed yourself on the pasta, the waiter brings a glass of vodka con sorbetto al limone (with lemon sherbet) which serves to put your pasta to sleep so that it won’t be churning around while you are trying to stuff yourself with what comes next.

The choices are, scaloppina al vino bianco (veal sautéed in white wine), cotoletta alla milanese, (veal cutlet, Milanese style) or filetto di trota alla mugnaia (filet of trout baked with butter sauce). As for the contorno (side dish), there is a choice of insalata di pomodori (tomato salad), insalata verde (green salad), insalata mista (mixed salad), or verdure grigliate (grilled vegetables) consisting of pomodori, zucchini, and melanzane (tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant). Then there is always the old standby, patate fritte (French fries). Now if you can manage to wolf down your fish and chips or veal cutlet and grilled vegetables, then you can start deciding what you want for dessert, which also comes with the meal.

Our favorite dessert is usually panna cotta (a baked cream pudding) There is a choice of two wonderful sauces to enhance the flavor of the panna cotta: frutti di bosco (fresh berries) or cioccolato (chocolate). Another dessert that is a favorite of ours is crema caramele (cream caramel). The really disconcerting thing is that Italians all seem to want to follow the leader and last year anywhere you ordered panna cotta con frutti di bosco, it came topped with fresh blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. This year, every single restaurant that we have been to brings out the panna cotta with some overly sweet red gooey sauce without any berries at all, so we have learned to ask for strawberries which are in season in June to be substituted for the icky red goo. Obviously someone started the goo fad in some restaurant somewhere, and now all the copycats have virtually ruined the best dessert choice on the Serchio. I wish I knew who the guy was. I would give him a taste of my vocabulario di bestemmiatore (curse words).

The identical thing happened with French fries about 15 or so years ago. Until then, they were all freshly sliced extra thin by hand and fried to a glorious golden hue. The flavor was out of this world. Until last year, there was only one of our favorite restaurants left where real patate fritte could be ordered. Unfortunately, the old owner retired, and the new owners supply the same mealy frozen fries you get everywhere.

When a McDonalds was opened in Lucca a few years ago, I knew that the culinary arts would begin to head downhill and that Italian children would begin to become obese. Both predictions are sadly coming true, I fear. That farmer who bulldozed that McDonalds in France is one of my cultural heroes. I need an Italian hero with the same nerve.

The great thing about the Circolo dei Forestieri, which means “foreigner’s club” in English, is that the waiter expects crazy foreigners to order cappuccinos after lunch, so there is no delay. The biggest problem is being able to pull yourself up from the table and waddle back to the car.

The first few days of our food orgy would include a full course supper followed by gelato (ice cream) topped with a heaping portion of whipped cream. By the third day Anne was moaning, “I’ve got the gout.”

“I think I’ve got it too,” I said. Sue just groaned. On the fourth day we begin to start asking, “Do we eat in”, meaning at home, “or out?” meaning at a restaurant where we are sure to worsen our bout with the gout. Of course, none of us really had the gout, a disease that was associated throughout history with Kings who ate too much rich food. The peasants had to get by on bread and a few vegetables, only eating meat on feast days. In fact, even to this day the gout is referred to as “the disease of Kings.”

Sue just came and interrupted my writing. “Hurry up George, you know you like to get to the restaurants by noon to avoid the rush.” I guess today its “out” and to think that this morning I ate a sticky bun with my cappuccino. Guess I’ll just have to stuff myself. Tonight it will really have to be “in” where we can stick to a little prosciutto e melone (ham and melon) chased with a single glass of red wine.

We’re back from Al Barchetto! It’s 2:20 p.m., and Sue and I are both stuffed to the gills. Forget the prosciutto e melone tonight when we will be “in.” It was one of the offerings on today’s menu so, we ordered it and also a Milanese to share so that we could sink out teeth into two different things at every “out” gourmand experience, like we almost always do.

Today’s menu, handwritten and photocopied, with a sheet on each table offered a choice of risotto ai funghi (rice with mushrooms), lasagna al forno (baked lasagna), insalata di farro (spelt salad), or penne all’arrabbiata (penne with spicy tomato sauce). Two additional second-course choices were salciccia e fagioli, (meat with beans) which sounded really far too heavy for a rather hot summer day, or roast beef. Now why the Italians use the English words “roast beef” I’ll never know. However, I always laugh when I see bistecca di maiale (beefsteak of a pig) listed on the menu. A “beefsteak of a pig” is not really from a cross between a cow and a pig but is just a simple grilled pork chop. I guess that’s not as crazy as seeing “shrimp scampi” on American menus, which is the same as listing the item as “shrimp shrimp” since scampi are shrimp.

Of course we had to decide which of the three contorni to forego and decided to skip the frozen French fries and go for the insalata mista (mixed salad) and the finocchio al forno (baked fennel), which with its slight licorice flavor, was the best I have ever eaten.

Not wishing to be “ugly Americans” we opted for caffè macchiato, which is an acceptable way to sneak in a miniature cappuccino, after we had consumed the liter of acqua minerale gassata (carbonated mineral water). I really shouldn’t drink wine at lunch because it makes me very sleepy, but since it comes with the lunch at no extra charge, I forced myself to consume about a fourth of what the waitress brought. I can barely keep my eyes open to type so must go over to Casa Rosina for a little pisolino, which incidentally means a little nap, not a trip to the restroom.

Can you believe that all of that delightful misery that we brought upon ourselves only cost 18 Euro for the both of us, including tax and tip, in June of 2006? What do you suppose that meal would have cost in Houston, San Francisco, New York City, or even Florence, Rome or Venice?

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
Previous Chapter
Back to the Table of Contents
Next Chapter