We ‘did’ Italy on a shoestring over two decades ago, four days in Rome, and four days in Florence. Ours was a whirlwind tour of art galleries and museums, a wander around the two cities admiring the architecture, having our first taste of genuine Italian pizzas, and a memorable walk through some olive groves on the outskirts of Florence up to an old church. We thoroughly enjoyed it although our visit was all too brief.
See You in the Piazza, Frances Mayes’ account of her travels through Italy for a year and a half, accompanied by her husband and sometimes her grandson was a much grander journey. Staying in very stylish accommodation they wined and dined in expensive restaurants while discovering many wonderful places to visit off the tourist trail.
”The score of our adventure is the music of many corks popping,” she writes. Italians are passionate about food and Italy has a long culinary history with many regional variations. The chefs in the restaurants where they dined created sumptuous meals for them using fresh local ingredients which she describes in a sensuous lyrical way.
For instance at Restorante La Torre in Monselice she has the best pasta ever. The waiter comes out with a box of white truffles.
“The first of the year,” he says.” I recommend the ravioli filled with Taleggio, served with truffles and a touch of butter.”
We wait for a glass of prosecco. Then comes the pile of thin lardo surrounded by quarters of figs and sliced goose breast with toasts and curls of butter.
The plain pasta bowls arrive and the woodsy scent of truffles rises. The ravioli is light, not chewy. Taleggio is one of my favourite cheeses, and this has melted to a creamy richness that marries the generous shavings of truffle.
“This is good?” the waiter asks. “No it’s heaven,” she replies.
They visit markets and vineyards and watch artisans carrying on a long family tradition of making Mozzarella cheese. Between meals there are many flavours of gelato to sample and coffees and prosecco to sip. I found it best to read this book slowly to prevent going into gustatory overload!
Chefs have generously shared recipes for inclusion in this book. Some would be a challenge for home cooks but others such as cold thin spaghetti with raw oysters, steak with olives, herbed green tomatoes and pickled red onions and a luscious Lemon ricotta tart look quite achievable in a home kitchen for a special dinner.
Apart from her passion for wining and dining Frances Mayes also loves Italian art and architecture and she describes many of the museums, castles and churches they visit in detail. And as they wend their way through the landscape from one destination to another she delights in pointing out many of its features. Readers with a historical bent will also enjoy her anecdotes about Italy’s past.
If you are planning to visit Italy do read this book. Not only is her food and wine focussed travelogue a fascinating read but it will considerably broaden your horizons and introduce you to many cultural and historic gems you are unlikely to find in other guide books.
She also has good advice for independent travellers.
- Travel light. Luggage is a burden.
- When looking for apartments: Buyers beware. Ask yourself what they are not showing in the photographs. Then ask to see that omitted bathroom or kitchen. Tiny box showers, furniture covered with throws, bad art dark rooms all are warning flags.
- Look up the address on Google Earth to ascertain that the location is not beside a major road or an inconvenient neighbourhood.
- And if you don’t want to drive yourself Italian trains are a fantastic option. Italy has many fast trains, some with business class ambience and friendly service of drinks, sandwiches and snacks.
We are off to Europe again soon including a brief return visit to Italy and wish we had read her book before making our bookings but we feel sure that while ours will not be such a sophisticated experience there will be plenty to charm us.
See You in the Piazza is by Frances Mayes. Imprint Viking. RRP $40.
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook