Paolo’s forno billowed wood smoke over the olive grove. The December afternoon smelled of burning pine and rosemary. These were good days. Days when the outdoor oven cranked and Marta and Paolo had invited us next door to their villa for dinner of pizza and misto’rosto (mixed roast). Marta, predictably, was an accomplished cook. Her skill with cucina tipica Toscana (traditional Tuscan cooking) warranted a cookbook, a TV show and a seat on Mario Batali’s lap. Paolo was not a kitchen man, but in their outdoor oven behind the villa, he made one meal: pizza and misto’rosto. He’d made it for us on the night we arrived. Then, on average, he made it for us once every other week. It quickly became our favorite meal of all the incredible meals we’d had since arriving in September. And we needed it this December evening more than ever. We’d just returned from a nightmare of a European cruise. We were exhausted, deflated, and, for the first time, homesick for America.
We knew that Christmas would be tough. We had no visitors from the States and our new Italian friends were away or occupied (Marta & Paolo were actually in America, with one of their sons who worked for a NY bank). We were on our own. It had been raining since November. A cruise seemed like a good idea. It started in Savonna on the Italian Riviera and worked its way down to Naples, Sicily, Malta, the Greek island of Corfu, two stops in northern Africa before arriving, for Christmas, on the French island of Corsica. How could this trip be bad? Warm weather, exciting excursions, eat and drink and wake up in another country…
It was bad. In fact, it sucked. The weather never got near 50F. More than half the boat was open air. People gathered inside. It got tight. And it got testy. You’ve never really seen ugly until you’ve seen Euro-ugly: demanding refunds, arguing in vicious tongues, hoarding seats, crowding the dining hall. And the food was worse than the people. The catering on the cruise ship must have been handled by an outfit out of England. Not a decent bite on the whole boat for 10 days. We took a couple of good meals during the excursions, but those hardly made up for the crap they were doling out on the ship. Our Christmas meal was ham sandwiches in a bar on a nearly shuttered Corsica. It couldn’t have been worse. Until it got worse. Sophia picked up a horrible cough, one of those relentless bellows that kept her (and us) up all night. One lovely evening, off the coast of Tunisia, the seas were so rough and her cough so intense, she covered us all in vomit. Good time. Most of the remaining trip was spent in our room, watching the same Wiggles video on a laptop over and over and over until we finally docked back in Savonna late in the afternoon. By the time we debarked, got in our car out and on our way, we had a six-hour drive back to Marta & Paolo’s. And that was before I got us lost somewhere near the Cinque Terra. But, we made it home after a very long night that ended a horrible holiday vacation.
The next day, the smell of burning wood and rosemary was welcome. The doors in our bedroom loft opened to the olive grove. The sky was clear. Paolo’s smoke rose from behind a high hedge and disappeared into the hills. The bell by the gate clanged and Marta came over to welcome us home and invite us to dinner. Paolo, the retired doctor, would treat Sophia’s cough and then we would have our favorite meal. And that meal, considering what we’d just been through, would make our little place in Italy feel like home for the very first time.
On a dusted marble counter attached to the forno, Paolo kneads out dough. He uses his hands and a rolling pin to make thin circles. He spreads Passata (jarred and pureed tomatoes) in a fine layer which is covered with fresh-shredded mozzarella and strategically placed anchovy fillets. The raw ingredients are shoveled into a fired brick belly that has been raging for hours. Within minutes, out comes crispy crusts and melted toppings. We eat on a long wooden table inside a grand villa.
Misto’rosto is arranged in advance by the village butcher. In a covered tin, coated in local olive oil and liquefied garlic, is an assortment of local meats, organs, vegetables and herbs: chicken thighs, hog liver (wrapped in caul fat), rabbit loin, lamb chops, sausage links, halves potatoes and whole rosemary sprigs. Paolo removes the tin from the forno and dumps it on a large platter on the middle of their table.
The wine we drink is from their basement. It’s Tignanello, a Super Tuscan that Paolo acquires through barter with his friend in exchange for the virgin oil of his olive trees. No label on the Tignanello bottle, only deep color and extraordinary flavor from aged Sangiovese blended with a small assortment of other grapes. Imagine the flavors. The colors. Consider the experience around the table of this ancient villa in the hills of Tuscany with the smell of wood smoke still in the air.