Since Rome I’ve had a busy week, visiting a series of stony cities — each historic and, it seems, made entirely of stone. Most have Etruscan foundations, plenty of ancient Roman stones still standing, and a thousand years of pride and paranoia stacked and weathered in whatever is quarried nearby. Orvieto, Civita de Bagnoregio, Assisi, Cortona, Montepulciano, Montalcino, and now Volterra – most of them touristy, but late at night, they’re all the domain of mostly locals — polishing their stones with convivial promenades.
I sat under rustic, noble, Volterra stones tonight — bats bursting through the floodlights, ghostly towers held together with rusted iron corsets, a stony bench cold on my butt at the base of palaces that made commoners feel small six centuries ago.
These stones have soul. The countless peasant backs they bent so many centuries ago gave to future generations the architectural equivalent of fine wines, something to be savored and pondered in solitary moments like the one I just enjoyed.
|Giulio brings a slab of steak to the customer for an okay to cook it up.
I’m in Tuscany, so proud of its beef — last night I sunk my teeth into a carnivore’s dream come true. In a stony cellar, under one long, tough vault, I joined a local crowd. The scene was powered by an open fire in the far back of the vault. Flickering in front of the flames was a gurney, upon which lay a hunk of beef the size of a small human corpse. Like a blacksmith in hell, Giulio — a lanky man in a T-shirt — hacked at the beef with a cleaver, lopping off a steak every few minutes.
In a kind of mouth-watering tango, he pranced past the boisterous tables of eaters, holding above the commotion, like a tray of drinks, the raw slab of beef on butcher’s paper. Giulio presented the slabs to each table of diners, telling them the weight and price (€3 per hundred grams, one kilo — the minimum is about $40) and getting their OK to cook it. He’d then dance back to the inferno and cook the slab: seven minutes on one side, seven on the other. There’s no asking how you’d like it done; thisis the way it is done. And about 15 minutes later, you got steak.
When the meal’s done, Giulio pulls the pencil out of his ponytail and scribbles your bill on the paper table cloth. The beef goes with the hearty red wine here in Tuscany. “It’s tradition here to serve only one glass for water and wine,” Giulio explained, as if to keep the humble tradition of old-time trattorias alive. The single glass was the only downside. It was a fine dinner — and will make a vivid memory (and great addition to my Italy guidebook).
La vita è bella…life is good in Italy. And the good life seems, like the cuisine, simple. Locals are really into the “marriage” of correct foods. An older wine needs a stronger cheese. Only a tourist would pull the fat off the prosciutto.
To me, the cuisine is a symphony — it’s like music. The ingredients are the instruments. The quality is important…but even good instruments can be out of tune. The marriage of the ingredients is what provides the tonality. I’m not sophisticated enough to explain what’s good or bad. But when things are in tune, you taste it.