Francis and I arrived in Italy a day late (see Earthquakes, Part 1). A little shaken but not stirred; we leaped into the next phase of our trip abroad… the phase where we would gain 20 pounds.
Here’s what I don’t need to tell you: Italy is amazing. It nurtures you with gentle light, endless skies, and perfect meals. I fear that giving you a true play-by-play of every dish we ate and place we visited would grow tiresome to write and annoying to read. Instead, I’ll focus on two days in particular.
Well, maybe three days.
After our arrival, my folks put us to work quickly, picking olives from their grove. The olives that accumulate are then taken to a local press and made into the most incredible extra virgin olive oil I’ve ever tasted. The process of olive picking is different than what I was expecting. Every summer, Francis and I pick blueberries by the bushel, and it’s fun and rewarding, but it can get messy and boring. Don’t get me wrong, freshly picked blueberries are spectacular, but they’re done right there. You stand in front of the tree; eat a few, pick a few, throw a few at your husband, pick a few more. Olives are different. I think it’s because they aren’t edible yet. Picking is an essential part of a process that will render something truly magical. They will transform.
They’re also a little more fun to gather. A gentle tug off the branch easily releases the gems from the trees, and they cascade down your chest into the wide satchel (coitoio) that you’ve secured around your neck. The world disappears as you roll the fruit through your fingers and watch the bins (cassetta) fill up. I was focused first on the yield, trying to out-pick my husband or parents, but then became distracted by the different techniques you could use to pull the olives from the trees. Then my linear thoughts disappeared entirely, and I slipped into a hypnotic state of calm productivity. It was so fulfilling and I will access that clear focus as a mantra for the rest of my life.
During a break from olive picking, my dad and I spent some time making dough for a pizza party thrown in our honor that evening. My parent’s Rustico has a 400-year-old wood-burning oven that produces some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
The logs are lit, and the fire burns hot hot hot until the smoldering embers reach an even temperature. Then they are pushed back into the cavernous space of the oven, and the pizza is fired in the forefront. It’s the sort of atmosphere that you can’t produce in a regular oven, or even in (most) restaurant wood-burning ovens. It’s too hot to legally permit. (There are a few restaurants in the country that have old wood-burning ovens that were grandfathered in many years before the permits came into play and you can absolutely taste the difference.)
My parents gathered ingredients from the local butcher, farmer’s stand, and cheesemaker and set up a “make your own pizza” station in their kitchen. Bowls of mise en place perched everywhere you looked: sautéed local mushrooms and caramelized onions; rosemary and thinly sliced potatoes; fresh ricotta and mozzarella; homemade marinara and local pork sausages; gorgonzola and pears. We had everything. I also made a batch of my famous chocolate biscotti because, well, because they’re the best biscotti around.
“Let’s see what kind of pizza the CHEF makes!” exclaimed one of the guests in the middle of the party. But I didn’t leap into action.
“No thanks. Not tonight. Tonight, I want to experience the meal from this side of the house.”
Everyone understood what I meant. I rarely give myself the proper space to enjoy a meal without thinking about its fabrication. It was wonderful to step back and experience the gratification of a fantastic meal without controlling it. Of course, I helped clean up. I’m not an asshole. I just wanted to give the production side of my brain a little vacation too. We had such a wonderful night with pizza after pizza that I forgot to take a picture of anything! Trust me; it was incredible. And, as we stuffed the pièce de résistance gorgonzola and pear pizza into our mouths, my dad’s eyes twinkled. “Wait until we get to Colfiorito…”
A few days later, on a cloudy afternoon, we drove a half hour north to visit a restaurant called
La Botteguccia Del Campo 64 in Colfiorito. My father had written me after their first meal there, making it clear that it was an experience not to be missed. Boy, was he right.
La Botteguccia is every single thing I like about professional food service. It has none of the fuss that so many people associate with good food. It’s prix fixe and there is no menu, which I love. No choices. You get what the chef knows will thrill you…and boy does it. The dining room is casual, with thank-you notes and pictures drawn by happy customers hanging from every wall. When we walked in, there was a table of firemen, in full gear, laughing as they smoothed pâté onto fresh bread and scooped lentils into their mouths. A little girl sat, wide-eyed with her family at the table next to us and slurped tomatoey penne from a spoon. The meal was simple. Everything fresh. Everything local. It tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. It was pure joy.
On November 8th, we went to meet some friends of Francis’ who moved from Portland to Montone, Italy a few years ago. We decided we would meet them at the Burri Museum at Città di Castello. My folks wanted to see the exhibit as well so we piled into the car and headed off a bit disjointed, but no worse for wear. It was election day. We were 6 hours ahead of New York and 9 hours ahead of Portland. There was no news yet, but I think the weight of the day could be felt in our bones. Our heads were definitely not on our shoulders because we got incredibly lost. First, we went to the wrong museum (there are two Burri museums, one at the palazzo in the middle of town and the other in a tobacco dry-house a little farther out). We parked our car and then, after realizing we’d gone to the wrong museum (my dad thought the two locations were right next to each other), we walked in the wrong direction and lost our parked car. I can only imagine the bird’s eye view of the four of us walking north and south and east and west, pointing and disagreeing on everything. “It’s this way, I’m sure!” “No, THIS way!!”
We were over an hour late, all with headaches and short tempers. Francis’ friends were nothing but gracious, and we skipped the museum entirely and headed to lunch in Montone, which is breathtaking.
We drove back to the Rustico exhausted. I checked my business email and found a message from a prospective client back in Portland, eager to discuss a holiday party with me. I was starting to miss the feeling of a knife in my hand and the sound of sauces simmering, and I got very excited by the thought of returning home three days later.
I crawled into bed that night thinking about time travel. The world would be different when we woke up; when it’s Wednesday and Tuesday at the same time. As I lay my head gently down upon the pillow, I could swear I heard the ceiling shudder, shake, and splinter like a spiderweb. I grinned and fell asleep instantly.
At 4:30 a.m. the following morning, Francis woke me up.
“Sweetie, I’m sorry, but I need you to wake up. I’m not feeling well. My heart is racing, and I feel short of breath.”
I jolted awake. He was white as a sheet and shaking.
“Oh my god, what’s wrong?”
“It’s the news. I read the news. It’s not good. It’s really not good.”
I got out of bed to get him some water.
“Love, calm down. It’s early. You’re getting worked up over nothing. I’m sure you’re just looking at the wrong sites. Have some water and breathe deeply.”
Francis can get worked up over news stories. It happens pretty regularly in fact. I got back in bed, grabbed my phone and my glasses, ready to prove him wrong.
But then I saw it. It was true. That glass ceiling had not shattered. Instead, it had been reinforced with iron and gilded in tacky gold leaf.
Francis and I didn’t speak for a long time, except to repeat, “I don’t understand… I don’t understand…” as we stared at our phones in our dark bedroom.
A while later, I walked out of our room to find my father sitting in front of his laptop. He turned around to face me, eyes as red and puffy as my own.
“Daddy, (no, I don’t normally call my father “daddy”, but I was scared and small that morning and that’s just what came out) what’s happening to the world?”
He shook his head and I felt dead inside.
I don’t know what we did that day.
I know I felt like I was in a dream I could not wake from.
I know I brushed my teeth for ten minutes. Because that I could control. Plaque.
I know I stood in the shower and cried and cried.
And I remembered something from my past…
About ten years ago, I was asked to sous chef for two renowned Chinese women chefs who were in Los Angeles from London. They were hired to cook at Mark Burnett’s house for a dinner party, and I had cheffed for Mr. Burnett previously, so I was an easy choice to sous. They were wonderful to work with. Clearly, masters in their profession, focused on their food and presentation. They guided me through my tasks and I learned as I cooked and laughed with them.
The guests at the table that night were Mr. Burnett and his then girlfriend, now wife, Roma Downey, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Stern, and Donald Trump. Mr. Trump was one of the most forgettable guests I’ve ever served. He was flippant like a spoiled child. He looked through me when we were introduced. Please understand, I’m used to this sort of treatment. I don’t expect someone of his stature to go out of his way to look at the person who chopped his vegetables or cleared his plate. I get it. I know my place, or at least I know what place he puts people like me in. But I’ll tell you that I remember the names of every person who has looked me in the eye and appreciated the part I played in their meal.
Five years later, I had moved to New York, and I was walking down 23rd street on my way to the gym. They had closed traffic on the street, but I didn’t know why. A few seconds later, the Presidential motorcade appeared from the east, headed in my direction. I figured I’d stand for a second to see if I could get a glimpse. First came the cop cars, then the secret service SUV’s, then a town car, and OHMYGODTHAT’SHIM!!! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. President Barack Obama, looking out the window of his car, right at me. We made eye contact, he waved, and I felt a jolt of electricity shoot through me. My heart was racing, and my eyes were weeping. My energy could not be contained, and I ran in to the closest store, an appliance chain called PC Richards.
“I just saw the president! I saw him, and he saw me!”
One millisecond later, a big man, about 6 feet tall, wearing a PC Richards badge, ran in to the store.
“I just saw the president! He looked right at me!”
We jumped up and down as though we had just seen the Beatles. We were giggling and squealing with excitement—me and this 6-foot tall appliance salesman. I skipped the gym that day and walked uptown with a swagger I’d never felt before. I was empowered. I could do anything. He saw me. Me. And I felt respected and acknowledged. I felt mighty. I felt unstoppable.
And THAT, Mr. Trump, is how the President of the United States should make people feel. Respect is a characteristic you’ve never understood. And respect for the citizens of these United States, with all our colors and genders and customs, is the only attribute that’s going to influence change. Not fear. Not bullying. Not looking through us. You have to hear us in order to help us. Because we are chopping your onions and fixing your cars and making your beds and reading your headlines. We are everywhere. We are tiny and insignificant to you, but we are more powerful than you could ever comprehend.
I have held onto this recipe for a long, long time, thinking that there might be a day when I would manufacture, private label, and sell them to the public. I’m not saying I won’t do that, but right now, life seems too short to hold tightly to the good stuff. People always ask for this recipe. It’s a winner, I guarantee. So bake it for your family and friends this holiday season. Hold them tight and talk about the mess we’re in. We need to vent and listen and eat. I know we’ll find a way out. We’re Americans.
Dark Chocolate Biscotti
- 2 ½ Cups All-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- ½ Cup (1 Stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup dark chocolate, chopped into chunks from chocolate bar (I like at 60% cacao)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line heavy large baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Combine flour, baking powder and salt in medium bowl.
- Using a wooden spoon or a standing mixer, beat sugar, butter, eggs and extracts until well blended.
- Mix in flour mixture and then the chocolate.
- Using floured hands separate into two logs, 2 ½ inches wide, 9 ½ inches long, 1 inch high. Transfer logs onto baking sheet.
- Bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes.
- Cool logs on a rack for 5 minutes, maintaining oven temperature.
- Using a large knife, cut logs into diagonal slices about 3/4 inch wide. Arrange slices on sheet pan and bake 7 minutes.
- Turn biscotti over and bake another 5 minutes. The trick here is to not overbake the biscotti as they can become very hard to bite and challenging to chew.