Diamonds in the Light
by Eddie P. Gomez
Florence, Italy • Summer 2013
Somewhere over Spain, I’m sitting between two fascinating young people on a plane ride home from Italy. I'd call them kids, but they’re both adults living in the real world. The three of us struck up a conversation spontaneously as soon as the plane taxied toward the runway. We were laughing comfortably within minutes of meeting each other, sharing quick versions of our personal stories in that uninhibited way strangers do when they know they’ll never see each other again. Ana is following her heart. Omar is learning to fit into American society. I’m a university student who has found a little relief by studying food cultures.
After filling themselves with beer as soon as the plane reached altitude, Ana and Omar now sit motionless like babies in a crib. Ana, who has the aisle seat, looks like a porcelain doll with rosy red cheeks as her mouth hangs partially open, sighing a slow tune. Omar looks equally innocent. He is seated to my right and curled up facing the window in an awkward position. My young friends are both twenty years old, which would be Arcadio’s age if he had lived. They are flying toward their futures, separately, while I head home to my last year at the university. The difference is that I’m forty-two years old and they are not.
I’ve known Ana for only two hours, yet her determination to make a go of it in San Francisco impresses me. Before they fell asleep, she described to Omar and me her reason for leaving Moscow. She is crazy in love. While visiting San Francisco last summer, she met an American boy who is two years older. This is her third trip to San Francisco since meeting Nick. She plans to stay with him forever this time, hoping to get married soon. Ana arrives with a degree in hotel management and a year or so of experience in the business. According to her, it’s all she will need because her boyfriend already has a management position at a posh hotel.
“You’re not afraid to just up and move to San Francisco?” I asked earlier, pushing Omar back into his seat because he was nearly on top of me as he ogled and listened to Ana.
“I’d be more afraid of not following my heart. The worst is that I’d have to crawl back to Russia,” Ana said with a barely discernible Russian accent as she took a swig of her third Heineken. “Anyone can crawl.”
“You’ll do just fine in San Francisco. You’re already a winner,” I said.
Omar starts his second year at UCLA next week where he is studying political science. He comes from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia. Meeting people at school was easy for Omar, which isn’t hard to believe because he is extroverted and something of a comedian. The major hindrance to Omar successfully navigating American society centers on his wealth. He suspects that some of his friends like him only because he has money. He described feeling used at times with a hint of sadness in his voice, which disappeared as soon as the flight attendant showed up and he began to flirt with her by mentioning that she had eyes like Angelina Jolie.
I told Omar that I would gladly trade his problem for mine, referring to my status as a forty-something undergraduate. He smiled softly and ordered another Long Island Iced Tea in a can.
Finally, he said, “You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? You big bully. I’m a poor little rich kid. I need sympathy here.”
“You got it, Omar. I have a solution. Ana and I will help spend all of your family’s money,” I said as Ana peered at Omar with raised eyebrows, saluting my skills by lifting her beer and taking an even bigger drink than before.
The lights dim as the pilot announces that the Azores loom in the distance. I lean my seat back and pull out my tattered yellow notebook, thinking about how different this year has been. I want to stay here forever, recalling this timeless summer and absorbing the energy that radiates from these two sleeping greenhorns.
In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about losing her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, after he suffered a massive heart attack in their New York City apartment unexpectedly in 2004. We sit down to dinner and life changes in an instant—the question becomes self-pity. Didion adeptly investigates the universality of losing a loved one: a mother, a husband, a child. She traces the social history of grieving in American society from the Victorian age to the present as she brings in experts and anecdotes to remind us that to be disconnected from the world around us during the difficult period that follows the death of a loved one is to be human. She describes how after such losses the days fill with shadows and cold piercing winds.
“How long will we stumble around in a fog before we can resume some amount of normalcy, some kind of reattachment to the world around us?”
Didion also explores the contrast between grief and mourning. She claims one is a consequence of the other, phenomena that she details as distinct experiences. Her belief is that the latter has everything to do with a temporal progression towards healing and moving on with one’s life. The former is a specter which haunts the afflicted in undulating waves of self-pity, inducing moments of confusion and fear. The book is a great read for anyone who has experienced a similar loss, yet her reflections offer their greatest potential after time has begun to work its restorative powers on what, in the period following the death of a loved one, feels like an inescapable abyss.
The question is also one of time. How long will we stumble around in a fog before we can resume some amount of normalcy, some kind of reattachment to the world around us? Sadly, one of Didion’s main points is that nobody ever talks about the period that follows the death of a loved one. We’re expected to keep the process of healing hidden behind our public personas, as if we are somehow supposed to miraculously get on with our lives. It’s not too difficult to imagine that some people never come out from behind the haze.
The fogbank on the periphery of my life began to lift during my second semester at UC Merced. Leaving the cheese plant had set my life in forward motion. Once school became my sole focus, the confusion regarding my future disappeared. Life seemed to rush at me in vivid hues. I awoke at the university, amazed that I’d gotten in and nearly overcome by the awkwardness of being a forty-one-year-old undergraduate.
The committee granting the scholarship that would eventually send me to study abroad in Tuscany wanted to know my motives and more. I began by describing my years at Gianni’s restaurant during high school. Gianni was a teacher at heart, a man of exacting standards when it came to the ingredients and processes that were the cornerstone of his artisanal approach to food. On Saturday mornings, we made ravioli and meatballs with the aid of contraptions that looked as if Leonardo da Vinci had designed them. The parmesan shredder, for example, was a crudely put together device with sixteen-penny nails protruding from a wooden wheel driven by a small electric motor.
Gianni made his ravioli with the help of a hinged, lattice-like device made of wood. We began the process by spreading a sheet of dough over half of the device and stuffing its squares with fillings. The exposed dough strips between the pockets were brushed with egg wash. After adding a second layer of dough, another section of the medieval-looking machine sealed and cut the raviolis in one quick motion after it was lowered over the meat-stuffed layers of dough. When the machine opened, the excess strips of dough between the raviolis were pulled away and recycled into the next batch. The process left forty-eight fat pillows that needed only a good frying or boiling for the endeavor to finish as something deliciously equivalent to art.
In my application to study abroad, I described my ambition to study in Italy as a combination of my experiences and future expectations with Italian food. My response to the committee’s prompt, however, landed somewhere beyond Italian food—beyond food itself. I wrote that my wanting to study the history of Italian food and culture didn’t stem from a future longing for security or prestige but simply from food’s inherent ability to bring people together, a practice that paid communal dividends in the kitchen, as it had at Gianni’s and a dozen other places where I’d worked. I also threw in the fact that one of my dreams was to one day have a food and travel show.
Gianni taught us early on that crafting food is a form of self-expression. He claimed that it was impossible to separate the craft from the craftsman, that learning to work ingredients across a broad range of styles was itself an exercise in building one’s identity because choices had to be made. Things could be done right. A person could also choose to be a “half-ass,” which was an accusation that Gianni hurled around frequently, but only when it was deserved. Results brought to bear by time-honored traditions, creativity emanating from a place of passion. Gianni vocalized the principles that guided his philosophy a hundred different ways over the years. We always seemed to understand what he meant.
The world of food had changed drastically since I’d last worked in restaurants. Even though I’d been on the sidelines for years, I wanted to be part of the consciousness that had transformed access to food and food knowledge in contemporary culture. Across a wide array of platforms, ranging from television programming to social media applications, there now existed opportunities related to food that didn’t include the sweat and toil of working behind a hot stove. Luckily, the committee understood my perspective and awarded me a scholarship, compelling me to make the most of the opportunity by making food related explorations the focus of my trip to Italy.
Luck paid me another visit that semester during a study session in a busy computer lab at UC Merced. My proximity to food was, again, about to change when a burly undergraduate walked into the room.
Randy Taylor approached as I sat at a computer and said, “I’m sorry, but this place is reserved for a private meeting which starts in about two minutes. You’ll have to find another place to work.”
“What kind of meeting?” I asked, looking up from the keyboard and answering in a harsh tone, indicating that I wasn’t too impressed despite his commanding presence.
“The Prodigy editorial staff meeting,” he responded.
“Maybe, I want to join The Prodigy,” I shot back since I’d been planning to investigate the school newspaper.
“Can you write?” he asked.
“Everyone around here seems to think so,” I said.
“You know anything about food?”
“I worked as a chef a long time ago. Probably worked in kitchens before you were a gleam in your dad’s eye,” I answered.
“Very funny, mister. You interested in doing the restaurant reviews for The Prodigy or not?” he asked, acknowledging my stab at his lack of years by curling his upper lip.
“You’re talking about being a restaurant critic? How much does it pay?”
Randy glanced over at the assistant editor who had just walked up, before he looked me in the eye and said, “Zero, but your name will be on the cover of every issue. We can’t really pay you. We’re flat broke.”
My food column’s redeeming feature was its unpretentious approach, much like the restaurants in the Central Valley that it sought to evaluate. Eventually, my writing style found its momentum as I learned to manage each assignment. The editors often mentioned that readers enjoyed my reviews, even though they were at first atrocities of convoluted language. With every critique, I learned a little more about newspaper writing and spent long hours researching foods which I was sure to encounter but knew little about. I often took along friends from school whose opinions on food I trusted.
Most restaurateurs were just going through the motions, driven by a romantic fantasy that prescribed overnight success simply because the doors had been opened. Many were asleep to the principles of handcrafting real food. Unfortunately, the status quo regulated that ever-present menu items like soups and deep-fried prawns had to be ordered in premade form from suppliers. When I did find artisans who went against the grain and put their all into a restaurant, their efforts were impossible to miss, like diamonds shining in the light. Eventually, my review of restaurants in Merced became an exercise in connecting with people who gave a damn about the quality of the food they served. This proved elusive, so mediocre became my column’s truest adjective.
During one of my early reviews, I was fooled by the seeming sincerity of an anecdote on the inside cover of a menu in an Italian restaurant. A page of text boasted of recipes handed down from generation to generation, passing from Sicily to New York and finally to California. The menu described a grandmotherly concern for the principles of great food, practically suggesting that the spirit of a long-departed ancestor watched over and ensured the homeliness of every entrée.
When my ravioli arrived, I recognized them as the same frozen circles sold at the local Costco supermarket. The tomato sauce that accompanied the raviolis was equally uninspired, a half-measured attempt that missed the subtleties and natural sweetness that the days-long process of creating a marinara ensures. The sauce translated to little more than that afternoon’s boiled down tomato paste, a world away in taste from a real marinara. The words mock and bullshit kept running through my head as I wrote the review a couple of days later, once I’d cooled off a bit.
Locals adorned with piercings and punk rock t-shirts gathered late into the night on the steps of an ageless church at the end of our street. During the day, the small but eclectic piazza filled with a mix of Florentines and transitory tourists while a lampredotto cart filled the neighborhood with the pungent smell of cooked cow intestines. Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio stood a stone’s throw away, and Fabio Picchi’s famous Cibreo Ristorante occupied a storefront less than a few hundred yards from our apartment. Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, and Ponte Vecchio were sites that we passed every day on our way to classes at the UC Study Center on the other side of the Arno.
Raised in Los Angeles, Sojian is originally from Guatemala. During our first meeting, I noticed that he carried himself with a laid-back confidence. His silky black hair fell over the sides of his brown face and onto his shoulders, whipped temporarily into place by quick thrusts of his head. I soon learned that he possessed that rare quality of personality, which made him liked by just about everyone he met. Fortunately, my new roommate turned out to be a blessing in levelheadedness, especially when he helped to bridge the gap between my much younger peers and me. As fate would have it, we also shared an affinity for eating well, which meant that Sojian took part in my gastro-adventures and became genuinely interested in how the summer encouraged my coming to terms with the past.
Sojian arrived with his own frustrations, which included obsessing over his little brother who got into trouble on a regular basis in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles. The brothers couldn’t have been more different. Sojian had secured a scholarship to study sociology at Berkeley and by all outward appearances was exceeding everyone’s expectations of him as the first person in his family to attend college. His brother, on the other hand, roamed the streets and partied until the early hours of the morning, sometimes avoiding the local street gang, sometimes not. Fortunately, Sojian’s brother was safe for the summer because of having to spend a short stretch in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Sojian’s mom worked a variety of jobs to keep the family together. His father came and went. Undoubtedly, his family’s struggles entangled within the larger social and economic adversities that Central Americans often face when attempting to integrate into mainstream American life in a huge metropolis that presents as many challenges as it does opportunities to gain traction, socially and economically. Sojian, though, had a clear vision of a better life for his family. Eventually, the more I learned about my roommate, the more I felt the universe had sent me a capable sidekick.
The cabin is silent. Ana and Omar are still sound asleep. The giant television screen mounted to the wall that separates us from first class shows that we are approaching landfall on a trajectory over New York and Massachusetts. Most passengers are asleep, tucked comfortably under their tiny blankets as screens on the back of the seats in front of them play a dizzying array of old movies. I check my notes from earlier in the summer and scribble new ones on top of the old ones. I burst into laughter recalling a memory that captures Sojian’s implacable personality.
Sojian had spotted some disgustingly ugly dress shoes in the window of a popular leather shop on the way to school one morning. They resembled what some people might call pointy-toed cockroach killers, made of ostrich skin that looked infected by mosquito bites. Every morning, we stopped to look at the yellow monsters as Sojian contemplated spending the three hundred and fifty euros that the shop owner was asking for them. The wheels in his head churned with calculations. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I really thought about the shoes. The excitement that washed over his face when he peered at them through the shop’s window was almost contagious.
He donned the shoes for the first time on a Friday afternoon, making his way toward our apartment on Via dei Pilastri. Latino sway suddenly met Italian high fashion on a sidewalk in Florence as Sojian strutted down the street, moving steadily to a rhythm only he could hear and possessing a level of smoothness previously unavailable to him. The Bee Gees played somewhere in the background and an imaginary disco ball dropped temporarily out of the sky. The shoe’s effect on my roommate was hilariously undeniable: his new footwear gave him access to an endless supply of mojo.
He glowed with enthusiasm as he ran across the street, jumped on the curb and said, “Ta-da! What do you think?”
“Amazing, simply amazing,” I answered. “I’m glad you finally did it. I might need to borrow those sometime.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that,” he said, then running upstairs and disappearing for three days.
I never asked where he went but imagine that the shoes generated a lifetime of memories in the farthest reaches of the local club scene.
On our first night in Florence, Sojian and I walked to the market and gathered the ingredients to make pizza. I hand tossed some dough made with a local yeast, loading our creation with fresh buffalo mozzarella and an assortment of charcuterie. The pizza, the first of many, was perfect. Afterwards, Sojian trusted my culinary skills and often paid for the ingredients that produced a summer’s worth of sumptuous meals.
The conversation turned towards Arcadio as we ate at the kitchen table of our second-floor apartment. I detailed the four years we spent hoping that one day we would emerge on the other side of the cancer treatments, healthy and ready to go on with our lives. The summer of 2008 had been especially difficult after our vacation to Santa Cruz ended when Arcadio developed sudden chest pains. A week later, he was paralyzed from the chest down, having to undergo a ten-hour operation that required the removal of two vertebrae in order for the surgeons to scrape away the tumors from around his spinal cord. I told Sojian that the tumors signaled the manifestation of our greatest fear: the return of Arcadio’s cancer. Worse, his chance of surviving the operation without long-term paralysis was fifty-fifty. Without the procedure, he had weeks to live.
We stepped out, after finishing our pizza, wanting to see the city where we’d be spending the next three months. I continued describing Arcadio’s struggles as we walked down Via Giuseppe Verdi, heading toward the tower at Santa Croce, which stood beautifully in the distance as if cropped into the sky from a Renaissance painting. The orange glow of the impending sunset began to wash over the piazza and the giant alabaster colored statue of Dante that guards the entrance to Chiesa Santa Croce.
“Sounds like Arcadio had it pretty rough,” Sojian said as we sat on the steps of the church and watched immigrants sell trinkets.
“He suffered more than anybody I’ve ever known, but he never complained. He walked right after the surgery even though the doctors said that it would take weeks,” I said, taking the last bites of a pistachio gelato cone from Il Procopio.
“How long did it take him?”
“Only four days. Mom and I left him alone in the hospital room one afternoon. When we returned, he was sitting on the edge of the bed,” I said. “He looked like hell from the surgery, black circles around his eyes and sagging skin filling in his colorless face.”
“Poor kid,” Sojian responded.
“It’s hard to forget how pathetic he looked sitting on the bed in his wife beater t-shirt, all rigid and unable to move his head, the iodine from the surgery still staining his neck and shoulders," I recounted, looking at the ground. “I told him to lie down, but he wouldn’t listen. Guess what he told me?”
“He told me that he’d already walked to the sink with his walker to brush his teeth when we were gone. Then he said, ‘Hold out your hands, Uncle Eddie. I’ll walk to you.’”
After we returned home from Santa Croce, Sojian left to watch the sunset in the intermittent rain with some other students from our program. I opened the double-door windows in my room that overlooked a patio where a family gathered during the evening hours. The bell tower from Sant’Ambroggio poked out from the roofline to the east as voices from the piazza drifted across the night into my room. I realized in that moment how far away from California we actually were.
Thunder exploded over the city as if the universe was cracking a whip in anger against the night. The flashes of lightning and alternate darkness reminded me of scenes from R.W.B. Lewis’s retelling of Florentine history as the city smolders during the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in the early days of the Republic. I continued to stand in the window, partially in the rain, as images of burning towers with bodies dangling from their sides passed through my mind.
After leaving the window, the muffled cries of a baby made their way through the thick plaster walls as I laid in bed. I wondered who owned the cries or the cigarette smoke that made its way into my room from the patio below when the wind shifted. I would pass the baby on the street in some faraway future in Florence but wouldn’t recognize him because we had never met. We were strangers caught in time, sharing a sleepless night, accented by parallel anxieties and the roar of thunder and lightning, which in my case flickered to illuminate an ancient armoire that decorated the room. Later, a vacuum seemed to empty the tiny room of its energy. Negative vibrations rushed in, filling the room with a barely audible murmur of whispers as I teetered precariously between consciousness and the dream world.
After I fell asleep, Arcadio appeared in my dreams. He kept thanking me repeatedly for being his uncle and raising him, but I couldn’t answer him. The dream was set in San Francisco where we often went during his kindergarten year. We wore the same clothes in the dream that we’d worn on a day in June of 2000 when we strolled through Chinatown looking for fireworks. Later, I would remember a picture of that day, which was back home safely tucked into a photo album. In the picture, we’re standing on a street corner along the Embarcadero as the famous Fisherman’s Wharf logo hoovers in the background. We’re having our usual fun. I’m posing like a villain in a brown corduroy jacket that I’d bought the previous day. My chest is puffed out and my hands extend into the air, like a boxer awaiting the rush of an opponent. At waist level, Arcadio peers out from behind me.
“The stain remained on the building for the rest of the summer, reminding me of that first night’s chaos.”
At two in the morning, I awoke from the dream angry, so I walked the narrow lanes of the medieval city center trying to leave behind the emotions brought to the surface by the dream. I went in circles. The moonlight followed me, passing through the outline of the Badia Fiorentina and Palazzo Vecchio, my strides never taking me too far past the silhouette of the Duomo, which hangs in the sky for miles around. I felt angry enough to fight the first person who crossed my path, but I only encountered disinterested locals fast on their way home and drunken tourists who stumbled along anonymously.
I launched a half-filled liter of soda into the air with a powerful kick. The bottle lost its cap on impact and splattered against a yellow wall. The stain remained on the building for the rest of the summer, reminding me of that first night’s chaos. I kicked at something else a few feet away but fell on my ass near an alley that leads to the house where Dante Alighieri lived and which sits across the lane from the tiny church where he supposedly first laid eyes on Beatrice. After getting up from the center of a small puddle, the back pockets of my jeans were soaked through, dripping water down the back of my legs. I kept walking for what felt like an eternity, the movement taking the edge off. Eventually, my anger began to subside, replaced by hunger and thirst.
Somewhere near Piazza della Signoria, I heard people talking in the shadows of a narrow street. When I approached, a porch that held the rear entrance to a popular restaurant was alive with conversations in English. Two young couples were making out, whispering to each other, and occasionally breaking into laughter. They never saw me, so I took the manifestation of human connectedness to be the focal point of that long night’s lesson. I backed away slowly and rushed home as the morning light began to engulf the edges of the sky.
Piazza Santo Espiritu hides from the crowds of tourists in Florence, shadowed by Brunelleschi’s final work, Santa Maria del Santo Spirito. Inside the church is one of the treasures of Italian art in Florence. A wooden crucifix, sculpted by a young Michelangelo many years before Rome stole him away, hangs quietly in a sacristy of the basilica. The sculpture is indescribably delicate. Jesus’s face is alive with radiant looking skin and a despondent expression that stayed with me long after I exited the church. I spent my afternoons pressed up against the railing, six feet from the five-foot sculpture that hangs from the rafters and seems to float above the small room.
The toes on one foot are what I remember most about Michelangelo’s sculpture. Gnarled and twisted, I couldn’t look away. Rot had set in as if to remind us of Christ’s human half. The rest of the figure remained perfectly preserved, an aesthetic uprising in which it was possible to get lost.
The same artistry that compelled the crucifix also animated much of the commerce in the piazza. One of our favorite activities between classes was to grab a wedge of pizza from a local bread shop and wash it down with a cold orange Fanta. The pizza was simple but delicious, a mix of fresh and regular mozzarella melted over an unsalted crust without sauce and topped with lean ground sausage chunks and slivers of squash. Drizzles of olive oil and herbs added the final touches. A tattoo-covered woman whose hands moved swiftly produced the oblong sections of pizza in a room next to the ovens. I tried to make friends with her on several occasions, but she liked to work without distractions, unmoved by my curiosity or my offers to help cut dough.
I often settled next to the fountain in the center of the piazza in order to watch the evening envelope the neighborhood as a tangerine light settled over people and objects, like dust settling after a benevolent windstorm. On Wednesday nights, I stuck around long after classes had finished because I volunteered in the kitchen of a homeless shelter three blocks away.
Life at the shelter felt tranquil and dignified. The desperation that clings to the walls of such places in the United States was noticeably absent. On my first day, the kitchen staff asked me to prepare an antipasto for the fifteen or so guests. The residents received fruits and a good selection of cheeses, some of which I’d never before seen. A red-haired woman named Abriana walked me through my duties and introduced me to the residents who largely ignored me until weeks later when they had grown used to my presence.
Looking past Abriana into a large living room after dinner had finished during that first night, I watched the group gather around a piano in order to listen to one of their own play softly but brilliantly. Towards the end of my service, I was allowed to sit in the dining room with everyone else and eat some of what we’d just cooked, usually a main course of pasta with a freshly prepared sauce, which produced in me an irrevocable feeling that I somehow belonged.
A pastry shop across from Palazzo Guadagni sold pastries topped with sliced peaches and other glazed fruits so flavorsome and pleasing to the eye that it felt like a crime to destroy them for the sake of complementing a cappuccino. On Tuesdays at the farmers market, an old man sold homemade prosciuttos and finocchiona salami sandwiches served on the unsalted Tuscan bread that locals prefer. Listening to the old man, who wore a beat-up Indiana Jones hat and had a flowing white beard, describe his craft in his plaintive Italian was almost as big a treat as putting away one of his sandwiches with some peppers from the nearby fruit vendor’s stall.
The man’s eyes lit up as he described the preparation of his prosciuttos. He motioned with his hands swirling in the air, simulating the way his prosciuttos hung from the ceiling at his barn or warehouse or wherever he aged them. It was never clear because I only half understood him. Once, he smacked his open palm onto a meaty shank and guaranteed its quality until the last morsel fell from the bone, mentioning that for only one hundred and forty euros the whole prosciutto could be mine.
Our classes on the history of Italian food and culture took place on the second floor of Palazzo Guadagni. An aristocratic family still lived on the top floor of the palazzo and leased the lower portions to Accent, the company that oversaw the study center. Our classroom featured extra-tall windows that opened under a vaulted ceiling and provided a bird’s-eye view of the piazza below. The ceiling was painted with fluffy clouds adrift in baby blue hues and vermilion flowers at the edges. Antique pieces of furniture decorated the margins in a salon where Professor Bechler, a German who had spent most of his life in Italy, lectured about things ranging from the Etruscan influence on the region to the nuances of Italian espresso cuisine. Tables and chairs as old as the United States sat behind a barrier that prevented their use. In a staircase leading to the second floor, a nobleman from sometime in the family’s past stood guard, dressed in all black and looking in the portrait like a serious player in the political affairs of his time.
The course proved a tantalizing experience for our community of aspiring foodies, which included future food scientists, students whose families owned restaurants back home, and members of the diaspora who wanted to know more about their heritage. One of our most enduring memories took place when we tasted bread from the different regions of Italy as a summer storm raged outside in the piazza. Lightning cracked and rain poured in sideways through the massive windows as we scarfed down bits of odd-shaped and multi-colored loaves of bread, dipping them in olive oil and washing them down with mineral water or fruit juice.
The Caffè Ricchi served as my introduction to Italian espresso cuisine. Peering out from behind a demitasse as scenes of everyday life floated by outside became an afternoon ritual. After sipping espresso at the bar, I rushed upstairs to the palazzo in order to take in lectures that contemplated the food cultures that had just played out in real life on the street below.
Stepping through the door of Caffè Ricchi one day before class, a blonde-haired barista in a black vest greeted me with a nod and the usual: “Buongiorno signore.”
I returned the salute and made my way to the back of the café where an attractive woman of about thirty was sitting at a cashiers stand. I was overtaken by the urge to practice my Italian in a conversation outside of the classroom because I'd been promoted to Italian II earlier that week.
The cashier greeted me with her own smile.
“Ciao! Che cosa prendi?” she asked from behind a small booth.
“Com’è la vita nella città più bella del mondo?” I asked, stepping back to assess her reaction to my newfound boldness.
“Va bene. Che cosa prendi?” she asked again with her head half tilted in amusement.
I continued in Italian, “Vorrei un americano y un cornetto, per favore.”
While I dug through my pocket for change, the cashier unwittingly let out a chuckle when she called out my order to the barista who was behind a counter across the room. I looked up to see the two employees exchanging a glance of disdain regarding my order in a mirror’s reflection. I stepped back from the register and turned around to find the barista with one corner of his mustache upturned in a grimace of contempt.
I demanded a refund and stomped toward the door, turning around at the threshold with a finger pointed in the air, exclaiming in my best Italian that American coffee was the best coffee in the world and that Italian coffee was dark and flavorless.
I repeated to Professor Bechler the details of the rant that I had directed toward the two employees of the Caffè Ricchi. He explained that I’d actually praised the virtues of American coffee while claiming that the barista and the cashier were dark and flavorless people just like their espresso, which obviously didn’t make sense and added a further level of absurdity to my outburst.
Professor Bechler explained that they had laughed at my order because some Italians think that an Americano is a ridiculous drink. Publicly watering down one of the nation’s iconic drinks is a serious but laughable offense, he warned. He suggested that I might have taken the pair too seriously.
I skulked around the piazza for days before finally making amends to the barista. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the pace of life at Caffè Ricchi, so the exercise in humility was worth the effort. The barista, however, claimed that he never made fun of me, but I knew better because every time I walked through the door the corner of his mustache upturned in the same quirky manner it had on the day of our misunderstanding.
Professor Bechler took an interest in my long-ago experience as a chef, so we became fast friends. Our mutual interest in food resulted in my agreeing to make an almost authentic Mexican dinner at his home. By almost authentic, I mean that a wide array of Mexican food ingredients is nearly impossible to find in Tuscany. Ingredients existed so sparsely that I ended up chasing a mysterious Chinese man all over Florence for two days looking for dried chilies with which to make an enchilada sauce but never found him because he kept moving from one farmers market to another.
When the day of the dinner arrived, my ingredient gathering efforts had proven woefully unsuccessful. I’d even walked to the edge of Florence under the glare of the summer sun in search of a Mexican woman in whose restaurant we’d eaten. She would have helped by lending me some basic ingredients. Unfortunately, the bartender told me that I’d missed her by minutes and that she’d left for the summer, at which point panic began to set in. I imagined myself looking like a buffoon in front of an unsympathetic crowd of hungry Florentines at dinner that evening. The consequence appeared inevitable since I already knew that some Italians could be tremendously judgmental with anything related to food, especially towards outsiders.
The professor picked me up on his scooter and we whizzed through the streets from one market to another desperately searching for ingredients, like two lunatics out of a movie from the heyday of Italian cinema. We rode up and over Piazzale Michelangelo towards the southeast corner of Florence to a little shop where we bought some Chianina beef, a variety of cheeses, precooked white beans, and some mild peppers. Oddly, I had to go back into the store because I forgot the one Mexican ingredient that was in abundant supply throughout Florence: tortillas.
Chilaquiles is a popular Mexican breakfast dish of fried tortillas and eggs, usually finished with a salsa of some sort and melted cheese. I’m somewhat of an expert at making them, so they were chosen as the first course. Although there are many styles, it is near impossible to find a decent version in a restaurant. In order for them to be a work of artistry, the tortilla pieces, garlic, and onions have to be fried in a pan, hand tossed to a maximum point of crispiness without burning before the eggs are added, a task that requires constant attention. In restaurants, cooks can’t lavish that much attention to a single entrée, so they take shortcuts by frying the tortilla pieces in a deep fryer, which kills the small batch approach and forsakes a richness of flavor imparted by cooking the classic dish in a light olive oil, as my version requires.
Guests began to arrive as the professor and his wife, a tiny but spirited Florentine named Giulia, greeted and led them toward an outdoor veranda, which occupied a space next to the family garden. The many tasks involved in preparing the meal took a forward leap in urgency with the arrival of each guest as the professor and I began to prepare for the event in the tiny kitchen with an enormous stove. Luckily, Giulia had the foresight to bring me a bottle of cold mineral water and a towel with which to wipe my brow because the heat in the kitchen was starting to rise, literally and figuratively.
The professor volunteered to crack eggs and help make an extra mild salsa from tomatoes plucked from his garden as we chatted about the intricacies of the local food scene. He looked unusually nervous, which made me nervous too. Fortunately, I soon grasped that the professor’s guests had more than likely never tried an authentic Mexican dinner, so our best approximation would probably be fine. The professor agreed. Giulia in the meantime chatted with the guests, refilling wine glasses and engaging in small talk as the moment of reckoning crept closer.
Professor Bechler took a break from his bowl and basket of eggs, looking in my direction as if he had something important to say but didn’t know quite how to manage it.
Eventually, he leaned in and said, “Promise me one thing. If you ever tell food stories about the region, please don’t romanticize them like that fluffy book Under the Tuscan Sun.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The Italians are starting to romanticize themselves. You should hear them,” he answered in a low tone, making sure that Giulia was nowhere in sight.
“How?” I asked as Giulia suddenly rushed into the kitchen, indicating with a fierce look on her face that she’d overhead our conversation.
“This again?” she demanded in her low-pitched, raspy voice. “Paul, I’ve told you a thousand times. Every person in Italy knows that standing at the bar to drink espresso was invented in Naples.”
Rolling his eyes in disbelief, the professor turned toward me and said, “See! I have researched this for two decades. There is no foundation to the story. Every town from here to Calabria makes a similar claim.”
“And just what do you know, Paul? Don’t listen to him, Eduardo. He doesn’t know a thing about Italians. Besides, if it wasn’t for the Romans, the Germans would still be living in trees,” Giulia said with a wide grin and a wink as if she had just articulated the truest understanding of the two nations’ collective history in her favor.
“And perhaps that would not be such a bad thing, Giulia!” the professor answered, jumping up and down, imitating a wild animal by making noises and flailing his arms all over the room.
The three of us broke into a fit of laughter. We couldn’t stop ourselves until a knock at the door reminded us of how quickly the dinner hour approached.
Once the chilaquiles finished, I melted mozzarella over them and finished each plate with ribbons of crème fraiche. The toasted corn tortilla pieces drifted in velvety tufts of eggs and cheese, finishing with a lip-smacking tang of salsa and blanket of fresh herbs. The tortilla’s crunchiness and the moisture provided by the salsa and the frittata-like eggs came across as perfect in texture, a difficult thing to achieve. They tasted even better than they looked.
Later, the professor returned from the patio and said, “They love them! If you don’t mind, I’ll sit with the guests and try some.”
“The second course will be done in a bit,” I called out as he zoomed towards the veranda.
Paprika and ground cumin seeds mixed with tiny amounts of cayenne powder served as a simple spice blend that added a sweet pungent aroma to the sauté without the risk of being overly spicy. Once the pieces of beef attained a toasty succulence, I added the previously roasted garlic and sweet peppers. After adding the spice blend, I deglazed the pan with water and threw in tiny amounts of roux, which made for a thin but flavorful red sauce. Diced tomatoes added a last touch. A final garnish of minced red onions and Fontina cheese, which melted beautifully onto the edges of the serving platter, added a professional appearance to the dish that ended up looking worthy of a magazine cover.
Unfortunately, there still existed a little uncertainty among some of those in attendance, as if my palate-bending chilaquiles hadn’t fully convinced them of my abilities. A man sitting across from me named Alessandro, who had been ill for a long time and was finally getting better, bent over his plate and took bird-sized pecks of the sauté. He rolled up a flour tortilla and used it to stab at the sauce. Everyone watched him. Something about the meal, the flavors and the way the ingredients came together, he would later tell me, was foreign but very appetizing to him. The food bulged in Alessandro’s cheeks as he chewed with his eyes closed, shaking his head up and down. Finally, he looked up and announced that the second course was deliziosissimo. The professor let out a sigh of relief, which initiated a lighter mood. Cultural pretenses receded into the darkness beyond the backyard, as the guests got lost in conversation and the goodness of a well-crafted meal. Afterwards, more than one of the guests mentioned how delicious my authentic Mexican dinner had been.
After the dinner, we sipped espresso and talked. A natural high came over me as I savored the moment, knowing that in a few days the smallest of details would survive only in my notes. To have been successful by relying on my skills from a trade from which I’d been excluded as it passed through one innovatory phase after another felt like an accomplishment, as if I’d somehow inched nearer to fulfilling Arcadio’s request for me to return to working as a chef, an experience that I’ll cherish for a long time.
It is daylight outside. We are over the Sierras. Omar is beginning to stir. He has been asleep for more than eight hours. Ana was up to use the restroom a couple of times during the flight. She engaged me in small talk, but always fell right back to sleep. I haven’t slept. I poured over my notes during the entire flight, trying to imagine them as narrative, coalescing and becoming coherent once I’ve had the chance to step away from this summer.
Omar stretches in his seat, groggy and obviously confused about his present location. He looks at me, trying to remember how he knows me.
After some time, he shakes his head wildly and says, “I have to piss. Where are we?”
“Almost home. We’re about an hour away from San Francisco,” I answer.
Looking down at my notebook, he asks, “Have you been awake this whole time?”
“I made a list of my favorite food adventures in Italy. You want to read some of it?”
“You’re still talking about food? I have to use the bathroom. Maybe later,” he says as I stand up and move back so that he can leap over Ana into the aisle.
It’s not Omar’s fault. I make the mistake of assuming people will understand my food travels without mentioning Arcadio or the fact that for a long time my dream was to own a restaurant. Omar’s reaction is helpful, though, because I’m finding out that my travels aren’t so much about food as they are about people and trying to make sense of the past as I pick up the pieces and aim wildly for some other kind of dream. The people and their stories are the proverbial icing on the cake, practical experience that I can carry into the future—the universe willing. ■