Saturday, March 7, 2009

Coffee with friends

I have established a pattern of having coffee each day at 10 or so with various friends: Nikkie, an Italian, born here, raised in Canada, living here since 71, married to Luca, a Fiorentino, teaches Italian to foreign students, son Gabriele; Charles, retired NY city defense attorney, one time novelist, determined Italophile and perennial student, one daughter in US; Faith, an American living here for 35 years, with her sister from Maine; Brigitta, Swedish translator/interpreter also resident here for many years; and me. We buy cappucios and briosh and shoot whatever shit wants shooting. Currently the American economy is topic A. We met Luca for the first time at dinner da Nikkie. An elegant intellectual who is a publisher of small circulation, "giallo" (mystery) books, now he joins us from time to time when he isn't off to the the seaside to play tennis. We greet others as they pass by: the director of the British institute, Vanessa of the red specs; Sam, American student of Nikkie’s, now doing an internship here with an English language newspaper; Carol, painter, teacher, and long time expat. More seem to turn up everyday. I think if we sat there long enough, we would meet all the expats in the city. To paraphrase Claude Rains: "Everybody comes to Ricchi's". And there is crowd watching: the Godfather of the square, Signore Marini who always wears a red scarf and tie and who inspects the whole piazza daily, the camo capped rotund fellow who picks up trash and circles all day keeping an eye on things. We part around noon to do our separate adventures: Nikkie to teach, Charles to learn, me to write or converse in English. We only sometimes see each other in the evenings. But we are always back again the next morning for coffee and always seem to have a lot to talk about.

There’s food here.

I’ve been trying to eat mostly at home to save a few €s, but that can be boring so when guests arrive there’s usually an opportunity to splurge and eat in a restaurant. Over the holidays Matthew and I tried out the Borgo Antico which lives two doors down from me. During the summer it is normally packed. Oddly the newish spot immediately under my lefthand window is mostly empty even when BA has a line of folks waiting. Food is indifferent it seems. But Borgo Antico after 4 visits meets spec. I’ve had pizza, gnocchi, risotto, and bresaola with rucola. They make their pizza in a wood oven (which may contribute to the nice level of warmth in my apartment upstairs) and the crust is thin and mostly crispy. I think it must be an insurmountable physics problem to get crispyness in the center, but the toppings were fresh and not a heap o’stuff layered with too much bad cheese as in USA. There is some kind of dispute about risotto: the proper doneness is just AFTER the stuff stops crunching and sticking in your teeth but I have had it more rare than that. I have made it to the express satisfaction of my own Italian foodie expert but there are those who covet the crunch. BA made me a risotto with artichokes (alas not fresh) and it was lovely, albeit a speedy meal. I underestimated the time the dish would take to chill in the 40 degrees in the outside seating. Well, it looked like a nice day! More rationally, Matthew and I sat inside for the salad. Bresaola was once made with horsemeat. Possibly still, depending on the location. Or the economy. And the center is piled with arugula and topped with big flakes of parmesan cheese. I had it in Siena with white truffles, as well. The moon rose over the Torre del Mangia and I had a lovely white wine. Major swoon. This time it was more down to earth but tasty.
The secret of the simple dishes like this is oil. Olive oil. Americans don’t really seem to get olive oil. Everything I’ve been told there is the opposite of what they do here. Lovely golden clear color? Nope. As green as grass. Clear? No way. The more meat in the oil, the better. Put it in tiny dark bottles? Not the way they use it here. Salad is dressed with oil only. And then they rub their bread in it. But that may have more to do with salt free bread. Bleeh. I bought a liter of “new” oil in November and it is almost gone. I was given a huge bottle at Christmas time and only just began to use it. It will be gone by the end of the month maybe, depending on what I make. We don’t cook with the stuff. It is the ketchup of Italy, poured on almost everything, especially in the soup. Oh yum.
My best meal so far was at the opposite corner of the piazza in Antica Osteria. After the Ikea festival, I took the Frenchies for lunch and we ended up there since it was late and not everyone stays open in the afternoon break. We six ate fantastic food, including a risotto with HUGE gamberoni for me and a magnificent meat festival for Matthew. I must take care because I don’t have the budget for a new wardrobe.

The Party

After a very nice dinner at Charles’ apartment, he suggested that we have a party and each of us invite our friends and generate some cross fertilization. So we did. We held it at my apartment because it is very conducive to partiness being open and furnished with objects of derision. I started with my usual absurd thematic vision: a Tu B’shevat party since it is about that time of year and nobody knows what it means. No costumes. That was quickly shelved because it frightened the Italians. The idea was a California style open house from noonish to darkish so as not to exclude those with either jobs and or families. This was also shocking to some of the Italian persuasion. “What will we do all that time?” asked Andrea. Well, just come for a part of the time, I said. In fact they did. We had about 45 people here over the span of time. Everyone from the waiter at Charles’ favorite restaurant to the director of the British Institute to my Fiorentini pals and their expat partners and various musicians and writers. I made masses of food as always, some of which was more successful than others. I was asked for my recipe for meatballs at least twice. I ate the leftovers for a week. I met Gloria, a local with a fabulous fashion sense and a wardrobe from the resale shops that I would die for. And Riccardo, a genteel former journalist, now freelancer on his way to research an article for a motorcycle magazine in Yemen (Yemen?). And chatted with Stefano and the adorable Simona, he of the ancient merceria two steps from the Mercato Porcellino, and David and Patrizia, the British expat former butcher, now businessman and his beautiful wife, who made me a feast of wonderful Italian food at Christmastime. Affef from Tunisia and her talented husband Francesco, Edward, Padraig and Andree of the Irish contingent, and of course, my lovely wacky coffee drinking friend Nikkie and her husband Luca, a scholar and a gentleman. New friends Faith and Suzanne and old, Fawn and Andrea. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I heard lovely compliments for weeks afterward, but of course in Italy complements are a de rigueur, so I only hope it was as nice for others as it was for me. I aspire to create a salon, but I think I need more decrepit furniture for swaning around.

The Mayoral Race

By chance I read in the Florentine, a great little newspaper for the English speaking community (there are 40,000 in the area covered by the local consulate!), an advertisement for a candidate running in the mayoral primary. He was reaching out to the English speakers for support in the election by having a meet and greet at the Four Season’s Hotel. Newly opened after decades of renovation, the FSH is in a cloister, garden, office, whatever, once owned by a faceless corporation which let it all go to hell. So of course it needed years of restoration. I wanted to go just to get inside! Fawn came with. We arrived by taxi, a rare treat, and proceeded into the main lobby: an interior courtyard which had been roofed over so that the brilliant frescoes and bas relief frieze wrapping the inside could be protected. Eye poppingly beautiful. We were escorted through a maze of gorgeous rooms, luxuriously draped and furnished with renaissance and baroque art and furniture and paintings and cabinets full of books and silver and floral displays as from an old master. And comfy chairs. When we reached the interior garden (4 – four – ACRES!) they shuttled us across in golf carts enclosed against the rain. The far building was smaller but just as well appointed. Around a corner and into what seemed to be the chapel of the former convent: thirty foot high ceilings, painted vaults, a gallery with a frescoed face and in the apse, two painted saint in niches. Knock your eyes out gorgeous. And hardly ever open to the public. But I’m sure you could get married there. Well, we sort of did. The food on display was bountiful and arranged like a dutch still life. Free everything. We noshed heavily and greeted what seemed to be all of Fawn’s friends, some of which I knew from the cocktail party of last fall. They showed a very skillfully made video of Florentines being asked what they wanted from the next mayor, followed by our candidate, Mateo Renzi, promising just that. A bit in English, most in Italian and very well received by the upper crust audience. And two weeks later when the primary was held, Renzi came first, with a percentage sufficient to insure that he will be the next mayor. Firenze is a one party town, all genetic leftists. I liked his energy and youth, because the grownups here are way more jaded than is reasonable, often just to seem chic. I hope he succeeds since his program is a good list of things to do, but I was thrilled just to be in that fantastic venue.

I join the chic set (well for an evening anyway)

Fawn called me in the afternoon one Tuesday in the late fall to ask if I would like to go to a wine tasting. Naturally I said yes. So I met her in Piazza del Carmine, the next over from where I am. [This is the one with the church with the Brancacci Chapel, which you would all recognize from the figures of Adam and Eve being tossed out of the garden: she’s wailing piteously and holding her nakedness and he’s head down and wretched.] The Piazza is rather unglamorous at first sight, with cars filling the middle. We met at the bottom of the square in front of a glassed in lobby with guardian. Inside was a huge, extremely elegant space: a huge, long narrow room with a similarly long narrow gravel floored tent beside and all decorated with orchids since this was the release party for a wine called Orchidae. The furnishings were white couches and trendy accessories, bar stools and stand up tables, with three bars serving the wine and white and champagne and fizzy water. Tiered plates held big hunks of parmigiano. We were there early with only a few others. As the crowd grew, I was introduced to all of Fawn and Andrea’s friends and quite a few business associates. I was the “dear friend from America who has just moved here.” I remember only a few of the names but they were uniformly attractive, well dressed and often spoke English. I met at least three American women who had married Italians. There were restaurant and hotel owners, fashion designers and retailers, wine biz folks and often all three in the same couple. We were almost all in black which made the white fuzzy couches off limits but a few trendy types wore soft colors and one charmer sported vintage Pucci harem pants. They served cute food which was also quite yummy and drat that large lunch! The whole event lasted from 7 to almost 10 by which time you could have been stuffed with food and tanked with wine. No one seemed to be. We managed to kiss everyone and leave, me toting a leaden collection of magazines which will serve me for at least a week. As I walked home – it was only three blocks – I felt I had been quite privileged to rub elbows and cheeks with the upper crust.