Tuscany, like Provence, is one of those destinations in Europe now. The light is superb, the people lovely, the food and drink remarkable. But we’ve had a bit too much Tuscan sun in books and the cinema in recent years. All that mooning and sighing becomes cloying. So—a brief antidote, a few correctives:
Driving in the bigger towns and cities: whoever introduced Italians to the motor car has a lot to answer for. Driving in places like Florence and Siena is a nightmare: everyone is honking, no one is in a designated lane, scooters play dodge-‘em between cars, frustrated Fiat drivers occasionally bolt down the sidewalk cinema noir style. Looking down a side street in an Italian city you might think you’ve just missed a parking competition for the blind. Take the train, bus, cycle, walk. Preserve your sanity.
Grappa: after the third and fourth pressings of grapes for wine, the Italians shovel up the remaining mass of skins and pulp and make a vodka-like after-dinner drink, grappa. Every little old man in Italy believes that what he turns out in his garage is bellisima. Think of what you might produce from pulverized apple peels and melon rinds instead of chucking them in the trash. Even the stuff in bottles can provoke a wince. You have to finish with it, of course. Amaro and lemoncillo might be better choices.
Enotecas: twee wine boutiques have sprung up all over Toscano. Corks are pulled with a flourish, white napkins furled around bottle necks, labels doted over, vino dispensed into Eish glasses, twirled and held up to the light for inspection. This vintage is extolled for melding essence of lemon with a hint of leather. Whenever this much effort is put into presentation, wise consumers suspect they’re on the dark side of the style versus substance equation. Complete with a hefty price tag. Wonderful Chianti Classicos and Brunellos from Montalcino can be purchased in wine shops off the main drags and the bottles of local fare found in corner food shops (alimentari) can produce delightful surprises.
Street crossings: Italian drivers live in a world that does not recognize pedestrians. Even at controlled intersections extreme caution is advised. Attempting to cross thoroughfares between such intersections in anything larger than a village means risking life. If you’re forced to make such a crossing, choose between being stranded on a sidewalk for half an hour until a car crash farther up the road interrupts traffic, or make a mad dash.
Dining al fresco: nothing wrong with eating outdoors. Many a romantic meal is taken in the Chianti region on patios, the spice of rosemary wafting through the air, a crescent moon twinkling above. The expression al fresco, meaning “in fresh air” and once favoured among diners, now is overlaid with the sense of “in the yard,” and applies to incarcerated underworld figures who while serving their time at the pen take their daily passagiatta[constitutional] “al fresco.” The expression “all’ aperto” might be better suited, or a nod in the direction of the patio.
Restaurants with white linen table cloths: reverse snobbism can be worse than snobbery of the single malt variety, but restaurants with chandeliers, white cloth napkins, waiters in tuxedoes are invariably places of style in the more off-putting sense. Flourish your American Express card and go ahead and treat yourself from time to time. Expect to pay two or three times as much for wine as in the regional trattoria around the corner–ditto the food. It will still be excellent.
Cafe Americano: the imprudent soul who dreamt up the misguided idea of dumping hot water on top of a creamy, sweet and rich espresso deserves his own circle in Dante’s inferno. Cousin to its culinary counterpart, the chili cheese dog. Rightly, Italians treat it that way, raising an interior eyebrow to ask as they politely pour one: Why would you do that? Referred tosotto voce as “soup.”
Photo Credits: Das Portrait, Wayne Tefs, Microstockgroup.com