Where: Massaciuccoli (pronounced Massa-chi-kolee, if that’s at all helpful), Tuscany, Italy
Plate of Food/Story that needs to be told: First, let me say that Italians prepare their food with love and respect for the ingredients, the process, and the bellies they will feed. That passion creates some truly fantastic dishes (I must remember that the next time I cook something that comes with the instruction “Add water”).
On our final day in Massaciuccoli, our hosts at our holiday home kindly made us a reservation at their favourite restaurant in the nearby town of Viareggio. Massimo (all was right with the world when I learnt his name) had been a champion rally car driver and he was a bit of a local celebrity. They made the reservation under his name to ensure us a table at this popular spot.
We arrived at Buonamico, but we were told there was no reservation for us. The restaurant was so busy, they told us sternly, that we would have to wait until 10pm for a table (2 hours away). We felt so deflated and confused – how could Massimo let us down? As we wondered what to do, I spotted his name in the hostess’ book, so I helpfully pointed to it and repeated the name. She gasped and checked the book, corrected my atrocious pronunciation of his name (the cause of all the confusion, it seems) and promptly turned on the charm. As we were ushered directly to our table, whispers of Massimo’s surname flitted through the restaurant. Man, he must have been some kind of a driver!
The owner of the restaurant waved away the waiter who was bringing menus and instead suggested that we let him “take care of it”. We saw no reason to argue, so we sat back and allowed the meal to unfold in the way that he saw fit. This was the best decision of our lives.
We began with velvety chestnut soup topped with crispy Parma ham. Then came a selection of fish starters: fried fish with caramelized onions in a smooth red wine sauce, stuffed mussels, and a delicately grilled filet of white fish. Our Primi Piatti (first course) was squares of pasta – the size of a stamp – with sole, sea bass, and squid, all enveloped by a light white wine and herb sauce. I had turbot with olives for my Secondi Piatti (you are smart enough for this) which was so fresh and flavourful, yet so simple. Our entire conversation over dinner consisted of “Mmm” and “Aah”.
Surprisingly, dessert was melon sorbet with chilli, which confused both our minds and our tastebuds. Never had I eaten a frozen food that actually made me sweat.
We sat back at the end of the evening, sipping deliciously icy Limoncello (a lemon liqueur), and contentedly grinning. No dish that we ate had more than 5 or 6 ingredients, but the sum of the parts was incredible. We felt like we had been witness to some sort of wonderful culinary magic.
As we left the restaurant, we were given Buonamico t-shirts by the owner (what ever happened to giving out breath mints?). He gave me size L. Rather than be offended, I took it as an invitation to eat so well that I will end up filling out that shirt. I could be persuaded…
The best: If ever I have a day that I need to mentally escape (not often…just the days ending in “y”), I can conjure up the view from my bedroom window in Massaciuccoli and the relief is immediate.
Imagine a two-story stone house, painted a glowing egg yolk yellow, sitting amongst olive trees on a hill above a lake. The house is from the 17th century, but has been lovingly restored. Outside, the terrace is baked by the Mediterranean sun, but within the 4′ thick walls, the rooms are cool and dark. The bedroom windows have wooden shutters on the inside to block out the moonlight as you sleep. In the morning, you unlatch the shutters and swing them open wide to reveal a scene for which it is worth getting up.
As the sun creeps across the flat plains, it chases the morning mist away. The lake is as still as glass, holding its breath before the birds emerge from the reeds and disturb its peace. Beyond the lake is the shimmering line of the sea. The fields are golden and expansive, only punctuated by a few exclamation points of cyprus trees. To your left, in the distant haze, is a cluster of white buildings: Pisa. To your right, much closer, is the small steeple of the village church. Its bells mournfully signaling the passing of every half hour. Your eyes linger over the view – all is muted and soft, nothing harsh or severe. You breathe in air that is tinged with saltwater, damp earth and wood smoke.
Good morning, Tuscany.
I realized half way through this post that I could write pages and pages about my stay in this one tiny village. I didn’t even mention that I played charades with a lifeguard, that I saw a bridge the Devil himself helped make, or that I drove through a 1125m tunnel that was dug by HAND – great, now you’ll be wishing I did. A small dose is enough for now. We can always return to Tuscany – Lord knows I have – and it won’t take much prodding to get me to talk about it again, ad nauseam.
What about you? What are your memories of Tuscany, if you’ve been? Where do you mentally escape to on any given day? Do you know anyone named Massimo?
You may have the universe if I may have Italy. Giuseppe Verdi