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Italy, Tuesday October 6, 7:15, 9 hours ahead of PDT

Got pizza? Oh no you don’t! Yesterday was far more fabulous than we could have imagined it would be. We spent the morning and early afternoon with Rima and her husband Francesco, and though we had just met them for the first time, it felt like we were visiting old friends. They are the most generous, gracious, wonderful couple and I want to bring them home with me. You may want to get a drink and a snack… this is a long one.

We started out around 9 and walked to a part of town that we had not spent much time in. Boy are we sorry about that! For the first time I have experienced a part of Florence that makes me think I could live here. Though I have enjoyed this city immensely I had yet to see an area that I loved enough to potentially call home. If we ever come back we will stay in the Santa Croce neighborhood or across the Arno. I think it would be much quieter and it would certainly feel more like a home. This apartment is really great and has a fantatically central location for a first time stay. I don’t need to be this central again.

So we walked to the St Ambrogio market and my eyes took in a wonderful sight: rows of produce vendors filling their stands with fresh, colorful, amazing looking produce. We were early so we ducked into a bistro and got cappuccinos and little pastries and sat outside watching the activity. It was like a bee hive, buzzing with organized chaos, each vendor hurriedly setting up displays that were worthy of magazine covers. Suddenly Rima was there with us, having picked me out from a photograph that Doumina had sent her by way of introduction. We greeted in Italian and kiss-kissed both cheeks and she sat to join us and introduce herself. She was a little nervous at first: she thinks that she does not speak good English. She told us that her husband was parking the car and that he actually spoke better English.. she just speaks Arabic, Spanish, French and Italian. Oh my… we have all agreed that her English is just fine. Rima is a tour guide by trade and I understand why she wants to improve her English for the purpose of guiding tours through the city, though I think she is probably very good at what she does and I recommend contacting her for tours of Florence when you come here.

We were not there so much for a tour, as for a food class. This was her market where she shops nearly every day. In Italy, on average, at least one person in every household shops each day for their food. Everything is fresh, in season, and local… though here they just call it food. Those monikers mean little in a region that has always lived and eaten this way. Rima led us through the market, list in hand, to each of her favorite vendors. She would call out to them, quickly introducing us and listing out her needs. They would show her what they had and if it met her approval they would efficiently pack it up and hand it to her. If it did not meet her approval, or if they did not have what she needed, they would tell her which vendor they thought she should get it from. She would move on to the next stall and call out again, intermittantly answering my incessant questions and handing us samples of fresh produce we may or may not have seen before. I dogged her like a love-sick puppy asking “coze?” over and again… “Coze?” (coe-zay) “what is this?” for every bit of produce I did not recognize… and there was a lot!

She would explain as best she could when often there was not a direct translation, then perhaps grab a sample, and we would be off to the next beautifully laid out stand. Between transactions she would tell me why she liked this vendor best and what was special about that vendor’s wares. She was in her element and it was so much fun to watch her work. We then moved into the warehouse like building that was behind the produce stalls and we walked into my version of heaven. Oh Leslie, you would have LOVED this! The building housed probably 25 or more different little ‘stores’: butchers, cheese mongers, bread bakers, coffee roasters, a granery, bakeries, deli style cases with prepared items, a little coffee counter, a little lunch counter that used the market ingredients for the menu. Basically it was what Pike’s Place Market was before it got so big and so tourist-oriented. This was for the locals and it was the most beautiful site I had yet seen.

Rima began handing out samples of cheese and prosciutto and telling us all about the market. We could not help but walk around in amazement, gazing at the wares. Whole chickens, rabbits, every bit of the cow, pig and even horse meat (sorry, Sharon) which is very old school and still very much eaten around central Italy. Fresh cheese, aged cheese, cheese from cows, buffalo, goats and sheep. Sausages, salumi, cut to order and wrapped in little packages that made it feel like Christmas. I spied the granary and saw that the bulk carnaroli rice was only 2.60€ a kilo!!! I pay something like $7+ a pound! I bought only two kilos (a kilo is 2.2 lbs) since I have to carry it all around but I wanted to take the entire bin home. Carnaroli rice is rice for risotto and I think it is a step up from arborio rice, which is the most common risotto rice around. It is creamier and has a richer flavor and since I make risotto quite a bit I love to use that rice.

Soon we were out the other door and on the other side of the market square where the vendors were hocking household and wardrobe items: the produce market became a flea market and you could get anything that you could need here! I saw an old woman walking around in her high heels and cashmere coat, clutching a giant loaf of crusty bread, eating bits of it as she walked and shopped. It was a great picture but alas, Mark was no where around me with the camera, having found his own photo-worthy subjects elsewhere.

We all climbed into Francesco’s vehicle… a volkswagon that we had never seen before. Sort of like a mini van, it seated 7, but it looked more like an SUV. It is one of the larger cars we have seen here and they told us that since they have 3 kids who all have friends they must have a larger car. Ah yes. They took us to their apartment by way of a wine shop like nothing we had ever seen before. I want this wine shop in my neighborhood! Francesco explained that traditionally wine would be purchased at the farm directly from the producer. As the city has grown, and time has become more precious, fewer people are able to get out the farms on a regular basis. This type of store was created about 10-15 years ago in order to make the connection between consumer and farmer a little easier. The shop buys bulk wine from the farmer and then sells it to the residents of the city for very little markup. While there were of course bottles of wine for sale, the best deals were BYOB. One fellow brought in 10 of his own bottles while we were there picking up some prosecco for the afternoon. The wine seller would fill his bottles with red table wine for less than 3€ per bottle! The prices were very low, even for the really good stuff. How interesting that for us at home going directly to the vineyard is often more expensive than buying wine in a shop or grocery store. That has never made sense to me and now I see that I am not the only one.

We made our way to Rima and Francesco’s apartment on the Oltrarno- the other side of the Arno river. We slipped through the narrow door and up the steep concrete stairs to the top floor. We spilled into their sun-lit apartment and quickly took over their efficient kitchen. Rima gave us a shy smile and said to come with her into the next room. She quietly shushed us and said that the babies were sleeping and pointed to the lumps under the bed covers. She slowly lifted the top blanket and grinned as she showed us 5 puffy rounds of pizza dough that she was keeping warm in the bed, so they could rise and do their yeasty good thing. She had used 5 kilos of flour to make dough for the day’s pizza lesson. Mark took some pictures as we giggled at her creative proofing ‘oven’.

They seated us around the marble-topped kitchen table/work island and began organizing ingredients for the cooking lesson. Francesco poured prosecco and Rima proceeded to show us how to make pizza dough. Water, fresh yeast, a little sugar, flour and salt were all she used to make her masterpiece dough. She blended it by hand and worked it, adding a little more flour, a little more water, and on until it felt just right to her. She handed out balls of dough so that we could feel what she was feeling and know what to wait for. “Feel your ear lobe and that is what a good dough will feel like”, she told us. Soft and yieldy, yet firm and workable.. we understood when we felt our ear lobes and felt the dough.

Putting that aside she went to go get one of the doughs that had already proofed and was ready to go. Francesco was quietly in the background as he busied himself with prep work, slicing cheese and rinsing vegetables, handing Rima things she would as for as she needed them. She tore off a chunk of dough and began working it, eventually rolling it out into a very thin round. She drizzled some lovely green olive oil into the bottom of the big pan and expertly smeared it around with her fingers. She flopped the dough into the pan and began telling us how important the ingredients are. She had tomatoes from a jar that were ONLY crushed tomatoes. Nothing else was added other than organic tomatoes. She blended them up until they were smooth with a stick blender, and spooned some onto the dough. She baked that until it was done enough for her and topped it with some slices of fresh “fior di latte”, or cow’s milk mozzarella. A couple of sprigs of basil and back into the oven for a couple of minutes to melt the cheese. The Margherita pizza is generally my favorite and that disc of cracker-thin crust did not disappoint me. IT WAS SO GOOD! We mmm’d and ah’d as we chewed and tasted and experienced Rima’s magical touch.

Rima was on a roll now and rolling out pizzas faster than we could believe. My favorite was what she dubbed ‘the carpaccio’: a disc of dough baked until done, then topped with a load of fresh arugula, thinly shaved parmesan, and thin thin prosciutto, with a couple of bright red cherry tomatoes cut in half, and a drizzle of that fabulous olive oil. There were at least 12 pizzas in all, probably more, some with zucchini flowers, sweet bell peppers, sausage, smoked mozzarella, buffalo mozz, gorgonzola, salumi, eggplant, little onions, fresh herbs, and on and on. Mark’s favorite was potato and rosemary pizza, topped with a little olive oil and salt. He thought that would be a good breakfast pizza. The last two pizzas were sweet! Rima laid out these special little grapes that are in season here right now, all over the bottom dough. She sprinkled sugar over and topped with another dough. She layered on a bunch more of the grapes, sprinkled with sugar, and doused the whole thing in red wine. It turned into a syrup as it baked and it was fabulous. Francesco had his own pizza to make, topping the dough with paper thin slices of orange (peel and all), then sprinkling brown sugar on top. I think that is all there was to it and it was so full of flavor.

That was the thing about spending time with Rima and Francesco. Every thing they did was simple and straight forward, and the ingredients were pure and beautiful, so the results were phenomenally good. They also made little dough balls that they stuffed with gorgonzola and drizzled with olive oil, then baked until the cheese was all melty inside. Each new wave of food to taste (and believe me, by the end we were taking the tiniest tastes!) she would say “now this one will be good”, as if the last were not! And with every new bite we would mmmmmoan with happiness, then beg her to stop. Oh but she had to go ‘off the program’ as Francesco said, quickly whipping up a tempura batter of her own making, stuffing zucchini flowers with some cheese, dipping them in the batter and frying them on the stove top. HOLY mother of all good food, those were amazing. Delicate, light, savory and crunchy with a light flavor of zucchini and just a small bit of cheese for creaminess. BASTA! We had had enough!

Rima made us a little coffee and we all stood up just to see if we could. Francesco was so gracious, he got on the internet and helped us find out what train we could take the next day to go to Cortona. They explained to us how to get the tickets, the best place to do that, the best way to get from Siena to Florence at the end of the trip was a bus and they explained how to do that, too. They filled our stomachs then filled our heads with information that we needed, too! Plus Francesco had gone off while we were at the market and found us a new fuse for the power converter for my computer. Alas, the converter blew the new one, too, and I am still without my computer. Luckily they have this one at the apartment to use.

Francesco drove us back to St Croce and we said our farewells and thank yous, though there were not enough words to express how grateful we were to them. It was a perfect day and an experience that very few others get to have, and as you can see we loved every second of their company. Grazie Mille Francesco e Rima! Te amo!!

Ok, we were stuffed. 4 hours of eating pizza will do that to you. That is not all we did yesterday, St Croce and the Duomo were involved, but I must go get into the shower so we can make our train. More later.. here is a teaser: I spent about 40 minutes with Michelangelo’s Pieta, and yes Doumina, I cried blissful tears, being so grateful for the whole day.

Love to you all! Ciao for now!

M

OK I found a bit more time to finish… don’t worry it won’t take long, we did not really eat again the rest of the day. St Croce is my favorite church in Florence, although I have not seen them all. I don’t really know why I love it most, perhaps it is that Galileo and Michelangelo’s tombs are both there. Maybe it is the leather working monks who have stolen my heart… and the art that fills the cathedral. This space feels more sacred to me than some of the others and I am sad that I did not get to go into Santo Spirito this time, but I am very glad I returned to St Croce. We headed back towards the Duomo with only one pit stop: Vestri Chocolate Shop. The BEST gelato we have had. Made on the premises and held in metal containers, it is smooth and flavorful and sensational. I had the smallest cup (about 2 ounces) of dark chocolate with chili peppers. Dad had peach, Mark had a strange kind that was vanilla with sort of carmelly crunchies in it. Mom got some beautiful hand made chocolates for later. Earl Grey tea, Grand Marnier, and a salted ganache. We had them later and they were smooth, high quality chocolates… little squares of pure flavor.

When we got to the duomo I left them to explore and went into the Museo del Opera del Duomo… I had not seen Michelangelo’s Pieta before and I had to. Plus the real East Doors of the Campenile are in there, among some of the finest statuary in Tuscany. I glimpsed the Pieta as I climbed the stairs and it took my breath away. As I approached and circled it I literally could not catch my breath. It is so beautiful, unfinished as it is. He was 84 when he started this piece and his masterful hand is more experienced than ever. Nicodemus’ face is Michelangelo’s self portrait as he encompasses the Marys and Jesus in his arms. Mary’s unfinished face appears to have her eyes closed, and it looks like she is kissing the head of her dead son. Mary M is slightly apart, while helping to carry the weight of his body, she is respectful of his mother’s need to hold him. She looks lovingly on with sadness. I stayed for about 10 minutes, went through the rest of the small museum except for the final display, then went back to spend more time gazing upon this work. I owe thanks again to Helen Bedtelyen for opening up this art loving heart of mine. I fought back the tears as I adored this hunk of marble.

I got to see some of the East Door panels, though many were gone, on loan to the Accedemia for awhile. Mom was in the piazza when I exited and she told me that Mark and dad had decided to climb to the top of the dome… 463 steps to the top! Mom and I were smarter, we drank wine at a sidewalk cafe.

And that was pretty much it for the day. Hours of laundry in the little tiny washer and dryer that took forever to work because we don’t know how to do it. A little sleep and off we go to the stazione de treno!

Arrivaderci!