RIOMAGGIORE, ITALY: The easterly Cinque Terre town at the Achilles heel of Monte Verrucola didn’t seem like much at first glance–an imposing hill with a few weather-beaten houses, jagged rocks cutting into the salty sea, and a long train tunnel headed west. Being a seasoned traveler, I know that if you get off a train in a small town and don’t see a place to buy milk and bread, there’s more to explore. So I turned right, through the barren tunnel to find an electric village grooving on the timeless contrapuntal rhythm of life. Rainbowed vegetables littered the streets, Italian singsong swayed through wind-blown laundry, oily pine confronted salty air, and welcoming matchstick houses.
Riomaggiore decorates the mountain like grapes. And it owns something more tantalizing than that lonely quality relished in small sexy towns. Riomaggiore purchased the patent on an invention called “giggly, finger-licking, fill you to the rim food” made with that special ingredient known as TLC.
On my second day back in the heart of the Ligurian, coast the 25-year-old local Casanova Simone Castiglone sweeps me into town (meaning, the street). “We are going to great-uncle’s house on the mountain, we must get food,” he offers a “Ciao” left and right to the early-rising ladies gossiping on stoops. He casually waves at Lorraine (the New York transplant swinging her laundry across the street as if she were a flag dancer at Carnivale), “We are going to the house, wake Alberto and…bring wine.”
The town buzzes with the business of morning. The bakers knead greasy bread spreading the sweet scent from the bakery. The aroma of fresh-brewed espresso waltzes up the lane. The gas-guy “Ciaos” the architect and they both retreat into the coffee shop.
“Mengare?” Simone asks (The main Italian word worth knowing…”eat”). My stomach laughs at the audacity of even the tiniest morsel of food joining the digestive part of my belly. Last night eight of us went for dinner at La Lampara: we began with piles of slimy oysters, then three whopping plates of seafood pasta, a lobster tail and white fish for each of us. Ending with tiramisu, and of course, the regional schiaccetra: a sweet dessert wine made by none other than our friend Alberto. “Café,” I respond.
Simone offers me a café macciatto and a foccacia while we wait for the others. Lorraine and Alberto, Ivo and Lizzy, and Principesa (The Bengini-looking clown who whisks through town every other weekend) enter the café tired from last night’s wine fest to drink coffee and delegate shopping duties. Our trusty leader Simone will select the wine, Lorraine and Lizzy get the veggies and pasta, Ivo picks up the meat, Principesa swoops up the car, Alberto…more wine, and me? I get to watch the dog.
The preparations are like a three-ring circus on opening night. Each of them screaming from a separate market, “What kind of pasta?”, “Which dessert?”, “Will anyone eat beans?” An hour later, we pile in two cars and muscle our way out of town (the street) and wind up Monte Verrucola. Halfway up we stop for a sambuca, by now it must be 11a.m.
At the summit, we unload, hike for fifteen minutes through pine and chestnut trees. We reach an abandoned house hiding behind its lush green blanket. The dusty stone cottage is transformed into an airy wood-burning bar & grill. The gas wakes up, the knives are cleaned, wine is distributed in rusty mugs, and the feast begins to take shape.
The men grill the meat, the women chop the plump tomatoes, onions, garlic and cheese, creating a sauce deserving 3 pages (at least) in a Martha Stewart cookbook. I am delegated to take notes on what they need to stock the house with for a summer of parties. Chairs are dusted and brought outside to keep the picnic table company, hammocks hung from sleepy trees, and the table set with variations of plates and utensils.
Before long, we sit for our first course: a heaping bowl of stringy pasta. Italian jokes and laughter compete with the birds for airtime as Lizzy runs back and forth from the kitchen to refill our bowls. Next is bread and sausage (ripped rather than cut). Finally, Ivo proudly presents the Texas-style steak and beans. My head twists like baked bread–the result of too much wine. And certainly, my stomach asks for a time-out.
Naively I say, “There’s so much food!” And Lorraine looks at me and says, “Michele, it’s all about food.”
That’s when it hits me. The reason people in this village are so joyous and rich in spirit are because they feed themselves well and really don’t take anything too seriously. It is Monday, around 2 or 3 and no one is working–in fact, the lot of us are full and drunk—instead we lazily rest on hammocks feeding each other strawberry’s in sugar and lemon.
To me, this afternoon is an experience, one so filling that I choose to share it with you reader, but to my Italian friends, this is a regular occurrence in April.
On my last visit, Independence Day weekend, I was not surprised when my overworked buddies asked me to take boat rides in the oily Mediterranean, eat paella on flower-covered terraces, and take shopping trips into La Spezia (the closest city). No, these people heed a lesson that we all need to learn. They average a 60-hour workweek during the season, but year-round they make time to live, to laugh, and most of all to eat.