Patrisha McLean: Letter from Italy 2
Thursday, November 10, 2016 12:01 PM
Through the windows of a trattoria in Bologna, taking my morning walk to the swimming pool, I see two ladies bent over a table, one rolling out dough — just like Jacquimo showed me in Savigno — and the other squeezing a pastry cone onto circles of the dough. I stop in and ask for a “prenotazione” for lunch the next day. When I return, before I say a word, the owner’s face lights up and she shows me to my table. As I finish a divine maccheroni with zucca, she leans over and says, “Di dove sei?” and all the Italian couples at the other tables lean in to hear where I am from.
Patrisha McLean will teach The Art of Photographing Children June 3 and 4 at Maine Media Workshops. www.patrishamclean.com
Sabrina Fini, who runs my bed-and-breakfast, arranges for me to make pasta with her mother in her mother’s apartment. Silvana knows not one word of English so we take turns riffling through my English/Italian dictionary.
Silvana hands me an apron and we get right to work. She sifts the flour and because the eggs are small (one to each 100 grams of flour), adds egg white. In three hours, the table is covered with tagliatelle and spinach lasagna, pumpkin tortoloni, tortellini stuffed with mortadella/prosciutto/ricotta, tortellini that will be served in broth, and ricotta ravioli. Ragu simmers on the stove. The pureed tomatoes come from mason jars that fill her fridge and the pumpkin and basil from her balcony garden.
Silvana lifts the massive wooden slab from the table, covers it with a cloth and stores it in a slot beside the fridge, and brings out a tablecloth, wine glasses and floral plates. “Bravo Patrizia” and “Belissima Patrizia” ring out from Sabrina and Silvana as we bite into one pillowy-soft concoction after the other.
Evenings in Bologna, with the setting sun turning the ochre buildings even more golden around the Mercato Herba and in alleyways off Piazza Maggiore, sidewalk tables overflow with Italians dressed mostly in black, talking and laughing with no phones in sight. Sunday morning, under the sidewalk porticos lining via Saragozza, couples and families spill out of pasticcerias to rest their cappuccino and spremuta (I finally pronounce it so I am handed fresh orange juice and not champagne) on cocktail tables.
At Sabrina’s, the owner of Fiore in Rockland is taking over the two rooms so I can’t extend my stay any longer. I am at the Piazza Malpighi, waiting for the bus that will take me to the train station, and on to Padua, when, just as the San Francesco church bells sonorously ring out the noon hour, a man says a lot of Italian words very fast and hands me a bus token.
I take this as a good omen for the next phase of my trip.
In Padua, the walk from the train station is desultory, with modern gray buildings, but I recall that Venice, from the airport until you arrive at the canals, is too. This being off-season, I get in right away to see the glorious ultramarine Giotto frescoes, but there is a conference at the university’s anatomical theater so the skeletal curiosities from the 1600s are off-limits.
The farmers’ market I stumble onto that takes up an entire piazza raises Padua a few notches, but not enough to stay four nights, and I cut my stay in half.
Verona is better. Cobblestone streets and stone balconies everywhere. But a 45-minute walk at 7 a.m. turns up not one bakery or café with life in it.
Heading north to Trento, there are suddenly the Dolomites mountains, underplanted with endless stretches of vineyards, and also what look like apples but could be the ubiquitous orange fruit called cachi. I am a day too early for my calligraphy workshop, so take an hour train ride north to Bolzano. This brings me so close to Austria that, disembarking, I see my first groups of blonds in weeks: the men in their short woolen jackets look like they stepped out of The Sound of Music, Wiener Schnitzel is on menus alongside pasta, and when you buy a strudel the salesgirl says “Danke schön.” Lucky for me, the farmers’ market is on today and I buy Alpine cheeses, grapes, and for gifts to friends back home, packets of vibrant flower petals for sprinkling on food.
On the train from Trento to Trieste, the one other person in the railcar with me also shifts sides to see the craggy mountains slivered with marble-white, castles tucked in high crevices and terra cotta roofs of a hillside village, and, on the other side, the sea. We are at the last train stop in Italy.
The lady in the station kiosk who sells me a city map smiles and points upward when I ask her for directions to the apartment arranged for me by my Italian language school. Lugging my suitcases (two big ones now — I move farther from backpacking every week) through the winding streets, I am glad I am staying a week.
Here is the vibrant café culture I missed in Verona and Padua. Tables fill piazzas, pedestrian-only streets, and sidewalks, and from the afternoon on, groups tuck into the doorways of bars with aperitifs, wine and cigarettes. Dogs are everywhere, on leashes happily fraternizing with other dogs or sitting at their owner’s feet at an outside or inside restaurant or café table.
Piazza Unita, said to be the largest piazza in Europe, is flanked by gorgeous neoclassical buildings and the sea. On the front row of chairs in front of Café Specci, men with scarves looped once around the neck lift their faces to the sun as though they were on the beach in Cannes, and women watch children chase balls and each other. The chairs and piazza quickly become deserted when the Bora (winds), so strong that my Italian teacher says you can’t walk through them, pick up.
Trieste reminds me of San Francisco — where I worked as a reporter for seven years before I was married — with views of houses carpeting hillsides and the sea, and steep city blocks studded with steps.
Trieste is proud that James Joyce spent time here, and his legacy is in the antiquarian sets and translations of Colleen McCullough papering shop windows. If you see a really charming bar, café or restaurant and second-guess entering because you think it might be touristy — like the art-deco James Joyce Bar with jade-green walls and café latte–colored burled wooden booths — go in anyway, because you will find only Italians inside. As my Italian teacher told me, Trieste is so out of the way it doesn’t get many tourists in any season.