The fall session of the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts is going swimmingly. The students are a lively and engaged group of 26, myself included. So far we have made a couple of day trips to Florence and our adopted hometown of Pistoia and have just returned from a long day in Pisa. In the past week have seen some of the most influential art and architecture in the past 2000 years and all of our minds are full of inspired ideas to take back to Paros in a few weeks. For those of us who have already experienced the work environment of Greece, we are champing at the bit to get to work and let loose some of this pent-up energy. The downside is that we still have almost three weeks left here in Italy. The upside is, of course, that we still have almost three weeks left here Italy. In a couple of days we head to Venice for a two-night excursion and then back again. Following that we still have trips to Siena, Florence and Rome. Interspersed are days spent at the Villa Rospigliosi in classes (drawing, watercolor painting, vocal training, writing, and photography discussions), one-on-one conversations with mentors and, of course, the deep fellowship that comes with an enriching experience such as this. What I am saying is that for all that we have seen and experienced, there is still a great deal ahead.
The food here at the Villa is very good, filling and the kind of food that brings us all joy and comfort when our tired bones rest for dinner after trekking about all day long. It is not haute cuisine but rather the kind of food one’s grandmother (not mine, by the way…she could barely boil water) might prepare. The other night some students and I were discussing “Italian food” and I noted that here we are in Italy, eating dinner. Therefore we were having ‘Italian food”. As someone who has been in the food business in a professional capacity and still retains most of what he learned, I have to admit that even back then, 12 years ago or so, I had become disenchanted by all the ‘specialness’ and ‘preciousness’ of the so-called cuisines that popped up every time a new celebrity chef graced the television or newspapers. What I most desired was simple food, food that I have already written about here and food that exists in the sense memories of many people I know. We remember a warm house on a cold day, the aroma of fresh cookies wafting over us as we shake the snow from our boots; the primal experience of grilling over an open fire as the sun sets on a summer’s day; the joy of family and friends as we all gather for a holiday feast. Regardless of season, these memories flood my thinking, driving away the cold efficiency of Nouvelle-this or Pan-American-that…Where was I?
Ah, yes…food. Florence, Pisa and lunch.
Yesterday I found a lovely little spot off the tourist track, yet in the middle of Florence. Tired with the usual panini routine, I emptied my mind and wandered about. I turned a couple of corners and happened upon ‘Pizzacheria Antonio Porrati’, in the Piazza Pier di Maggiore. The area was tiny, with three tables inside, a glass case with myriad foods prepared that day, dried pasta on the shelves and a large cabinet of wine. The fellow behind the counter greeted me with a joyful ‘buongiorno!’ Out of the many choices I ordered some roast chicken and fresh green beans chock full of garlic and olive oil. Dee-lish! I ate my lunch, chatted with the owners and then went to join the rest of the school for our tour of the Uffizi Museum. Once again, home-cooking has struck again, with its simple, nourishing and friendly tastes. Today was a similar experience. Pisa began with a tour of the large Pisan Romanesque church, its famously skewed campanile, and the ornate baptistry, followed by a break. Lunchtime beckoned and once again I wandered back streets, away from the madding crowd. What initially drew me to ‘Trattoria della Faggiola’ was the sign tacked to the door that read ‘NO PIZZA’. What a relief! The menu included carpaccio di salmone so I sat in the nearly empty place and enjoyed a plate of thinly sliced raw salmon on a bed of baby arrugala and a mixed green salad. The simplest food filled the most demanding hunger. A few minutes later I was touring the Camposanto, a structure in a state of almost constant restoration since the bombing of Pisa in the 1940s by the Allies. There has been a great deal of progress on the enormous frescoes even since last year and they look lovely. Thank you Deane Keller…
Today we have classes here at the villa. Lunch will be salads and leftovers from dinner last night. Simple, nourishing food for hungry, working students and their teachers. And tomorrow? On to Venezia! Andiamo!