Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Toscana: Panzano in Chianti

Jason had mentioned a few times that we might join an extracurricular excursion with his students and his colleague, Daniela, the inimitable Finnish-Indian-seems pretty much American. I wasn’t really clear on the program. Then details emerged that we would also attend mass in a provincial
parish in the paese of Panzano in Chianti, since the priest who says mass on campus at Gonzaga is from there, ish. Padre Alessandro would be delighted to host us; Daniela had reserved a place for lunch for 10. It was a sunny day. Our long-term rental car was gassed up. We buckled in the kids, put some snacks in the car, and started driving.

Vigneto, Panzano in Chianti

I love driving out of Firenze: out through Firenze Sud, across the bridge that goes to Grassina, up and through the hills the surround the city, until you swoop gently into hill and grove country. Everything was greening; patches of wildflowers dotted yellow and white in the spaces in between. We twisted and wound through many rural locales, even driving on a pale unpaved road for a few kilometers, which Jason could not believe was the best route to Panzano in Chianti but the GPS said it was.

Panzano in Chianti

We parked and headed up to the church. Victor saw what was coming and started to protest. There were many exchanges on the steps in front of the church. We finally negotiated him in, and he immediately crawled under a pew to assume a fetal position for awhile. Eleanor also attempted to negotiate but was stonewalled as well. Mass began. The pews were well full for a Sunday in Lent, and with not a few visitors, us included.

Victor gradually began to relax and flip through some hymnals. Eleanor joined him. Italian grandparents smiled at us across the aisle, in what I took to be expressions of sympathy, save for one much older nonna who looked like she might like to hoist Vic up into the pew by his ear. At communion there was some confusion among us about who was able to receive. Jason got “the cracker,” and the kids and I were blessed, but Padre Alessandro did look a bit confused when I crossed my arms over my chest. I will happily receive in pretty much any church that’s dishing out the Jesus cracker, as the kids call it, but am still at a loss to interpret Catholic in-ness and out-ness. Thanks to years in the Mediterranean basin, and Latin America, and a life speaking Spanish, and a confirmed Episcopalian with a good grasp on liturgy, as a heritage Lutheran I am extremely Catholic-friendly. Jason explained to Victor that Catholics must first go to cracker school so that they understand the cracker Vic furrowed his brow.

Santa Maria, Panzano in Chianti

“Did mommy go to cracker school too?”
“Yes, but not in this kind of church.”
Further confusion.
Eleanor: “Cracker, cracker.”

Of note, at lunch Padre Alessandro assured Jason that Victor was welcome to receive, but no word on the heretic wife. So much for cracker school PR. I’ve been told before by Catholic priests that they’ll give the eucharist to any baptized child, but even I am still fuzzy on whether the child has to be baptised in the Catholic faith. I would like to refer these questions to Pope Frank. I bet I know what that radical inclusionary would say.

After mass, our family enjoyed the use of the priest’s bagno in the rectory, which we monopolized for a good twenty minutes with various post-mass rites of ministration.

We walked with the student group down a long hill, and up a corresponding second hill, to arrive at our lunch destination. Victor chased a soccer ball most of the way. The street was blocked off, and the people were in full-on fiera mode. I noted a brass plaque dedicated to the bistecca chianina. I surveyed the tables of honey, wine, pasta, dried funghi, salami. The sun was bright. People felt cheery in the last week of winter.

An open storefront that looked to also be home to a butcher shop had laid out a spread of pane e olio, salami, lardo di Colonnata, accompanied by huge bottles of Chianti. The place was mobbed. I looked around the bookshelves and saw an ample representation of Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, and the like. Who is this guy? Where are we? Are we Somewhere?

Indeed we were, at the very temple to meat, in the Antica Macelleria Cecchni. Perhaps you remember The New Yorker article by Bill Buford, published in 2006 and excellent reading. Now it all started to make sense. Oh my god we were going to eat Sunday dinner at Cecchini! The mob continued to mow through the buffet, but slowly began to peel off to be escorted across the street and seated at one of the two Cecchini restaurants. Our group was waiting for a private room to be readied on the same side of the street. Have some more wine, have some food, we were urged. It won’t be long.

Study your lunch

As we all took our seats in the small room and settled in, our young ponytailed waiter appeared to let us know the courses to come. Daniela mentioned that they had a bus to catch at 2:00 pm. The waiter looked a bit disappointed, but then said, “Non preocupatevi, e un menu fast.”

Private room

Victor and Eleanor were already getting bored and wanted to run out in the street to play, which seemed fine to us since it was still barricaded and the worst thing that could have happened to them might be tripping on an errant jar of country honey rolling downhill.

First the wine was brought, huge bottles of the same Chianti, and baskets of unsalted Tuscan bread. Then large bowls of crudites: mostly carrots and celery.

Out came huge platters of salami and small pieces of bread generously smeared with lardo di Colonnata, the creamy, raw, white pig fat that is the butter of rural Tuscany. I started looking around at all the bricolage on the shelves, and a manger full of hay running the length of the wall that the waiter used as a staging area for the platters. I probably ate 20 little pieces of pig fat bread, and a piece of salami.

Waiting for the first course.

Next, the elusive sushi di Chianti. (Veggie and vegan friends, you might want to skip this part, but really the whole meal was spoken wholly in the fluent language of meat.) Small piles of raw beef dressed in olive oil and salt, with a twist of lemon, looking very rosy on the white porcelain platter. The students were surprised at first, but we all tucked in. Jason was in heaven. We’d had cruda di manzo once together, in 2005 in Piedmont, but it might have been vitello, not manzo, and it had looked and tasted nothing like this. Fresh, a bit tinny, kind of like turf tuna. Actually it did remind me of maguro in a good sushi restaurant.

The sun was bright and the open door afforded ample fresh air. Passersby ducked their heads in from time to time to see what we were eating or to ask the waiter if they could be seated. “Not a chance,” he responded briskly. We continued to pour wine and sparkling water. Victor and Eleanor by this time had taken to running op and down a very steep adjacent driveway, screaming about a monster at the top. The monster was but a humble – you guessed it – nonna italiana, who chided Jason for allowing the kids to cavort on such a steep incline, where they might very seriously damage themselves.

Third course: roasted pork, plenty of fat ribbons, a bit of hide, sizzling in its own grease and festooned with rosemary, sprinkled with coarse salt. All cubes devoured forthwith.

Our eyes were on the clock. The waiter was expeditious. The fourth course was a few more platters of meatloaf, garnished with the (apparently) sweet hot red pepper marmalade for which Dario is famous. The meatloaf was a bit like the meatballs in pho, which I am not a huge fan of; I think it is a texture thing. But also tasty, and would have been the standout dish had it not been for the three preceding courses.

The waiter had set up our fresh coffee and warm cake in the corner. “Serve yourselves as you wish,” he urged. The thick, black, strong coffee was joined by a fresh orange cake. As a baker of such delights when in my native habitat, I could tell it was fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange zest. Jason poured me a shot of grappa – he abstained, as he was driving us all home. It was fragrant and potent. I let its perfume fill me on an inhale, and then slowly sipped it, each drop packing a postprandial punch.

Victor and Eleanor at well, also, but it was mom and dad who trundled happily out of the tiny dining room that afternoon.

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