The morning after the birthday celebration thrown by the Angelinis in my honor came more quickly than I had hoped it would have. Much wine, albeit, incredible wine, had been consumed the night before and we had a long drive ahead of us. We arose, met Colleen and Francesco at the enoteca for a quick cappuccino, loaded the five cases of wine we had purchased from Roberto into both our car and Francesco’s, said our arrivadercis to the Angelinis, and departed. It was agreed that we would follow Colleen and Francesco so off went our little caravan. By all accounts, we should arrive at Villa Tutto by three or four that afternoon.
After a couple of hours of driving the roads of Umbria, past white, hilltop towns, green fields of vines, hillsides covered with olive trees and up and down the sides of the Appenines, we decided that Trilogy, the three-legged pooch brought back to health by Colleen, needed a break. It happened that, at the time, we were just entering the town of Norcia.
“Why not do lunch here, as long as we’re stopped,” suggested Colleen. There were no “no” votes.
Norcia is a mountain town on the southeastern edge of Umbria. The town is surprisingly flat inside the fortifications that mark its ancient boundaries. It is most well known as the birthplace of St. Benedict, as having wild boar or cinghiale as one of its four basic food groups and as the truffle capital of Italy. The restaurant fate led us to happened to be the oldest continually operated restaurant in all of Umbria. Il Granaro del Monte serves the rustic food typical of the region and we consumed much of what they set before us. We started with a sparkling rosato followed by crisp, fresh green salads. For the main courses, Francesco opted for the roasted boar while the rest of us had the linguini. I had the black truffle sauce on mine. There was so much of the earthy delicacy on the plate, that I thought that I had been served squid ink pasta. Jessica chose the white truffle and Colleen went for the red sauce. There was so much food that we needed a second bottle of the rose to wash it all down.
After lunch and before beginning the last two-thirds of the drive to Puglia, we wandered a bit around the town of Norcia. We paused in the main piazza in front of the basilica of St. Benedict, named for the saint who was born there, along with his twin sister, Scholastica, in 480 A.D. while Trilogy bounced around the other tourists in the square. We passed shops announcing norceria, the generic name for foods produced in the area, most notably, those from the boar. Hideous heads of the creatures could be seen in many shops and the fact that they were mounted made them none less frightening.
We walked back out of the town’s main gate, to the cars, and got back on the road. The next hour of the trip was mountainous, curvy and slowed by bulky trucks incapable of maintaining their speeds up the steep grades. Finally, we reached the east coast of Italy and the A16 motorway and turned south. At that point, we waved good-bye to Colleen and Francesco, knowing that Francesco would drive, as his heritage dictated, like an Italian, leaving us well in the dust. Three hours later, we pulled into the drive of Villa Tutto, our hearts pounding in anticipation.
The smell hit us instantly on entering the house. It was a moldy, sulfurous odor that seemed to have no origin, though we had been warned by Colleen that our long absences from the villa had caused the water in the cistern to stagnate. Her attempt at remedying the problem by draining some water and bringing fresh water in had little or no effect, as we found when we turned the faucet on and made the odor in the house much worse. Still, we were thrilled to be there and we knew that Colleen and Francesco had other solutions for the water problem yet to be tried. Tired as we were from the drive from Spello, we had to focus on getting the house ready for our first overnight guests who were arriving early the next morning.
Greg and Laura are two very dear friends. I’m happy that I can use the present tense in making that statement after their visit to Villa Tutto. They arrived at the airport in Brindisi on separate flights but within a half-hour of each other. Laura was coming from an ophthamology conference in Milan and Greg flew from their home in Greenville, South Carolina. It was our first visit to the nearest international airport to our village and we found it to be charming, without the hustle and bustle for which large airports are most infamous. It looked as though things were going to come off without a hitch as, first Greg and then Laura, walked through the security doors from the baggage claim area into the terminal. I remarked to Laura that, with only a carry-on for luggage, she may be the lightest packer I know. It was only then that she realized she had forgotten to claim her bag at baggage claim. After some negotiation, she was given permission from security to go back into the baggage claim area and retrieve her bag.
It was the actual day of my birthday, September 11, and despite the calendar date, it would be a day of celebration, not only because it was a birthday, but the joy of being at our home in Puglia, surrounded by friends we loved and never seeing a smile leave Jessica’s face demanded that we rejoice. The festivities started with a lunch on the terrace of a seaside restaurant in Torre Canne. We gorged ourselves on fresh seafood and washed it down with a prosecco rosato. Nearly three hours after sitting down and with only five to go before the party at Il Capriccio, we headed home for a much needed nap.
“Oh,” said Jessica to our guests in the back seat. “We have this thing with the water at the house. It, well, it really stinks.” She went on to explain the issues with the cistern and its stagnated water. In true “Laura and Greg” fashion, they passed it off, told us not to worry about it, and they never mentioned it for the rest of the trip. Jessica and I concluded after they left that, at some previous time, they had had mutual nasalectomies.
After our respite, we arose, dressed. Colleen and Francesco and Francesco’s parents, Andrea and Anna, were stopping by the house for a glass of wine before going to the party. We were sitting on the back deck when they pulled into the drive and we greeted Colleen and Anna. Francesco and Andrea were engaged in removing a load from the back of Francesco’s SUV. What they carried to the deck and presented to me with many “buon compleannos” was a new refrigerator for the just-completed summer kitchen. It was a wonderful and perfect gift from the four of them and I was overwhelmed. It took an effort to hold back the tears. The toasts that followed were from the heart and deep-felt.
We got ourselves out of the deck chairs and drove the ten minutes to the restaurant where Jessica and I, along with our local friends, had spent many memorable evenings together in reverie and unadulterated happiness. There are two dining rooms in the restaurant, a large open area that opens out onto a terrace and a smaller room in the back for more private affairs. For the birthday party, we took up a space in one of the corners of the main room.
Colleen and Francesco had made all of the arrangements for the party, meeting with Pierino, the restaurant’s owner and executive chef, to work out the menu, and extending invitations to our friends. Among the guests were Andrea and Anna, Francesco’s parents; Michele and Marisa, our master builder and his wife; a new friend, David, a British ex-pat and his Italian girlfriend, Tina; Greg and Laura; and, of course, Colleen and Francesco. the party had started even before our arrival and, by the time we got to Il Capriccio, the glasses were full and our favorite accordion player was making song.
We ate and drank to our hearts’ content. Pierino outdid himself with the mussels, octopus, several kinds of fish and a large variety of meats. The wines he selected were beautifully paired with the dishes and I often couldn’t decide whether to reach for my glass or my fork. That’s what two hands are for, I suppose: so we don’t have to make such difficult choices.
I did have to reserve one hand for holding Jessica’s as we basked in the warmth of our new friendships and the love we had been shown by the incredibly generous people around the table. There was no doubt in us that a permanent life (as much as life is permanent) in Puglia was what we wanted but, had there been, this night with our loving friends would have sent them off in haste.
Lastly came the birthday cake and the traditional photos with the guests. Each of the couples at the party took turns having a picture taken with Jessica and me and the cake.
We slept well and quickly that night knowing that the next day would be busy preparing for the initiation of the BBQ pit that Jessica had Michele build me for my birthday. Oh, and there was the stinky water issue to be resolved. We couldn’t forget that.
Next: A Very Buon Compleanno – Act III, Scene 2: The BBQ Festa