The final event of the birthday celebration was the christening of the BBQ pit that Jessica had commissioned Michele to build for me. It was a magnificent work of outdoor-cooking art and Michele was justifiably proud it. The chianche stone, firebrick and marble structure had two sections, one for Jessica on which no meat would be grilled and one for everyone else. And, tonight, the fuel would be olive wood.
We had made a run earlier in the day to buy the food for the party. From the seafood department in Conforama in Fasano we bought several kilos of fresh octopus and, at one of the macellerie (butcher shops) in Cisternino, Francesco picked out beef steaks and made-on-site pork and veal sausages. He also selected the cheeses for the evening. These would be placed into pottery-stone bowls along with some of the incredibly earthy and delicious truffle paste from Enoteca Properzio and put onto the grill to melt. Once liquified, the thick mixture would be spread on bread and eaten to the accompaniment of many a “Oh mio Dios.”
Michele was the first to arrive and he set out right away to prepare the octopus for the coals. First, The octopus was thoroughly cleaned in running water. (Michele assured me that the sulfur smell would not adhere to the beasts.) The beaks then had to be removed from each of the octopods. The procedure involves pushing the point of a sharp knife into the middle of the underside of the octopus’ body and prying out the black tooth. Michele had readied a mixture of olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper and poured it over the octopus. He then spent at least ten minutes massaging the marinade into the meat, a process that he said, not only gets flavor into the octopus, but tenderizes the muscular flesh. Leaving the octopus to soak in more of the liquid, Michele said to me, “Andiamo. Il fuoco.” Let’s go. The fire.
While Greg and I carried olive wood that Andrea had left in the garage after he finished trimming the trees over to the BBQ pit, Michele prepared kindling from twigs that he found among the olive trees. He carefully and strategically placed the twigs on top of some rolled up newspaper and lit it. As soon as the twigs caught, he began to put the larger sticks on and then, some small logs. In short order, fires were burning enthusiastically beneath both grills.
First to hit the hot metal grill was the octopus. They hissed and crackled, still dripping of the oil/lemon marinade, and the tentacles curled and shrank as they cooked. Meanwhile, the guests continued to arrive. David and Tina, Andrea and Anna and Colleen and Francesco came, of course, and some folks we hadn’t yet met with no reason given for their attendance. We had come to expect this last group–people who were friends of friends often received invitations to occasions such as our festa and, while such party-crashing might be considered rude in our American social circles, it is not so thought of at all in southern Italy. What’s more, we knew that we might someday show up at a stranger’s home and that we would be welcomed there.
Next course: the sausage. Perfectly seasoned and smoky from the olive wood, it was consumed ravenously by the Pugliese hoard. Jessica and Colleen who eschewed all meat, looked horrified as the sausages disappeared from the serving plates and they were no more approving when the next course–beefsteak–was served. Salt, pepper and smoke were the only added ingredients, but no other was required. Michele served the steak medium rare. No other option was offered, but no one complained.
Between each course, guests left the table, some to use scarpetta to scoop some of the truffled melted cheese from the porcelain bowl still on the grill, and some just to dance to the tunes coming from the boombox in the corner.
Wine lubricated the dancers and their singing voices and flowed freely. Whatever may have been problems of those who attended when they arrived, they no longer mattered. It occurred to me, observing Greg and Laura chatting comfortably with Michele and Marisa, that wine must contain some chemical that stimulates that brain’s ability to understand foreign language. I decided to continue to research my theory.
The grappa arrived at the tables and the merriment seemed to kick up a notch, if that were possible. But not long after, the dancing lost a bit of its grace and the words to the songs began to run together a bit. After the second round of grappa, even standing was a chore and, by 3:00 am, folks began to head for their homes but not before everyone but me turned into an emergency room physician when Jessica decided to run her finger against the blade of a very sharp knife. She knew enough to warn me off, having seen me witness blood and go instantly weak in the knees at the sight. Eight people attended her and eventually got the bleeding stopped. The drama over, we turned in, not fearing the morning since the only thing on our diary the next day was to enjoy life, something that Puglia was teaching us to do very well.
We did spent part of the next day trying to solve the rancid water problem. Francesco suggested that we add a chlorine-type chemical to the water but, after pouring many liter bottles of the stuff into the cistern, we noticed no improvement. There was, it seemed, only one solution: the system had to be drained and cleaned. This involved several steps. First, the roof of the house had to be chemically cleaned and scrubbed. This was necessary because the source of water to the cistern was run-off from the roof so, dirty water in, dirty water out. Andrea volunteered for the duty.
Next, the cistern had to be drained of its hundred thousand liters of water and it had to be done on the “down low” since that neighbors would have thought us reckless for wasting the precious stuff. The water was drained into the land adjacent to the house so that, at least some of the trees could benefit from it. Now someone would have the unenviable job of going down into the cistern with a shovel, a bucket and a brush and clean the inside surfaces. I was surprised when Michele said that he would do it, not so much because such work was well beneath his skill level (which it most certainly was), but because I thought that his sense of spatial relationships was better than that. There was simply no way that his 36-inch girth was going to fit through a 32-inch access well. He did go so far as to try, but reality set in quickly and he suggested that his brother, Agostino, give it a shot. Reluctantly, the smaller brother tried but the fact that he is smaller by only 2 inches made his efforts just as futile.
In the end, a local laborer was recruited and, on seeing the conditions he would be working in, immediately demanded a raise, arguing that he could not even smoke while down in the cistern. He worked the entire day, handing bucketful after bucketful of black and green muck up to the surface and then using a brush and sanitizing chemicals to clean the walls and floor of the cistern. When Michele asked him if he wanted to quit for the day and finish the next, he replied that he would work until it was done because he never wanted to go back down in the hole again. I can’t say that I blamed him. When he finished, I knew that I would never see him again. He would see to that.
The water was just fine after the procedure and we learned another lesson in how things work at Villa Tutto. I put “clean roof” on the to-do list.
Greg and Laura returned to Greenville and, a few days later, Jessica and I headed back to the States via Rome. As was our custom, we took the airport hotel shuttle into the city and enjoyed the sights. On this occasion, we made it a point to visit the Steeler bar just off the Piazza Navona in the heart of Rome. Most visitors to La Boticella may not know its true name. To them, it’s simply “The Steeler Bar” in Rome. Now, it’s not at all unusual to find a pub that celebrates the six-time Super Bowl champions in a major city, but most of them are in the US. Giovanni Poggi, the fortyish man who owns the bar in the former wine shop, discovered the passion of Steeler fans and hung a banner above the bar that reads “This is Steeler Country.” Since then, business has been booming and the pub has taken on more and more Steeler paraphernalia. And, watching over the scene from the bar is a three-foot tall statue of Jesus wearing a Steeler helmet.
We returned to the States the next day thinking of little else but our next visit to Villa Tutto, smelly water or no.
Next: Sights of Puglia, Part 1 – Polignano a Mare