At the Piazza Salembini, Siena, after the Palio di Siena

Lucas, seen above, and I returned home very late last night from our journey to Italy. I would say it was an unqualified success.

We left Siena on July 3, the morning after the Palio, and took the train to Florence. We had enough time before catching the connecting train to Milan to make a quick dash to the Mercato San Lorenzo to buy aged Pecorino cheese for Julie. When we finally arrived at our hotel in Milan, there was the legendary James C. waiting for us. Up in the room, he shared with us some gifts he had brought. First, he brought out a loaf of brown bread jammed with dried fruits and nuts, which he said is a specialty of the rural Alpine region of Italy where he now lives. He had bought that loaf that morning. Here’s a photo of it from my own breakfast table back in Louisiana:

It is as delicious as it looks.

Then he brought us an iconographic image of St. Nicholas, in cloth, which he had bought in Bari, where he lived until recently, and where St. Nicholas is entombed:

While Lucas stayed in the apartment and took a nap, James and I walked over to the Basilica of St. Ambrose (which I’ll write about in a separate post), and then to a nearby cafe to have a cold beer.

After that, Giuseppe Scalas picked us three up and took us to his place for dinner. It was the first time James and Giuseppe had met.

The Scalases are from Sardinia, and prepared for us a Sardinian dinner. It started with Prosecco as an aperitif — Prosecco is the sparkling wine from the Veneto region, but it’s a common aperitif in Italy. Lucas went into the kitchen to help Giuseppe cook. Here’s Giuseppe preparing an antipasto of ricotta on wafer-thin Sardinian flatbread (both kinds), topped with slices of bottargadried mullet roe (it tastes like the salt sea). Over this he grated lemon zest:

It was really, really delicious, as I probably don’t have to say.

Here are some other antipasti, including Sardinian sausage and tuna-stuffed pickled peppers:

The primi piatti (first course) was spaghetti with clams. Those are Giuseppe’s hands:

It was perfect, especially with the chilled Vermintino the Scalas’s served. Mrs. Scalas also helped out in the kitchen, which was too bad because it meant she spent less time sitting at the table next to me, delighting us with her stories (both Scalases speak excellent English).

I assumed, in the American style, that this was the main course, so I had a second helping of the spaghetti with clams. So, when they brought out the cold salads of octopus with potatoes and monkfish with cherry tomatoes, I was nearly full, and couldn’t eat nearly what I wanted. This is James C., preparing a VFYT (a very meta image for this blog, if you ask me):

We were all so stuffed by the end of this course that none of us had room for the main one: “drowned baby octopus”. So we didn’t eat it, and on the plane back, I kept thinking about what I missed, given how much I love love love octopus. Giuseppe assured us that it would not go to waste, and I believe him.

But we had to have some dessert. Mrs. Scalas made a simple Sardinian dessert of fried puff pastry stuffed with salty ricotta, drizzled at the table with honey:

To me, this plain dish, which was deeply satisfying, captures the particular joy of Italian cooking: simple, fresh food, well prepared.

Then we drank a digestivo glass of homemade Sardinian grappa, called “iron wire.” Giuseppe explained the origin of the name. Here’s the same story, from a website:

There’s little doubt these hard-living men would have been involved in the illegal distilling from which the Sardinian grappa takes its name of Filu è Ferru or ‘iron wire’. It’s a throwback to the days when villagers hid evidence of their illicit, untaxed grappa-making in the ground, using thin wires wrapped around the bottlenecks to poke up through the soil in order to locate them more easily.

It was bracing, for sure. I love grappa. Then Giuseppe brought out some homemade mirto, or blackcurrant liqueur. It was in a storebought bottle, but this had been made by his family back home:

It was really nice stuff — slightly sweet, but also a tad bitter, herbal, and fruity. It was one of the most memorable things I had in Italy. I saw a few bottles of mirto at the Milan airport the next morning, and would have bought some except I couldn’t have gotten it from the Miami airport to New Orleans without slipping it into my checked luggage in Miami, but my checked luggage was already full of wine. I’m telling you, though, if you ever see mirto in US stores, buy a bottle, or bring one back from Italy. It’s delicious stuff. The herbs and the bitter almond make it special — not just sweet.

At some point between courses, Giuseppe asked James and me for a coin. “Anything you have in your pockets will do,” he said. Um, okay. I produced a euro, and James gave him something too. In exchange for this, Giuseppe presented us with beautiful Sardinian-crafted knives. Here’s mine:

Notice the shape of the blade. The superior craftsmanship of this knife is plain, even to a novice like me. You can’t see from this shot, but it’s small: 10, maybe 11 inches unfolded, as shown. But it is very fine. It’s called a resolza, a traditional knife used by shepherds on that rough island. I was honored to receive it. The Scalases also gave me about three pounds of various Sardinian cheeses to take home to Julie, who loves cheese; a CD of traditional Sardinian folk songs in a modern setting (this, for Matthew, who loves that kind of thing); and a bracelet for Nora. Such thoughtful, wonderful people!

[UPDATE: I totally forgot to point out something a reader just reminded me of in a comment! Giuseppe told us that in Sardinian culture, it’s considered taboo to give someone a knife. The idea is that it might be seen as a hostile act. If you do give someone a knife, you have to ask for a token payment to avoid breaking the taboo. — RD]

We wanted to talk forever, as you might imagine, but Lucas finally fell asleep on the couch, and anyway, we had to pack and be out of the hotel and on our way to the airport by seven a.m. It was hard to leave the company of the Scalas family and James C. For that matter, it was hard to leave Italy, though we were ready to come home. Back at the hotel, Lucas, exhausted, cried. He cried because he was ready to go home, and cried because “I want to stay in Italy forever.” I’d say the trip was a big success.

On the plane home, I asked him what his favorite part of the trip was. He repeated the answer he gave me the first time I asked the question, halfway through the week: “The people.” I agree completely. Everyone we met was so nice to us, and made Lucas feel like family. Lucas assured me that he would come back to Italy for the rest of his life, because he knows the friends he made there are forever.

Julie and Nora picked us up at the New Orleans airport at 10pm, and we were back home by midnight. I woke up at 6:30 this morning because I had forgotten to de-activate the alarm on my phone. I found my wife not in bed with me. She was sleeping on the couch. I woke her up and asked what was wrong.

“You were so tired that you were snoring really loud,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

So it was that kind of week. This morning, when we were all awake, I heard Lucas begin a sentence with, “Mom, when I take you to the Palio one day… .”

Thank you, Italy. Thank you, Italians. We will return. We will always return.