Gioia di Vivere

A journey through the hills and hearts of Italy, where the simplest pleasures still remain the most cherished ones

On The Town | Justin McCauley | June 2010

We stumbled out of the car on the Lungarno at around 10 pm. My legs were sore as I rested on the wall at the edge of the Arno River and stared across toward Piazzale Michelangelo. I took in deep breaths of the cool, fresh night air and closed my eyes – back in Florence again.

After an 850 kilometer, Guns N’ Roses-and-Red Bull-induced marathon drive, Mr. David Reali and I arrived in a city we both know well: David because he called it home for many years; me because of my frequent visits – an obsession, really – since the age of 15 (trips that also forged our friendship). Freshly arrived and not so fresh smelling, we threw on some deodorant (as if it helped) and headed toward the center to search familiar places for familiar faces.

If you’ve spent some serious time in Florence, you’ll always run into someone you know – it’s a city of travelers and expatriates, troubadours and indolence-seekers, who never stay away too long. This night was no different, and at the Old Stove (a venerable Florentine pub) we quickly found Carlo Brofferio, a charming and hilariously self-deprecating Italian, and an alumnus of the International School of Florence, the same institution that spawned Mr. Reali. We settled in with some beers to catch up with Carlo and attempt to procure the whereabouts or phone numbers of others rumored to be in town.

Tracking down someone in Florence can still be a considerable task – a lot of the time you rely on word of mouth and checking places the sought after is known to frequent. This element of mystery, while time-consuming, has its charm; it’s more about romantic rendezvous and Luddite logic than about the press of a Blackberry button. Empty-handed and tipsy, we bid adéu to the crowd and staggered through the dimly lit corridors and back to the car. Driving into the hills through narrow, ancient passageways and over antediluvian viaducts, the Tuscan night air was intoxicating.

The next morning, Friday, we woke up in Dave’s house in Strada in Chianti – his parents were already at work. Ivano and Cornelia Reali are the archetypal European power couple – classy, business-savvy and multilingual, the Realis are the masterminds of Castello di Gabbiano, a powerhouse winery in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. We decided to drive over to the Castello and have some lunch.

Even though I’d been in these hills many times before, the sight still impressed me. Vast, rolling hills of endless vineyards, dirt roads lined with umbrella pines and cypress trees. The sheer majestic qualities of this place are so intense that you forget the clichés and platitudes of those pseudo-intellectual, Francis Mayes-style pontifications about Bella Toscana.

The Castello’s restaurant, Il Cavaliere (The Knight), proffers exquisite Tuscan dishes, the ingredients being as fresh as humanly possible (they grow everything themselves – veggies, herbs, etc.).  After saying hi to the chef, we sat down with a nice glass of vino and noticed Ivano at another table, chatting with some English patrons. Once the Brits left he came to join us as we finished off our Risotto al Tartufo Bianco. Rarely to be seen without a big smile on his face, Ivano is the quintessential Italian – loquacious and boyishly charming, he possesses a laid back Mediterranean style and a joie de vivre so unadulterated you’d follow the guy anywhere.

In the evening we had dinner with both Ivano and Cornelia. Aside from some occasional ballyhoo with Ivano, I mostly sat back, an extra addition to an otherwise family affair. As I enjoyed my food and wine, the Realis enjoyed being together, switching effortlessly between Italian, French and English, a familial example of the precision of multilingual expression. I picked up what I could with my elementary Italian and French in between blissful mouthfuls of Bistecca alla Fiorentina and guzzles of luscious red nectar.

After dinner, Dave and I were off into the night again, headed back to Florence – we had finally tracked down the one we’d been looking for the night before, Ms. Elisa Di Rito. A vivacious Italian beauty, Elisa is another ISF veteran recently returned to fair Firenze after university in the U.S. Effortlessly easy to talk to, she is well versed in the fine Italian art of taking it easy. We linked up at the Old Stove (sensing a pattern yet?) and threw back a few as Elisa divulged tales of her job at the Lorenzo de’ Medici school, advising and mentoring students on Erasmus, Americans mostly, on how to live, thrive and survive in the Tuscan capital.

As we were in the center of Florence, the inane prattle of Yankee tourists was inescapable. A gut reaction of many – us included – is to mercilessly disparage, ridicule and vilify these irritating vacationers behind their backs. Ambling around the city in fanny packs and visors, sprouting phrases such as "can I have some hot sauce?", "the portions are so small!" and "is that the ‘Doomo’?", it’s impossible not to. Living in Florence, a particular distain for tourists becomes inevitable.

Around midnight, with several bottles of wine in tow, we relocated to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Casa di Dante, the quaint abode of il Sommo Poeta. The three of us perched ourselves atop the well, uncorked the vino and proceeded to talk, laugh, yell, declare and admit into the wee hours of the Florentine morning. A beautiful, blissful red wine haze engulfed us as we sat amidst the cascading light emitted from dim lamps, embracing these ancient streets and buildings that had spawned some of the most revered artists and thinkers in human history. My fellow expatriate American Henry James once said, "Everything about Florence seems to be colored with mild violet, like diluted wine." Quite right.

We spent the next day in an indolent splendor – lazing by the Castello’s pool, nursing beers and snoozing. As the sun set over the hills, we dawdled over to Dave’s for a dinner prepared by Mrs. Reali. Swiss by birth, Cornelia Reali always struck me as a pan-European par excellence. She speaks four languages – German, French, Italian and English – and is incredibly knowledgeable on a plethora of topics; an amazing person to have a conversation with. Her spread reflected this diversity – Swiss rösti, Italian bistecca, insalata mista, Salsiccia Toscana...all washed down with a delicious Super Tuscan. Ivano, for his part, scurried back and forth between the table and the television so as not to miss Inter Milan trounce Bayern in the Champion’s League final. Italians love their football.

Back in Florence later, our night mirrored the previous: wine, Dante and shenanigans.

That Sunday morning, although Dave and I barely got any sleep, we arose at the crack of dawn, climbed into the back seat of Ivano’s car and headed out towards the Emilia-Romagna region. Our destination: the confirmation of Dave’s first cousin once removed. As if it needs to be said, family is the central component of Italian society; it is its life force, a natural element. "In Italy, family is just more important," Ivano said to me almost rhetorically. Once we arrived, I awoke from my backseat nap and was promptly introduced to Ivano’s father, the 88-year-old Antonio Reali. Short, stout and spry on his feet, nonno Reali is an Italian of the old guard. Outgoing and garrulous, he possesses an endearing machismo, expressed through frequent chest beating. Despite being informed of my lackluster Italian, he engaged me enthusiastically and with genuine interest; I reciprocated as much as I could.

What followed was unforgettable. The feast was located in the hills, inside a rustic, stone structure probably used as a farmhouse a hundred years ago. The dining room was already packed with extended family; I took my seat and soaked it in. It was harmonious chaos – plates being filled with pasta by determined young waitresses, grandmas an aunts policing up rambunctious kids, men yelling gleefully at each other from other tables – this was Italy.

The meal itself was profligacy defined – antipasti, 2 pasta courses, 3 meat courses, salad, desert and bottomless carafes of dry vino di tavola. At some point during the scaloppina I had to throw in the towel. Again rescinding to fly-on-the-wall status, I noticed that it was unusual to see someone not fully animated – it was as if so much spirit was jammed inside each and every person, they had to move, talk and touch to get some release. Food was often left on its plate to steam – there was conversing to be done. Trite social convention seemed to be abandoned in favor of real emotion.

Walking laboriously in the hills afterward, I was struck by the divergent beauty of Emilia-Romagna in relation to Tuscany. While not as iconic or grandiose, it possessed a deep and subtle magnificence, and a more rural, more grassroots romanticism. We eventually returned to Antonio Reali’s town, Sarsina, for some relaxing in the village’s small piazza. At an outdoor caffè-gelateria, the adults talked while the kids played in the square. The brilliant simplicity of this life captivated me; it was almost whimsical.

When it came time to leave, I found Antonio Reali and told him in Italian, "thank you for everything, it was great to meet you." His reply? He grabbed my shoulders paternally and looked me dead in the eyes, "You thank me for nothing. You’re David’s best friend? Then you’re like family to me." I almost started crying.

Monday morning we arose and drove over to the Castello – I was getting the grand tour. We sat in Cornelia’s office sipping Birra Moretti until Ivano picked us up. The Castello itself dates back to the 12th Century and was a frontier post between the warring nation-states of Florence and Siena during the Renaissance. Oh, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the swashbuckling hero of the Risorgimento, spent a night there. It is amazing that places like this remain preserved; but Tuscans are very aware of the value of their history. Today, Florence is considered by many to be the only perfectly preserved Renaissance city left. The unfettered romanticism that exists would be destroyed by change.

Most of the Chianti region is (predictably) covered in vineyards – Sangiovese being the principle varietal. Legendary Tuscan wines like Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montapulciano and Brunello di Montalcino are all Sangiovese. Touring the cellars and fermentation sites, Ivano explained to me all the intricacies of winemaking, displaying a genuine passion and an innate attention to detail. Considering the amalgamation of modern techniques with traditional methods, many wonder whether winemaking is a science or an art; I’m convinced it’s both.

Later on we did some tasting. Highlights? The rosé, which trumped even my Provençal favorites; the Chianti Classico Riserva (the Rolls-Royce of 100% Sangiovese); and the Alleanza, a complex Super Tuscan that’s balanced, silky and absolutely delectable. I extracted my credit card and departed with several cases.

Our final evening, we rendezvoused with Elisa by Piazza Santo Spirito on the Ottrarno, the more "Italian" side of the Arno. We convened with Ivano and Cornelia at a kitschy pizzeria with a flamboyantly ornate but romantic ambience, strings of lights, large ceramic angels, seashell shadowboxes, the works. We devoured plates of calamari fritti and pizza – there’s no pizza like Italian pizza – sipped beer and acqua frizzante, and talked.

One last bout of debauchery in the center followed. Slugging wine, we enjoyed the kind of humor only we would understand – international school kids live in their own world, always. Carlo Brofferio stumbled upon us, and in a characteristic display of impulsiveness, decided to tag along to Vienna, about 5 hours before we planned to set out. The night came to an end; satisfied but somber, we walked the blue-eyed Elisa home, made plans with Carlo, and went back to catch some Z’s.

Up early, we loaded the car with cases of vino and other Tuscan delicacies, gave many thanks to Ivano and Cornelia, stocked up on Red Bull and cigarettes, picked up the youthful Carlo and hit the Autostrada, direction Bologna. Blasting good tunes and laughing uncontrollably most of the way (Carlo being a welcome edition to the hilarity), I still found time to reflect on why I keep going to that place: the passionate indulgence of the simplest – and best – things in life – food, wine, love, family and friends. What more could anyone want?

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