By Keli Sim-DeRitis
Visiting my husband’s distant cousins in Arezzo has become a tradition on our Italian buying trips. Arezzo is a wonderful town situated on the northeastern corner of the Chianti region of Tuscany. It is noted for its antique fair which takes place the weekend including the first Sunday of every month and for being home to Giorgio Vasari the Renaissance architect and author who wrote The Lives of the Artists which is probably the most important art history book ever written. Arezzo is not hugely populated by tourists and we enjoy strolling through the shopping district with its abundance of gourmet and linen shops.
The house was the charming square structure so typical in Tuscany, its ochre-colored stucco walls topped with Mediterranean-signature red tile roof. Sage-colored shutters framed the tall narrow windows paned with antique glass. We later learned that the house was over 600 years old.
We were greeted at the door by La Cugina’s friend, Bella, and shown into a beautiful sitting room. A large fireplace flanked by decorative mirrors dominated the room and an ornate Venetian glass chandelier illuminated the slightly faded frescos which covered the other three walls. The room seemed suspended in time, furnished with period chaises and tables in soft colors of coral and sage. Bella said she had to change for dinner and she led us up an ancient staircase to the master bedroom. We visited with her while she stripped without shame and dressed in her evening clothes–I have always envied the way Europeans are so comfortable with their bodies. As she was dressing she chatted away with La Cugina in rapid Italian. We were told not to worry because at dinner we would be joined by their friend who was a teacher at the American school and spoke perfect English. We understood enough to learn that the house was indeed owned by a genuine Italian count, who was also an aspiring chef and his dream was to turn his country villa into a restaurant. In preparation for this goal he began cooking for his friends every Saturday night. The word had spread and now he charged a small amount for patrons to attend his “practice” dinners. Our mouths were watering in anticipation of a great Italian meal cooked by an Italian nobleman in this lovely home.
Eventually we were taken to the dining room and introduced to “Il Conte,” a casually-dressed, mildly handsome man with salt & pepper hair. He may have been of noble lineage, but he looked just as ordinary as someone you might meet in line at Starbuck’s on a Saturday morning. He invited us to be seated at a gigantic square table situated beside a walk-in fireplace decorated with “Il Conte’s” family crest. Portraits of his austere ancestors stared down at us as we were welcomed by our fellow diners. They included a man who worked for the equivalent of the Italian I.R.S., his wife who was “a clerk,” a psychotherapist and her husband, who she told us was a podiatrist, and the teacher at the American school.
“Il Conte” set the table with an array of Italian ceramic platters painted with the “Raffaellesco” design. The beautiful plates were filled with crostini topped with herb butter, walnut pesto, tomatoes, and boiled egg with tuna. The wine was passed around and the count explained the recipe for each of the crostini toppings. As we ate the teacher from the American school translated the dinner conversation and she frankly explained that Bella was “Il Conte’s” weekend mistress–he lived with his family during the week and stayed with Bella in Arezzo on the weekends. This was indeed an interesting evening.
We turned our attention to the “primi” (first course) which consisted of two different pastas, one with mushroom cream sauce and another with marinara. The “secondi” (second course) was baccala a traditional dish of salt cod baked with olive oil and spices. I had heard of this speciality, but had never tried it and I found I enjoyed it much more than I would have thought. As we were eating, the psychotherapist began a very animated and entertaining description of the cod fish complete with wild Italian gesticulation and facial contortions. Baccala she ranted was a “brutta” (ugly), stupid, bottom-dwelling, garbage-eating fish with huge bulging eyes. I nudged my partner, Michelle–whose last name is “Codd,” and we started giggling. With tears streaming we tried to explain that the “ugly, stupid, bottom-dwelling, garbage-eating fish with huge bulging eyes” was also Michelle’s last name. The psychotherapist sputtered and stammered and turned red with embarrassment.
“Mi dispiace, mi dispiace (sorry, sorry)!” Everyone joined in on the joke and Michelle’s nickname of “Baccala” has stuck.
We enjoyed our dessert of torta della nonna and, after numerous “complimenti” to the chef, “Il Conte” took us on a tour of his extensive wine cellar. As we were getting ready to leave we were chatting with the “Podiatrist” when Michelle, never one to be shy, slipped her foot out of her shoe and stuck it in his direction pointing at her big toe, “What do you think, is this a bunion?” He looked startled, backed away and frowned at me as if to ask, “What the hell is she doing?”
“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.
Michelle replied, “His wife told us he was a podiatrist, I want him to look at my foot.”
The man laughed and shook his head, “No, no I’m a pedigogista, a physical therapist of the pelvic floor.”
Michelle sheepishly slipped her foot back into her shoe. The pedigogista handed me his business card which featured a logo of an old-fashioned sink faucet tied into a knot.
I showed Michelle and she said, “Oh no, now I have to go to the bathroom!”