We stop the van for cigarettes. “Do you smoke?” asks Assuntina. “No,” I say, wishing I did so that I could join in the ritual of my new host. Her daughter Emma, looks back at me with her big, brown Disney eyes, and then hops out of the car and disappears into a convenience store. I had just arrived by train from Rome to the small, coastal town of Civitavecchia, where they picked me up to take me to their farmhouse and cooking school, Fontana del Papa, a half hour away.
The idea of spending three days chopping vegetables and rolling out dough with a charming Italian family seemed impossibly idyllic. But there I was – jet lagged but happy – in the van of a real Italian family on my way to a real Italian farm.
Emma jumps back in the van with her cigarettes and we take off down a two-lane country road that spirals endlessly into a rolling green landscape. After a half hour of listening to their rhythmic Italian from the back seat, Assuntina pulls the van up to a large, stone, Etruscan-style stone house surrounded by olive trees.
We’re home, I think, at least for three days.
A golden retriever runs up to me and barks. I’m afraid of dogs but this one has kind eyes. Emma tells me his name is Guglielmo. I try pronouncing it three times and then just say, “Hi, Puppy!”
I follow Assuntina through a giant wooden door into a room with a canopy bed, peach-colored walls, and a large oil painting. "This is your room," she says. The painting looks like a post-modern interpretation of a dream where characters blend with color, light, and emotion. I drop my bags and feel the chill of an old-fashioned stone house. This is country living. I unpack my things, layer up, and walk outside to the patio near the kitchen where it’s warm.
A barrel-chested man with dark eyes and a salt and pepper beard appears. “Claudio!” I call out. I recognized him from Fontana del Papa's web site. “You’re the wine guy." He smiles, looking bewildered at my excitement. "Yes." A family of white doves flutters around the patio. The primping birds with fan-like tails make the already charming scene impossibly perfect.
We stroll into the kitchen where an attractive blond in a green checked apron introduces herself as Adria. She's preparing a lunch of fresh asparagus and pasta. The asparagus spears, hand-picked from the garden, are propped up in a jar. “They’re so thin,” I say, amazed at their delicacy. Claudio selects a spear and hands it to me. “Try it,” he says. I bite into it and taste a peppery, bitter, bright flavor with a nice crunch. It tastes nothing like asparagus I’ve had in the United States. In fact, the flavor barely resembles the mild-tasting spears I purchase back home. These pack twice the flavor.
Assuntina, the humble, kind administrator of the family, rings a large bell in the kitchen that can be heard from all over the property. Emma and her lean, handsome older and younger brothers, Luca and Andrea, enter the sun-filled kitchen, grab a paper plate, and take a seat at the long wooden kitchen table. The muscled, sleeveless gardener named 'Stefano' follows their lead.
“What kind of wine would you like with lunch – red or white?” Claudio asks. I don’t normally drink wine at lunch but today was not normal. “White,” I say. He pulls out a grillo and begins to uncork it. Adria scoops rigatoni-style pasta onto each plate, giving me extra asparagus and bacon from the bottom of the bowl. “Yum, I love bacon,” I say. Claudio waves his finger. “No, it’s not bacon. We do not use bacon. This is pork cheek.”
Welcome to Italy, I think, pondering the difference between bacon and cured pork cheek, which I later discovered was called guanciale.
The conversation turned to wine and Claudio asks me how many grape varieties I can name. I barely name a handful, starting with “merlot and cabernet." “We have more than 300 in Italy,” he says, which is no surprise after my bacon epiphany. I take the last swig of grillo and wander back to my room where I fall into a deep sleep. When I wake a couple hours later, I feel refreshed and walk around the property. I find a rock covered with moss and sit on it for nearly an hour.
I feel the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze on my face and begin to notice the small things around me -- the ants on the rock, the individual blades of bright green grass, and the sturdy, gnarly, and wise looking branches of the olive trees. For the first time in a long time I feel like I am present.
Rested and happy, I head back to the house, ready to cook. Matilde Viozzi, the 60-year-old chef for that day from the nearby town of Tolfa, is already prepping in the kitchen. I enter, introduce myself, tie an apron around my waist, and start salting slices of eggplant for eggplant parmesan.
For the next three days, I make -- and eat -- everything from handmade fettuccine to involtini with my new Canadian friend and fellow guest, Kelly, and enjoy noticing all the tiny details that come with slow living.
This simple recipe, from Matilde, is one of my favorites and seemed to define the simplicity and goodness at Fontana del Papa.
8 skinless drumsticks
5 sprigs of fresh sage
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup red or white wine
With a meat cleaver, chop off the nubby ends of the drumsticks and then chop in half.
Add the drumsticks to about 1/2 cup water to a non-stick pan and cook on medium heat for about five minutes.
Meanwhile, in a wooden morter and pestle, pound the garlic, rosemary, and 1/4 cup of olive oil until it's chunky and pulpy. (Wooden morter and pestles allow you to pound and crush herbs better than marble ones).
Add the white wine vinegar.
Drain the water in the pan with the chicken and add 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the fresh sage. Stir the chicken around for the first few minutes so it doesn’t stick. Matilde really shakes up the chicken -- almost like a stir fry -- with two wooden spoons.
Continue cooking for about five minutes.
Add the rosemary mixture to the pan and let it simmer with the chicken for about five minutes. Add the wine (Matilde and Claudio like red wine in this recipe but I like white wine because it doesn't color the chicken and has a clean, crisp flavor). Let the wine and rosemary mixture simmer together until liquid is silky and chicken is cooked through.
Serve as a main course after pasta.
More from Fontana del Papa:
Assuntina and Claudio