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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 9 of 16: One Good Fish, Donatello, and That Fiery Maria Callas

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The Basilica at sunset

It had finally come to the last full day and night in Florence; at just past four in the afternoon the church bells were ringing. The church bells in Florence seemed staggered; I would hear one set at a quarter to the hour, another at the top of the hour, and more at a quarter past. Santa Croce’s rang at a quarter past; I could never tire of hearing them. I have enjoyed this city more than I can adequately put into words. No doubt, because of our great apartment, in a great location, in a great neighborhood. But even more than that, it was due to the Florentines themselves; despite their reputation of being snippy and fed up with tourists, they had been nothing but kind, even sweet.

Today, we went to the Mercato Centrale to shop for our final dinner in the apartment. On the way, we stopped at the San Lorenzo merchant stalls and bought some gifts for ourselves, our friends and family; Mom bought a silver ring that would expand to accommodate her arthritic fingers, and I found a fluffy, cozy scarf to help me brave the icy winter winds in New York. In the vast Mercato, we browsed the entire first floor before settling in to buy our provisions. I selected some mozzarella di bufala for our tomato salad that night, and brilliant green spinach to sauté with garlic. Mom purchased some dried porcini, so much cheaper here than in the States, which were kindly vacuum packed for her suitcase. We then followed our noses to the fishmongers. I selected a whole Orata big enough for the two of us, to stuff with aromatics and serve with roasted potatoes. It would be a fine last dinner.

After we taxied back to Santa Croce, I made some pasta for lunch, and then dashed out to see the Museo di Bargello before it closed for day. The Bargello used to be a prison, where some were tortured for crimes against the Medici. Now, it houses the finest collection of Tuscan Renaissance sculpture in all of Italy. The works by Donatello are particularly exciting to see, his bronze David is much more approachable than Michelangelo’s, with his perky hat and slightly effeminate stance. There are more treasures at the Bargello than one might think for such a small museum, there is an entire room of hand-painted Tuscan and Venetian ceramics from the 16th and 17th century, still in such good shape you would think they were in a modern shop window. I only had an hour there before the bells sounded, asking visitors to leave. I must visit the Bargello again. Next trip, I told myself.

On the way back, I stopped at Vivoli’s for gelato. I found the winner there, it was the best of what I sampled in Florence; the fragoline di bosco flavor was out of this world, and their hazelnut was the perfect accompaniment. The sun was starting to set; I hurried back to stuff my fish and use those awful apartment knives for the last time.

Back at the apartment, I poured myself a glass of wine in the kitchen. The orata had been cleaned and scaled, and was incredibly fresh. I stuffed it with herbs, lemon slices and whole garlic cloves. I roasted it on top of a bed of sliced fennel; the carrots and potato slices would roast perfectly on the sides of the pan; everything was doused with the oil I bought in Castellina. I slid it into the oven to roast, and opened the kitchen window to a beautiful Florentine night. The moon was 3/4 full and rising over the hill, where I could clearly see the church of San Miniato al Monte, brilliantly lit like a star. I sautéed the spinach with garlic, oil and a touch of red pepper, and sliced the last of our luscious, ripe tomatoes from Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, layering them with slices of the mozzarella di bufala. Was I really leaving tomorrow? How was this possible, since I was in my own kitchen, preparing my own food? It was easy to let my imagination run amok with enough wine. The fish came out perfectly; sweet, snowy-white and tender. Orata is very easy to filet and remove from the bone; I highly recommend it for roasting whole. The final touch was an anointing of more new oil, then we feasted. I daresay it was the best meal yet in Italy.

Mom was excited to tell me that she had seen an advertisement for an Italian made-for-TV movie based on the love affair between Ari Onassis and Maria Callas. My mother was a huge fan of Maria Callas; I remember listening to her Callas albums on our old record player on Sunday afternoons. So, after the dinner dishes were done, we settled in for a good movie. Mom understood everything, translating for me all the while; I was surprised at how engrossing it was. As I sat there, thinking of our excellent dinner and our week in Florence, I almost wanted to cry; I want to spend thousands of nights like this with my mother, and I can’t help but realize how many of them I have already squandered. How many more did I have left? I went to bed that night somehow changed; I now know that I learned much about who I was and what I wanted on this slow, slow trip to Italy with my Mom.

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