June 29, 2010

Uscio e Bottega.

Uscio e Bottega: A Glimpse into a Florentine Café.

On a rainy day in May,
I stepped into Cibreo Café
after eating at the Teatro
with friends from Santa Fe.
There was nothing more for me to eat and nothing more that I could drink. But I could not pass by Cibreo without un salutino. The café is a world of its own, a vortex that draws me like a favorite chair.
I come home to myself just by stepping in the door. The barman and waiter are standing in the doorway discussing politics, something close to religion here. They greet me kindly to come in.
“Un caffe? Un te? Cosa voi?” Isidoro asks.
“Niente. Grazie,” I say.
I'm too full to consume anything. I just want to stand here for a minute, soaking up its familiarity. I often visit in the afternoon, when there are hardly any customers, to sit and write, read or talk to a friend. But today I am simply passing.

Isidoro says, “Questo posto e un uscio e bottega.” Uscio e Bottega, a Florentine expression for “home away from home.” E come casa: like home, but also a place of business. He says cafés were originally conceived as places where people could relax, read the paper, drink a coffee and have a taste of something. They were made to be places of belonging outside of the house, in community, where passing a few hours, conversations about politics, children, the weather, was the norm.
“Now,” he says, “people hardly have time to stop. They are in a rush. No time to stop and talk, much less savor a taste.” Dreadful, I think. Surely it’s our (fast-paced American) fault. Do we all want such a place to go? Or just certain types of people?

Cibreo's interior is lined with dark wooden wainscot half-way up the walls, with butter yellow paint to the ceiling, which is unusually carved with dark wood protuberances and flecks of gold. The floor is chestnut and looks like it’s been there for centuries. It creaks when you walk on it. All doors, windows and wood slabs were recycled from churches and villas from the surrounding country- side. The café looks and feels like it’s been there 100 years, but really only 30.

Small round tables are covered in cream-colored cloths. Fresh yellow daisies grace a vase on each. Red velvet theater chairs, whose seats go up and down, offer an inviting touch of elegance. I sink into a chair and become a hedonistic phlegmatic, not wanting to move but to sit and sip and chew, complacent and happy,  steady as a tree trunk, drunk on the ecstasy of that moment.

 From where I sit, each arriving customer begs study, whether morning, noon, afternoon or night.

The cappuccini and caffé latté contain the perfect balance between milk and coffee. Coffee is tapped just so in the bowl, pressed with the right amount of force for the right amount of seconds, then hooked into the machine. The crema comes out perfetta, milk steamed just so for the consistency of foam. These things are not as simple as they sound.

I can't really drink coffee. I love it, but it doesn't love me. I don't miss it until I am in the cafe and notice Isidoro’s modo di fare. His way of making it.

Standing in Cibreo's doorway, a flood of memories come. I am reminded of how many meals I have eaten here. How many times I've heard the menu read to me, out loud like poetry, though I already knew each dish by heart.
"Crème of yellow pepper soup"
"Zuppa di pepperoni gialla… "
"La Polenta cremosa con burro sfuso e Parmigiano Reggiano sopra”
“La Parmigiana”
"Zuppa di pesce piccante”
“Baccala monticato”
"polpettine con una salsa Livornese”
"Salsiccia e fagioli”
“Budino di cioccolato”
“Baverese con salsa di fraggole.”
I can taste these dishes in my mind. How many sunny seasons have I sat outside, watching the chefs move back and forth from restaurant to café and now to the Theater? How many cool days have I sat inside with a glass of red wine over a heated conversation? With or without company, I am happy to sit, often staring out the window to the striped awning across the street, "Ristorante Cibreo da 1986. Via del Andrea Verrocchio, 11."

No matter how it’s framed, from the doorway, or the window, this awning appears to me as a sign of affection. No lover has lasted as long or won my affection as deeply. An alignment of the senses are arranged and balanced. It resonates as a temple, not of worship, but something closer to simple human aesthetic satisfaction.

I’ve been coming to this door for 18 years. I remember old entrances, old kitchens, old personnel. And Franca, the female rock of Cibreo.

Franca had a funny way of welcoming, but welcome she did. “Oh Peggy! where have you been? In Portugal dancing with the King?” She was a chiacherone—someone who talked constantly, greeting everyone who came through the door, often with nicknames. Regulars like “Chamomila,” the short, round, bald man, well-dressed with a sweater thrown just-so around his neck, who stopped by for a martini every day at 10 am. Franca reminded me of the timeless barmaids of yore. Tightly dressed, hair coiffed, with perfect makeup.

From her pulpit bar, Franca spouted Florentine philosophy in her Fiorentino accent, orchestrated caffé, cappuccini, martinis, bicchiere di vini, panini, biscottini, all the while joking with everyone and keeping the barman on his toes. We loved her for it. In a way, she was un punto di referimento, a point of reference, not only for the people of the neighborhood, but for the family who worked at Cibreo.

Her sudden passing at 63 was shocking. Franca was not well, but we didn’t realize how unwell. She orchestrated even her own demise. We lost her to the Arno River. Her comedy in the end; a tragedy.

Josef, the handsome Marochino, dresses always in a suit, pumped to perfection. A bright and cheerful fellow, he can relate to anyone and make them feel comfortable. Girls and women of all ages swoon, a hug and kiss follows, and he never forgets a name.

Umi, the slight Japanese woman with the wide smile. Abrazac, the Moroccan pasticiera (pastry chef), whose consistency in holding the note for the beloved dolce is still alive and well.

Alfonso, who’s charming Pugliese curls and mysterious demeanor has graced the grounds for half his life. He knows what you need before you do, having a 6th sense for most things, especially reading people. He once put a tiny sliver of flour-less chocolate cake in front me before the thought fully escaped my mind.

And then, there is Fabio Picchi.  The mastermind and chef owner of it all. He's a character bigger than life, a Marx look alike and a Socialist to boot. No detail goes un-seen in his kitchens. There is little time to waste on mediocrity.

Fabio falls in love with everything he sees, reads and tastes or...doesn’t. If he does, he uses the kindest touch to bring whatever it may be alive with affection. The restaurant, the trattoria and the café are like his grown children. The newest addition to his domain, the Teatro del Sale, is his newest love, which he built for his wife, comic actress Maria Cassi. This is where you will find him, yelling out the upcoming dishes for the buffet from the kitchen window. Unless you are up at six in the morning at the market, or catch a glimpse of him making his triangle rounds between restaurant, café and Teatro. If you look carefully, you may also see his heir apparent, Giulio, one of his grown sons cut from the same artistic cloth, wielding a clever smile like Prince Charming's, cutting straight to the heart.

The café is a place for the amuse buche, Something to amuse the palate. Throughout different times of the day, there are delectable things to choose from, like, the doughnut called Frate, first made by monks and perfected by Abrazac. Their cake-like consistency holds up
beautifully to be "dipped" not "dunked" into the consummate cappuccino. The panini, some so small they look the size of an egg, cut in half with butter and anchovies. Schiacciata so thin
you can’t imagine how anyone cut it to lay a slice of mortadella in between.

 Whatever your fancy, you can find it here.

A trip to Florence is not complete without a
visit to Cibreo~ where the center of the universe is delicious in every way.  There you will find your 'uscio a bottega'~ your "home away from home" in a bustling Renaissance city.

Experience Cibreo and Florence with Peggy on her 'La Cucina al Focolare' cooking program in Tuscany.

June 2, 2010

Ferrierola, Spain. Day Two: Olives, Artisans, Mountain Goats.

The next days were steeped in the tasting of local cheeses, dried figs, and custards.

We met Francisco Lillo who owns a bottega called ‘La Oliva’ and from there, our tasting continued. It was a full-on immersion into the soul of Pedro Ximenez, (worth smuggling into Spain in the duffle of a soldier by that name) and other sultry, full-bodied sherries. We found a Pedro we loved and mixed it with pomegranate juice and sparkling water, christening it an “Obamalini” to celebrate Obama’s recent victory back home. We also became familiar with the wines from the Priorat, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero.

Spain. Famous for jamon, the cured hams; Bocorones, fried anochovies; Paella, the national dish of rice, shrimp, sausage and spice and ciocalato con churros; hot chocolate with a fried dough, not unlike a doughnut.
Every region has a different rendition, if you are lucky the best will be the one you are eating at that moment.

Visiting Grenada with Francisco was particularly interesting. It was a slow walk-back through history that ended at the Alhambra. The exquisite Moorish palace—completely self-sufficient in it’s day, with schools, bakeries, gardens and unbelievably talented artisans.

From Grenada we traveled to an olive-oil tasting near Cordoba. I have lived in Italy for 18 years, and I have never seen as many olive trees in my life. They went on for miles, as far as I could see, on both sides of the road. That night we ate in the famous Bottegas Campos, Francisco’s favorite. Uncharacteristically, I cannot tell you what I ate, or drank. My attention was more absorbed by the restaurant’s atmosphere. Old Spain, and well-preserved.

It was late afternoon when we arrived back in Ferrirola. I immediately took a sojourn to the spring that 'giveth agua gassata naturale', for a restorative drink. This water was curing something in me. Perhaps a deep lack of minerals? Surely, a taste of something pure.

On my way back to Casa Ana, I stood out on the promontory of the ''era' to tune myself to the view. I closed my eyes in gratitude, to stand on such ancient ground. The faint sound of bells slowly grew closer. I looked in that direction and saw sheep, swift and sure-footed, pouring white like milk down the hill into the gulley below where I was standing. Soon came the shepherd and his dog.

They were headed to an open green field to graze. It was an everyday affair.

There are habits of rural life that have a soothing effect on the nerves. I wanted to camp there for days, to give myself a refreshing tune-up. To remember what it’s like to rise with the sun and grow sleepy when it’s dark. To feel the hours of the day without rushing, to take in the subtle sounds we usually miss and see details we don’t stop long enough to see. It was a place of deep communion.

The night was coming. I had just enough light to walk back to the house. I left the era reluctantly. But supper called. Kim was at it again: chicken with saffron, almond-olive oil cake with kumquats and tangerines.

I do not know Spain well, but I have the first blush. I think we’re going to
get along just fine.

Ferrierola, Spain. Day One: Hidden Tiled Fountains, Fruit Orchards, Chestnut Soup.

We pulled into Ferrierola at night, to a lovely Kurdish supper of cumin-scented yellow dahl with lemon. Hirsh, a neighboring cook, had provided a warm welcome.

The October air was cool and thin. After eating, we snuggled into our sweet beds for sleep, feeling like we had arrived at the end of a pilgrimage.

We had traveled from the luscious Costa del Sole, our bellies full of bocorones frittos, a last stop on the beach before winding our way up to the fairy-like Ferrirola, in the Los Alpujarras, that wondrous range just south of the Sierra Nevadas. Arriving at sunset, the valley dropped and whitewashed villages lit the mountainside pink. Snow was not a distant background.

The next morning, I woke in sun-drenched familiarity. The Alpojarras are not unlike the high Atlas mountains of Morocco. Andalucia was heavily settled and influenced by the Moors, originating from Morocco. They developed agricultural systems and pathways for herding sheep, planted olive trees and built villages in southern Spain similar to those across the Gibraltar.

Morocco had been familiar to me for almost nine years, but Spain was a new adventure. Kim Schiffer, long time friend, traveling companion and an extraordinary cook from Santa Barbara, invited me to join her in Andalucia, to discover the foods of the region. Casa Ana, where we woke that morning, is a sweet mountain retreat restored by Anne Hunt, a Londoner who arrived in Ferrierola seven years before and never left. It took her years to restore the rubble that started as an old horno, or bakery. Now it’s a hearty guesthouse to pass a few days away from it all.

After breakfast, we walked down the path that began just footsteps from our village. We passed fruit orchards, olive and fig trees and grazing pastures before stumbling on a beautifully tiled fountain, begging us to drink. I bent my head for a nice long slug, the spring water was—frizzante!—hitting my grateful, thirsty lips. Kim smiled, “Isn’t it fantastic?”

We walked on to another spring pouring through the moss, just as delicious, but plain. We foraged for chestnuts to make soup, picking them carefully from the ground with our bare hands, putting them into our skirts to carry back to the kitchen.