This is one of those books that I just love, in which several stories tie together a myriad of characters who interweave throughout each other’s tales, with one minor character in one story becoming the major player in another…and the best part? It’s set in another one of my favorite cities in the world – Florence, Italy. Or more correctly, Firenze, as it is properly pronounced in Italian. And being set in Italy, you just know there are going to be marvelous descriptions of architecture, art, landscapes, and food.
When In Florence starts off with the tale of an old Italian gentleman picturesquely named Guido Iannotti, dropping dead in the street one morning, and his spirit leaving his body and traveling throughout Florence; proceeds to the story of one of the men who saw him die; and goes on from there. Professors and their erstwhile students; young American women seeking love and independence; a little boy with Down’s Syndrome who turns out to be the best Italian linguist ever; a priest asked to give benediction to an incestuous brother and sister; a diseased German tourist seeking further sin; a young woman who is raped and left for dead but whose recovery uncovers a family secret and self-redemption, a dying father and his last wish to his daughter; another father seeking cooking fame and his daughter who befriends a most unexpected new ally. All of these tales are so magically written and woven together that you feel transported to Florence herself.
I was fortunate to spend some time in Florence a few years ago during my amazing trip to Italy and England, and I think what made me fall in love with this book again was rereading it and realizing I had actually visited many of the locations woven throughout the interconnected tales. We spent several marvelous hours at the Uffizi, and I still remember the sheer sensory overload of sitting in the Botticelli wing, in the large gallery which his two masterpieces – The Birth of Venus and La Primavera – as well as numerous smaller works, and the marvelous Portinari triptych by Hugo van der Goes, and being just literally unable to process one more beautiful visual. It was like the equivalent of sitting down to a 12-course gourmet meal and halfway through being unable to eat one more bite, even though you want to keep going.
Reading this book is much like that, being overwhelmed with the sensory beauty of Cortez Day’s prose. The shade of yellow jonquils is as wonderfully described as is the gorgeousness of the Italian language, the picturesque nature of the buildings, the color of the light on the stones of Il Duomo, the gleam of Ghiberti’s famous bronze Gates of Paradise, the pleasures of drinking wine and eating pasta……all of it is just so lovely and lyrical, like Florence herself. The interconnected tales take one character who is marginal in one story and make him or her the star of the show in another. It’s a bit like connecting puzzle pieces. You want to go back and find that character in the preceding tale and see their role in that character’s tale, and then go forward to see if any other earlier characters are humming around the perimeter.
I had three favorite short tales in this collection of 15 stories. My first favorite is Men Are Like Children, Like The Beasts; my second favorite was First Love; and my third favorite is Memory. I think I love the first two so much because they are, at their hearts, stories about the bond and love between fathers and daughters. Re-reading this after Father’s Day has made me remember many happy times with my own dad, who died when I was 15, and whose loss has been the deepest scar on my heart. I wonder what my life would have been like had he still been part of it as an adult, and though I’ve heard many times that you can’t miss something you never had, it’s not true. I miss so much the father-daughter relationship that we had and what it could have been as time went on.
The story titled Memory I loved because it describes an afternoon of eating pasta and drinking wine in a way that reminded me of many afternoons whiled away doing just that when I was in Italy. There is just something so decadent and romantic about sitting at an outdoor cafe in Florence, eating a bowl of creamy pasta and drinking a glass of Valpolicella or Pinot Grigio while watching people pass by intent on their own business while you simply sit and enjoy having all of your senses fulfilled at once with the taste of the pasta on your tongue, the scent of the Parmigiano Reggiano wafting up to your nose, the sound of glasses clinking and other conversations, the sight of the mounds of tagliatelli in a dish before you, and the sensation of pleasure that all these elements bring. In fact, it was this particular passage in the story that inspired today’s dish.
They went downstairs into a large, vaulted cellar whose walls were papered with posters from the world over. The headwaiter led them to a table in a corner. “How totally romantic,.” She opened the menu and said, “I love Italian food – I want some of everything.” “Seafood antipasto?” he said. “Tagliatelli with carbonara sauce?”
Carbonara is one of those deceptively simple pasta sauces that rely on a handful of ingredients and require only stirring. However, there is an art to the sauce technique that you must master if you don’t want to end up with a bowlful of pasta scrambled eggs. Until recently, I always ended up with scrambled eggs, but between watching Italian culinary legend Antonio Carluccio’s YouTube video of his own carbonara technique, reading Gastronomy of Italy by other Italian culinary legend Anna del Conte, and the suggestions of the charming, handsome and intelligent food author Giovanni Franceschini, I finally have my technique mastered.
1 lb egg tagliatelli
3 large eggs, preferably organic (1 egg per person plus 1 egg yolk)
3 tablespoons good-quality garlic-infused olive oil
1 lb guanciale, cubed (or pancetta if you can’t get guanciale)
1/2 cup white wine
3-4 generous tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat a large pan of water to boiling, add some salt and boil your tagliatelli for roughly 6-8 minutes, and reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water.
While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and cook the guanciale until nicely brown on all sides and sizzling.
Lower the heat, remove the cooked guanciale chunks, and pour in the white wine to deglaze the pan, then let the wine bubble away until it reduces somewhat. You don’t want it super thick but definitely let it thicken up, so another 6-7 minutes of cooking.
Drain the pasta, and while still steaming hot, add it to the oil and wine in the pan, stir to mix well, then add the guanciale back to the pan as well.
While the pasta is cooling a bit, whisk together the two eggs and the one egg yolk in a bowl, and add the Parmesan cheese. Be as generous with the cheese as you would like. No one is going to judge you.
This is most important. While the pasta is still hot, slowly pour over the cheesy eggs and stir quickly so that the eggs glossily coat the pasta and guanciale and form a creamy sauce. Do not leave the heat on under the pan and in fact, I let my pasta cool for a good minute. Add in about 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water and stir again.
Plate as elegantly as possible and sprinkle a bit more Parmesan on top before devouring. Et voila! Tagliatelli alla carbonara, just as they make in Florence! Well, maybe not quite how they make it in Italy, but most definitely a loving homage to the original dish. It was a delicious dish and I feel quite proud of myself for not ending up with pasta scrambled eggs yet again. Go me!