Daily, I walk a two-mile stretch of narrow road in Tuscany. Lined by still-green fields of wheat, it shimmers like coal from heavy spring rains. Two hulking, shuttered stone farmhouses sit on its shoulder, stern-faced. The road curves, passes over a creek, and sidles through a cluster of homes where only once do I see anyone—three old men sit on a low wall, conversing. They stop and watch me walk by but do not greet me with the “Buon giorno” I hold ready on my tongue. Instead they stare, expressionless. When I’m past them, I exhale “Buon giorno” to myself to break the silence.
For 10 days, I am living in the second story of a farmhouse near the hill town of Bibbiena in the Tuscan countryside, far from tourist distractions, in the valley where Dante wandered in exile. When I asked the stoic old woman who owns the farm where to eat, she pointed down the stone driveway. Uncertain, I set out on the route. I’ve learned to dodge racing Fiats and make my peace with the need to plod through puddles to eat at ristorante Candolesi each day. The lone restaurant between the towns of Bibbiena and Poppi, it has become my midday pilgrimage.
“Un tavolo per uno,” I say carefully after I slip through the beaded curtain and enter the restaurant. I’ve practiced saying it the entire way, repeating it in cadence with my steps. The curtain dances and clicks behind me while the waiter eyes me over the wire-rimmed spectacles slipping down his nose.
“Una?” he says, unsmiling. I nod, and he gestures to the modest dining room of white stucco walls, wooden straight-backed chairs, and square tables filled solely with men. Nervously, I drop into a seat at the first empty table I see, feeling like the single orange poppy in the wheat field I passed along the road. I feign interest in the television screen, which is glowing with a racy commercial for chocolate. An older man with a shining pate sops up pasta sauce with a chunk of bread. A group of four young men erupt in laughter, their mouths full, their carafe of red wine empty on the table before them.
I’d thought I was experienced at dining alone. In New York, I’d never hesitate to sidle up to the bar of a notable restaurant solo to eat, think, and eavesdrop contentedly. Inevitably, the sommelier or a fellow barstool occupant would toss out a comment, kick-starting a conversation, and before long I’d be sampling the latest varietal by the glass and laughing.
I find myself expecting that same easy companionship in my Italian setting. But all heads are bent, eyes averted. Suddenly the waiter is behind me, saying what I can only guess is “Are you ready to order?” When I don’t reply, he sighs heavily, comes around to look me straight in the face, puts both hands on the table, and says, “Pasta?”
“Si,” I say, feeling like a first-grader, ashamed at being called out for special help.
“Tagliatelle, spaghetti, tortellini, ravioli….,” he blurts out, at the same pace American waiters use to list salad dressings—and with the same lack of enthusiasm. I grab the last word like a ball about to drop.
“Como?” he asks abruptly. How would you like it? His glasses magnify his green eyes, his face pinched below a cap of stringy brown hair. He holds his mouth in a near-smile and rests square, graying teeth on his lower lip, waiting for my reply.
Another cascading list, this time for sauces. I reach for the word I can catch.
“Basta?” he says with a grimace, sweeping his palms apart like a baseball umpire calling “Safe!”
Is that enough? As pasta is typically the second course, I wonder if I’m offending him by requesting only a single dish. He’s already leaning away from the table when I stammer, “Una insalata.”
“Verde?” Green salad?
“Verde,” I confirm. He lunges away.
The table is a still life in monochrome: white paper tablecloth, clear bottle of sparkling water, basket of pale bread. Low murmurings fill the dim room, and a chair scrapes across the tile floor. It feels like being in church. I wait only moments. As soon as my plate of ravioli in sage-butter sauce arrives, I scarf down four in a row, practically whole. When I realize how quickly these precious packets are disappearing, I put another one in my mouth and let the pleasant bitterness of the sage and the starchy folds of pasta linger. Then I sweep pieces of the unsalted Tuscan bread through the butter slicks on my plate, listening to the sounds of my own chewing. I am not accustomed to eating this alone.
That evening, I sit in my room, which is as spare as the monasteries that surround Bibbiena. Terra-cotta tile floors; thick, white plastered walls; and rustic wooden furniture—bed, nightstand, desk—exaggerate the chill from the bout of spring rainstorms. I study my Italian phrasebook, making a list of the things I wanted to say at lunch but couldn’t. Sono apena arrivata; I have just arrived. Parlo poco italiano; I speak a little Italian. But I need more language to have a better lunch. Quale sono dei cibos della regione?; What are the regional specialties? I repeat these phrases like vespers, whispers that fill my room. I go to bed early.
I leave the next day for lunch during a downpour. Winds blow the wheat first this way and then the other, like parted hair. I plod along the slick road to where it joins the busy commercial strip of shopping centers and gas stations that populate the route near the restaurant. The rush of a passing truck startles me with the splash from its tires, and I dash toward the restaurant’s door, doused.
“Buon giorno,” I say to the same waiter, who is wearing the same expression as the day before. I shake off my coat and ask for a menu in my practiced Italian, having decided that if he will not accommodate me with niceties, I will fend for myself. I cloister myself at a corner table, out of view of the television, so as to peek unobtrusively at the dark-haired diners. With hungry desperation, I read the menu, considering dozens of pastas and meats as well as antipasti, pizzas, and wines—all things I hadn’t known existed the day before. I read them over and over, line by line, turning the words over in my mouth: polenta con olio e pepe, tortelli di patate, fiori di zucca fritti.
The waiter approaches the table wordlessly. Respecting a cuisine renown for its frugality, I order the most humble dish, pasta e fagioli—pasta and beans—and wait with my hands folded in front of me on the table edge. I resist the temptation to reach in my bag and take out a book to ease my aloneness. My waiter returns right away with a bowlful of steaming cream-colored broth and a plate of large, irregularly cut croutons. He points to the bowl and then the croutons to mime how they’re to be put in my soup. I respond with my most polite “Grazie,” eager to encourage words from him. He nods, expressionless, and darts away.
I cup my hands around the white bowl and peer into it as if it were an oracle. Puddles of olive oil float on the surface and scatter when I drop in a crouton. I dredge thick-cut noodles from the bean-thickened broth with the large silver spoon. I sip, then chew, then experience salt, warmth, tenderness, crunch. The soothing soup carries the blunt taste of garlic, and I trace its path from my mouth down my throat. I eat with a focus I have rarely known, my whole self centered on the bowl, the broth, my belly. It’s only when I push the empty bowl away that I hear the dubbed American sitcom, notice that the room has nearly cleared, see that the rain outside has lightened.
With each day’s trip to the restaurant, I grow more absorbed in and more contented by the astounding experience of silently waiting for my food and then slowly eating it. I take a single bite of flaked tuna, oily black olives, and tomato cubes swimming in and around ridged tubes of pasta, then recline against the ladder-back chair while a chorus of flavors, deep and round, sings in my mouth. I look up and scan faces around the room, wanting to catch someone’s eye and share the knowing delight of this one bite. The middle-aged man in a suit stares at the television screen, chewing. A waitress and busboy talk in the corner, unseeing. I am left alone to savor. And in the absence of company and conversation, I am surprised to find pure enjoyment and peace in the act of eating.
And so it goes for the next week. I write fitfully at my small desk until 1 p.m., when I walk down the cobbled driveway that meets the road. I know how many steps it is to the empty farmhouse, that after the bend in the road where the bridge crosses the stream, I will set my course for the medieval castle tower in the hill town of Poppi. I arrive faithfully at Candolesi by 1:30 p.m. and slip into a corner table—my table—and sit reverently until my waiter materializes to take my order. Although I find it confounding that he never speaks to me, even as I become more fluent, I eat better each day from the menu of classic Tuscan peasant fare: pappa al pomodoro, pappardelle with ragù, potato gnocchi and porcini mushrooms, beef from an ancient breed of cream-colored Chianina cows kept in slant-roofed shelters.
I order an espresso after each meal, though my waiter does not offer it. When he balances the demitasse cup and saucer on the table, I say, “Could I please have some more sugar?” just in time before he’s gone. I tear the paper from the cigarette-shaped packet and watch it drown in the black pool. I empty the cup in four short sips, then I wipe my mouth, completed. Satiated.
At night, I write my catechism: Sono sola da dieci giorni; I am here alone for 10 days. I practice my tenses: voglio, volevo, mi voliogno; I want, I wanted, I will want. Through these evenings of study, I learn to use the conditional (vorrei; I would like), employ new vocabulary (non troppo cotto; not too well done), ask where the bread is baked (mi piace il pane—dove e la panificio di este pane?). I come to understand how the region’s monks, in their asceticism, may know more about the ecstasy of eating than I have ever known before. Then I sleep, my ear tuned to the rain drumming the terra-cotta roof.
On my last full day in the Casentino Valley, an exuberant young waiter hands me a menu with a “Buon giorno.” I crane into the kitchen to look for my terse and wiry waiter. This dashing one speaks to me in complete sentences, smiling broadly, and walks me through the entire menu, describing each dish. Compulsively, I over-order. Schiacciata, risotto alla milanesa, pollo alla gorgonzola, and a half-carafe of vino tinto. He keeps my wineglass filled and stops by to check in with each course. While the food is as good as ever, I am enjoying it less than before. A hip group of women at a neighboring table ask me where I’m from. I answer shyly, they compliment my Italian, and I wither in the attention. It is all too much, the profusion of plates and tastes, the chatter and the waiter’s gracious service.
The young waiter notices the amount of food left on the plates and gives me a concerned look.
“Tutto bene?” he asks.
I smile at him weakly. “Si.”
Uncomfortably full and ill at ease, I leave through the beaded curtain for the last time, into a Tuscany I don’t quite recognize. Sky, hills, and homes are a Technicolor of blue, green, and red. A young man mows a yard, looks up at me, and nods his head in greeting. As I climb the cobbled driveway, a tractor passes me, the driver waving. I walk up the stairs to my rooms and close the door, hungry to recapture the unexpected pleasures of my solitude.
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Photo © 2010 Evan Sung. All rights reserved.