We were seated on a long table out in the garden, an exquisite vintage blue and white ceramic plate across from each of us, and the sun straining through a half-arch vine of greens above us.
From where my husband and I were seated, we could see the hill-like garden of Villa Galleotti, sprinkled neatly with patches of pomodoro, basilico (basil), oliva (olives), and more.
We’d been gorging the smell of Giulia’s cooking from the kitchen for hours. It was as if we were held in a stupor. Every second in that historic house, we were anticipating the food, the vino (wine), and the delighted-almost-incredulous smile we each would share at the table.
My husband filled his plate with ravioli for his primo piatto (first plate), and was swiftly reaching for the focaccia platter when Giulia, in an uncharacteristically raised voice, couldn’t be quicker in saying “Nooo!” If she were near enough, I imagine she would have slapped his hand away.
Everyone laughed, and Alberto, Giulia’s son and my cousin’s husband, explained that Italians never add a “side” or a contorni to their pasta. Gracious, it is a sin!
Still laughing, we apologized for our ignorance. I laughingly explained how Filipinos like me would at times pile up a mountain of food on our plates during buffet dining, and how Americans would stack fries and sides with almost anything on their plates.
Right there, in the midst of our chuckling remorse, I seemed to have ruptured with love for Italian food like never before.
Nicola Williams of Lonely Planet, writes “No land is more caught up with the fruits of its fertile earth than Tuscany, a gourmet destination whose residents spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, discussing and consuming food and wine.”
My cousin, Astrid, shared tales of her first experiences in Licciana Nardi at the Tuscan region. “Three hours!,” she exclaimed. “Everyone was still eating and seated at the table after three hours!”
Al fresco dining at Villa Galleotti (Photos courtesy of Astrid Castro-Mornelli)
Astrid and Alberto took us to Ristorante Villa Brignole on our first night in Tuscany. We already had a delicious platter of aperitivos and vino prepared by Renzo and Giulia in the house, then a few hours later, we experienced the aperitivo degustation of our lives.
A degustation of appetizers? Si. In the past, I had five to about nine courses of meals under tasting menus, and I happily survived a number of Chinese lauriats, mostly in Cebu weddings of dear Filipino-Chinese friends.
The aperitivo degustation is something else. What struck me the most, aside from not being able to count the small plates that descended on me (and were not too long demolished), was the simplicity of each dish.
To a diner expecting fancy gourmet plating and the burst of strong flavors, Tuscan food will appear unimpressive.
Tuscan food is neither elaborate nor fancy. Quite simply, because it need not be.
Tuscan cuisine is unique to its region, and it is all about simple ingredients straight from the gardens out back, fresh picks from the community store, and the wines delivered by the neighbors.
Oh, the wines! Coming from wine-tasting in Bordeaux and Provence, we felt more inadequate in our wine knowledge after tasting the down-to-earth Tuscan wines. Get a vino della casa (house wine) from any restaurant in Tuscany and you will taste the full-bodied minimalism (which may sound contradicting) of this region’s wines.
Renzo knows his wines well. My husband Cory and I were seeming spectators, participants, and students as he proudly poured from each bottle—a connoisseur from a lifetime of eccelente wines.
As my husband and I ran along the river at Licciana Nardi, it was easy to see the sustainably easy lifestyle of its locals. We ran past terraced vineyards stretched at the back of quiet homes. There were herb gardens looking out to gentle golden landscapes of mountains, more vineyards and olive groves.
We ran past a small cobbled street, out to a tree-lined road with spacious sidewalks, and the locals were seated with friends, enjoying an espresso together in the early hours of the day.
At certain times that we would look to the mountains curved softly and continuously in every horizon, we would see castellos (castles) dappled in sunlight and unassuming splendor.
Reaching home, Villa Galleotti, was always a treat: a long well-maintained bush-pillared driveway goes up to a picturesque grand old Italian villa. Hydrangeas blossomed robustly and the lawns front and back were expansive, hosts to tended plants of vegetables, fruits, and more flowers. The house itself is filled with antiques, paintings, and photos from a century of the Galleotti and Mornelli families.
This trip has not been about going the touristy routes of Italy, and crowding with thousands for cliché photos.
Any soul grounded to the simple glory of our earth will fall in love with Tuscany.
This one trip is particularly about the heart and warmth of an Italian family loudly beaming Buongiorno!, their devotion in hours of making delicioso handmade ravioli, their pride about their gardens and wines, and the unparalleled delight in their eyes when you fall in love with their food, and wanted more.
Our hearts are still in Licciana Nardi.
(Big thanks to the Mornelli family for giving us an unforgettable experience.)