Architecture of an Italian Meal / L’architettura di un Pasto Italiano

They say that two things are inevitable in life: death and taxes. Upon being rudely awakened by banging hammers and a concrete mixer, I’d like to submit a third: construction.

Padding to the window to find my favorite field guy –Blue Long-Sleeved Shirt, Khaki Pants– pounding away at the facade of la chiesa, mi chiedo, “Isn’t this supposed to be a dying city? What’s with all the racket?!”

Pointless to attempt falling asleep again, I was glad the crew ousted me from bed, otherwise I would have missed seeing the peach-colored clouds tinted by the rising sun. They were so striking, in fact, that I walked in my pajamas toward Mary of the Incarcerated to watch the clouds and fog pass each other in the valley.

Later, I realized that an early start didn’t translate to a more productive day as I made lunch, leisurely heating up anchovy pasta sauce with orrechiette, baptizing sliced cucumber with white wine vinegar and salt, and wrapping quartered figs with prosciutto — the quintessential summer Italian meal. Flavorful and, above all, simple.

Something about that concept knocked around my head all afternoon, as I continued to ask myself in different ways why life is so different here in Civita. Everything around me –the architecture, the pace, the food– spoke the same words: penetrating simplicity.

From the outside of Il Nuovo, one sees tufa stone, tile, wood and metal; from the inside, the palette is nearly identical, with the only difference being the stucco-covered walls. From entry and kitchen to bed and bath, the exposed stone and wood bring the house together in rustic but thoughtful forms while the stucco skin reveals untold character through a tapestry of natural imperfections bathed in white.

Above all, the design and the materials are simple. Honest. Real. The effect of this style of architecture is comparable to sensing each unique ingredient –and its ability to evoke the flavors of its counterparts– in an Italian dish.

Consider the food that Tony and I prepared last night in his well-apportioned yet simple kitchen: we chopped and sauteed onion in butter, added risotto and broth, then baked it for 20 minutes. While the pilaf cooked, we dredged little octopi in flour and fried them until their tiny suckered tendrils curled up into dark, crunchy spirals. The octopi were finished as the rice emerged from the oven; we layered rice at the bottom of a dish, placed the fried octopi on top and garnished with lemon wedges. Onion, butter, rice, broth, olive oil, octopi, flour, lemon. Simple.

Just as dark wood and tiled ceilings make stucco appear more clean and white, the lemon enhanced the rice and the oil brought out the salty sea flavor in the octopi.

The more intently I gazed through this lens of simplicity, the more I found its existence throughout Civita – from clothes that dry on the line to fresh eggs that require no refrigeration and the kindess that led to a complimentary espresso and anise biscotti delivered to me at Manuela’s insistence this afternoon. She spotted me sitting next to the Osteria d’Agnese writing notes and prendendo il sole for the few minutes it shined.

She offered coffee yesterday, which I didn’t take, but I get the sense that it’s wise to say yes when someone Italian –especially Manuela– insists twice. On such a blustery day, the osteria’s patio was empty at 2:30; she and her crew were in the process of cleaning up before the major thrust of the storm hit.

Bustling from table to table, her apron flying about her trim frame, Manuela had time to show me a photo of her son, ask how my work was going, direct the staff, tease me for not understanding the difference between her saying Tuscania and Toscana yesterday, and lavish this treat on me. The wind rushed about us, blowing the shamrock green napkins about as I tried to pick up her words, which she speaks troppo velocemente.

It occurred to me that food is the one place in Italian culture where the in-born concept of ‘every person for herself’ doesn’t ring true. In a small country divided by dialects, culture, traditions, north and south, politics, the mafia, and [seemingly] burdensome legal, governmental, and educational systems, food never fails to unify.

From Antonio’s gratis limoncello after lunch yesterday to the dinners Gaia and Bernardo cooked for me, food is the one thing that I’ve seen offered plainly, freely, and in abundance…all the time…sometimes when you’re not even hungry.

Paired with the delicious nature of the food itself is also the simple, tender enjoyment of being cared for without having to request it — especially in a time where we are conditioned not to expect anyone to look out for us, let alone attempt to guess what we might need.

I’m realizing that, when so many things can easily divide passionate people, it’s even more important to be generous with that which connects us, like the simple architecture of a delicious meal.

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