Two nights ago, Marta (our big-hearted hostess / landlady) invited us to come over and have dinner with her the following night. "Just a little pasta," she said, adding that she had some gluten-free pasta for me.
Yesterday morning, she introduced us to Sue and Lucy, a beautiful mom-daughter duo who had just arrived from England. This was Lucy's 40th birthday trip, and the two of them were as lovely as their accents. We shared a ride to Lucca, learned a bit about them - and Marta told us that they would be joining us for dinner, later on.
As would Giada, Marta's right hand helper, and Giada's boyfriend Stefano.
I sensed a party coming on.
When we arrived at Marta's (about 15 steps from our own little spot) at 8 pm, I could tell already that Marta's idea of "just a pasta," was different than mine. If I invite you to come over and have "just a little pasta," you can most likely expect me to place my bright orange Le Creuset cooking pot in the middle of the table, and to encourage you to dig in. This was a totally different deal.
Sue and Lucy were already drinking Proseco out of champagne flutes, the table was set and looked as though it was out of a magazine cover. In the center, was a graceful assortment of fresh grapes (Marta told me later that she had to climb a fence to pick these), gourds, chestnuts, and bright red leaves. Small plates were in big plates, several glasses were in front of each setting, and some exciting sounds and smells were coming from the kitchen. I made my way there.
The "ragu" had been cooking for hours, Giada was slicing bread, Marta was dressed up and maneuvering around her kitchen like an orchestra director. Her boyfriend Giovanni soon walked in and was put in charge of the gluten-free pasta and his signature pesto. I could hear the multi language conversation happening in the living room, and well... I had to work at keeping my feet on the ground. At one point Giada looked at me, smiled and said "Laura, sei molto contenta, si?" You better believe I was very happy. I guess it showed.
Dinner was a succession of two different kinds of pasta: one with Marta's red Bolognese sauce (I asked for the recipe and was told that it was very difficult. I will ask again), and one with Giovanni's pesto, made with arugula instead of basil. Apparently basil pesto is from Genoa, and here in Lucca, we do things a little differently. Both rocked my world. Knowing that they had taken the time to make gluten-free pasta for me was so special, too. When Giada let us know that the oil Giovanni used in the pesto came from her dad's olive grove, I sank just a bit more deeply into my chair and sighed with pleasure.
The wine flowed, as did the conversation. Sue shared with us that her secret for being happily married after 52 years was "to switch things up a bit, all the time." Lucy pointed out that her mom had been living in the same house for over 40 years, to which Sue responded by saying that exactly: having her base allowed her to adventure out and play. I knew just what she meant.
We had three or four languages going, slices of thin Lardo de Colonnota showed up, as did wedges of Pecorino cheese, fresh fig jam, and two kinds of honey. Looking across the table and listening to all the laughter and words swimming around, I mentioned that I felt as though we had somehow transported ourselves onto the Best Little Marigold Hotel.
As is always the case over here, I delighted in seeing men show affection for each other, as "Georgio" and Giovanni talked about soccer and music, the whole thing punctuated with randomly timed hugs. Clearing the table gave me another chance to spend time in the kitchen, and each trip was a privilege.
By the time we left to make our 15 steps home, it was past midnight, and Leonard Cohen was singing Hallelujah in the background.
"Just a little bit of pasta" turned out to be more like Christmas. An unforgettable reminder of the power of food, music, community, generosity, curiosity and life's invitations of joy.
This morning, Marta showed up with a dish she had thrown together from last night's leftover pasta and a little bechamel sauce. I looked up from my keyboard and I am not sure I had enough language skill to thank her. But I sure tried.
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