Unforgotten Italy

By Martha McPhee
The scenic Todi landscape
Photograph: Photo by: Bobby Fisher

On our way from Rome, we stopped in the small village of Portaria to eat. Leonardo Gioffre, the 37-year-old son of my host family, had called to warn us that it was after one PM, and if we didn’t stop we’d miss lunch. The trattoria was in the town square—a few outside tables shaded by a canopy of ivy. Leonardo, a slender man with dark hair, a charming smile and light brown eyes, arrived on his motorcycle a bit windblown but dashing in a linen shirt. He greeted each of us—my kids, Livia, eight, and Jasper, four; my mother, Pryde; my husband, Mark; Christina and me—with kisses on both cheeks. Then he took charge, ordering pizza, sausages, long-aged prosciutto and chicory sautéed with potatoes.

Leonardo reminded me immediately of the Italians I had known, proud of his country and not hesitant to tease us for our Americanisms—that we might miss lunch or order a Fanta with the meal. I was brought back to when I first came to Italy and learned what I hadn’t understood before, that food is revered, the making of it, the eating of it, the growing of it. And though at first this reverence and its expression can seem overly fussy, it soon makes sense, teaching you a deeper appreciation for the tastes and subtleties of things, be it food or language or a country walk.

After lunch, we met the rest of the Gioffre family: Leonardo’s brother, Max; Max’s wife, Alessia, and their two toddler boys; and Anna and Ernesto, who sit at the head of the family. The couple moved to Ficareto from Rome in the early 1970s when their sons were small. It was a utopian fantasy to leave the city to farm—and they had done just that, for decades, until Ernesto became fragile with Alzheimer’s disease. The old farmhouse has been turned into four apartments, the old pigsty into a kitchen, and a great hall—designed by Leonardo, an architect—has been added as a gathering place for guests. But Acquaviva still reflects Ernesto and the life he created. The family doesn’t advertise. They want it to be a simple place for people who won’t mind rooms without television or air-conditioning.

That evening, Leonardo took us to a Notte Bianca (White Night, an all-night festival) in the village of Massa Martana. This time of year Umbria is alive with   sagre—festivals—honoring things like gelato and racing bulls. And we arrived there the day before Ferragosto, the celebration of the Virgin’s Assumption and the biggest summer holiday in Italy. The village was crammed with revelers listening to music and watching mimes. In the central square I was plucked from the crowd by Rufino the Clown, a well-dressed rogue who proceeded to court me before his audience. I felt 16 all over again, wide-awake with jet lag, thrilled to suddenly be a part of another world. I remembered arriving during those summers long ago, asleep during the day, up at night with my friends, eating watermelon and playing the guitar in the vast garden behind my host family’s house.

Over the next few days, before our Italian lessons began, Anna taught my daughter to make a crostata, an Italian sweet crust with jam; my family and I took a tour of the Cantina Tudernum to learn about the local white wine, Grechetto; we visited the Caseificio Montecristo cheese shop and tasted sweet ricotta and aged pecorino with chestnut honey dribbled over it; we took a hike on one of the ancient roads that connect other hill towns to Todi, across a landscape fragrant with mint, up and down slopes, past small villages and vineyards, to the Roccafiore winery, where we tasted sweet Umbrian passito, known as   un vino da meditazione —a wine that makes you think. One evening, Anna had a party for about 20 people at Acquaviva. She gathered us around the end of a long table that was covered in flour and potato, and taught us to make gnocchi. Dozens of hands rolled the dough into long ropes, cut it into small dumplings, pressed it against the tines of a fork.

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