When last we met we were in Siena at the Tenuta di Spannocchia. We met our friend chef Stephanie of Sea Grass Bistro in Yarmouth, Maine there and headed to our home in Umbria. But first, we were going right by Cortona. Let’s swing in there. Note: no I am not in Italy right now. I sketch out stories in Italy and put them up when I’m back. That way I get more adventures per minute while I’m there.
SIENA, CORTONA, PANICALE– Cortona has always been so civilized. But sometimes you almost can’t get there from here. Now they have a new parking garage subtly tucked into the hillside, lower down the hill from the usual top spots. It would be a bit of a straight up hike but you can cheat and take an escalator up there to “Centro.” But on this day we didn’t even need that and just cruised into a good spot like we owned the place. See, Stephanie, this is how we do Cortona. Now, lets go see our friends Nando and Pia at Bar Sport. “Hey, Luca!”, we yell at their son who is almost the first person we see on the street. He’s on a mission so we only talk for a minute, and he says his parents are up at their bar and he’ll catch up with us there. We keep moving that direction against the current of the always-busy main shopping street.
But oh, no. Luca didn’t mention the bar was closed today. Their day off we’ve learned is Friday and today is Wed. We peek under the sad, prison-gray, half-pulled-down metal doors and said “C’e nessuno?”
Yes, you Italophile film buffs, did catch that cinematic reference. The opening line of Di Sica’s “Garden of the Finzi-Contini” is “C’e nessuuuuno?” As you remember there, all the tennis playing teenagers are swirling about the gates of the villa waiting to get in. But here at the gate to Bar Sport in Cortona what, to our wondering eyes, should appear but our own version of Babbo Natale, Babbo Nando. He’s a happy, non-judgmental Santa. Cortonese through and through so I’ve always suspected he doesn’t really care if we’ve been naughty or nice.
We all hug and I offer him, Mr Barista, a coffee. This could be good. He always buys us coffee because he has the bar full of beans right at his finger tips. He and Pia seem to think that since we brought their folkloric team of flag-spinning, crossbow-shooting Men in Tights to Maine a decade ago that they owe us. The reverse is true in our mind. But, look, he says “buon idea” to our coffee shop thought and HE’S going to coffee with US and points us back down the street we just walked in on. We’re marching arm in arm nodding and joking with all the citizens in our wake. Because Nando owns the central bar in town and seems to be Capo of every event, when you are with Nando in Cortona it is like being with a celebrity. The seas part and we are soon drinking espressos and eating to-die-for chocolate macaroons. Poor Nando. He’s swapped his one day off for this day because of a festival that starts on his regular day off. And here comes the tourists. Us. No warning, we just show up.
Can’t blame them for not wanting to be closed Friday as that will be a great day for their bar. It is not only Italian Independence Day for the whole country, it is also the festival of Santa Margherita, the patron saint of Cortona. We’ll be back and will cover that in another episode.
THE ART OF LIVING THE MOMENT
We sip that frothy coffee, my favorite indoor (and outdoor) sport, talk of things of great import and stroll back to dark Bar Sport to find the ever-chic Pia. She is often decked out as the queen to Nando’s king in local events. We have dropped in out of the clear blue Tuscan sky ON THEIR DAY OFF and without a blink of an eye, or a minute hesitation spelling “oh, crap” they are all about maximizing this moment and are planning what we can do together. Oh, please Zen Master, give me the ability to ever be this full of life and style and grace. Whatever they had planned and deserved for their day off is off the table. Gone forever. So. Here’s the new plan. We’ll walk, we’ll talk, we’ll see sights, we’ll come back to our now “private bar” for prosecco and looking at photo albums of past festivals. Then, when it is sufficiently mid-afternoon, we’ll do a lunch, then more walk and more talk. How’s that sound to you?
Some part of me hates them dropping everything on our behalf. And, in our defense, we have had this miracle happen before if we unintentionally drop in on their day off. So, we were quite totally fine coming on a Wednesday for a coffee, a hug and back out on the street. Fridays we do on tiptoes because they have given us their Fridays until we figured out that is what was happening. Not premeditated at all.
SEA FOOD DIET: SEE FOOD, EAT FOOD
Yes, yes. Lame old joke. Regardless of intent, this was a spontaneous in-the-moment joy to spend the afternoon with Nando and Pia and their two grown sons and bar partners. Very cool and relaxed. Except for the bill-paying part. I wish I could win this battle more often. At the coffee place we went AT MY INVITATION by the way, that owner was all “no, no, you are with Nando, your money’s no good.” Later, at the restaurant, the charming owner again said “ I can’t take your money” Pushing past me Nando said “they only take Cortonesi money here” and that was, unfortunately, that. They did, we note, let us be the boss of the money when they came to our town. Complicated system when you don’t always get some of the cultural rules in play. But even with that, Stephanie and Midge and I had a grand time of it eating an ocean of seafood. The restaurant was named “the hunter/cacciatore” but in my mind it could have easily been “pescatore.” I can remember at least clams and shrimp. And eel! With more wine and more grappa. This is lunch! What were we doing drinking Prosecco before lunch? Give me strength. But you can see why we did have to treat ourselves to a lazy siesta as soon as we all got back to Panicale.
How we could think of eating out again, ever after that fine mid-day eatathon, I do not know, but after that nap/fall-down-and-be-quiet thing, we did a walking tour of Panicale and then had a most excellent but light dinner at Masolino’s. Sans wine. But, then, to make up for that momentary lapse into the dark world of abstemiousness I found my lips forming the words “Nightcap, anyone?” All hands were raised and we wandered post-dolce to Aldo’s next door and had the Wiley Traveler’s Special. It tastes like a nice, late night coffee would but it is caffeine-free Orzo brewed like espresso and topped off with Bailey’s. How easy was that to say? Orzo with Bailey’s. You might think so. But you’d be wrong. At least in Bar Gallo with Daniela in charge on a busy night. Daniela, who suffers fools hardly at all, decided I needed to be taught how not to drive them crazy. After a couple false starts over a week’s time, we got me to parrot these words back to her.
“Orzo corretto con baaay-lees in una tazza grande”. Say that, like that, and you’ll get your foamed and frothed up orzo in a cappuccino-sized cup with good shot of Bailey’s. Went round the horn a bit to get it as i thought corretto meant grappa would be added. Turns out coffee can be “corrected” with any liquor of choice. I dare say if you don’t specify you will get grappa’d.
Regardless, it is as fine a sleep potion as I’ve ever come across. And a marvelous way to end another marvelous day in paradise. One euro in your local bar. Sogni d’Oro/Orzo to all and to all a good night.
N.B. if you want to jump in to the Cortona lifestyle as a native, we did just put a brand new listing up on our “This Just In” section.
See you in Italy,