The pasta of Lucca – a walled city in Tuscany — is something special. Mark Bittman of The New York Times said so a number of years ago but, quite frankly, I didn’t believe him. I grew up eating Italian food. I cook Italian food. I’ve been to expensive Italian restaurants in New York. How special could it be? Then, a few months ago, friends called to say they’d rented a villa through Luxury Retreats in the hills above Lucca. Would I like to join them and five other friends for a week? I checked to make sure my frequent flier miles would cover the trip and quickly said, yes.
Sharing a house has its positives and negatives. For me, one of the positives is shopping for food in local markets, which we did after a hair-raising drive up into the hills searching for our villa. (Italians are not great at giving directions and you need to circle their roundabouts three or four times to read the tiny print on their famously obscure and contradictory signs). But our villa was worth the search. With the late afternoon sun lighting up a profusion of roses on the property, as we crunched up the driveway, it looked stunning.
Still, it was Saturday and we had to hustle back into town to the supermercado (supermarket) for provisions because Sunday it was closed. (Despite the euro crisis, Italians still embrace la dolce vita and close their shops from 1 to 4, as well.) Is there anything more fascinating than a foreign supermarket? It tells you so much about a culture. For example, in Italy, the customer weighs and tags all fresh fruits and vegetables (I was reprimanded for not donning nearby plastic gloves for the task). And we discovered that one aisle totally devoted to pasta stretched the length of the entire building, about the length of our frozen food aisle. We decided on a vegetable pasta with fresh Parmesan and proceeded to buy our ingredients, local whenever possible, including a wonderful melon and prosciutto di Parma, and a bag of durum wheat semolina from the Orcia Valley, with the label Pasta Panarese. Okay, it was closer to Sienna than Lucca, but it was local, organic and when we cooked it up, in 9 minutes, totally amazing. As was the relatively inexpensive local olive oil and wine.
The next day we made our first foray into Lucca and headed for Ristorante All’Olivio on Piazza S. Quirico in the heart of the old city, where one of the couples had feasted a number of years ago. We’d made lunch reservations the night before. As in most Italian restaurants, if you make an effort to speak the language (even if their English is better than your Italian) and place yourselves in the hands of the padrone, you will be rewarded. So, following his advice we opted to share a variety of house specials for our antipastos. They came in three courses and included, among others, a stuffed zucchini blossom, rolled crepe, and calamari in a heavenly sage polenta sauce.
For my primo piatto I chose a pasta dish (all pasta is fatta in casa or made in house) and, at long last, there it was: deep yellow, just as Bittman said it would be, due to the eggs yolks in the pasta. The fresh, eggy pasta is incomparably rich but somehow light, and a wonderful base for everything from lobster sauce to duck ragu. Portions were medium in size, which meant that though the pasta was delicious, it did not feel heavy, perhaps because the sauces are also on the delicate side, as opposed to meat-laden American bombs. I left the table satisfied but not stuffed, which was true of all the other pasta I ate, at least once and sometimes twice a day. Lucca is near the Tyrrhenian Sea and fresh seafood from Viareggio is always on the menu. One of us ordered a fresh, grilled Bronzino that arrived looking like the nearby Tower of Pisa, and a few days later at Puccini, another noted local restaurant, eager to try something besides the divine pasta of Lucca, I ordered a seafood soup, which was a bit like a plate of calamari, clams and fish bathed in a light, fresh tomato sauce.
Whether by chance or design, just as there are extra eggs yolks in the pasta of Lucca, so, too, the narrow, winding streets, buildings and beautiful piazzas of Lucca are a tone poem to yellow in all its variety – from pastel lemon to deep ochre, with a smattering of other Mediterranean colors thrown in. When one of us bought a bottle of Lemoncello to sip after dinner, I couldn’t help thinking how we’d become the living embodiment of Donovan’s mellow-yellow lyrics that go, “I’m just mad about Saffron and Saffron’s mad about me.”
Several unique features of the town are its tree-topped 16th century ramparts, with shaded walkways broad enough to walk, bike or even drive a car, and its “Piazza Anfiteatro”, an elliptical space built on the site of an original Roman amphitheatre. The beautiful piazza was restored in 1830 and is now the center of activities, from music festivals to children’s fairs. There is also a small botanical garden with an impressive variety of majestic trees. In fact, the entire city is dotted and ringed with stately trees, vast lawns of green and welcoming boulevards for people to play and stroll. Pedestrians do come first.
Lucca is an elegant, wealthy town – it’s been called the most civilized of Tuscan cities — with beautiful shops, including Ottica Bruno, on Via Roma, a store with hugely colorful contemporary and vintage eyeglass frames. It’s also brimming with churches and towers, including its most famous Romanesque cathedral Duomo di San Martino. Though there were plenty of tourists, many with young children, the streets never felt thronged and often, with just a turn to the right or left, we found ourselves wandering down medieval streets without a single person in sight. Locals of every age and occupation bicycle to and from work, and visitors can rent bikes near the city’s wall and zip around as the natives do.
The hills above the wide plain are dotted with olive groves, vineyards and farms, many of which, like ours, have been renovated to sell or rent to foreigners, ranging from the head of Paramount (up the hill) to working Brits who can jump onto the low-fare Ryan Air for an affordable getaway. The views from our patio and windows were breathtaking, especially at twilight.
Through our local landlady we discovered that within walking distance of our villa was a Relais du Silence boutique hotel with a first-class restaurant, Tenuta San Pietro (with eight rooms and two suites), tucked away in a restored sixteenth century house. In the middle of what seemed like a small road to nowhere, this modern, sleek and extremely popular hotel hosted a number of weddings the week we were there. We began to understand its charm after sipping a perfect Prosecco on their patio at sunset, and feasting on their pasta and warm hospitality. We ate there twice. On our final night we enjoyed our last taste of Lucca and toasted a perfect week in the hills of Tuscany. And although I bought local olive oil and a bag of pasta at the Pisa airport, I have no illusions that it will taste the same.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag