There’s an empty space in front of me where a wine glass used to be. It was there just a few minutes before I got up. But now it’s gone.
It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.
It is 10 a.m. and I am at a wine shop – the first stop on a walking food and wine tour of Florence – Artist Date 90.
I was the first to arrive on the piazza, to meet our guide Ishmael. I refrain from any The Old Man and The Sea references.
He is from Latin America, but has made Florence – or more accurately, its environs – his home for more than 30 years. He is bearded and handsome and gentle. As is the case with so many men here, I cannot tell for certain whether he is straight or gay. I decide not to worry about it.
We wait for 10 others to join us. They come in groups of twos, like animals on Noah’s Ark. I feel wildly liberated, untethered and free.
We walk a few blocks to a wine shop, where a long table is set up with stools, glasses and a variety of bruschetta.
I have not had a drink in nearly seven years. It is strange to be here.
And yet, this used to be my life. Conversations about the dwindling availability of cork, comparing plastic versus screw top. Stainless steel versus oak. I was living just an hour from the Napa Valley and spent a considerable amount of time there – tasting, learning, drinking.
I fancied myself fancy because I knew just a little bit. Until the day when a stranger said to me, “Wine aficionado is just a fancy name for a drunk.” I was incensed. But in regards to me, he was right.
About half-way through the tasting Ishmael notices I do not have a glass. He asks if I would like one. I shake my head, smile and say no.
“Are you sure,” he asks. I am very sure.
We stop at a food cart – like the ones in Portland, San Francisco and New York, like the one made famous by a pre-teen’s Tweeting in the movie Chef. Except there are no hipsters here. Only work men. And instead of hawking clever cupcakes or Asian-Latin fusion, this one sells tripe. Just tripe.
Ishmael asks if any of us would like to try it. I raise my hand, along with the Greek painter from Lawrence, Kansas, and a few minutes later receive a white plastic container, along with a plastic fork and a hunk of bread.
I am a bit nervous, but tell myself “when in Rome”…or Florence. But, like Mikey in the 1970s Chex cereal commercial, I like it! It is well-spiced, like a fiery, paper-thin calamari.
I ask the woman from New York traveling with her mother to take a photograph of me eating it, my MAC “Kiss Me Quick” lipstick staining the plastic fork – lest anyone question my story.
I was a picky eater growing up. My mother would serve me a silver-dollar size piece of steak that I would cut up, cover in ketchup and move around the plate for a quarter of an hour until my father, exasperated, would say, “Make her a grilled cheese sandwich.” I lived on grilled cheese, hot dogs and Spaghetti-Os until I was about 14.
We wander over to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Outside vendors are selling grapes, carrots, herbs, mushrooms – truffles. I recall the chef I briefly dated kissing me in his kitchen, and asking when I would be in Italy.
“Mmm…truffle season…except you cannot afford them.”
I should have told him to fuck off. Or how he was so certain what I could and could not afford. But I said nothing.
I think he would enjoy this culinary tour of Florence. And then decide not to think about him at all, but instead the cured meats, cheeses and olives that a butcher is serving us with toothpicks off of a polystyrene tray. From the North, the South, Tuscany. Aged six weeks, six months, 16 months.
We sit down on long benches and sample orecchiette with finely chopped broccoli, spaghetti with pancetta, olive oil and parmesan, pomodoro. Once this was simply a place for market vendors to have a meal. Today it is a restaurant.
I am generally not one to get too excited about pasta. Until now. It is silky and warm on my tongue, along my cheek. I taste every ingredient. Minutes old. I am silent. I am, as my friend Stan says, “having a relationship with my food.”
We end with gelato from one of Ishmael’s favorite shops – Il Procopio. I pair carmelized figs with cream, almonds and pine nuts with the shop’s namesake of pistachios and orange peel.
I have eaten gelato every day since arriving in Italy more than a week ago, congratulating myself on always ordering a piccolo. But today, grinning and completely conscious, I order a medio — and congratulate myself that it is not a grande. It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.