Book Excerpt: Love in a Tuscan Kitchen by Sheryl Ness

We had the pleasure of hosting author Sheryl Ness at our Book Club to discuss her book Love in a Tuscan Kitchen. You can purchase a copy here, but first enjoy an excerpt:

Time is standing still. We are just celebrating the Nuovo Anno (New Year) here in our little village in Italy and it is 2011. On New Year’s Eve in Italy, there are a few customs you must follow. As with everything, I am learning this as I go along.

My friend Giulia looked at me with an intense look and asked, “Do you have on your red underwear for good luck tonight?”

I replied, “I have no idea what are you talking about.”

“Yes, it’s a tradition here,” she replied. “You must at the very least have on your red underwear on New Year’s Eve. It means that you will live your life to the fullest in the coming year. It also is a prediction of continued love and passion for you. You want that don’t you?”

I panic. And as I ran back to our apartment to look for a pair of red underwear, I was thinking that I didn’t even own a red shirt, so the best I could do was find some pink underwear, so I put it on and hoped for the best. I would later learn that the tradition of wearing red underwear has a strong connection in the Latin cultures. Red signifying blood, life, passion. It was not a surprise to understand this about Italian culture. My life in Italy had changed my perspective forever. At the moment, this was experiencing life to the fullest, with all of the passion and dimensions possible.

Tonight, my husband and I will celebrate the New Year, our first one together as husband and wife, but only for a few minutes at midnight with a kiss and a glass of prosecco together in the same kitchen where we originally met. His restaurant was packed with tables of friends, families, and a few locals celebrating together.

Auguri amore mio, buon nuovo anno (Happy New Year, my love),” Vincenzo says to me as he looks up from cleaning up the last few dishes in the kitchen where he is the chef. His sous chefs are quickly finishing up their duties so that they too can head out to celebrate the New Year.

“Happy New Year, my love.” I say, “We must kiss at midnight. For me, this is what I need for good luck.” I reach over and kiss him and hand him a glass of prosecco. We clink glasses, take a sip, and kiss again, this time a little longer, lingering with our noses together.

“I’m almost done drying all of the wine glasses, and my feet are killing me,” I told him. I finish the glass of prosecco and go back to my work cleaning the glasses.

Sheryl and her husband, Vincenzo

As I take the last sip of prosecco, I think back to the past four years and how my life has unfolded here in this little village in Tuscany. I could feel my past and present colliding during a split second in the same kitchen that drew me in to ask about the recipe for a decadent chocolate cake that I loved. I knew instantly on that day four years ago, as I gazed into the warm brown eyes of this Italian man who is now my husband, that I was experiencing something life changing. It was almost as if I could see my future reflected in his eyes. I had a keen sense of falling headlong into a moment that would define my future, without control, and that I somehow knew him inside and out. Fate had brought us together for a chance at happiness.

The restaurant is owned by Vincenzo, my husband who is the chef, and his two friends, Marco and Aldo. Together, they opened up this charming paradise six years ago in the heart of Chianti. Tonight, for New Year’s Eve they hosted a special menu, including recipes that Vincenzo will only make for the evening: pumpkin soufflé, handmade tagliatelle with mushrooms, and a steak with herbs and sauce that will make you want to take the last piece of bread from the basket and as Italians would say “fare la scarpetta” or mop up every last bit of sauce and clean your plate with it.

Reservations for the evening started arriving just after Christmas, from locals who love to celebrate here to others who plan to travel in from Rome and Florence to this little piece of heaven in history. It’s also tradition to, at exactly midnight, eat lentils and zampone (a type of decadent pork sausage) to bring good fortune in the year to follow. The richness of the sausage and the coin shape of the lentils are symbols of having a rich and prosperous year to come. The traditions of the foods that are important to eat on the eve of the New Year have been long standing.

A glass of prosecco always welcomes in the New Year at midnight, with all of the families from the area celebrating with fireworks and greetings in the square rounding out the evening. Vincenzo is a purist as a chef. He believes in using traditional recipes that reflect hundreds of years of perfection. This is one of the reasons he is so successful. People come to his restaurant because they want to experience traditional and incredibly good food made with care.

I always try to help out at the restaurant for special occasions, and this was one of them. I am not a great waitress, but I do my best to help at the restaurant because I know how important food is to people and this culture, and I love to experience the celebrations that occur in this warm and welcoming space that instantly makes you feel at home.

I can barely feel my legs and feet; we’ve both been working all day. As I look in the kitchen, I see Vincenzo carefully mopping the floor and checking to make sure his kitchen is clean, prepped, and ready for tomorrow. We both finish up our work and close the heavy doors to the back entrance. The cool, fresh air hits me and reality sets in. As we walk home just a few feet across the square to our little apartment, I see that a few people are still practicing the age-old tradition of throwing old items out the window at midnight in order to start anew with the New Year.

Carla, one of the neighbors launches clothing and other items out her windows warning those below to be careful.

“Out with the old, in with the new,” she yells with a laugh.

When she sees us, she says, “Are you coming to play bingo with us? This year the prizes are great.”

I reply, “No, Carla, maybe next year. I’m so exhausted I can barely stand up anymore. I’m dead tired.”

I have to admit, I would love to celebrate a little more and hang out with the locals, but I know that Vincenzo is ready for a hot shower and a foot rub, and so am I. Together we are speaking in Italian, as Vincenzo does not speak English. We have a quick laugh and a look at each other. We have another plan for this evening. Kisses and snuggle time in bed together.

Most of the village was gathering at the local Circolo, which is the Italian word for a local community club or gathering place with a coffee bar in the front and a large space in the back for community events with a stage to play the tombola or bingo into the night. The Circolo exists still today to preserve the culture and traditions of the local area.

It will be a wild and rambunctious night that will last into the wee hours of early morning. The tradition of the tombola is also well preserved in our little village. The priest and the locals all pitch in to gather prizes for the winners with everyone from young children to grandmothers purchasing as many bingo cards as they can manage to keep track of for the evening.

We reach our apartment and walk up the flight of stairs to the terrace that overlooks the main square as well as the restaurant. I can’t help but reflect on the beauty of this place and the way I was drawn to it from the first moment my feet stepped inside.

As I look across to the restaurant, which is located in the lower level of an old palace in the middle of our little village, San Gusme, I think of its long history. The space was originally a stable and workshop back in the fourteenth century. The top floors had been where an extended family had lived. Now, the top floor was made into apartments where many of the local families lived. The outside of the building reflects the years of patchwork brick and stone repair and restructuring that had taken place as it transformed from a family palace to its current state.

Half of the old well is still visible inside the walls of the restaurant, with brick and stonework arches at such unique angles that it would make any architect swoon. At first it seemed as if it was a patchwork of mistakes, with brick covering some walls and stone mixed in on others. Down the middle of the restaurant is a large, open-arched ceiling, which is perfect to place long wooden tables to seat over twenty people. On either side of this are smaller arched nooks, perfect for small tables for two or four.

Tonight, the restaurant was full of locals and visitors celebrating with passion and hope for the New Year that had just arrived. On this New Year’s Eve, I feel grateful that I am here in this place in time, with a man I love, experiencing life in a way I never imagined. I am amazed at the road that brought me here. I had experienced heartbreak and sadness along with a longing for something more in my life. I could not believe that I had finally found love. Sometimes I felt guilty, or worried that it might be taken from me at any time. It felt like every minute of every day for the past twenty years was preparing me to take in and appreciate the happiness I felt in my heart.

On this same night, in my mind, I took myself back in time to about five years ago, when I had first eaten in this restaurant during my second trip to Italy. I remember sitting at the small table with my friend Cathy, looking around and thinking, this is an incredible place.I could almost feel the energy from the past and present coming together. I had the sensation that I had been there before, but I knew that I never had. I felt the summer wind swirl around me like a magical spell. For a time, I was truly mesmerized and thought to myself, what is happening around me? Why do I feel such a connection to this place? Is this real or is it a dream?

That day, I remember eating my meal very slowly because I did not want it to end. I will never forget the freshness of the tomatoes, the texture of the pasta and cheese, and the incredible flavors that harmonized together. The wine was bright and clean and tasted of cherries and figs.

The dessert was a hot chocolate cake that when I cut into it, my spoon found a heart of dark chocolate still melted and warm. It was paired with a custard-like homemade vanilla ice cream with a little swirl of raspberry and cream sauce next to it that seemed to have the shape of a free-form heart. Little did I realize at that point in time that the chef who created the food I ate that day would be my future husband.

On that particular visit, Vincenzo and I would not meet. Not yet. However, I felt as if maybe my spirit already knew that I was home. My subconscious had already made my choice for me. Later, my heart guided me back to the man I loved and this place I would call home.