Italian cuisine is so good, it would be reason enough to choose study in Florence for my junior year of college. Concentrating on Italian language and literature, I ostensibly was learning how to read and express myself in Italian as well as absorb centuries of Italy’s culture. Nevertheless, decades after that year, food and the circumstances within which I enjoyed or rejected it dominate my recollections of that time.
My roommate, Marie, and I would visit with Teresa, our host family’s housemaid, while she would prepare our meals in the condo’s small but efficient kitchen. Next to the kitchen’s French doors hung a cage large enough for several uccelli or songbirds, gorging on grains and figs or singing their full-throated calls. Marie and I enjoyed their chirruping and often commented to Teresa how the birds must have brightened her day with their cheer. Teresa would give them a glance, shrug without comment, and continue her tasks. She was too busy slicing and chopping to chat. We never knew how very much the birds would cheer the household the following spring.
Two of Teresa’s meals stand out like landmarks along my memory’s path through that year, one because I’ve forgotten its entire menu and the other, because I can’t forget the main dish. Pranzo, or lunch, was nearly always memorable. It was our principal meal except on Teresa’s day off, and it not only filled my belly, but also introduced me to foods quite different from the dorm meals I ate in college and my mother’s solid, nutritious, but predictable meat, starch, and salad I enjoyed at home. Nevertheless, I cannot remember what I ate on a particular Sunday afternoon in late fall, when the Chellinis’ dining room table had more than the usual number of settings for lunch. Three additional places sat across the table from those for Marie and me.
On that day, the doorbell rang, and Teresa let in a young woman and two men. Signorina Clara—the effective head of the household—and her divorced brother Gastone (an Anglophile down to the patches on the elbows of his Harris tweed jacket) introduced us to Gastone’s son and daughter, Roberto and Sandra, and Sandra’s husband Piero, then Gastone invited us to the table. Marie and I occupied our usual places, Signorina Clara and Gastone sat at the ends, and Sandra, Piero, and Roberto faced us. Sandra’s elegance, her cashmere sweater set, and glossy brown hair tucked into a chignon contrasted with my dowdy blouse, worn cardigan, and unruly pixie hair cut. She played with the stem of her wine glass as Teresa served the soup course. I noticed her slender ring finger, European style on the right hand, adorned with a simple, slim band of gold. I thought, if I marry, my band will be just like hers. Much later, I did, and it was.
Signorina Clara and Gastone turned all their attention to Gastone’s offspring. While they chatted about the family farm, Sandra’s work, and Roberto’s office intrigues, I began to feel invisible. Silence fell as Teresa removed the first course and brought the main dish to the table. Roberto rubbed his hands together and sighed. Was his enthusiasm directed at a roasted chicken or a steak alla Fiorentina? I have no idea. All I remember is the set of buttons straining a suit vest covering Roberto’s potbelly and his salivating discussion of accounting as he stuffed into his eager mouth morsels of whatever that succulent dish was.
Piero picked at his food. He was wearing chic black-rimmed eyeglasses complementing his close-cut curly black hair and pale complexion.Was his silence a passive-aggressive protest against this meal he had to endure in the company of two “barbarian” American college students? My self-consciousness became acute and was killing my appetite.
Sandra must have sensed tension building up because she smiled at us and asked Marie and me a few polite questions about our hometowns and our impressions of Florence. Relieved to be recognized and admitted into the family conversation, Marie and I eagerly responded and asked our own questions about their lives and interests. The rest of the meal passed in a blur, except for noisy chirping in the kitchen. Signorina Clara frowned at Teresa and ordered her to cover the birds so we could dine in peace.
As the year passed, our monthly meals with Sandra and Roberto (Piero excused himself somehow) became more relaxed and convivial and I do remember delicious servings of risotto, beef and polenta, chicken, panzanella salad, and ribollita; but not the menu of that first meal we shared.
Cena means supper in Italian. On most evenings, we ate a simple meal with Signorina Clara. Sometimes, Gastone joined us, and other paying guests as well. A mixed green salad, crisply crusted white bread, cheese, and fruit were usually on the menu. Sometimes the meal included uovo in tegame, eggs in a skillet, or sausages. In the spring, on just one occasion, that menu changed, and only for Signorina Clara and Gastone.
While Teresa served Marie and me the usual supper of uovo in tegame, our hosts ate something tiny, surrounded by cooked vegetables. The dish’s aroma filled the dining room: a whiff of browned fat, of fruit, of something alcoholic. We later learned the Chellinis were eating “our” fattened uccelli, the songbirds. Teresa had drowned them in brandy, plucked them, and roasted them so that Clara and Gastone could eat every last bit except the birds’ beaks.
Marie and I were aghast, realizing we had not heard the birds singing that day. Instead, delicious cooking smells had been filling our home and we assumed we were in for a treat that evening. Instead, we were witnessing our hosts’ gourmand adventure in devouring little birds no bigger than a baby’s fist.
Relieved that the family assumed we would not appreciate the delicacy, we excused ourselves at meal’s end and looked for Teresa. She was sitting on her stool in a corner of the kitchen. When we whispered how sorry we were that she had to kill those lovely little creatures, Teresa finished chewing her mouthful of supper and pulled a little bone from between her smiling lips. “Buona notte,” she said, “e sogni d’oro.” Good night and sweet dreams.
That first dinner with Gastone’s offspring is still a blank—stress erased all its details; and the supper of songbirds shocked me while etching that meal into my memory. Other meals, at the Chellinis or at restaurants along the Arno and elsewhere around Florence, influenced the way I cook and appreciate food today, but you’ll never see little roasted songbirds in my kitchen.