A Reasonable Excess–a pastry, a pasta, a pleasure

I’ll see your 10,000 steps. And raise you 10,000 bites. Let’s hear it for disinhibition.

Case in point: yesterday. If it had been a nice day, we might have walked uphill, from Borgo Maggiore to San Marino’s third tower, gaining thousands of steps on our way to 10,000 and, in the uphill part, climbing the equivalent of 90 floors of vertical gain. But it was raining. And it was cold. As I do on a daily basis, I began to think about lunch. We would be in Italy seven more days. There were restaurants we had not yet re-visited.

Pacini? I suggested to Tizi. Um, no. Calastre? I said to Tizi. Well, call them, she said. I don’t think they’re open. Malardot? Too heavy. Nud e Crud? She made a face.

And so we dithered. 

Until she said, “Urbino?”

“That’s a drive,” I said. Maybe a little more than an hour.

“Well, it’s raining.”

“All those roundabouts,” I said. And trucks. And old grandpas in old green Fiats.

But Urbino:

Whenever we’re here, we try to go to Urbino at least once. We go so she can eat a bombolone, which is a heavy fried pastry injected with cream and rolled in sugar. Do not call it a donut. It’s a donut, but don’t call it that. She will take umbrage. Urbino has a bombolone she dreams about. I usually have something else, a zuppa inglese kind of pastry. It’s tasty, I like it, but it’s the vicarious pleasure and calories by association I get just watching her eat a bombolone that make the trip worthwhile.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s go to Urbino.” We would get wet. We would get some steps in. We would walk uphill in Urbino, it can’t be avoided. We would arrive too late for bombolone but just in time for lunch.

“La Fornarina?” I said.

“I hope they’re open.”

I’m grateful for having seen Arthur Brooks’ Atlantic Monthly article this morning, which treats, shall we say, of indulgence vs over-indulgence. (I think of William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”) Brooks comes down comfortably on the side of indulgence. “There is research,” he says, “linking social drinking to the point of drunkenness (dubbed ‘calculated hedonism’ by the investigators) to positive enjoyment, so it is easy to imagine the same kind of fun coming from other types of joint disinhibition” (my italics).

Disinhibited, on our way to 10,000 bites, of course there are calories. And there is guilt. Brooks acknowledges these, but adds, “On the plus side are our memories, which elevate the evanescent [guilty] pleasure to the longer-term reward of enjoyment.”

In Urbino, anywhere in Italy, a healthy disinhibition is called for. People are serious about food over here. Italians, someone said recently, are the only people who talk about food while they are eating food. And that is true.

We have positioned ourselves in wine bars strategically close to old men talking about where they ate last night, where to go for porchetta, where for snails, where to go for the best tagliatelle with peas.

We were walking across a piazza recently, within earshot of a pair of grandparents and their pair of grandsons. One of the boys–he might have been twelve years old–was talking about pizza. Talking about it in both technical and hedonistic terms. We strayed from their conversation. Five minutes later when our paths converged, the kid was still talking about pizza. His grandparents nodding with approval and obvious pride. 

For years, in those slightly awkward moments exchanging greetings with new acquaintances over here, I would patiently explain yes, I was a professor; yes, of English. A subject no one especially warmed up to. (No surprise there.) One day I began to improvise and describe myself as a professor of tagliatelle.

“Ah, si?” they would say.  

“Yes,” I would say. “And I take my studies very seriously.”

A moment of uncertainty would follow. Then, recognition. A joke. And shared enthusiasm. “Ah, bravo! Si che le tagliatelle sono buoni!”

It’s one of many signature dishes in this region. And I do, in point of fact, order tagliatelle at almost every opportunity. Fortunately, Tizi’s cousins have a restaurant twenty minutes from our apartment in Serravalle, where they serve hand-rolled, hand-cut tagliatelle that win awards for being the best old-world tagliatelle in the region. If you’re going to study tagliatelle, going to their restaurant is like going to Harvard or Oxford. Or, Tizi would say, Bologna, you dope. 

There are other forms of pasta I have studiously ignored. Strozzopreti? Tizi would suggest. Um, no. Passatelli? she would suggest. Not tonight. Ravioli? Maybe next time. Maltagiati? I would make a face.

We drive to Urbino. The rain starts and stops. I lose count of how many roundabouts there are, all of them clogged with truck traffic and old green Fiats. But we get along. Urbino is fogged in. It’s good fog, atmospheric fog we have learned to love. When we walk up the hill past Raphael’s house, to the bombolone bar, as expected, we find it closed for the day. It’s just as well. This is no time for such indulgence. It’s 12:45, time for lunch, the other kind.

La Fornarina is open, serving tagliatelle with white boar sauce (my choice) and strozzoprete with I don’t know what sauce (Tizi’s choice). Both delicious. In the interest of disinhibition, we have a half liter of wine, the cheap house red that makes food taste even better. I drink most of it. And there’s rabbit, and a few vegetables, and for dessert, we ask for “secchi.”

Secchi are dry desserts, as opposed to wet, like panna cotta or tiramisu. Dry like cookies. Dry like a cake they call “ciambella.” Dry like a local sweet called crostata, a pie pastry dessert with fruit jam or nuts and honey or nutella on top. 

At this point, I feel that I’ve taken my degree in tagliatelle, that I can say with some modicum of confidence that I am a professor of tagliatelle. I’m now considering a double major, adding secchi to my studies. Yes, I know, tiramisu. And last night, we had a panna cotta that I will remember for quite some time, maybe forever. But lately the secchi have been outstanding. 

The crostata, in particular, comes in small bites. You’re on the way to 10,000, taking your time. Have another little bite.

1 Comment

  1. I love the way you think!

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