Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”

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Anyone who professes an interest in art and is indifferent to the joys of the palate is highly suspect.

Paul Sachs
co-founder of Museum of Modern Art and professor of art at Harvard University

 

I related to this statement even before I opened a business – a business whose main objective was – when you get right down to it – to please the palate. But instinctively I knew that Convito would be more successful if it pleased our customer’s “other senses” as well. Certainly my own most memorable eating experiences were those where the heightened aesthetics experienced by one sense or another converged with good food and fine wine. And those impressions were even further elevated in memory when the food reflected in some way the area or place where it was eaten: a Friday night Wisconsin Fish Fry savored in a knotty pine paneled room with a view out the window of a soft, rippling crystal clear lake; Steak and Kidney Pie appreciated within the historic walls of London’s oldest restaurant, comfortably seated in a red leather booth surrounded by hundreds of antique drawings, paintings and cartoons; or even happily eating comfort food like a crisp, succulent BLT in a cozy roadside cafe amidst an array of kitschy memorabilia.

This important correlation between aesthetics and food & wine became clearer to me during my regional Italian journeys. The experience of eating a delicious bowl of pasta was made indisputably more memorable when the backdrop complimented the food. Of course if the pasta wasn’t any good in the first place, no measure of aesthetic adornments could fix what was already broken. I was, however, becoming much more mindful of these “other” aspects that contributed to the success of a restaurant even before I opened my first Convito. The food came first – taste and authenticity were crucial – but other aspects were also important. The art on the walls, the lighting, the texture of the paper used for the menu, the background music, all of those aesthetic details were critical in elevating what was just a good bowl of pasta to an experience that lives on in memory.   I was often reminded of a statement I read in a book long ago – “Collecting” by Werner Muensterberger. It was one of those quotes I wrote down and kept on file. “The taste for finer things begins in the mouth then wanders to the eyes and the ears.”   That idea has resonated for me ever since I read it and was always on the top of mind whenever artistic decisions for my restaurants were considered.

Paolo Volpara, my original partner agreed with that assessment. He paid particular attention to blending our regional journeys to include a mixture of food, wine and culture. He was a master at what seemed to me the perfect itinerary – combining pleasure and education with plenty of time for just “hanging around.” I have never related to jam-packed agendas. Time for writing and reflecting upon what I have just seen or eaten or experienced is important to me, “steeping time” is how I have always thought of it.

Even after Paolo left Italy and was no longer my partner at Convito, I unfailingly followed the “Paolo Volpara formula” of trip planning. I especially remember how much delight I took in making arrangements for a trip to Tuscany with my artist sister Karen Butler and my then business-partner Colleen Houlahan. The trip took place in the spring of 1987, only a few months after all three of us had been engrossed in a lecture series I had hosted at Convito revolving around the theme of Cultural Italy. Robert Loescher, Art History Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, conducted the series. It was entitled “The Food, The Wine, The Culture – A Salute to Three Great Italian Cities – Florence, Venice and Milan.” Perfect timing for planning a trip to Tuscany.

After viewing his slide presentation and listening to his lecture, I knew I would be looking at Tuscany – especially Florence –through new eyes. “The aesthetics of a city permeates its food and wine as surely as its paintings and sculpture,” the professor said. “It is no accident that the light-filled, sensuous paintings of Venice are as extravagant and luxurious as a plate of succulent oysters found in local restaurants; or that the unpretentious food of Florence is as sober and straight forward as a painting by Giotto.” His very descriptive and accurate words accompanied us throughout our journey. And to this day, I think about them whenever I visit a new part of the world and experience the local cuisine for the first time.

Traveling with a working artist like my sister Karen only enriched our visit to Florence, the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Through the years Karen and her husband Jeff had contributed greatly to my art education by introducing me to the works of artists I might not have otherwise known. I could usually count on a visit to some interesting art museum or special exhibit whenever we were together. Karen is an artist who also does thorough research, so I knew my view of Florence with her at my side would totally enhance the experience.

Our very first day there began with a delicious lunch at Trattoria Omera, a charming restaurant situated on the hillside above the city. Walking up the winding narrow roadways of the outlying villages provided us with intermittent views of the Florentine skyline, a masterpiece on its own.   Around every corner we could look back and see the rhythm of the terra cotta tilled rooftops, amber steeples and soft cream-colored buildings artfully surrounding the centerpiece of the city; Brunelleschi’s grand dome, the largest masonry dome ever built and considered by art historians to be magnificent as well as a miracle of design and engineering.

Karen & Nancy with view of the skyline of Florence

Nancy & Karen with view of the skyline of Florence

 

The trattoria’s lovely view of the Tuscan countryside set the mood for our typically Tuscan lunch. I chose the Panzanella salad (literally “bread in a swamp”) made of tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh basil, red onions and bread. We all agreed that is was not only delicious but matched Professor Loescher’s description of Tuscan food – honest and straightforward.

The origins of Panzanella date back to the 16th century when the Italian poet Bronzino raved about a combination of cucumbers and onions mixed with olive oil and vinegar and toast – or so the story goes. I am never certain of the accuracy of these historical allegories since there are usually so many different versions, but they are often incredibly interesting – and generally whimsical – and since I find such joy in the tales, why not believe! More factually, we know that in the 1900’s after tomatoes had been introduced to Italy (via Spain), tomatoes as an ingredient were introduced to this wonderful warm weather salad and they have remained a part of traditional Panzanella every since.

Panzanella is best served at room temperature after all the ingredients have “mingled.”

 

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Panzanella

 Serves 8

1 loaf crusty Italian bread
6 tomatoes cut into wedges
1 English cucumber, halved, seeded and sliced
¼ – 1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
20 leaves of basil, julienned
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 

If you have day-old, stale bread it would be somewhat hardened on its own. But you can get the same effect by cutting the bread into cubes, drizzling it with olive oil and putting it into a 275-degree oven for approximately 30 to 25 minutes. Let the bread cool.

Mix the tomatoes, cucumbers and onion together with the cooled bread. Mix the olive oil and vinegar together. Add it to the mixture. Add basil. Toss all ingredients together. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Let marinate for 20 minutes before serving.

Note: Don’t refrigerate or texture of tomatoes will disintegrate.

 

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The next three days were dedicated to art – not difficult to do in Florence. According to UNESCO, 60% of the world’s most important works of art are located in Italy, half of those in Florence. Besides experiencing another mind-blowing tour of the Uffizi Gallery (a 16th century building housing a vast collection of Renaissance paintings and masterpieces), we visited a whole array of smaller Florentine museums including an especially memorable tour of the 15th century Convent of San Marco where each monk’s cell in the cloister was decorated by Fra Angelico, an early Renaissance painter considered the best fresco painter of the century. We also managed to fit in another view of David, one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated statues, certainly the most famous one in Florence and maybe in the world.

In the evening it was time again to shift our focus to Tuscan food and wine and to review our artistic and culinary experiences over a glass of great local wine. We dined at one of my favorite Florentine restaurants, Il Cibreo. I love the food. I love the look of the restaurant. Every nook and cranny contains something interesting, a poster here, a beautiful ceramic pitcher there. Yet in spite of all the objects d’arte, the room maintains a certain Tuscan simplicity – as does the food.

Karen Butler sketch of Cibreo @ Karen Butler

Karen Butler sketch of Cibreo
@ Karen Butler

The presentation of the menu (based on traditional Tuscan specialties before the introduction of pasta) is unique and very intimate. A lovely woman came to our table, pulled up a chair and described the dishes offered that day. After a few questions and further explanation, she took our order.   How very warm and civilized!

I especially remember a wonderful cannellini bean and duck dish I enjoyed during an early visit with my partner, Paolo Volpara. Bean dishes on menus in Tuscany came as no surprise. I have had many over the years and because I have loved beans since I was a girl, I usually order them.   The citizens of Tuscany are often referred to as “mangia-fagioli” – the bean eaters because so many of their traditional dishes are based on beans. Legume popularity dates back to the early 1500’s when beans were first introduced to the region. Cannellini beans, in particular, became especially popular by the end of the 17th century and were even sold throughout Florence from street carts.

I developed this recipe years later based on my memory of the dish I had at Il Cibreo. The beans and the spinach were served at room temperature and the duck hot. I like to serve it for supper – outside near the grill – on a warm summer night. With a cold glass of Tuscan white wine, of course.

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Grilled Duck Breast with White Beans & Spinach

Serves 4

 

4 duck breast halves

Marinade:
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
½ teaspoon minced garlic
1-tablespoon olive oil
salt & freshly ground pepper

Using a sharp knife, score the skin of the duck breast so it has ¼ inch diamond pattern and place in the marinade for approximately 2 hours.

In the meantime, prepare the white bean salad:

4 cups cooked white beans (cannellini or Great Northern)
¼ cup thinly sliced red onions
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt & freshly ground to taste

Mix the beans, red onions, parsley and basil together. Mix the olive oil, vinegar and Dijon together. Mix dressing with the bean mixture. Add salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat the grill to medium (key is to cook duck slowly to render the fat). Place the duck skin-side down on the grate and cook until the skin has seared and the fat is rendered – approximately 5 minutes. Turn the duck breasts over and cook for another 5 minutes. Duck should be medium-rare. Let rest for another 5 minutes.

In the meantime, mix the spinach with the olive oil, lemon, salt and freshly ground pepper:

2 cups fresh spinach
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Divide the spinach into four servings and place on 4 individual plates. Top with portions of the white bean salad. Slide the duck breast diagonally against the grain. On 4 individual plates, place spinach first, then bean salad and on top the duck slices.

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On our last day in Florence we visited the Museum Bargello, a former barracks and prison filled with a remarkable collection of Renaissance works including the famous Della Robbio glazes.   Many of those terra-cotta rounds were a part of Professor Loescher’s slide presentation at Convito during his lecture “Florence – The Food, The Wine, The Renaissance.” Della Robbio had developed a pottery glaze in the 1400’s in order to make his creations more durable outdoors. All three of us were lovers of ceramics so we continued our ceramica discussion over lunch remarking on how charming these glazes were and happily anticipating our own upcoming ceramic purchases in the many Tuscan towns and villages that were next on our itinerary. Tuscany is one of Italy’s best and most respected pottery centers and we were determined to leave with our share of ceramica loot.

Cantinetta Antinori is another of my favorite Florence restaurant destinations. Convito’s connection with the Antinori family goes back to 1980. Marchese Piero Antinori, president of Marchesi Antinori, one of the most historic and prestigious names in Tuscany, conducted a wine tasting in the early eighties (see blog – Umbria I – Generations) at Convito. My family also stayed at his Umbrian wine estate Castello della Sala (an Umbrian 14th century castle) in 1989 so I was very familiar with the magic and breadth of the Antinori name, a family involved in the production of wine for over six centuries.

Karen Butler sketch of Cantinetta Antinori © Karen Butler

Karen Butler sketch of Cantinetta Antinori
© Karen Butler

Cantinetta Antinori is located in the historic center of Florence on the ground floor of the Antinori family mansion (the Palazzo). The building itself is a sensational example of the Florentine architecture of the mid-1400’s. Often referred to as a wine bar, the elegant room is like no “wine bar” I have ever visited. It reeks of class and good taste like everything the Antinori family does. Service was impeccable and of course, the wine list, as expected, was superb. We ordered a bottle of Villa Antinori Bianco (light, but it was lunch and we had more art to discover that afternoon) and toasted to our marvelous – but almost finished – artistic adventure in Florence; a blending of art, wine and food. We also toasted the Antinori family as one of the most forward thinking wine families in the world, known for their excellent Chiantis and Super Tuscan wines, especially the well regarded Solaia and Tignanello.

Our lunch began with one of the most classic of Tuscan foods – Crostini di Fegatini – bread slices topped with a liver pate – an iconic Tuscan appetizer. Was there ever a more “sober” Tuscan dish? We enjoyed their savory straightforward taste, soaked in the atmosphere and watched Karen sketch some of the guests in this fabulous Cantinetta. She always seems to capture the most interesting people in the room – usually beautiful but at the same time somewhat outrageous!

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Crostini Fegato

4 servings

 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup finely diced red onion
3 anchovy fillets, finely diced
2 tablespoons fresh sage, finely diced
½ pound chicken livers
½ cup dry red wine
salt & freshly ground pepper
pinch chili pepper flakes
8 (1 – inch thick) slices peasant bread

sage leaves for garnish

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, anchovy fillets and sage. Sauté for 5 – 6 minutes. Add the chicken livers and stir until lightly browned approximately 4 – 5 minutes. Add the wine. Reduce by half. Lower heat and simmer for another 15 minutes. Season to taste. Remove from heat.

Mash the mixture until lumpy. Stir in chili pepper flakes.

Toast the bread until golden brown. Spread equal amounts of the liver mixture over each slice of bread. Decorate with sage leaves

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Our last afternoon in Florence was glorious.   The blue cloudless sky convinced us to choose an outdoor artistic experience; a stroll in the Boboli Gardens, a famous park in the middle of Florence. We first did a mini tour of the Pitti Palace (situated at the front of the gardens) which houses important collections of art (too extensive for a half day if we wanted to also see the gardens so we did a limited tour) then spent the rest of the afternoon admiring this large, elegant Italian style garden filled with statues, fountains, grottos and amazing foliage. We ended our stroll at Fontana del Bacchino (little Bacchus) – the court dwarf (considered to be a lucky charm) – happily drunk, completely naked and riding a turtle. “I like his big tummy”, said Karen rubbing her own. We all could relate to big tummies after our many Tuscan meals. And who could not be charmed with this humorous, somewhat grotesque Bacchus and his unbridled joy ride on a turtle?

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The next day we took our Tuscan art, food and wine ventures into the countryside. Badia al Colitbuono located in Gaiole in Chianti, was our first stop. We not only looked forward to again tasting their products (all of which Convito carried) but tasting them and learning about their history and origins in the very place they were produced. Of course, we assumed art would be a part of this beautiful and historic estate. How could it not be when one of the owners was a descendant of the De Medici family, a family known since the 1500’s for their patronage of the arts?

Lorenza De’ Medici and husband, Piero Stucchi-Prinetti were the owners of Badia al Coltibuono. Originally purchased in 1846 by the great grandfather of Piero Strucchi- Prinetti (a prestigious Florentine banker), Badia al Coltibuono (“abbey of the good harvest”) can trace its roots all the way back to Etruscan times when the Vallombrosan monks, an offshoot of the Benedictine monks, founded the Abbey and planted the very first vineyards. It eventually became a center for wine production in this upper Chianti area.

badia_al_coltiorono_dogs-CCImagine our nervousness knocking at the door of this 11th century villa anticipating a meeting with an actual de’ Medici descendant. Maria, a Chicagoan working on the estate, warmly greeted us and gave us a tour through the abbey, the ancient cellar and the beautiful Renaissance gardens. Two handsome white dogs accompanied her. Colleen, an avowed dog lover, was so enamored with the dogs she had trouble concentrating on Maria’s excellent commentary. I must say, they were lovely animals, so gentle and well behaved.

We were led to a lovely sitting room whose pristine white walls were lined with rich (we assumed historic) tapestries to wait for Lorenza. Her son Roberto joined us for a glass of Rosato. Graceful and dignified, Lorenza arrived and invited us to join her outside to relax and finish our Rosato while we waited for lunch to be served. A discussion of their products and their cooking school followed. The school is conducted in the Coltibuono’s family kitchen and features the flavors and tastes of Tuscany. At the time of our visit in the spring of 1987, Lorenza had already written several cookbooks and was in the process of writing more. (Today she has written more than 28 books).   She was also just putting the finishing touches on her book on Renaissance Gardens “The Renaissance of Italian Gardens”, exploring the artistic flair and genius of gardens during that time in history. The serene garden we were sitting in was shaded by a big old lovely tree and provided magnificent views of the vine-clad hills surrounding the estate. Round, brown chickens clucked back and forth on the hillside in front of us while those two handsome dogs, joined by their aging but still handsome mother, lay perfectly quiet on the ground beside us. It was all quite idyllic.

We adjourned to the kitchen for lunch beginning with as assortment of fresh vegetables and breads perfect for dipping in the excellent Badia al Coltibuono Extra Virgin Olive oil, which had been poured into small Tuscan ceramic bowls at each of our places. A baked pasta timbale made with spaghetti and egg followed accompanied by a simple salad of excellent greens dressed with the estate’s olive oil and vinegar. A glass of the estate’s Chianti Classico complimented our delicious lunch.

dog_badia-CCWe hated to see this lovely day come to an end. When it was time to leave all three of us thanked Lorenza and Roberto profusely while at the same time, peppering them with a myriad of questions – each relevant to our own personal agendas. Karen, an accomplished gardener, wanted to know when the Renaissance Garden book would be published, I inquired about the possibility of Lorenza doing a cooking demo at Convito during her next U. S. cooking school tour (which she did – a demo on cooking with vegetables held at Chicago Convito in late 1987) and Colleen was desperately trying to figure out how she could buy one of those white dogs – or at least one of its descendants. I think she would have packed one up in her suitcase if there had been any possibility.

Note: Today at the Abbey the sixth generation has take over. Emanuela manages the winery with the help of her three brothers; Roberto who is head winemaker, Paolo who oversees the restaurant and Guido who runs hospitality.

My visit to the nearby Tenuta di Capezzana, a historic estate located in the small Carmignano appellation in northern Tuscany owned by the Bonacossi family was not a part of my trip with Karen and Colleen, but was some twelve years later. This amazing estate so fit the theme of this blog – art, wine and food – that I felt it needed to be included. Tenuta di Capezzana has much in common with Badia al Coltibuono. Both produce wonderful Tuscan wines, exceptional olive oils, conduct well-respected cooking schools and have incredible family histories – histories that date back for centuries. My daughter (and Convito partner) Candace Warner, Candace’s husband (my son-in-law and food photographer for this blog), Rob Warner and good friend Nancy Harris drove from our quarters in the Chianti hills one beautiful fall morning in 2000 to visit this amazing estate. 79-year-old handsome Count Ugo Bonacossi warmly greeted us. I had not seen him and his lovely wife Lisa since they visited Convito in the mid-eighties.

Candace, Nancy Brussat and Nancy Harris  with Count Ugo Bonacossi

Candace, Nancy and Nancy Harris with Count Ugo Bonacossi

Villa di Capezzana Carmignano is one of my favorite wines. If you define Super Tuscan as a wine combining the Italian Sangiovese and the French Cabernet (as many do) then this wine can be considered a Super Tuscan and was way ahead of its time in that category. The wine dates back 3000 years and is produced in only 13 estates. With a composition of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon it is a rich, powerful wine with silky tannins and notes of raspberries, currants and dark chocolate. It is not as well known as many other Tuscan wines but the Count’s dedication and hard work during his lifetime did much to elevate both the quality and reputation of Carmignano.

Candace and Nancy with the Count

Candace and Nancy with the Count

We were treated to a wonderfully warm and informative tour of the property, the winery and the olive oil center. We were also given a tour of the family’s private quarters, which housed an amazing collection of art Tintorellos, della Robbias, rare pottery from Sicily and Spain and breathtaking oriental carpets. The Bonacossis are known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Nearly half of that vast collection is on view at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Once our tour was finished we adjourned to the terrace for a divine lunch and a tasting of the estate’s wines and olive oil. I love the Count’s sense of humor. The lunch was not only delicious, but much fun.   All four of us are great appreciators of wine and food – Candace, Rob and I with our Convito connection and Nancy Harris a former cooking school manager and owner of a catering business – loved learning about all the details of this estate and its products.

Rob Warner, Nancy Harris, Candace and Nancy Brussat in a Tuscan restaurant in Montefelonico – Nancy waiting for the arrival of her ribollita

Rob Warner, Nancy Harris, Candace and Nancy Brussat in a Tuscan restaurant in Montefelonico – Nancy waiting for the arrival of her ribollita

Our lunch was splendid – course after course of excellent dishes beginning with a favorite Tuscan soup that Nancy Harris couldn’t seem to get enough of – Ribollita. We teased her that she was “ribolliting” her way through Tuscany ordering this famous Tuscan soup whenever she saw it on the menu – which was often. Since that trip I have considered her a ribollita expert so I asked her for a recipe for this blog. I just tested it at Convito. It’s damn good and will be added to Convito’s soup selection.

Ribollita means “reboiled”. Its peasant origins date back to the Middle Ages. There are many variations but most contain leftover bread, cannellini beans and vegetables – from carrots, onions and cabbage to more exotic items like cavolo nero or swiss chard.

 

© rob warner photography 2015

© rob warner photography 2015

Nancy Harris’s Ribollita

Yield: 8 – 10 servings

1/3 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil + additional for serving
1/3 pound diced pancetta, finely chopped (can substitute smoked bacon)
2 cups chopped onions
1 ½ cups chopped carrots
1 ½ cups chopped celery
3 cloves garlic, chopped plus 2 additional cloves for bread
3 15 oz. cans cannellini beans, drained
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
1 small head Savoy cabbage, coarsely chopped (8-10 cups)
1 bunch kale, stems removed and discarded, then coarsely chopped (8-10 cups) or substitute Swiss Chard
6 cups chicken stock + additional if needed
2 t. dried basil
2 t. dried thyme
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ – 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on your taste_
8 1/2” thick slices of country bread (Tuscan style if possible)
Salt and additional pepper to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano

In a stockpot, heat the 1/3 Cup olive oil. When warm add the pancetta, cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally then add the onions. Cook over medium to low heat until the onions are translucent, about 7 minutes. Continue stirring occasionally. Then add the carrots, celery and 3 cloves chopped garlic and continue to cook and stir occasionally until the vegetables are tender. Do not let the vegetables brown.

In a food processor, puree one can of Cannellini beans. Drain the can of tomatoes and reserve 1 cup of the juice. Coarsely chop the tomatoes. Lower the heat and add the pureed beans, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, 6 cups chicken stock and the cup of reserved tomato juice. Add the dried basil, dried thyme, red pepper flakes and pepper. Stir to blend.

Simmer partially covered 1½ to 2 hours, until everything is soft. Stir occasionally to cover the cabbage and kale with the liquid as it cooks. Add the other 2 cans of cannellini beans and stir into the soup.

Cool, and then cover and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, bring the soup up to a boil and simmer a few minutes. You want a thick soup, but you can additional chicken stock to thin if desired. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Put the bread under the broiler and toast on both sides. Cut the remaining 2 cloves of garlic in half, and when the bread is ready, remove from the oven, and rub with the raw garlic. Then drizzle with remaining olive oil.

Put the bread in the bottom of soup bowls, and ladle the hot soup on top. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan and serve. Or place bread in side of soup (as pictured)

Note: Everyone makes their own version of Ribollita, but they all include onions, carrots, celery, beans, cabbage (black cabbage, cavolo nero if available) bread and olive oil. If you have leftovers such as brussel sprouts, potatoes, green beans or peas consider adding them when reheating.

 

 

Sadly we said goodbye to these wonderful people and to a visit filled to the brim with good food and wine and new and interesting information. It would be the last time I saw the Count. He died in 2012 at the age of 90. His kindness and that of his wife Contessa Lisa will remain a hallmark in my collected memories of this most incredible region. Today the driving force behind Capezzana is Ugo and Lisa’s daughter Countess Beatrice Contini Bonacossi.

I have gone on many trips – inside and outside of Italy – where art was the centerpiece. But this trip to Florence with Karen and Colleen stands out. It was not just about art. It was about the way art, food and wine play off one another. “The identifying traits of a culture are present in the taste and texture of food, just as they are present in a shard of pottery or fragment of a manuscript,” writes Tom Fredrickson in his book Culinary Art published by the Chicago Art Institute.

Our discussions during this Tuscan journey were often fascinating but always, no matter what esoteric or intellectual tangent we got off on, enjoyment was central – enjoyment of the food we were eating, enjoyment of the wine we were drinking and enjoyment of whatever museum or restaurant or garden we were visiting. Tuscany could not have been a better classroom.   The beauty of everything – the cities, small towns even the landscape itself brought to mind art and artistic pleasure.

Being with Karen who has had a big influence on my artistic sensibilities through the years, enhanced the whole experience. A student of history like everyone in my family and a believer in detailed research (as was Colleen), we came to each visit, each meal each glass of wine armed with facts and stories. I always wanted to hear her assessment of the day’s artistic adventures. And, of course, I was always secretly hoping that she would pull out her sketchbook and sketch away. I have many of those sketched moments in journals or hanging on my walls. Their presence along with her watercolors brings so much pleasure to me and to my customers. Art does that. And Karen’s paintings seem to bring to mind a special joy. Thr characters in her sketches and paintings, whether engrossed in a mood of mystical contemplation or enjoying an espresso surrounded by whimsical bands of color, do exactly what I want them to do; enrich the Convito dining experience. And each time I travel to a place like Tuscany and embrace the aesthetics that surround me, I am more and more convinced that with the right combination of food, wine and art – magic occurs.

Nancy & Karen

Nancy & Karen in Tuscany

 

 

 

 

 

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About Nancy Brussat

I am the owner of an Italian café and market in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb on the north side of Chicago.  The original Convito Italiano was opened in 1980.  It included a deli, bakery, prepared foods, groceries and wine.  Today it is renamed Convito Café & Market and has expanded to include an 80 seat restaurant.   In preparation for launching my business I wanted to learn as much as possible about the food, the wine and the culture of this country I so came to love. I had the good fortune to have extraordinary teachers, Milanese residents and future partners Paolo Volpara and his mother Wanda Bottino.  During my frequent travels from 1979 to 1986 I was able to cook with Wanda in her small Milanese kitchen during the week then travel to different regions with Paolo on the weekends. I continue visiting Italy to this day but this was my time of total Italian immersion.   It was the beginning of an adventure that carried me to the four corners of Italy and every region in-between.  It was also the beginning of another kind of journey – a personal one that opened up possibilities I never considered or knew existed.  It was a heady time for a girl brought up in the fifties.    
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2 Responses to Tuscany II “An Artist’s Palate”

  1. Candace Warner says:

    Fabulous! Great job So interesting!!! U r terrific!!! Xo C

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. katherine catalano says:

    Today I read this blog for the first time (all of your blogs usually get a second or third go-round before I venture a comment), but if one can stagger sitting down, that’s what I am doing. I had to let you know my first impression. This one has a serious mien: Initial reading prompted my letting you know I notice that you consistently give credit where credit is due. Even the doggie gets his day–beautiful and gentile. You are exceptionally adept at bringing all your senses into the experience of enjoying a place, a person, a meal.

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