We liked Lorenzo Migliorini before we met him. Before we even set foot on Italian soil.
If his emails were a day or two late, he always apologized, saying he'd been busy "working out." (Later, we realized he'd just meant "working," but we preferred the mistranslation.)
Lorenzo is a private chef, caterer, market guide, and deli owner in Tuscany. He comes from a long line of Tuscans, all of whom have lived within a 15 mile radius "forever."
I look outside when he tells me this, at my dad who's here from New York, at my brother who's here from Boston, at my husband and kids, here with me from California. I tell Lorenzo, "It's not like this where I'm from," and I'm both sad and glad as I say it.
I'm hanging with Lorenzo as he cooks in the kitchen of the house we're renting. My stepmom splurged on this one-night treat for us all, figuring, rightly so, that on day two of our trip we'd just as soon eat at home as go to a restaurant.
The large windows are open and a breeze floats in. I watch Lorenzo work.
He sears a veal loin on all sides, sprinkles it with salt, and adds wine, which bursts into controlled flames as he tips the skillet. He covers the pot, allowing the meat to braise slowly while he sets to work on the sauce.
From his bag Lorenzo pulls out tiny glass jars, each one filled with a different treasure: pink peppercorns, pistachios, pine nuts, juniper berries. He minces rosemary and sage on a board, adds in the nuts, and transfers it to what looks like a metal fish poacher. In goes the olive oil, the peppercorns, the juniper, some fennel seed, and a big squeeze of orange juice. Whisk, whisk, whisk.
Lorenzo tells me stories as he cooks.
"Our grandmothers used to cook the food," he says. "They'd put it on the fire, go to work in the fields, and when they'd come back, it would be cooked."
I think of my grandmothers, long gone, one a teacher, the other a jewelry store owner with my grandfather. "It's not like this where I'm from," I say.
There are no screens on the windows.
A few bees buzz in. I try to ignore them, failing, but Lorenzo pays them no heed.
"When I was a child," he tells me, "I went to the cemetry once with my mother and stuck my head in a tomb. There was a hive in there. I got stung eleven times."
"Aren't you afraid of bees now, Lorenzo, given what happened?"
"No," he says. "They can't hurt me now."
When the veal is cooked through, Lorenzo transfers it to the fish poacher with the seasoned herb paste. Covers it with foil and allows the meat to absorb the flavors as it rests on the mantel.
He dresses the salad. Composes the antipasti.
It's a beautiful plate of food, this starter. Fresh figs he's pierced with rounds of salame, two types of pecorino, marinated artichokes, and arugula simply dressed with syrupy balsamic. He later lays a sheet of braseola over the greens.
Earlier in the day, he'd made fresh tagliatelli. He drops it in water and re-heats a sauce from porcinis he's foraged.
Soon, Lorenzo carries the food outside.
And we gather. Californians, Bostonians, New Yorkers together, passing food prepared by this charming Italian man, on a cool Sunday night in Tuscany.
It may not be like this where I'm from, but for a moment, it's like this where I am.
And that's good enough for me.