I write this with a chilled martini glass of bubbly Citrosodina (think Italian Alka-Seltzer) by my side. Here's why: I just got back from an Italian wedding.
If there's one area where Italians excel, one innate skill they possess that places them leaps-and-bounds beyond all others--it's feasting. Indeed, if marathon eating were an Olympic sport, the Italians would be undefeated world champions. No one can touch them.
Let me describe the proceedings. After a hot, midday ceremony in the Red Room of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, our group--some 100 of us--made its way to a lovely agriturismo in the nearby Chianti hills. We arrived at about 1pm, and awaiting us was a fabulous outdoor buffet of traditional antipasti layed out on a mile-long groaning-board and flanked by a battalion of waiters who began serving us with crisp, military precision. People fell upon the food with rapacious enthusiasm, like bliss-filled wolves. All the Tuscan crowd-pleasers were present: a spinel-colored haunch of prosciutto being carved by a sepoy-like, grave-faced old codger; trays of fried zucchini and their blossoms, eggplant, and squares of polenta; little quivering balls of fresh mozzarella swimming in their own milk in a large silver urn; slices of pecorino drizzled with local honey; bruschetta with fresh tomato and basil; chicken-liver crostini; a huge terracotta terrine brimming with thick pappa col pomodoro, and a bowl of cold farro salad. There was prosecco in abundance--always the kick-off libation in Italy--and white wine, vodka-infused punch, and fruit juice for the kiddies.
Then, after a while, we were ushered into the airy restaurant, where we essentially spent the next three hours at table.
We began with a succession of three primi: risotto with porcini mushrooms, straccetti with zucchini flowers, and crespelle alla fiorentina (delicious spinach-filled crepes in a tomato-béchamel sauce). Then an enormous veal roast that had been set aflame was paraded around the dining-room before being carved and served with rosemary-flecked roasted potatoes. After that, we were given thick slices of rare, wood-grilled bistecca alla fiorentina, grilled porcini caps, along with a refreshing salad of mixed greens. There was plenty of Chianti to wash it all down with, and baskets of excellent saltless bread at hand. We lacked for nothing (except perhaps a vomitorium to repair to now and again). Finally, of course, came the wedding cake: a giant, colorful pastry-cream tart topped with fresh, dewy berries.
The children (mine included) began gamboling about--having miraculously, but entirely in the way of Italian children, managed to stay more or less at table all this time and eat their fill. A small baby cried and mewed testily until tasty tidbits of Tuscan fare found their way to her mouth. A spunky chocolate labrador named Rigoletto careened around wildly, at intervals performing a sort of canine tarantella. At about 5 pm, I stumbled away from the table and out into the surrounding garden, utterly spent.
As you can see, dear Readers, meals of this sort aren't for neophytes, or the faint-hearted, or people who are afraid of carbs. This is epic eating, Ironman eating--the gastronomic equivalent of scaling K2. To make it to the top one must be fearless, determined, and a little mad. Or at the very least, Italian.
Mind you, I thoroughly enjoy a good meal and a good wine--why, excess is my middle name. (I often think that in a past life I could easily have been a sybaritic nineteenth-century burgermeister who'd polish off a twelve-course meal at Maxim's in solemn and reverent joy, then top it off with a fat Cuban cigar and a Moulin Rouge showgirl). But even after some 10 years in the Bel Paese, I still have trouble keeping pace with the locals.
It's not over till the fat lady sings, as they say. A table had been set up in the garden, arrayed with digestivi and various liqueurs, trays of cream-filled bigné, fingers of the very Florentine schiacciata all'uva, and an immense bowl of sliced fresh peaches on ice. Attendants brought tray after tray of espresso out to waiting hands and gasps of pleasure all around. I had a shot of Montenegro and collapsed in a chair.
Incredibly, as I slumped in defeat, the Italian revelers carried on, smoking cigars, nibbling pastries, and drinking Sambuca. The thing is, this wasn't even their second-wind--they'd never lost the first one. It was awe-inspiring.
Around 6pm, as Ride of the the Valkyries blared from the stereo system, some of the hunkier young men stripped to their underwear and jumped into the pool. Then the bride jumped in. The groom joined her, and general youthful mayhem ensued. I was surprised they didn't sink like stones after all that food and drink. If there was such a place as a Tuscan Valhalla, these would be the resident Gods.
Finally, at nearly 7pm, the gastric stupor overtaking my body like gangrene, the fat lady sang. And--my dear Readers--she was me.