Slice of Heaven

Cortona Italy - home away from home
by Michele Knapp

Five in the morning, the sweet aroma of pastries and bread baking awakens me. The wind takes shape as it floats the sheers into our room and then takes them back again. Still slightly dulled by the jet lag, I’m drawn to the window by all senses. I discover our room is a fifth story perch; a stone’s throw from the 13th Century bell tower just past the ancient clay roof tiles.

The dim early morning revealed two tiny bats dancing, circling and then diving toward our open window, only to peel away just before attempting entry. Bravely I leaned out to face them, to be part of their dare; the tiny little shrieks assured me they were up to it.

Off in the distance the tops of the Tuscan Apennines were lit with bolts that lasted a couple of seconds, during these moments, one could see the thousand foot vertical clouds delivering their wrath to those beneath, far from our peaceful palace known as the Hotel San Michele inside the city walls of Cortona.

Rolling over Dave sleepily asks, “Honey, what are you doing hanging out the window?”

“Reuniting myself with this slice of heaven on earth! Dave, do you smell that deliciousness in the air?”

“Could that be breakfast baking”? Dave inquired. We both agreed it was worth checking out the dining room now, before other guests woke with the same idea.

It has been a little over 10 years now that I met Paolo, the owner of the hotel, when he sold me my villa. Time stands still here. Meeting him on the threshold that morning, we customarily hugged and kissed as though we were never apart. San Michele is our home away from our home in Italy.

As always I ask Dave, “Can we please stop to see Lilli and Isabella first at the Teatro Signorelli?” He nods and replies, as always, “On one condition; a cappuccino at the Sports Bar along the way.”

It’s really not a sports bar; it was called that a few years back but we cannot seem to break the habit. This is a family business, like all here on this mountaintop. The same happy faces we have known over the years greet us with the best cup ever.

Dave’s little spoon scrapes the last of the sweet foam, “A little early yet for Lilli and Isabella. What do you think about stopping in on Marco?”

“Let’s do it.”

Marco Molesini is the proprietor of the most fantastic wine shop in Tuscany. Since 1937, the Molesini family has been involved with wine and have run the market in the main Piazza Della ­Repubblica.

Dave strolls in with a high five,”Hellooo Marco! We are back!” More hugs and kisses abound.

Dave wanted to have some local table wines for our large Sunday dinners back home. Marco recommended the Il Castagno, Il Bosco and L’Usciolo Syrahs. For the cold New York winter nights, we went with Brunello di Montalcino’s from Verbena, La Serena and Le Chiuse, all 2012s.

I had to add, “Marco, can we please delay shipment until first press?” Pleading, “I want to include a case of Cortona olive oil.” Nectar of the Gods ­– the bright green kind!

With a wink and a back slap, we complete our order and are gifted a fine Brunello, a 2010 for our evening cocktail hour.

The clouds of the early morning never made it this far; we pulled down the polarized glasses as the sun bounced brightly off the coral and yellow hues of the Piazza Luca Signorelli. Aptly named for the resident Renaissance artist whose famous works can be appreciated at the Museo Diocesano, the Cattedrale Santa Maria and the Santuario Di Santa Margherita, all of which are inside the walls.

I turned to Dave smiling, “Finally, can we now go see Lilli and Isabella?” A kiss on the forehead assures we are on our way!

Lilli and Isabella are a dynamic mother/daughter tag team that operate the famous outdoor Caffé del Teatro Signorelli which overlooks the piazza and offers the warm Tuscan sun to bask in while dining on the most amazing, freshly prepared traditional dishes.

Lilli is the master chef while Isabella, her daughter, is a most charming and humble communicator of patrons wants from the kitchen. Here the menu reflects the seasons. As it is late September, there is no shortage of porcini mushrooms and truffles. Yummy!

Sneaking up on Isabella, a tap on the shoulder, she turns, her face alight, “Michele! Dave!” More hugs and kisses. “I knew you were coming – someone saw you passing earlier!”

 “Lilli is not here at the moment but she is coming so you must sit down and stay. She would be so upset if you didn’t!” Isabella was forgiving in her demand and smiled, showing us to a corner table.

We hydrated while gazing over the menu. Looking into the reflection of Dave’s sunglasses, I could see Lilli closing in on our table from behind. Jumping up, I turned to meet her open arms.

There was certainly a lot to catch up on, however Lilli was very intent on preparing us a lunch to remember. Apparently she had been out procuring some special ingredients for the afternoon feast.

Lilli’s only question, “Pollo o Vitello?” Dave and I simultaneously, “Vitello!”

First came the Caprese salad on a fresh bed of greens garnished with basil from a huge planter that sits outside the kitchen door on the terrace. I ask Dave, “Please pass the olive oil; I can’t get enough of this!”

After some moaning over our salad, we sipped the cool Tuscan white brought to our table and before we knew it, Isabella was back with two steaming plates of freshly made tagliatelle topped with sautéed veal smothered in a rich porcini mushroom and truffle sauce.

Beyond special; this was a most magnificent meal. After finishing everything on our plates – as one can never leave anything behind here – we bow out. Napkins waving like white flags of surrender, we declined dessert but insisted on the company of two dear friends over espresso.

Promising to return for dinner, a late, late dinner, we parted. Prepared with a great sigh, we turned to face the road leading up. We would hike to the top, passing the Monastero Di Santa Chiara, the Chiesa Di Santi Niccolo and the grand Santuario Di Santa Margherita finishing at the Fortezza Di Girifalco, formally the Fortress of the Medicis. The overlook has a magnificent view, the valley of Camucia, the Appenines and the unforgettable Lago Trasimeno, the largest lago in Toscana.

The time passed very quickly while visiting our slice of heaven on earth. Our next endeavor, a high-speed train to Napoli where we pick up connecting ferries to the Amalfi Coast. Stay tuned.

Grazie mille; ciao!