My entire life I dreamed of going to Italy one day. I was drawn to the art, fashion, food, and incredible beauty across the country. I knew that as soon as I stepped off the plane, drove into the city and out to the Tuscan countryside, I would never want to leave.

The lush rolling green hills, thousand-year-old castles, and intimacy between the soaring cobblestone walls in the city of Florence was captivating. The warmth and genuine interest in all people’s lives which I encountered was eye-opening. The numerous pottery, furniture, and clothing boutiques were almost overwhelming. But the thing that Italians value most, and what truly stood out, was the importance of food.

The country has grasped the concept that using only a few fresh ingredients can create the most complex, mouth-watering meal and that a warm smile, conversation, and genuine interest in your well-being is the true main dish. I believe that this in itself is the reason why Italians have mastered the culinary experience, and it is a huge part of why I walked away from one of my meals there feeling only the urge to return. 

Back to That Night: My Meal to Remember

As I sit patiently in the backseat of the car, weaving around and around the back roads roads of the Tuscan countryside, my stomach begins to churn. I stare longingly out the window, counting the minutes until we arrive at La Castellana and I am able to try the famous truffles Jody and Barry couldn’t stop talking about. But when I step out of the car I am instantly hit with the scent of a burning fire. My nose crinkles in the cold stinky air and I lean down to sniff my black waffled shirt to ensure that my least favorite smell isn’t sticking to my new clothes.

Green planted trees line the front of the grey stone exterior which connects to a small yellow building. A red sign with black block lettering spelling the words "La Castellana" arches over the front door in the shape of a rainbow. Iron detailing, twists and twirls, fills the space in between the sign and top of the entrance. When the glass door swings open in front of me, I am immediately enveloped by warmth. The crisp December air is locked out behind me as I make my way into the tiny space.

Hannah Darby

The room is filled with reds, greens, and browns. Two olive branches hang from the ceiling and ruby- red chairs stand out at each of the six wooden tables making up the restaurant. Yellow, romantic light and gentle music fill the space, creating a sense of intimacy. We are quickly embraced with hugs by a short woman whose dark frilly curls are pinned back against her head. She leads us to the back corner of the restaurant where a table is set for three. I sit comfortably against the wooden chair and slip my hands under the silverware to slide the cream cloth napkin onto my lap.

As soon as we are seated our waitress and hostess, Asia, begins to speak a jumble of Italian and English with Jody and Barry, my grandparents’ closest friends. My relationship with Jody and Barry began when they started attending Hanukkah dinners with my family. Each year they would surprise me with a gift from Italy, always something unique that I adored. I continue to wear the navy blue cross-body purse made out of Italian leather stamped with the Florentine crest I received four years ago. My grandparents constantly gushed about their beautiful house, a 500-year-old guard house to a castle in the countryside outside of Florence. I was intrigued by stories of their traditional brick oven pizza and the incredible wonders Tuscany had to offer. I always looked up to Jody and Barry, jealous of the second life they had together in this mystical dreamland I hoped to visit.

My grandpa has always told me that the ability to create strong, positive relationships is the most important skill you can have in life. In the United States it is rare to eat at a restaurant where you are friends with the owners; however, in Italy it is completely the opposite. As the conversation with Asia continues, Jody and Barry speak about her mother, the head chef and creator of all of the recipes on the menu, and introduce me by explaining that I am visiting from Salamanca, Spain, where I have been studying abroad for the past three months. Although studying in Spain for my first semester of college was a complete surprise and being plopped into a different country and forced to speak a language I wasn’t that comfortable with was hard at first, I can’t imagine it happening any differently. Being in a small group of 28 students and going on trips and excursions together every weekend made it almost too easy to create close bonds. And the best part, of course, was that I could jet off to Italy for a weekend.

As time passes, the restaurant slowly fills up with people until each table is occupied. Chatter and laughter float through the air, and soon enough a plate of tagliatelle pasta accompanied by a creamy Parmesan truffle sauce is placed onto our table. Asia comes over with a fresh black truffle in her right hand and a grater in her left. She slowly shaves a heaping mound of truffle on top of each plate of pasta.

My fork twirls around and around the thick, creamy noodles, scooping up a thinly shaved truffle with them. When the pasta hits the tip of my tongue the savory taste of Parmesan cheese is meshed into the earthy, garlicky, deliciously unique flavor of the truffle. I sit there, entirely stunned. Expecting the overpowering flavor that most commonly accompanies truffle fries, I was overjoyed that this flavor remained completely distinct. Bite after bite, I scramble to continue filling my mouth with this new, almost inexplicable flavor until there is nothing left on the plate. I begin to ramble on and on to Jody and Barry about how this pasta is unlike anything I have ever tasted. They sit quietly with big smiles on their faces, just as excited as I am to have discovered this new obsession.

Hannah Darby

When the balsamic-glazed steak comes out next, I am again surprised with flavors I had never imagined could complement each other so perfectly. Aged balsamic vinegar is one of my favorite additions to almost any dish. I love it on salad, pizza, vegetables, and more, but I had never thought of eating it on steak. I am curious when the meat arrives in front of me and overjoyed once again at the flavor, albeit different from the first, overall unique from anything I have ever experienced. The thick sweetness of the glaze sinking into the juicy, perfectly cooked red meat is divine. Again I devour every bite, each one better than the last. After we have licked the plates of each dish that was served, Asia walks back to the table with a small mason jar of homemade truffle honey. “For you,” she says as she places the clear jar down in front of me. I sit there in awe that a restaurant would give me something so special to take home just because the owners are close friends of my hosts.

Forever Changed

Before this exceptional meal, Italy was a dream compiled of ideas Jody and Barry placed into my head. The incredible ingredients, creativity, and traditional beauty drew me there. What surprised me was the people. Every store I went into, conversation was made, and every meal I ate out was accompanied by an interest in my life and a gift or free drink. I never expected to feel so included in a culture I once felt so distant from. It was so exciting to feel like I was a part of something so beautiful. The idea of being Italian -- dressing in fashionable clothes, speaking a romantic language, expressing my love for art -- had always seemed so perfect. I left feeling as if I needed to return; like there’s something there I’m supposed to be a part of.