Enoteca Calasto

I started writing this post at the height of the summer season while I was working crazy hours and just found it again. It has been so long and I need to get back to writing! Although it is winter here now, I will finish and post this to remind us of summer.

Summer is a far cry from the winters in Lucca when the city closes down and you have to say a silent prayer that somewhere a bar is open to take shelter and drown your sorrows before Lucca’s torrential rain drowns you. Yes, my friends, even in Italy there can be rough times that not even pasta can fix.

Then the summer comes and it is mayhem in our little walled city. It’s like the gates open at Disney World and everyone rushes in with their maps trying to decide what to see first: The Tower of Terror? Or The Guinigi Tower…Bumper cars? Or as I refer to it: tourists standing in the middle of the street almost being hit by cars, bikes, and anything moving. Stop doing that, tourists. Really.

Everything is open, the city is alive, there’s music everywhere from opera to Lucca Music Festival which this year featured THE BACKSTREET BOYS. They were back. Alright. The juxtaposition of the historic medieval city and the modern summer faire makes Lucca a haven for travelers from all over the world. Summer here is what made me fall in love with Lucca. But all of the love in the world was not going to pay for my rent and my peschini. After a year of being led on with jobs on three different occasions, I was finding it difficult to feasibly see working here.

Thankfully I stumbled into the right hands at Enoteca Calasto. It is a little wine bar that was just around the corner from my first apartment. Walking by it nearly everyday, I never thought I would end up finding a job there and over the season some wonderful friends. I walked in on a whim one day and asked a woman in Italian where I could find the boss. She answered me in perfect English, “I am the boss”. Of course I would find somewhere where the owners were English, it was fate! She said she wasn’t hiring for the season, but did need an extra hand during Lucca’s four-day Comic Con, which is essentially where the city fills with 20,000 people dressed like Pokemon. She continued to stress how insane it got, but I was just so ecstatic to have found a job that I didn’t care!

Loki and…something

Loki and…something

And then I did care. When I showed up a few months later for the days I was working, it was just a sea of human beings with swords, maces, crowns, and as promised, Pokemon costumes all shoving their way down the streets and flooding into bars. This was the first time I had ever waitressed IN MY LIFE. After the initial fear had worn off, my adrenaline was pumping and I was like a highly functioning octopus carrying two trays over my head, throwing sodas at people, “you want tortelli? YOU GOT IT”. My first day was 9 hours I think. When I returned home that night, I was literally the walking dead. I laid down in my bed with my sneakers on and passed out. How was I going to get through 3 more days like this?

The next day, one of the waitresses who had been working in the bar during the season FLIPPED OUT in the middle of the lunch rush and literally threw her apron down and yelled in Italian, “I’m out of here!” As much as I wanted to throw tortelli at her for leaving us short while we drowned in a lake of Mario Party characters, I yelled to our boss, “Hey! I’ll take her place during the season!”

That woman walking out coupled with my newfound octopus serving skills was the combination I needed! I was hired for the season as an apprentice worker. I was absolutely thrilled!

IMG_9669We opened in March and things were rather slow, but steadily picked up until the unstoppable summer arrived. Amidst the insanity of summer evening aperitivi, wine tastings, and late dinners all while working in an un-air conditioned bar, I was still quite charmed by the people I met on a daily basis. It seemed like I always had an encounter that was delightful and took my mind off of sweating through my clothes and sucking down ice in the back to keep cool. For every bad incident there is a good one that erases is. AndIMG_9728 I can’t even say “bad” because nothing truly out of control ever happened. It was more just having the capacity to get everything out on time while trying not to blow of curious tourists who asked me the same questions day in and day out about what I was doing here. One of my first weeks, an American stumbled in with a half-lit cigar and sunglasses on clearly a bit lost. His two friends joined him after and I found out he was Paris Hilton’s uncle. Another time, a sweet elderly British man chatted me up and told me just how much enjoying so much traveling on his own and all of the amazing things he was seeing. He thanked me profusely for taking the time to talk with him about his travels and his favorite books one called “Bad Monkey”. The next day I came to the bar to find a new copy of that very book he had left for me.IMG_0724

I started to profile people. You can’t not start doing that when you have people from all over the world stopping by day in and day out. On a normal day I would hear Italian, American English, British English, Australian English, German, French, and Russian. Occasionally Norwegian, Chinese, and Danish peppered the garden outside offering different tones and mannerisms. I could tell who was American by how they laughed- this rich warm guffaw that made me nostalgic for home. Surprisingly, the Norwegians were very loud! One of them explained to me that it is because everything in Norway is so expensive that when people go out they do not drink that much and instead for them here alcohol is so cheap so they have a really great time! The English were delightfully witty and charming and very happy to be in a culture when it is acceptable to day drink. The Germans were very demanding, but once everything was in front of them they were super appreciative and often handed you tips directly while thanking you. There were two types of Russian: the Russians who had extreme wealth like two middle-aged beautiful Russian men I served. They were dressed like royalty with gorgeous colored suits and jewels and spent over 200 euro between them. And then the Russians who came in large families and asked how much everything was and then asked for separate checks.

Politically correct melanzane

Politically correct melanzane

There was one day that my shift finished at 5:00 and it had been an incredibly busy and hot day. The other staff and I were dead tired and were counting down the minutes until we could go. And then at 4:45, 10 Russians showed up and wanted a bunch of lasagna. I nearly wept. It became an ongoing joke for the rest of the season to not get ready to leave until it was literally your time to leave because there was always the possibility of 10 Russians showing up at the last minute and asking for hot lasagna and cappuccino in 95 degree weather.

Medieval procession on a "normal" Sunday

Medieval procession on a “normal” Sunday

The Italians are great for the most part. They love to joke and make fun of you and pretend you messed their order up until the see the fear in your eyes and then throw their heads back laughing making the hand gesture for, “did I scare ya?!” Sometimes you get the ones who are never happy with what you bring them. When you ask them how everything was they tell you truthfully if they didn’t like it. And yet you can’t fault them. It is part of their culture to be honest about how they feel about food and wine and rightfully so. Most loved that I was American and spoke Italian. They really appreciated it and were always curious why I was here

Jedi candle break on a slow day

Jedi candle break on a slow day

I will say that making coffee for Italians is to this day one of the most stress-inducing things I have ever done. ALL THE COFFEE RULES. But for other people I really enjoyed getting

Suddenly all the Brits started dancing

Suddenly all the Brits started dancing

into a rhythm of making the coffee. I always kind of felt like a rock star and would smile to myself as I banged the old coffee out, flipped a few switches, and then set the plate, spoon, and chocolate up all in time to spin around and stop the machine. It was like a little dance. And there was something romantic about setting up in the morning. Laying the tables outside in the little garden in the piazza seemed like a quintessential Italian image to me- just setting up for the day, watching people pass by, having coffee. And for closing snuffing out the candles in the windows, bringing everything in, hurling garbage bags at each other, hitting one another with the broom, loving inflicting physical and emotional pain on each other.

"GOBBLE"

“GOBBLE”

I was nicknamed The Little Turkey by one of the Italian waiters near the beginning of the season because they couldn’t understand what I was saying when I spoke quickly in English and I talked all the time. If I started asking for things, one of them would let me finish talking and then go, “GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!!”. We always joked. Even our bosses were amazingly funny and always up for a good prank. It was a daily goal to offend each other to the point of no return: they made fun of my speaking Italian, I made fun of them speaking English (think of the most stereotypical Italian accent), we would write horrible things on each other’s water bottles. More often than not I would get a drawing of a turkey or “gobble” on mine. We IMG_0208would try to scare the living shit out of each other while closing the bar: standing outside the bathroom door, throwing the door open and screaming, hiding behind the bar and popping out, pretending our boss had called and was mad at someone. It was just too easy to freak each other out. There was more than once I had to duck down behind the bar to cover my mouth from spitting water everywhere after a well-timed joke.

Sara dancing to The Backstreet Boys

Sara dancing to The Backstreet Boys

Proseco break

Proseco break

An especially amazing thing though was bringing music to the bar. Shortly after I started, the owners asked me to do an opera night. They had never heard me sing before and the week leading up to it nervously asked me on a daily basis how I was doing and if I was ready. I kept telling them everything was fine because it was. I have been singing since I was 15. Singing in a bar wasn’t going to be something I would lose sleep over. The first night was a great success and for some reason our owners were shocked that I pulled it off! They said, “We didn’t know you could sing so well!” I said, “Why would you have taken such a huge risk?!” They had advertised that I would be singing and gave me a two-hour slot! It was hysterical. We were all cracking up because they really could not believe it. How silly! So it became a bi-weekly engagement for the rest of the year. Once it was summer, we set up a piano outside, added 15 extra tables, and I got to walk around the piazza that houses not only our bar, but the church where Puccini was baptized, and sing to almost 100 DSC_0156people who were either customers, or people passing through, stopping, and sitting on the church steps to listen for a bit. This was the Italy I imagined! Wine barista by day, opera diva by night.

It was a really amazing experience. I could honestly write a book about the customers I met whether I was wearing an apron serving glasses of wine or wearing diamond earrings and singing Puccini. It is so difficult to try and cram a whole year into a blog post. The people I worked with and for were amazing. We laughed a lot, fought a little, and danced to The Backstreet Boys daily. I will really miss having a job that made me feel like I was traveling to different countries every day. I still cannot get over the amount of people you meet just staying in one place and serving them local wine.

Enoteca Calasto 2014/15

Enoteca Calasto 2014/15

Food.

Guys…I haven’t written about food and I’ve lived here for over a year…how has no one called me on that?  I must say that I haven’t written about anything lately to be fair.  There have been a bunch of happenings and then Christmas came and went and now my dear American friend is visiting so I will have to get all caught up.

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Italians, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans: Everyone loves pasta!

 That all being said, I feel as though I do not need to explain the title of the post considering I’m in the country most famous for their history, their leather, their men (not together…but no judgment from me), and above all: their food.  It is indeed, as legend proclaims: absolutely f***ing fantastic. 

 One ponders (maybe aloud), “Who is the genius that created pasta? The most simple and yet most necessary staple in the Italian diet?”  And the answer is…ok I actually need to Google that… I got really ahead of myself there…

 aaaand the first answer that came up said it was actually invented in China!  I’m not doing too well here, am I?  Wait wait, ok now it says that they invented noodles, BUT noodles are not always pasta and that the famous forms such as lasagna and linguini were invented in Ancient Rome (I’m sweating right now).  So, yes, it was officially invented in Italy.  I’m sorry, but while the Chinese do indeed produce everything sold in America, this one is going to the Italians.

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Fresh made pasta with porcini mushrooms

 Pasta:  Do I get tired of it?  Yes.  And yet, every time I groan that I don’t want to eat pasta and that I’m sick of it, the moment I put a forkful of in my mouth, I am absolutely positive that it was the right choice.  It is the most versatile food on the planet.  Just the other day we made a frittata with left over pasta ragu we had for lunch.  It sounds really strange, but it was amazing.  Really, any way the Italians can find to eat pasta….

 This is what I was afraid of when I first moved here: constant pasta.  I am a meat-eater and the idea of having pasta more than once a week seemed just out of the question.  It was something we had at home maybe once or twice a year.  All of the Italians that just read that probably died of shock…we will continue without them, but keep them in our memory.

 But it’s not just the pasta that makes Italy special; it’s the entire experience of dining here.  This is such a treat and the wow-factor is long from wearing off.

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Our own aperativo…not too shabby

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Even the cats eat pasta here!

 Aperativo, for example is the time around 6:30/7 when you go and meet your friends for a drink and then miraculously receive FREE FOOD.  This ranges from olives and chips to finger sandwiches, cheeses, meats, or even at one of our favorite places: pasta, risotto, and lasagna.  What I’m telling you people, is that with the purchase of one drink, you have a ticket to a buffet of Italian food that could replace dinner.  But it doesn’t stop there!  No, even after you have gorged yourself on salami, pecorino cheese, garlic bread, and more, you then roll over to dinner.

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Peschino: Our haven for aperativo

 ImageThis is where the magic happens…Every time I have gone to an Italian’s house for dinner, it is like having a dinner party even at the most simple of occasions.  There are appetizers, more times than not champagne, and then more than one course.  This was something I did not pick up on for a bit when I first moved here…There is the “primo piatto” (first plate) and the “secondo piatto” (second plate).  Seems self-explanatory OR SO I THOUGHT.  One would think that ordering a dish of pasta would suffice as a meal especially when said dish is an endless bowl of penne covered in sauce.  This, my friends, is where we are all so very wrong.  My curiosity finally got the best of me one night at a restaurant in Rome as I was perusing the menu.  I was able to discern that the first plates were made up of pastas or rice and the second plates were meat.  Ok, good first step.  Then I finally asked and the answer was just more than I could handle.  You are meant to order ONE FROM EACH SIDE!  So you order your pasta dish, which is already dinner, and then you order your meat dish, which is again, dinner.  So you essentially have two dinners.  This is following your aperativo that could count as first dinner, but before desert and coffee.

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Pass the meat

 “Impossible!” you may proclaim.  “There is no way anyone can eat that much nearly every night especially when you see such svelte Italians walking around in their skinny jeans”.  And yet, I am here to tell you that I have seen them in action and seen them walk away skinny jeans and all completely in tact.

 It is utterly unbelievable and amazing all at once.  Now, living with an Italian, I was so afraid about gaining weight from eating like this on a regular basis.  But oh my god, the opposite has happened.  We eat pasta nearly everyday and my jeans are falling off, I literally just put them in the donate pile last night.  I know that everyone reading this hates me, it’s fine I would too (I’m a Leeeeoooo), but I’m serious and I’m just as in shock as the rest of you. 

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My personal Italian chef

 Eating here over the holidays was an Olympic sport.  There were the parties leading up to Christmas, Christmas eve, Christmas, the day after Christmas, two days after Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, my boyfriend’s birthday, La Befana (the holiday that signifies the end of the holidays…only the Italians would build in a day off to remind everyone you just had a bunch of days off),…it was just sheer insanity.  On one of the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we went to my boyfriend’s father’s house after eating a heavy pasta dish at lunch.  Still recovering from that, we were served champagne (I’m not kidding, it’s the equivalent of water here), aperativo, a seafood pasta dish…ok at this point I was like, “I can’t.  We had pasta for lunch and I’m still somewhat full” and then I looked around and everyone was almost finished with theirs and as soon as I put a forkful in my mouth I was like, “WHAT?! You eat this right now, you fool”. It was fantastic: penne with seafood sauce.  Boom.  And then my god, please no more….but oh, my friends, there was more.  Out came potatoes, huge shrimp, fish and homemade mayonnaise.  And just when I did not think I could eat anymore…I could.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that you can always find room for food no matter how full you are and no one accepts “no” when they ask you if you want more.  They do not care how you feel, you are eating it all whether you want to or not.  And bread is a utensil…and edible utensil.

 When people say Italy is a food culture, it is completely true.  I never really noticed that sitting down at a table, with a tablecloth, and non-disposable utensils was so important.  We always had really wonderful family dinners growing up especially around the holidays with a beautiful set table, but here it is every night that this tradition is upheld.  To me, that is something lost in the busy world and it is the fault of no one: everyone has different schedules and long hours, but sitting down and blocking everything else out for an hour or two and talking while you enjoy your (AMAZING) home-cooked meal is a beautiful thing that I have grown to appreciate each day more.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go eat the eggplant parmesan with ragu sauce my boyfriend is cooking WAY-OH!! Ciao

 

 

And just a few more photos to upset everyone further:

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Seafood from Manarola

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Buccellato with strawberries and lemon juice

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Christmas mayhem!

 

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Pasta Norma…my mouth is watering