After multiple train changes and many flights of stairs, all of which I lugged my 60 pound suitcase (what was I thinking?!) up and down , I finally arrived in Acqui Terme. I was almost relieved to have missed the last bus to Cortemillia by a mere 6 minutes as exhaustion was just setting in. I approached a friendly cab driver outside of the train station and used my minimal knowledge of the Italian language to tell him my destination. As I settled into the back seat, overpacked suitcase safely out of sight behind me, I finally relaxed; all that was separating me from my destination was a beautiful ride in a spacious cab. The ride was exhilarating, as they always seem to be when there is an Italian driver at the wheel. We flew through tiny towns, inches from the walls and oncoming traffic on either side and raced around curves and up hills with the driver honking all the way at the slow drivers we passed.Excitement overcame my exhaustion as signs for Cortemillia popped up along the road. After passing through many small towns, we reached a road I recognized, lined with trees on either side- Cortemillia! As I struggled to take in my surroundings and implant the images in my head, we arrived at Villa San Carlo, my new home. I stepped into the small lobby and was immediately comforted by the homey atmosphere and Poala’s warm embrace. I had finally arrived!
Carlo asked what I wanted to eat but I put myself in his hands, simply opting for pasta, one of his two offerings. We entered the kitchen and he set to work immediately, tossing some olio d’oliva into a pan along with marinated cipolline. He weighed me an “American portion,” of pasta on a giant old fashioned scale and tossed the strands into a boiling pot on the stove. Into the oil and onions went fresh pomodori and rosmarino which Carlo tore apart with his hands, insisting the taste was better that way. Turning off the burner under the sauce and leaving the pasta to it’s own devices, Carlo took me downstairs for a tour of the cantina where he informed me I could eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. His example “if you want some cheese, go in the fridge and get some cheese,” made me giggle and I warned him of the danger in that statement. Following our tour, we journeyed back into the kitchen and Carlo announced “I think the pasta is done.” When I asked him how he knew this he simply retorted that after 20 years of cooking one should know when pasta is done. I look forward to the day when I ask myself how long the pasta should boil and respond with as long as it takes to tour the cellar.
He tossed a ladleful of pasta water into the pan, turned the heat up and tonged the strands of spaghetti into the waiting pomodori e cippolline. A little bit more olio, a sprinkling of parmigiano and fresh prezzemolo and a quick flick of the wrist completed the dish.
As he artfully arranged the pasta onto a plate for me, he voiced his doubts about the portion size, sure I would never be able to finish the plate. I smiled inwardly as I seated myself at the table in the center of the kitchen, which was already set for my solo dinner. Carlo set a glass of Barbera D’asti next to me and as I breathed in the smell of my first real meal of the trip, I was in heaven. Here I was enjoying a dish made with only 6 simple ingredients that somehow tasted complex and rich, and drinking a wine which back home at the local wine bar I pay 4 dollars an ounce for. As I enjoyed my meal the kitchen was wrapping up for the evening sending out the last of the desserts and cheese plates. The team of 4, Carlo, his wife Paola and 2 female assistants, manned the kitchen in a calm, efficient manner that was enviable. What a lot I have to learn from this experience!
Following dinner, Carlo taught me to make an espresso on an elaborate, beautiful coffee machine. I finished the evening relaxing in the front room of the hotel, a cozy room with high ceilings where you could hear the clattering from the kitchen as they cleaned up from dinner service and the cars rushing by through the open windows bordering the room. Once the kitchen was closed, Paola joined me while Carlo played the piano beautifully in the room next door.
I fell asleep with the windows wide open which gave me access to the cool air outside, the beautiful night time sky above and the peaceful sounds of a small town which consisted of the occasional car driving by and an Italian cricket who seemed to be right outside my window. I woke up 8 hours later to the sound of my alarm, and stifling the disturbing thought that it was 2 am at home, I arose. Those same elements outside my window aided me, reminding me I was in a different part of the world; the sound of the town waking up, neighbors doing work outside, and a lot more traffic, the endless blue sky, undisturbed by any clouds, and the pleasantly warm breeze which is refreshingly dry here. I headed downstairs and was greeted by Carlo, who showed me how to make a cappuccino on the fancy new machine- I’m going to be an expert by the time I leave! I helped myself to the breakfast buffet and while preparing myself a plate I couldn’t help but think that this was the breakfast of champions! My humble plate consisted of 2 slices of prosciutto- the real kind that melts in your mouth, bresaola whose tenderness and juiciness puts roast beef to shame, 3 different types of cheese which had my mouth watering, a fresh croissant, and a tiny, vivacious apricot. I poured a glass of a bright succo, a blend of orange, carrot and lemon juices that was bright and refreshing. I made myself at home with la mia colazione in the kitchen at the table where the Zarri’s eat all of their meals. I navigated my way around the plate, savoring each bite. I started with a smooth, creamy cheese that resembled ricotta but had a salty richness to it. My next cheese was assuredly a goat, resembling bucheron, with it’s tangy flavor and smooth texture. The last cheese was a melty, sharp delight with hints of blue but lacking the intense pungency typically associated with it. My croissant was sweet and delicately crunchy and as I bit into the center I was pleasantly surprised by a dollop of jam oozing out. I saved the albicocca for last which was small and tinged with red. It was firm and flavorful and as I bit into it I was immediately reminded of the kumquats we used to pick off the trees in our backyard as kids. I finished my cappuccino and reminded myself I would be calling this place home for the next month, a thought I welcomed without hesitation.
Images from top to bottom:
the view from my bedroom window
my quaint room