A return a long-time coming

Last week, when my train reached Macerata about 8:30pm, I was nervous, but excited. The arrival had been a long time coming, and seeing the station brought back many memories.

Here we go, I thought, this is really happening and there’s no turning back.

The first time I rode the train to Macerata, in September 2001, the world was filled with uncertainty. A couple days earlier, my wife and I had just watched the 9/11 attacks unfold on television in a small hostel in Rome, and many questions weighed on our minds as we weaved our way through the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. Would we have to go home early? Was it safe to be an American abroad? Were we nuts for planning to stay in Italy? Looking back now, it is easy to see that everything would work out fine, but in the moment, the news was a bit unsettling.

A panorama of the old center of Macerata

A panorama of the old center of Macerata

Living in Macerata turned out to be better than we imagined. The AHA study abroad program, run by Dr. Filiberto Bracalente, was a transformative experience for me (even though, being the spouse of a student, I had only participated on the periphery). The story is a bit long to tell here, but I will say that traveling around Macerata and Le Marche, I gained a new appreciation for art, culture, food, and for the way people live their lives. Perhaps more than anything, I realized how little I knew and how fun it was to learn.  

The three months passed by too quickly, and when we left Macerata in late December that year, I was determined to come back someday. The only question was how to make it happen.

The answer would come more than a decade later, in the fall of 2013. I had just finished the manuscript for my first book and was looking for my next project, when a thought came to me, what could I write about in Macerata?

The first thing that popped into my mind was Trattoria da Ezio, a small restaurant in the historic center of Macerata, run by Mirella Lambertucci and her family. We had eaten at the trattoria a couple times in 2001, and frequently reminisced about it in the following years. My idea for the book was to visit the trattoria for three months, observing its daily operation, researching its history, and learning how to cook “Mirella-style.” It would include some of Mirella’s recipes and secrets, learned over fifty years in the kitchen. By sharing some of the history and culture of Macerata as well, I could give something back to a place that had given me so much. A working title even popped into my head: My Summer with Mirella: Three Months in the Kitchen with the Italian Grandmother I Never Had.

But how to make it happen?

After scribbling out some notes to organize my thoughts, I sat down and carefully composed a letter, outlining my ideas for the book and what it meant to me, in detail (as Marco, Mirella’s son, would later say, it was “one long f—ing email”). A good friend of mine from Piacenza helped make sure the Italian translation was correct, important because the letter was completely unexpected and I wanted it to strike just the right tone.

Two days later, Marco wrote back and said they would be delighted to have me come. His response was more enthusiastic than I had hoped. Naturally, I was thrilled too, and over the next six months, I worked out the travel arrangements and studied Italian almost daily. When the day finally came to go to Macerata, I felt prepared, but once again, a little uncertain how things would go.

Stepping onto the platform at the station, Marco quickly dispelled any lingering doubts, greeting me with a smile and a warm welcome. We threw my bags into the back of his Nissan Micra and drove straight to the trattoria. Mirella greeted me with a big hug, and immediately offered me something to eat: first, vincisgrassi (a typical dish from Le Marche similar to lasagna), then polpette (meatballs), carciofi (artichokes), fava (fava beans), ciambellone con cioccolato (house-made yellow cake with a chocolate/hazelnut sauce, tiramisù (a creamy dessert made with mascarpone cheese), Rosso Piceno (a local red wine), vino cotto (a locally-produced dessert wine), and anice (homemade anise liquor).

The meal was the first taste of the hospitality mindset of the family I will spend most of my time with for the next three months, and the perfect welcome (back) to Macerata. It is time to create (and share) some new memories.