Tuesday, October 2, 2012

September Italian Wedding

Pieve di San Marco a Rigoli

When we were invited to my cousin Max’s wedding in Pisa, I was honored but at the same time certain that we would not be attending. How could a pair of teachers swing a trip to Italy for a September 15 wedding? But fate intervened in mysterious ways. Gary was already set to retire in June, and I quit teaching in January. That set the stage for our trip, and our opportunity to experience nuptials that were absolutely spectacular.
Both the church and the villa where the reception was held date from 500. That is not a typo. We are talking 1600 years old. The ceremony was held at the Pieve di San Marco a Rigoli, a church built on a basilican plan with three arches. It is not just old; it is also quite beautiful in an elegant, unadorned manner.
The reception was an hour drive away, but still technically in Pisa. We would never have found the Villa Sonnino without following the caravan of cars from the church. Not only was it far (an Italian hour of driving seems much farther than in America, not only because we didn’t know exactly where we were going but also because Italians drive fast, even in a caravan), but the turn off led to a long, winding driveway to the parking area, and a good 5 minute walk from the parking lot to the actual villa. It was certainly not visible from the autostrada!
We were able to gain a measure of sustenance, though, in the parking lot. Right in front of our car was a hedge of fig trees full of ripe fruit. Now, if you are reading this post, you might have already seen my outpourings on figs, but Italian figs put my brown turkey figs to shame. These weren’t very large, but they were sweet as honey.
Did we need to worry about food? At any Italian gathering, food is central, but when it comes to a wedding, any stops that might have been employed were completely obliterated, and here we were at an Italian wedding in a villa with a history I could hardly fathom.
Upon our arrival, we were directed to a courtyard where white-gloved attendants were serving prosecco in crystal flutes. Soon an army of men and women in tailored white jackets began passing hors d’oeurves of every description. Fresh calamari salad on scallop shells, mini-bowls of pear soup, skewers with fried olives or arancini or sausages en croute, tray after tray bussed to each table with the servers gently encouraging us to “mangia, mangia.”
Once the bride and groom arrived, the tables under the white tents heaved under the weight of a buffet—a station where two chefs deep fried vegetables, fish, and, my personal favorite, balls of savory dough that were lighter than air; another table was filled with cheeses soft and hard, strong and mild, herbed and nutted; a third table held cured meats and savory pastries and bruschetti. The prosecco continued to flow.
Eleanora and Max
Max and Eleanora visited with us, thanking us for making the trip, and explaining that we should eat, eat, eat, because there were not too many courses. Courses? All the time we were accepting passed hors d’oeurves and piling our plates at the buffet, Ryan, Mylène’s fiancé, the least experienced among us about food served by Italians, kept warning us to pace ourselves, but we did not listen. Max said there would only be three courses. Hmmm. Gary and I realized we had made a huge tactical mistake.
Soon we were escorted into the main dining area, a long room with marble floors and a brick vaulted ceiling. The tables were set with white linens, chargers with the Sonnino coat of arms, crystal, silver flatware. In the center of the table were wines, white and red that seemed magical in that they were never empty—the servers were very adept at replacing bottles as we drained them! On cue, yet more servers marched from the kitchen with plates filled with piping-hot lobster risotto, and within a minute, every guest was served. Before we had done justice to the perfectly cooked rice, the waiters were back, offering us second helpings. This time, we were wiser. We knew there was more to come.
The next course was Max’s favorite, a chestnut pasta in a browned mushroom sauce, so rich and so delicious that it was both impossible to finish yet impossible not to take just one more bite. Again, the waiters offered platters of extra pasta, just in case we weren’t already too full to breath.
As day follows the night, so too came the main course—veal breast en croute served with roasted potatoes and a garden salad. I think the potatoes were roasted in duck fat, but regardless of how they were prepared, even humble potatoes transcended anything I have ever tasted. The tomatoes in the garden salad were the Platonic ideal of tomatoes, surpassing even the best fresh summer garden tomato. The only problem? I was so full I could barely swallow.
Once again, the timing was perfect. Instead of cutting the cake immediately, there was an intermission where the DJ played a video spoofing the courtship of Max and Eleanora. Then we were escorted to the lower courtyard to watch them cut the cake and feed each other a bite, graciously, mind you, no smearing of cake onto one another’s face. We toasted the happy couple with champagne then moved to perhaps the highlight of the meal, if it is at all possible to make that distinction.
Boxes of comfits
The final course was titled a “fantasy dessert buffet” and fantasy it was indeed. In addition to cake, espresso, aperitifs, prosecco and champagne in the main courtyard, there was a side courtyard with tables filled with exquisitely decorated boxes of comfits (no Italian wedding would be complete without those ubiquitous candied almonds), bowls with more comfits, trays of shot glasses filled with chocolate or vanilla mousse, topped with a rosette of freshly-whipped cream and currants or blueberries or raspberries or sliced strawberries. Another table displayed tiers of fruit, strawberries that actually tasted like strawberries, melon, pineapple, grapes, and a mélange of all of the above if one could not make a decision. Another table was filled with one-bite profiteroles, some filled with pastry crème, some with chocolate mousse, some with whipped cream. And the final table? It held an assortment of savory pastries, as Ryan said, to begin it all again.
Dessert fantasy
We ended the evening with a private tour of the villa before we headed back to our hotel to dream of the pleasures of Italy, the land of my family.

I am sorry that I did not return home with any recipes from the reception, but if you ever are invited to a wedding in Italy, by all means jump at the chance. You will have the experience of a lifetime.

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