Jim deftly maneuvered the tiny Opel through the winding roads of Greve, a charming hamlet nestled in the rolling hills of the Chianti region of Toscana. I sat in the backseat marveling the lush landscape -- a myriad of terra cotta pots lining the roadway, endless blankets of violet uve and grand, ancient ville gracing the hilltops. Our destination: La Festa del Cinghiale, or The Wild Boar Feast, a tradition celebrated deep within splendorous Toscana. Vegetarians and Vegans: Reader Discretion is Advised!
La Festa del Cinghiale is not reviewed in a Zagat restaurant guide; indeed, its location is not retrievable on Google Maps. La Festa is held on the outskirts of the town of Greve; in layman's terms, in the middle of a forest, hidden from the tourist-centric trattorie of Firenze. Jim, my Uncle Al's longtime friend, lives in Firenze. He graciously invited me to this culinary treat.
Jim parked the car in front of a countryside albergo. The albergo, with its golden façade and olive tinted shutters, mimicked the luminous Tuscan sun and luscious, ubiquitous greenery. Our group convened in front of the albergo, and, after exchanging greetings, strolled across the road onto a long gravel path leading us to La Festa. A little dog danced and barked at us from behind a metal fence. The path was lined with uva of a deep violet, soon to be harvested, crushed and bottled bearing the name Chianti.
While the path seemed to lead us into the middle of a dense forest, the blissful aroma of roasting carne and distant voices guided us to La Festa. In a clearing surrounded on all sides by black locust trees (native to America, Jim told me) stood a large tent under which approximately one hundred Toscani natives mingled. Adjacent to the tent, low lying rectangular grills appearing like massive wrought iron coffee tables roasted as many coniglie, polli and porcellini as there were guests to the event. One cuoco held a long stem of freshly cut rosemarino which he would soon rub along our smoldering dinner.
Along the opposite end of the tent, an abbondanza of prosciutto, salami and capicollo was strung along a horizontal tree branch. At one end of the branch, a cardboard circular sign bearing a hand written inscription dangled from a piece of string: "Premi Lotteria Festa Cinghiale" along with a drawing of a porcellino. A lottery was to be held at the end of la cena, when lucky winners would carry home prized meat found only in premier butcher shops in the United States.
We sat at one of four long rectangular dinner tables under the tent. Jim and his wife sat a few places to my right. I had the pleasure of sitting between Jim's son and a young man named Claudio; his father, Gino, sat across from me. Gino spoke no English, and Claudio only very little. Jersey City/Neapolitan slang aside ("Ma, I want pasta fazool"), my Italian is elementary. While the babel of languages posed a barrier, my dinner conversation with Claudio and Gino was one of the richest and enlightening since my arrival in Italia. I soon learned that facial expressions, moods, and feelings conveyed on the human face are universal and rise above verbal communication. My conversation with Claudio and Gino (and many others besides) stemmed not from what they said but what their faces conveyed.
Il primo platto was the specialty: Cinghiale, or Wild Boar. Cuoci in red aprons dished out heaping portions of Penne al Ragù di Cinghiale from massive metal vats. Comparing the Cinghiale to pulled pork is a cruel simplification; yet, it is the only food I can imagine comparing it to. However, Cinghiale is a much more delicate, aromatic, succulent version of the American meat. All eyes were upon me: Gino glanced at me as I lifted my forchetta to my mouth. Without speaking, we both looked at one another and smiled. The cross cultural acknowledgement: Delizioso.
Gino poured me a glass of deep red, almost purple Chianti. The wine was deliciously dry; it enveloped my taste buds. Nectar of the Gods! Gino explained in Italian and I interpreted his facial expressions and hand gestures: After one bottle, he's drunk. Yet, the wine was so tasty and surprisingly light for a red that I simply kept on drinking. O, Dio!
Il secondo platto was the carne. The meat was chopped, sliced and presented on white ceramic platters. Throughout la cena, Gino stabbed his fork into various pieces of meat, handed them to me and pointed to various parts of his own body: Shoulder, liver, thigh. While the meat was grilled to almost sublime perfection, the star of the meal was the herbal rub on the skin of the carne. The freshness of the rosemarino and salvia (sage) popped in my mouth; it was as if I never genuinely tasted rosemary or sage before. The taste of the herbs stayed in my mouth for the entire meal. Cazzo! The coffee machine broke! But dessert was served anyway: Biscotti with Vin Santo, a dessert wine. At this point, I would have ingested manure and thought it was zucchero.
Tempo per la lotteria! I cuoci handed out lottery tickets to the guests. Number after number was called and prosciutto after prosciutto were happily carried off. A number was called and Jim won! Jim's wife, son, Gino, Claudio and I uniformly jumped out of our chairs. Jim won a massive piece of capicollo, which, upon lifting it to my nose, smelled of earthly delights.
The ride back to Firenze was a mixture of sleepiness and gastronomic pleasures appeased. Jim and his wife waved goodbye as I strolled through the piazza and across the Arno. Dragging myself up the four flights of stairs to my host family's apartment that evening, I could not help but lose myself in all the joy I felt that day: The joy of cooking, the joy of dining, and, above all else, the joy of friendship. "Hai mangiato?" asked my host mother as she scooped out a heaping portion of pasta into my bowl. "Mamma mia..." I sighed.