In the fall of 1997, our younger daughter spent a semester abroad in Florence. Missing her greatly after ten weeks, my wife and I flew to Milan on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Upon landing we took a bus into the central city and caught a train down to Florence, where we had booked ‘a room with a view‘ at the Hotel Pensione Pendini for six nights.
Arriving in the city around 6:00pm, after traveling for about 18 hours, we took a taxi from the Santa Maria Novella Railway Station to the Pendini, which is centrally located on the Piazza della Repubblica.
We had been to Florence once before, in the summer of 1970, but for only two days while on a whirlwind tour of Italy. So not only were we thrilled to be seeing our daughter, but looking forward to the prospect of spending a leisurely week exploring the city, its museums: The Uffizi, The Accademia, The Pitti Palace and The Bargello; its churches: The Duomo, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, San Miniato and The Brancacci Chapel; and the surrounding countryside, all without the usual crush of summer tourists.
Our daughter was living in a section of Florence known as Oltrarno, which translates to ‘across the Arno‘, the river that bisects the city. Her apartment on the Via Maggio near the Boboli Gardens was shared with a friend and is a short walk from the Pendini, which is located on the northern side of the Arno River.
During the days that she was in class, my wife and I toured the city. On her days off she joined us. Having her show us around to her favorite spots and translate for us was a treat. It was great for her too, not only because we picked up the tab, but with our rental car, she got see the Tuscan hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, which otherwise would have been difficult for her to visit.
In the evenings we had some great meals at restaurants such as: Il Latini, Mama Gina and Trattoria Cammillo. On Thanksgiving Day, which of course is not a holiday in Italy, my wife and I decided to treat our daughter and four other homesick American students doing their ‘semester abroad’, to ‘Thanksgiving Dinner’ at Borgo Antico, a local restaurant which the girls frequented regularly.
Since turkey with all of the Thanksgiving trimmings was not on the menu, I decided on a vegetarian pasta dish consisting of rigatoni, eggplant and black olives. It was excellent and tasted even better with my share of the six bottles of Chianti Riserva that were shared by all. As a matter of fact, the combination of wine, youthful high spirits exhibited by the young ladies and the heady idea of a group of Americans celebrating America’s most traditional holiday in a city that is more than 2,000 years old, dating back to Julius Caesar, was such that I have no recollection of the rest of the meal. I do remember thinking that we, and hopefully our daughter and her friends, would remember this Thanksgiving for the rest of their lives.
In attempting to re-create this memorable pasta dish several iterations with the eggplant were necessary. First I added raw eggplant to the tomato-based sauce and discovered that it lacked flavor, so I tried roasting it first and that helped. But I also found that the ½ inch-cubed eggplant pieces were too small, as a result it broke down and almost disappeared as it cooked in the sauce; one inch cubes worked better. Some still broke down, but most retained their shape thus enhancing the combination of pasta, eggplant and olives. Initially, I had used regular sized eggplants but found them to be a little too bitter for my palate. I then experimented with the smaller ‘Italian’ variety and found them to be more to my liking. But if you cannot find them, by all means try the larger sized ones.
Here then is the recipe for my re-creation of that hearty pasta dish whose name on the menu of Borgo Antico also slips my mind. I named it Rigatoni all’ Oltrarno in honor of the section of Firenze in which Borgo Antico is located. I have read that Tuscans have an abiding love of beans, accordingly, they became known in other Italian regions as mangiafagioli, (bean eaters). Lest you think that this is a blog only for the ‘mangiapasta‘, please continue at: Basta Pasta!