The most delectable meal of my life was a bowl of gorgonzola ravioli consumed at a trattoria in Florence during the summer of 2003. It was a meal shared with friends, both new and old, and reunions have been spent discussing our insatiable desire to recreate our experience.
This story is not about that meal. Not directly, anyway.
Nearly eleven years after that fateful meal, I found myself stumbling, jet-lagged and sweaty, through the tourist-laden avenues of beloved Firenze. As my stomach started to rumble, I assumed my feet would follow the inner roar to the restaurant that I have now come to consider as holy ground. Surprisingly, my yearning for an afternoon of peace led me away from the dish I have craved all these years.
Instead, I found myself wandering into the unassuming patio of a lesser-known cafe, drawn by the glimpse of a young woman. Her auburn hair glowed in the sunlight, stray strands lifted by a passing breeze. Glass of wine in one hand, a bowl of olives within reach of the other, this complete stranger sat engrossed in a novel, yet somehow seemed to beckon me to join her in this calm repose.
Five minutes later I was seated in my own ray of sunshine, retreating into a nostalgic reverie as I sipped a crisp glass of rosé. The waiter seemed to float through the scene as he placed a simple spread in front of me. Sliced tomatoes, fresh cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil — it’s a meal that I’ve pulled together so often it borders on boring, but today, this meal was perfect.
For a brief period of time, the rest of the world gave way to the delightful community found between the pages of my own book. I was at once completely alone and yet surrounded by kindred spirits. Eventually, I forgot where I was. Following a juicy bite, a giggle (or four) escaped my lips, and then a nearby voice asked one of my favorite questions, “What are you reading?”
Glancing up, I looked into a face whose bright eyes and welcoming smile beamed almost as brightly as those ginger locks that first drew me to that very location. Her brief question led to joined tables, additional bottles of wine, excessive consumption of bread, and last minute changes to plans. Over the next twenty-four hours, we shared our stories over a handful of meals. We hiked to the hilltops, drinking Italian beers while looking over a foreign city that gracefully provided much needed perspective for each of us. With each Sláinte and clinking of glass, we were liberated from pretense, and both humbled and delighted by the truths we were able to share — and continue to do so today.
Food encourages us to explore cultures both familiar and foreign, and provides a gateway to activities and relationships we might otherwise be too distracted to pursue.
There is so much more I could share about this rather unique camaraderie that was built upon a chance encounter. However, in the blur that has surrounded the edges of our friendship, what will always stand out to me with such vivid clarity is the way it began — with the breaking of bread. I was reminded that the best meals nourish much more than the body. They beckon us to slow down, to indulge in our senses, and provide an opportunity to connect with others. Sharing a meal brings us together through hospitality and expressions of friendship. Food encourages us to explore cultures both familiar and foreign, and provides a gateway to activities and relationships we might otherwise be too distracted to pursue.
And just like a perfect meal, life, when shared, is simply delicious.
Have you had a similar experience while traveling? What was it like?
Images via Briana Moore