Summers in Italy, my summers in Italy at least, tend to begin with a drive, several hours in a rented Fiat pointed toward whatever point on the peninsula best suits the moment's semi-rural needs.
If the plane lands midmorning or later, the drive starts with a brief picnic outside my favorite sandwich shop in the airport-adjacent village of Fiumicino, a porchetta sandwich, a dripping ball of mozzarella and a glug of rough red wine overlooking the last few yards of the Tiber as it empties into the sea.
The stand imports its porchetta from Ariccia, a town outside of Rome as well known for its many porchetta stands as it is for its dour medieval architecture. In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art there is a landscape painting of the walls of Ariccia I can never look at without thinking of garlic, wild fennel and crackling pork skin.
But it is early — too early for anything more substantial than a roll and a hurried cappuccino, and the distance I have to travel is far. When we pull off the highway a few miles south of Florence, in search of La Bottega a Rosano, what my notes tell me is a trattoria attached to a rural grocery store, we are hungry. Getting lost on the way to lunch is part of the mealtime ritual here, at least for my family.
And when we finally find Rosano, the destination really is a country store — although the kind of country store where you are more likely to find a slab of lardo and a bottle of really good wine than you are a box of laundry soap and a carton of milk.
You get in line at the deli counter, you order from a chalkboard posted high on a wall. When you ask about the difference between the two house wines, the counterman allows that the Chianti, at about $9 per liter, has perhaps a more pleasant taste than the declassified wine that is a few euros less. You find a table in the dining room.
And you remember why the world idolizes rural Tuscany: the salty, milky strands of mozzarella with dead-ripe cherry tomatoes; the platter of local salami, prosciutto and lardo with saltless Tuscan bread; the baked ricotta-spinach gnudi, like ravioli that have somehow become denuded of their wrappers, glazed with melted pecorino; even the boxed spaghetti tossed simply with a handful of bread crumbs, a bit of anchovy and some garlic, a dish almost simpler than what you'd dare to cook for yourself after coming home from the movies, but so pungent, so powerful, so good.
The fritto misto of rabbit, chicken and sweetbreads is almost beside the point when it comes, but it is as delicate as tempura in its rough Tuscan way and you eat it all — the fried squash blossoms, frizzled crisp, are the best you've ever eaten. There are thimbles of espresso, a jam tart, and a quick nap out in the car. There is a long drive yet ahead.