It's not a question. Everybody knows the answer. In the ultimate battle of the culinary arts, Italy takes the cake... and then goes on to one-up her prize as she dishes out her velvety tiramisu.
For the past five months, I traveled between various tables in Italy during a semester studying abroad in Florence. While it's impossible to summarize the countless memories spent twirling forkfuls of tagliatelle and laughing amidst sips of red wine, I can confidently say that if I were to look at a calendar for the months of January through May 2011, within the confines of any bracketed date, I could pencil in the details of a wonderful meal spent with my host family and roommate. Some nights were ushered in with dancing and singing by my host granddaughter and myself, while others began with a ten-page-long wine list at a local trattoria, but the hours of talking and sharing stories, all intertwined with hunks of warm bruschetta and smudges of green pesto, remained a constant.
Returning back to the States, one might think that I'd be missing these evenings terribly. And it's true. Having the reassurance that every night I would be eating a wonderful meal accompanied by family and friends can only be described as true bliss.
Yet, the elixir to combat these feelings of loss is quite simple: Pass on these memories through the evening mealtime practice I became so addicted to.
Last night, my friend Taylor and I made a delicious Italian meal for her parents and brother, a collection of dishes that we sampled throughout our two and a half weeks spent traveling between Rome, the Cinque Terre and Tuscany. After spending a morning at the market picking out fresh ingredients for our dinner, we crafted a feast of fresh, raw artichokes drizzled with olive oil and salt, bruschetta with tomato, pecorino cheese and grilled zucchini, hot and succulent calamari, and for the main course, tagliatelle with pesto that we brought back all the way from the Ligurian Coast.
Not only was buying the ingredients and cooking the meal a great reminder of our recent journey, but being able to share our stories through food - the funny moments when we watched the stars in our limoncello stupor, the hours spent catching up on each other's lives while walking along the lush, green trails of Vernazza, the night we nearly cried when we couldn't find an open gelateria to satisfy our gelato addiction - created an emotion inside of me which brought a permanent smile to my face.
As I drove away from Taylor's house last night, sitting in the car with a happy and satisfied stomach, I couldn't help but feel as if I was right back in Italy. And then it hit me, I didn't need to wish that I was in Italy, because I was home - in the presence of people whom I love and care for. No matter where I am, whether it's Rome or Cairo or Atlanta, as long as find myself at a table, gathered with a group of genuine people and enjoying a thoughtful meal, I will always feel that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.