During my first years in Seattle a young Italian named Ciro taught my then-husband to make bread. The guys worked the dough and talked and laughed in the kitchen all afternoon, and at night my husband would wake up once or twice to punch the dough down again and turn it. When the bread was baked the next day, what a feast! But even such a huge mound of dough wasn't enough to make seven whole breads, the way Emilia did on Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old.
Back then on Sunday afternoons I'd skip down to Emilia's house from the faded yellow Machiavelli family villa in the hills above Florence, where I lived with my mother, sister, and grandparents. My father visited us on the weekends, and my older brother was away in a school in Switzerland. The stones of the steep street, round and shiny under my shoes, made a geometric design, and the walls bordering the street were rough and wavy from the design of time.Emilia welcomed me with her smile and twinkling blue eyes: "Entra, signorina Nicoletta, entra."
A white apron enveloped her wide figure, and a light blue kerchief hid the gray braid of her hair. I followed her through her kitchen, simple and orderly, and aromatic with yeast and garlic, to the aia, the paved clearing behind every Italian farmer's home that opens onto the cultivated fields. Emilia's husband Modesto sat there on a bench enjoying his pipe. He grew wheat and looked after my family's vineyard and fruit trees as well as the grove of olive trees on the hilly slope where I used to climb when hiding from my sister and my mother, or from my tutor, who came to teach me at the villa because in the schools they would tie the left arms of left-handed children behind their backs to cure them. This was something my American mother would not allow. I was left-handed, just like her.
On the rack beside Modesto hung a sickle, a wooden rake, and the hoe I always saw him working with in the fields. The large basket or corbello in which he carried weeds or produce hung there, too, along with the faded blue felt hat he wore every day except Sunday.
"Giorno," he said, while I busily took in everything around me including the air of expectation and magic that always preceded the bread baking. It was from Emilia and Modesto that I first learned there was a different reality, something beyond the world of villas, chandeliers, and Persian carpets.
Emilia stuffed bundle after bundle of wood inside the black hole of the outdoor oven, and then my moment came. Lifting me to the oven door she handed me a lighted match to throw into the oven, into all that wood, until suddenly the black hole roared with orange-red flames. The wood crackled, the flames swirled, and the heat poured out. Emilia closed the metal door, and now it was waiting time. I chased the chickens and mallard ducks that roamed the aia, running from me in their crooked, wobbly way.
Soon Emilia brought out bread dough shaped into one loaf for each day of the week and placed in two rows on flat wooden shovels. I loved the way the loaves would go in white and odorless, like enormous eggs, and come out brown and fragrant. Before sliding the loaves through the open oven door she held me in her arms against her apron to see inside the hot arched chamber, its black walls now white with ash, the roaring fire tamed to embers. Back in the villa my grandmother would be wearing an elegant frock and a little velvet hat with feathers for Sunday, and at supper that evening she would criticize my clothes and table manners. She had a butler who doubled as chauffeur, and a seamstress who made her clothes and often made mine, too. My sister and I had to thank our nonna for dreadful little shirts with rounded collars and plaid skirts that fell below our knees.
Emilia slid the breads into the oven one by one, in a circle. Again the metal door closed. While the loaves baked, she passed around slices of last week's bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil and salt. The bread was firm and still moist, and the oil was poured from a slender, transparent green container with a long beak. Round drops of thick Tuscan olive oil landed on my slice of bread in a neat pattern. Modesto placed whole slices in his mouth, while I took smaller bites and let the oil dribble down my chin before wiping it on my sleeve. On my sleeve! The freedom of bread and oil and salt with Emilia and Modesto was more delicious than cakes from the villa kitchen.
In the valley below where we were eating lay the city of Florence. The round Duomo stood guard over tiled roofs spreading like a textured red carpet, studded here and there by smaller domes and medieval towers. The neat rows of the vineyard and the silvery blue olive trees seemed to race up the hill to our feet. I ran around some more with the chickens and ducks, dirtying my shoes in a mud puddle. The mallards liked to snuggle their beaks in the puddle, shaking their heads and bodies until I thought I could catch them and grab a green feather or two, but they always escaped.
Then the seven breads came out of the oven along with a smaller loaf that I could bring home: my own loaf of Emilia's fresh bread.
Sometimes even my beautiful freedom-loving American mother made me feel guilty about my escapes to Emilia's house. Two worlds a hundred meters from each other were not supposed to touch or mingle. Years later I would learn the meaning of class difference, but now I happily received my hot little bread in the blue and white towel that I promised to return, and climbed the steep slope back home. Emilia would stand in her doorway, a smiling blue and white figure waving at me until she saw me open the big wooden door of the villa and disappear inside. I raced up the courtyard steps two by two, yelling for everyone in the household to hear: Pane! Pane fresco!
One day just after I moved to Seattle in 1989, I was wandering around Pioneer Square when suddenly I caught the sweet, yeasty fragrance of fresh bread like Emilia's. I followed my nose to the Grand Central Bakery, so excited that I opened a door labeled Employees Only. And there they were, hundreds of loaves on shelves, some freshly baked and with brown crusts, some pale and soft waiting to be put in the huge ovens, bakers coming and going with white aprons and caps and white dusty arms. This was the moment when I knew that Seattle was my kind of town, where people baked bread with a crust like Emilia's, where people pronounced my name right because they knew something about the Italian language and Florence and had heard of The Prince, and where there was a market worthy of its name, with leeks, fish, pears, cherries -- and breads -- proudly displayed as in open-air markets back home.
Later, when Ciro was baking bread with my former husband, he asked us never to reveal his bread recipe to anyone, because one day he was going to open up his own Seattle bakery. Today in supermarkets his loaves catch my eye: Ciro, La Panzanella, printed on their paper sleeves.