Sensing Italian food

The Italian verb sentire means not only “to feel/sense” but also to smell, to taste, and even to hear. It covers the full sensorium of eating good food in Italy.  Add vedere, to see, for the art of presentation on i piatti. Back home, we have a big book on Italian food that a friend bought for us from the gift shop of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Why shouldn’t a book on Italian food be beautiful, and sold in an art museum?

Terrace table

Preparing the table on the terrace atop our dorm, where we like to gather with food contributions from all the faculty, as swifts dart around.

Even drinks and snacks you have around 6 or 7 p.m. as the day cools down, il aperitivo, can deliver the whole range to the senses.  Yesterday, at the top of steep Via Raffaello we enjoyed an aperitivo at one of the outdoor tables of Caffé dell’Accademia: Campari and prosecco for me, white wine for Libby, and little inch-wide sandwiches with cheese and meats.

Last week, Barbara Buttarini invited us to an aperitivo at her farm. She lives alone there with 10 goats, the church-like rooms that were her father’s art-restoring classroom and workshop before he died, and a hectare of land with stunning views of mountains, prim pasture slopes, and a tiny blue hem of the Adriatic. We each had our turn milking Bella, but the yield was ruined by a swift hoof that went splat into the milk. We moved into the cool empty space of the workshop. Barbara pulled out goat cheese she had made, salami, a chilled bottle of white wine and fresh warm crescia di Urbino, the circular flat bread she had just fried on a small one-burner gas stove.

I met Barbara on visits to the outdoor preschool two of my students are featuring in their multimedia work here. The school, Maestro Natura, rents Barbara’s farm for its campus. Another way that Barbara is making ends meet is by working at a restaurant on a remote mountaintop outside Fermignano called Ca’ Maddalena. She encouraged us to try the restaurant, and last night, we did.

barbara and uncle

Barbara Buttarini and her uncle

Ca’ Maddalena is an agritourism farm and inn, with horses, cattle, wooded paths, a vista of several mountain ranges, and a restaurant with about 20 tables for couples and families who somehow know about this place. It was good to see every table filled (we made reservations days earlier). How they all got there is a miracle. You drive about four kilometers up dirt roads so steep and narrow you pray no one is coming down (no one did) and switchbacks so extreme the two legs merge into one on Google Map.

ca'M antipasta


We had a friendly wait with a couple who came from their home toward Bologna (more than an hour away, I’m sure), limited to about 12 words that made a conversation in our Italian and their English. Understanding the Italian menu was made easier by the outgoing manager, who made sure everyone was well served. Libby’s gluten-intolerance would not be a problem.

My iPhone scanned the names of the things we ordered. For drinks, l’acqua naurale and Vercicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico, a local white wine. (DOC is the highest certification, Italy’s version of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée.) For antipasto, we shared a platter of spicy salami, thin slices of ham and beef, grilled vegetables, a lintel dish, mild peppers mix, all prepared by la casa, and crescia sfoglita and a kind of hummus in small pastries for me. Libby’s secondo: Grigliata mista di maiale (mix of grilled pork) and carciofi ripassati in padella (pan-fried artichoke). And mine: fegato di vitelline con cipolla bianca stufata (calf liver with stewed white onion) and pomodori “Cuore di Bue” con cipolla fresca di Tropea e basilico (“Heart of Ox” tomatoes with fresh Tropea onions and basil).

Night fell gently and a nearly full moon rose over the mountains. Lab and gattoA Lab and a cat picked certain tables to wait for donations. The friendly manager came out to check on us for about the fourth time, and we asked his story. He had been trained in art restoration by Barbara Buttarini’s father. And Barbara, meanwhile, was back in the kitchen, working on a dessert (we ordered no dessert, only a cup of café to get me back down the mountain), like a work of art.

Ca'M cafe

Ca'M dr D

The panarama from Ca’Maddalena

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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