The best gift my mother ever gave me

Growing up, my mother’s lack of education and limited worldview were infuriating and embarrassing. Though she raised me, she seemed so different from me. That led to a sense of detachment and indifference. There were times, when she had moved to another state, that months would go by before I’d think to call, usually prompted by a reproof from my older sister. I didn’t seem to have anything to say.

Yet today, more than ten years after my mother died, I think of her almost every day. All because of a gift she gave me.

How I saw her

My mother, born Fiorentina (“Flo”) Bruno, was the youngest of 7 children all raised in New York City. She didn’t graduate high school and she married a man, my father Joseph, who didn’t make it past the 8th grade. “The 13th Joe,” she reminded us, hinting at her bad luck. Her life seemed tinged with disappointment and regret, a lingering sense that things should have been different.

Even at age 76, lying in a hospital bed with a broken hip she’d never recover from, she was still reminiscing about her best years as a single woman working in the gloves department at Macy’s.

Belated love and respect

Mom and me at my sister's weddingIt was only when I was older and my mother was into her 70s that I started appreciating her. I started noticing how other people loved and respected her. I saw I’d taken for granted the qualities that made my mother special.

Despite having little money, for example - our family car was purchased for $25 - she was extraordinarily generous, always handing out small gifts for people. “Just a little something,” she’d say.

And the food! My best memories of my mother are of her in the kitchen, cooking and baking. We may not have had much but we always had good food and guests to share it with. On Thanksgivings, we could sit at the table for 3-4 hours as she presented course after course. Every holiday, she’d make special trips to deliver her homemade cookies, cakes, and breads to family and friends. She’d stay up into the night till her hands would ache from rolling dough. One Easter she made 40 loaves of bread.

She was fun, too. How could I not love that? She’d tell jokes, dress up for Halloween, host parties. The very things that embarrassed me then are the things I admire about her now.

Yes, she had regrets. But they stemmed from simply having a thirst for life and wanting more from it. As I entered my 40s, my condescension turned into empathy.

The best gift she gave me

There was one other quality she had, her best gift, that she somehow passed down to me: my mother was genuinely interested in other people.

“Are you a Gemini?” she’d ask a complete stranger while I rolled my eyes and skulked away. Though not everyone engaged her in conversation, many did. She was charming, genuinely curious about people, and could talk to anyone. As a result, she had an extraordinary social network of people who cared for her.

When I was a child, I was too shy to even answer the phone. But, as my mom would say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and through her actions she influenced me, instilling in me her interest in other people. Now, I’m just like my mother, talking, talking, talking simply because I like people and like getting to know them better. And now it’s my own children’s turn to be embarrassed.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

I regret the missed opportunities. I did too little, too late. But there’s still a way I can show my appreciation for what you gave me. There’s an opportunity, with every person I meet, to share your wonderful gift. Each time I do that my life becomes a little richer and my bond with you becomes a little stronger.

Now, although you’re gone, you’re with me every day.

The best meal in Florence

Duomo in FlorenceOverlooking the Ponte Vecchio  

 

 

 

For many travelers, their best meal in Florence might be high on a hill with views of the Duomo. Or along the Arno river, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. Or maybe in a piazza near the Uffizi museum.

But for me, while celebrating my 50th birthday this week in Florence, a small neighborhood place stood out from all the others.

The restaurant: I Carbonari

I CarbonariNormally, my wife would research restaurants and get trusted recommendations. But we were all tired on Tuesday night and so we chose the restaurant closest to our hotel. It was I Carbonari,  less than 50 meters away and so new that there weren’t any reviews we could read.

As soon as we walked in, the place felt inviting. The brightly colored kitchen was open and smelled wonderful. One entire wall was a chalkboard with an area reserved for kids to draw. Instead of a printed menu, they listed a few specials based on what was fresh that day. And they also offered to cook other dishes based on what we liked.

I went with the classic dish listed that day: spaghetti vongole. It’s so simple - just spaghetti, clams, garlic, olive oil, some herbs - and yet somehow this was different. The dish sang and not a note was wrong. The amount of oil and blend of seasonings was pitch perfect. The clams tasted like they just came from the sea. And the pasta had a firmness and flavor that stood up to all of it. Despite a generous portion, I ordered a second helping.

And the wine! Again no menu, just a carafe of house wine. I chose red and it had a wonderful taste that I could only describe as - and I know this is a strange word to use for wine - “fresh.” I asked about it and they proudly told me the wine was made without preservatives. Making a stomping motion, he emphasized “with the feet.”

After we ate, the kids were tired and walked backed to the hotel with my wife while I sipped my wine. Now alone, I indulged myself with a 3rd glass accompanied by a slice of ricotta cheesecake like no other. I thought of my grandparents, Vito and Angelina Bruno who took the boat from Piaggine to New York almost 100 years ago. Perhaps it was the effects of the wine, but I felt more Italian than ever.

Contributions & curiosity

The daily specialsNormally, that would have been it. After all, restaurants for tourists are usually a simple transaction, rarely if ever to be repeated. But in writing about working out loud, I’ve developed a greater sense of curiosity and contribution.  I wanted to know more about these people and to do something for them besides just say "grazie” and leave a tip. But what else could I do?

The most obvious contribution was to come back the next day for lunch. When we did, the Ciaos! and Buon giornos! we exchanged had even more feeling. Immediately, I noticed a familiar dish on the counter. Pizza rustica is a traditional Easter pie and the last time I had it was before PCs were invented. We started our lunch with 4 slices and some red wine.

Other people came and went, everyone wearing warm, genuine smiles. We met the woman who baked the cheesecake from the other night and another chef (he was “the meat chef” as opposed to “the fish chef”). Seeing everyone interact in this small, friendly space made me feel like I was in someone’s home. I very much liked being there and that gave me an idea.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” I said. “I’d like to come back again.”

“Your birthday?! Really? She’ll make you a cake!” he said, excitedly, pointing to the baker. “What kind of cake would you like?”

The best meal in Florence

Kids at the kitchenThe next night, we got to know each other better. I learned that Stefania and Fernando have been married for 20 years and just opened the restaurant recently. They met while doing other work in London and lived there for 10 years.

And we learned their restaurant is truly a family business. The meat chef is the brother of the husband. And Andrea (in the photo, on the right) is the fish chef and their brother-in-law. He’s married to the wife’s sister, Gabriella, who's also the baker. Andrea is also responsible for the wine as it comes from a vineyard he owns in Puglia.

During all of this conversation, our family busily swapped plates, sampling everything. Whole squid stuffed with ricotta and vegetables. Marinated sardines and orata. Pasta with pureed asparagus that tasted like the sun itself. Between courses, the kids drew pictures for my birthday while I lost count of the wine glasses (both white and red this time).

My cake!And then came the cake. I had asked for “something with Nutella in it” knowing my kids would love that. Stefania dimmed the lights, Fernando lit the candles they’d purchased, and everyone sang. Then they presented us with a bottle of champagne and entertained the kids while we all talked and drank. We encouraged them to come visit us in New York City and we even connected on Facebook before we left. Back at the hotel, I saw they’d posted pictures of the cake and I did the same.

And that’s how I came to experience my best meal in Florence. We did eat at other places but I don’t remember the names of those restaurants never mind the people. At I Carbonari, we made a connection. And that’s what turned our meal into an experience and a story I wanted to share.

Mille grazie to my new friends.

 

Andrea, Stefania, and Fernando