Starting the new year in a fort

New Years Day, January 1, 2012. The beginning of a new year and the end of our family time together.

The day before New Year’s eve, Tim, my mother and I were driving the hills above the villa in search of a local restaurant. We were lost and cranky. The restaurant was nowhere in sight. But suddenly we saw a sign for Ristorante Forte Mace’. This was not what we were looking for, but we thought we should check it out. We drove up to what looked like a fortification, set deep into the ground, atop a hill. Which is exactly what it was.

Forte Mace'

The restaurant was closed, but we peered in the window and soon a young woman and her mother came out. We explained, in broken Italian and a bit of Spanish, that there were 8 of us and we were hoping to have dinner on San Silvestro. They told us that they were full for San Silvestro, but could serve us on the following day, lunch at 1:00. A quick tour of the restaurant, a change of plan, and we gratefully accepted.

The entrance to the restaurant

Ristorante Forte Mace’ sits tucked into the hillside, high above the Gulf of La Spezia.

The view from the fort of the Gulf of La Spezia

Built in 1889, the fort provided land defense for the entire region. It was in total disrepair when purchased 14 years ago by the present owners. The have turned it into an extraordinary family restaurant and it was there that we spent New Year’s Day.

What we did not know was that the family opened the restaurant exclusively for us. We were the only diners, and they prepared a very special meal for us.

The son of the family, the business manager for the restaurant, speaks some English and was able to guide us through our meal. We started by ordering delicious local wines and began our way through the extraordinary menu, starting with the Antipasto Desgustazione.

We all shared plates of:

  • Bruschetta al lardo
  • Cipolline in agrondolce all’alloro
  • Crostini con acciughe
  • Torta di farro
  • Torta di zucca gialla

Our little Italian phrase book didn’t help with the subtleties of this menu, but we were able to get the gist of most things. Each taste was unique and special. The Cipolline (baby onions) in a slightly sweet sauce, the fresh anchovies and the Torta di faro (a hearty kind of grain) were especially memorable. The Bruschetta al lardo was amazing, soft and buttery. We were only a bit shocked when we looked at the menu and realized that it was lard.

For the pasta course we each had a choice:

  • Ravioli all spezzina al ragu di carne tradizionale
  • Gnocchi di farina di castagne con crema di zola
  • Gnocchi aromatizzati all zafferanao con speck e radicchio rosso
  • Pansotti con salsa di noci
  • Tagliolini al ragu bianco di granchio

We all shared around tastes of each dish. Meghan’s gnocchi di farina di castagne (chestnut flour) were really surprising and delicious, as were the gnocchi with red radicchio that Lewis had. While in La Spezia we have found a number of dishes that use red radicchio. I love the slightly bitter taste and burnt colour that it adds. I ordered Pansotti con salsa di noci, which were lovely fresh little stuffed pastas in a subtle and soft nut sauce. Amazingly delicate.

For Secondi Piatti we chose from:

  • Salsicce con patate al forno
  • Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola
  • Filetto di maiale al marsala
  • Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate
  • Acciughe fritte con insalata

We searched through the phrase book and placed our orders. A lot of us had the Tagliata con scaglie di grana e rucola. Thin slices of rare beef, mounded with shavings of Parmesan cheese on a bed of arugula. The perfect combination and incredibly delicious. Tim braved the Coniglio fritto con melanzane grigliate, little fried pieces of rabbit with grilled eggplant. They use a lot of rabbit in this part of Italy and Tim said it was marvellous, although not unlike chicken.

By the time that we had eaten all of these courses, there was very little room for Dolce. However, the owners had especially made a nut torte, so I willingly had a bit – light and airy, it was the perfect way to end the meal.

Well, not quite the end. When we found that the grandmother of the family makes homemade limoncello, we knew that we wanted to cap off the meal with a glass (or two).

Very full and very happy

Then the father of the family came out from the kitchen saying “Come. Come” to my mother. As he began to guide her out the door, Tim & I followed and he took us on a full tour of the fort. He is the one who has done the bulk of the restoration work, by hand, and we were shown a slideshow of the renovation process. This is more than just a little family restaurant. The daughter and her mother do most of the cooking and we saw a sign for the Italian Cooking Academy on the wall. They serve the specialities of the Ligurian coast and do it with grace and symplicity. The son does the business side and was our host for the afternoon since he was able to speak English.

This is a family that has poured their hearts into creating a unique experience for everyone who comes there. This was more than a meal. We were welcomed into their world and we felt incredibly privileged to be there with them.

By the time we left we were hugging and introducing our children as “Alessandro, Magdalena, e Luigi”, something which I suspect will go into family lore and which Tim & I won’t be able to live down. Laughing until our faces and sides hurt, we rolled down the hill, along the ancient path, to the villa. It was an amazing way to usher in a new year.

San Silvestro in La Spezia

La Spezia is very much a working town, not geared for tourists. It isn’t glamourous, but it is very honest.

A typical street in La Spezia

It gave us a chance to glimpse into a “real” Italian city, filled with hard working families. And when San Silvestro (our New Year’s) rolled around, we got to experience it as La Spezians.

After a large feast at the villa, Xan, Lewis, Meghan and I got dressed up went down into the heart of the city to celebrate.

Lewis gets ready for New Year's

The whole city must have been there. There is a large pedestrian concourse through the centre of town and everyone – babies, children, teens, adults, grandparents –  was strolling up and down the streets to celebrate San Silvestro.

The first thing that hit us, almost literally, was the banging of firecrackers. All around us, constantly, unexpectedly, BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!!! Children and youth were setting off firecrackers everywhere. Under cars, under people’s feet, even on top of the water in a fountain. Parents gave their kids lit firecrackers to throw! And everyone was laughing constantly at everyone jumping.

We learned to look around – if we saw some child rushing away from a corner, we’d rush away too, or risk a deafening explosion. Our collective adrenaline was pumping furiously.

But it wasn’t just firecrackers. People were setting off fireworks everywhere on the street. They were holding lit fireworks as shooting stars poured forth. We were covered in the smell of sulphur.

Pretty soon we got giggly and giddy. Like everyone else on the street, we  jumped whenever something exploded or shot out near us, and laughed.

And then there were the bunny ears. Young men, mostly, were buying and wearing headbands with bunny ears that were lit up in different colours.

Bunny ears on the streets of La Spezia

Bunny ears everywhere. A grand street carnival. There were merry-go-rounds and lights, and everyone eating gelato and crepes with Nutella and cream.

Stages were set up in each of the piazzas and at each there was a different type of band. We walked from piazza to piazza trying to decide where we wanted to be for the big countdown. Did we want to usher in 2012 with the Italian Klezmer band? Or with the outrageously dressed boy band singing a weird kind of gigolo Italian ska? Or with the dueling turntables, mixing oldie goldies, while boys in bunny ears and middle aged parents in ski jackets did a conga-line?

We decided on the flamboyant guys with a hodgepodge of retro costume bits — cape, frilly white shirt, long styled hair, red cummerbund, Paul Revere jacket, zebra pants. They were singing nothing that we recognized, loudly off key. We bought a bottle of Prosecco and four glasses – everyone on the street had bottles – and counted down with everyone else in La Spezia. As the new year broke, everyone around us was singing in Italian (maybe the national anthem?), and we mouthed along, made noise, drank our bubbly and agreed that it was definitely the most unique New Year’s we had ever had.

Lewis, Amanda, Xan & Meghan on the streets of La Spezia. Happy San Silvestro!

A sunny Christmas morning

Before coming to Italy, we warned ourselves that the end of December would be wintery and cold. We were prepared for grey rain, but decided that the weather didn’t really matter. We thought it would be fun just to be together, eating wonderful Italian food and drinking local wines.

What we had not expected were hot sunny days, breakfasts and lunches on the terrace and long walks on the hillsides. Christmas Day broke with a thunderously beautiful sunrise. Unbelievably, it was warm enough for us to have our Prosecco, bread, cheese and smoked salmon sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea. Church bells chimed as we launched into our Panatone.

Breakfast on Christmas morning
Celebrating with Prosecco

The villa is right beside the AVG, “Antica Via del Golfo”, a centuries old trail that connects surrounding towns and villages. Walking down it, we can get to La Spezia in about 15 minutes. Walking up takes a lot longer, and is brutal on the thigh muscles. It is really steep. But when we are on the path we invariably meet someone much older than us walking comfortably, not breathlessly panting as we are. We’re always greeted by a cheery buon giorno, or buona sera. So walk up we do, as often as possible, if only to save face and justify the huge quantities of food we can not resist eating.

The AVG also gives a unique opportunity to hike up the mountain and explore remote villages with breathtaking views. The path crosses a zig zag road with hairpin turns, clearly beloved of Italian drivers. It is the kind of road that Italian movies make famous. But walking the path gives you time to explore and see the pace of other people’s lives.

A view from the AVG, with a view of the La Spezia Gulf

On Christmas morning we headed up, unsure of where it would take us but mostly just wanting an excuse to walk and talk in the sunshine. We walked higher and higher up the mountain, surrounded by a feeling of celebration and the joy of being alive. We may see each other all together only once a year, but we know how to reconnect quickly, on a mountain top.

Maddy, Xan, Lewis and Amanda. Christmas morning in Italy

A Christmas Eve feast in Italy

Our Christmases have always looked a bit like an archetypal Christmas card. We decorate a tree with ancient ornaments, curl up by a roaring fire, and watch puffy snowflakes weigh down the enormous pine trees outside our windows.

But we knew that this year we would break with tradition. Since we are on the road, we decided that we would all gather as a family in Italy. Through the magic of the internet we found Villa Maggiano, a luxurious villa outside of La Spezia on the Italian Riviera. We headed there from our various parts of the world to rendezvous for Christmas.

La Spezia is a busy little city of 95,600 about an hour’s drive from Genoa, on the Ligurian coast. Tim and I flew from London into Genoa, and rented a car to drive to the villa. It had been 5 months since I had driven a car and the twists, turns and roundabouts were sobering, to say the least. On the edge of the city, we headed up a mountain and, fourteen hair-pin turns later, found ourselves at The Villa Maggiano.

Villa Maggiano

Set in an olive grove, the villa comfortably sleeps 8 and has a large brick terrace that looks out over La Spezia and the Golfo dei Poeti. Naval and container ships crisscross the bay. The Appennino mountain range in the distance changes colour throughout the day as the sun moves across the horizon and reflects off of the snow capped peaks.

Sunrise over the Golfo dei Poeti

Each bedroom of the villa has a view of the sea and the mountains, and every morning the sun shocks us awake by its beauty. Every night, lights twinkle on the hills and the shoreline, and the mountains fade into silhouette. Could we ask for a better place to spend Christmas with the family?

Our host, Sarah Ferrari, had decorated the villa with poinsettias, wreaths and Christmas ornaments. She greeted us with a large  basket of Italian goodies, and wine from the family vineyard, making us feel at home and ready to kick off the festive season.

Tim and I had a couple of days in which to prepare for Christmas Eve, when the family would all be together at last. We headed down to negotiate the vast market in the centre of La Spezia. This is not a tourist area, and few people speak English. Neither of us speak Italian but we figured out how to ask for ingredients, how to ask for more, how to ask for less. As La Spezia is on the coast, there were about a dozen fish stalls filled with mounds of Branzino (like sea bass), Baccalà (dried salt cod), scampi, mussels, squid, cuttlefish, swordfish, tuna and eels, still moving on their icy bed. There were aisles of cheese and meat stalls with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano (Parma is just down the road), various ages of Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto, Carpaccio, and many things we couldn’t identify. There were rows and rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, nut vendors and olive merchants.

The sun starts to set as we look out from the terrace

We tried (unsuccessfully) to stop ourselves from buying too much. But Christmas is a time for eating and drinking. And a gathering of the Lewis/Wynne-Jones clan happens only once a year, which justifies all kinds of excess. With an over-full larder, we created our Christmas Eve feast.

Opening the first of a number of bottles of Prosecco (a case of 12 for 15 euros) we began with an antipasto of olives, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers and fabulous focaccia bread. La Spezia is known for its focaccia and it is deliciously oily and salty, with chunks of olives imbedded into the dough. We followed this with a simple Pesto alla Genoese. This is the region that invented pesto and we bought a big tub of it at the market. It was like no pesto I have ever made or tasted before. Unlike other basils, Ligurian basil is grown organically and out of the direct sunlight to keep it fresh and sweet. The result is a smooth and lemony pesto.

Looking through the window at Tim cooking, the sunset reflected above

We followed the pasta course with Tim’s fabulous “Melanzane (eggplant) alla Parmigiano”, which he has perfected over the last month, and slices from a buttery and soft pork roast that we had bought from the neighbourhood Macelleria (butcher), rolled with garlic and rosemary.

A light salad of mixed greens from the market cleansed our pallets. Amongst other greens, I had bought a lettuce head that was yellow, flecked with magenta. I don’t know what it is called, but it was slightly bitter and so beautiful.

Christmas Eve feast at Villa Maggiano

We finished the meal with some fruit, biscotti and dessert wine. Fireworks were exploding over the bay, and the bells chimed from numerous churches. In several of the coast towns below us, they were welcoming the arrival of the baby Jesus from the sea. “La Madonna, San Giuseppe e Gesu Bambino arrivano dal mare”.

Not a snowflake in sight. Our family Christmas spirit burned bright.