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Window on Italy - Buona Festa at L'Antica Vetreria!

Colleen Simpson

We Finished! Well, Mostly...

A big "brava" to us! In the nick of time we have finished, furnished and hooked up utilities to the Villa and two of our apartments! In the nick of time, because we are still putting nine beds together the morning our first guests arrive. All of Tom's four siblings, spouses and two nieces are coming to stay in our newly completed Villa. We also have very good friends arriving for the two apartments: La Cantina and il Forno. Due in a few days. We have yet to hang the pictures, but that can wait.

It is the last week of June, 2008. For a full two years our renovation has progressed at full speed. Our big crane is the prominent feature of our village skyline. The devotion, love, work and sweat of our crew and many friends who helped along the way, have turned this "gihugic" (the mating of giant and huge) abandoned, half-ruined glassworks into a stunning jewel of the village!

Our work is not yet complete: we have two more apartments, some terraces and the pool to finish. Our large pool is delayed four weeks because of torrential rains in April. We do not want the big excavation to trigger a mudslide down the steep village hill and elect to wait until all is dry! Even though our first guests don't get to take a swim, they are a happy lot to be vacationing at discount rates (as in free!) After years of constant activity, we can open some of our doors to real live guests, and this feels like an accomplishment of truly "gihugic" proportions.

We are ready to celebrate this "watershed" moment and to give our tireless workers a big thank you before the next big push for completion. So, we decide to throw a small party for the crew while our family is here.

dining room table

Just to get our handcrafted dining room table that seats 14 up and into the Villa requires a major dismantling and reassembling project with five supervisors!

Party Planning in a Small Village

We begin to draw up our guest list. Our geometra, Giovanni, foreman, Mario, our entire crew plus spouses and the Mencarellis, our adopted Italian family, are the first invitees. We begin to add some important people to our guest list. Of course, we have to include the "sindaco" our wonderful mayor, Andrea Corporali, who smoothed the way for all licenses and permits to be approved and was one of our most vocal cheerleaders for the project. Of course, we have to include Michaele, our fabulous butcher. Of course, we have to include Don Agusto, our village priest. Of course, we have to include Maria Pia, the sweet owner of the "everything store", Piegaro's answer to Woolworth's! Of course, we have to include dear friend, Arnika, owner of Café Via Roma who rents us her small apartment during the restoration. Of course, we have to include all their extended families and in-laws. The guest list is growing exponentially and eventually the fact dawns on us, clear as day, that NO ONE in Piegaro can be left out!

Our little party becomes the "Buona Festa"! It will be an open house for the entire village to get a thorough tour and inside look at what everyone has been referring to as "the works" during our building and restoration. The simplest part of the whole party turns out to be the invitations. In our small village, all we have to do is tell six people: "Domenica, 29 Giugno, a le tre" (On Sunday, 29 June beginning at 3pm) and out goes the word on the village telegraph!

Our Menu, or How I Got Out of Making Pasta by Hand for 400 People!

Our Italian family, the Mencarellis, become deeply involved in what will be our "social debut." They love us and take this task very seriously. Everyone wants to help and everyone has some good opinions to offer. I don't fault Alessandra for her firm opinion that we must serve fresh homemade pasta and pizza to 400+ guests who may arrive for our open house between 3 and 11pm. But she has apparently mistaken me for our village "sagra" cook! My stomach sinks I form a mental picture of my sweat dripping over a hot pasta pot all evening while I miss out on my own party.

Windows on Italy - Buona Festa

Mauro, Alessandra, Maya the dog, Lea, Carlotta & Boyfriend, Lucio (our Italian family)

I try to change Alessandra's mind. Lea, her mother, who is my age, and a true adventurer, quickly makes the argument that we shall do it "a la Americana con tutti fresca", the American way with all cold cuts and salads, which is my proposal.

Very worried about social etiquette and knowing this is my chance to present "la Bella Figura" (a good image of elegance, grace and social propriety), Alessandra emerges from a profound pout of two days duration and finally agrees to cancel the marathon pasta-making session. A compromise is reached: presto! We will have the baker furnish pizza and fancy sandwiches; the butcher will provide the cold cuts. We will make the salads and cheese plates. I sigh with relief.

Alessandra and Lea arrange for the local supermarket to give a good discount and we try to calculate how many tomatoes, basil, artichokes, assortment of fruits, cheeses, etc., we will have to purchase to make six different salads and plates of cheeses for 400 people. I discover another talent of my beloved Mencarelli family: their barter skills. Somehow they have arranged for us to have full rein of the entire supermarket, with the amazing proviso that we can return absolutely anything we don't use, even the fresh produce!

Recycling, Anyone?

I totally agree with our village's strict policy of recycling. It is my top priority that most of our Festa's eating utensils must be recycled so I am dismayed when I see only, and I mean only, plastic plates available on the grocery shelf. Informed that maybe paper plates can be purchased somewhere in Perugia, I give in. There is no time to search elsewhere.

We are preparing a fruit salad, called "Macedonia" in Italy (because there are all those states in the mix), and now Alessandra insists we must also provide bowls. "Macedonia" is always served in bowls. United in sisterhood, Lea and I argue for just plopping the fruit down on a plate with the other foods, but we will NOT WIN this battle against Alessandra's unwavering allegiance to custom! I now know that she is definitely worrying about each and every detail of my "social debut." We are at loggerheads, for I simply WILL NOT purchase an additional 400 plastic bowls!

So, brilliant "thinker-on-my-feet" that I am, I come up with the idea of using bamboo skewers! Absolutely brilliant! Mixing salads and cold cuts with "Macedonia" on a single plate may be a sacrilege, but a skewer is such a novelty that it does not offend. Alessandra agrees! Bamboo skewers are not only recyclable, but they are also very inexpensive. We end up with a fine presentation: a scooped out watermelon overturned with a bright array of fruit sticking up on bamboo skewers.

Fruit Skewers

Buona Festa compromises: fruit on skewers with pizza and "torta al testo" from the baker!

All Hands on Deck!

Early in the morning of the "Buona Festa" all hands are pressed into service. All sisters-in-law - Carol, Janice and Donna - plus Alessandra, Lea and I are in one kitchen preparing salads; brothers are out sweeping the terraces or in the dining room on cheese-platter duty; the teens, our nieces, plus Carlotta and Lucio are in another kitchen on fruit-skewer duty and it is they who come up with the magnificent watermelon presentation.

Salad Preparation

Alessandra and sister Janice at work in the il Forno Due apartment kitchen on salad duty

Tutti Fresca

Everything "Tutti Fresca", carefully arranged for our Buona Festa guests (with refills on the way)!

We make a typical Caprese salad, an untypical pasta salad, a delicious "panzanella" bread and tomato salad, a rice salad that involves cooking hotdogs and mincing them up with rice and olives, and an American potato salad. I am in the middle of making the potato salad of huge proportions when I realize I forgot to purchase celery. Can my famous potato salad be served without crunch? Where to find the missing crunch on short notice? It is Sunday and grocery stores are closed! I spot some jars of antipasto vegetables in the pantry and they quickly get dumped into the mix. Thus, I become the creator of a unique American-Italian spud salad.

Decanting Wine

Niece Katie and brother Bob decant the Sargentini vino!

Our friend, Luca Sargentini arrives with his brother, struggling with their very heavy surprise for our Festa! It is a 50 litre vat of organic Sangiovese wine produced on the family's large farm. The Sargentini family has farmed our Nestore valley for generations and an extended family meeting involves 60+ relatives attending! Luca has become a dear friend rescuing us on more than one occasion with his hospitality, advice and general counsel. We dash out to Maria Pia's house to request a special opening of her "everything store" to purchase 5 litre bottles to decant the wine.

As Sunday morning wears on we discover we don't have enough large serving bowls, so twice more we knock on Maria Pia's door to open up! After our third trip for supplies, she firmly announces that she has to get ready for the Buona Festa. If we come one more time she is just going to give us the key to her store.

Our good friend and geometra, Giovanni, arranges for a pianist friend who travels from Rome with sound system and music for dancing. Our Villa is buzzing with activity as final platters are placed on the huge dining table, sound system is checked, wine continues to be decanted, chairs borrowed from all the apartments are arranged upstairs and down and last minute chores are completed.

So Where Are Our Guests?

I am nervous as 3pm comes and goes, with no arrivals except for our dear Mencarelli family who return from a brief cleanup at home. Flower bouquets and potted live plants have been arriving all day, keeping Ana, the village florist, quite busy. Auguri! Auguri! (Good Fortune!): the message is written on each card, some from people we have never met. Now I begin to question those cards - have they been sent in lieu of people?


Are all these floral gifts clever stand-ins for our guests?

What if no one comes to our party?

Alessandra calms my nerves some by assuring me that 3pm is not a fashionable arrival time, for siesta is not even finished. And sure enough, right on the dot of 4pm our first official guest arrives. It is the boss of our thriving modern glassworks outside town (the largest in Europe), the "Vetreria Cooperativa Piegarese" (worker-owned cooperative). Signore Gallo is an imposing, urbane and very friendly important man in the community so we take it as a good sign he is our first guest.

Buona Festa

Our good friends Sonia and Davide (from our favorite restaurant) arrive with yellow roses!

Soon after, the flood gates open and people come from every direction. They come bearing gifts, pumping our hands with more "aguris." Olive oil from their trees, wine from their vineyards, ancient glass from their collections, bouquets of flowers, magnums of Prosecco, plantings for our terraces! Gifts pile up on every available surface. Worries vanish as my heart fills up with surprise and gratitude.

Vilma, Our Village Elder

Village Elders

Vilma (with cane) and her sweet friends come to our party

We are graced with the entrance of Vilma, the oldest woman in the village at 96 years old. She is a diminutive lady with short white hair who energetically stomps up the stairs of our entry. I am charmed when she taps her cane and refuses my offered chair. We listen as she exclaims that right here in this very spot - gesturing with her cane to my kitchen within the great arch - as a young girl, she worked here, weaving the straw "fiasco" around glass bottles. She points to our dining table and tells us the bottles were made right there on the factory floor. Curious to see the room where the foreman allowed children use of his bathroom, Vilda continues her stomping, this time up the stairs to the top of our 9th century tower.

She bursts into tears when she sees our perfectly restored tower bedroom with its original arrow slit windows now glazed, preserved little pigeon holes where the birds used to roost and original tiny fireplace back in place! Words fail me now to describe Vilda's enthusiasm for our tower's beautifully tiled and completely modern bathroom. All of our months of hard labor are worth this important village elder's stamp of approval!

Tour Time!

Everyone wants to see the entire property, so Tom and I split up, leading individual tours every twenty minutes, trailed by 10-15 people at a time. Many of our villagers share stories and memories of their connection to L'Antica Vetreria: here is where the kids had a club house, here is where they had a fort, here is where some teens had a secret meeting place, here is where the town dungeon was located, here is where they made wine, here is where the ancients defended our village with arrows (and perhaps vats of burning oil) and here is where they blew the glass.


Colleen convenes a tour beside the unfinished pool & shows Juliana the restored ancient Villa beams

Sometimes we forget who is conducting the tour as we learn more about our ancient glassworks' rich history through centuries of use, from the people who have lived in its shadow their whole lives.

We point out that our Vetreria has also been blessed with furniture craftsmen and antique shops that handcrafted or restored its furnishings. A year earlier we managed to meet (Under the Tuscan Sun) Frances Mayes' own antique dealer and her young furniture and door restorer, Elliott, from Cortona. Elliott was easily convinced to embrace our massive project of staining or painting all of our handmade furniture: 12 "armadio" closets, 24 bedside cabinets, our massive dining room table, a bread making cabinet called a "madia", 24 chairs, five large bookcases, a large desk, a library table, four coffee tables and five TV tables. We rented two adjoining garages across the village and Elliott started the three month project. Mistaking this venture for a new furniture store, villagers flocked to inquire his prices! Neighborhood children helped out by moving furniture around in his cramped working quarters. They were thrilled with this new diversion in their daily lives.

Unfinished Cabinets

Handcrafted armadio clothes closets are lined up 12 deep into the dark recesses of the garage!

Weaving the Straw "Fiaschii" is a Village Tradition

One thoughtful village lady gifts us with an ancient "fiasco." "Fiasco" is a round bottomed hand-blown bottle surrounded by straw which gives it a flat resting surface. She wants us to display it on the fireplace mantle near the original ovens from which it was originally crafted. She smiles with pride for her photo in il Forno Due apartment where the ovens were located.

Fiasco - straw-bottomed bottles

The women of Piegaro are very famous for their straw "fiaschii"

Eating, Drinking and Dancing the Night Away!

After the last tour wraps up, we return to our guests who are eating, drinking and dancing the night away. Carlotta Mencarelli, soon to be our Italian hostess, surveys her domain from the library balcony while Tom presents "la Bella Figura" alternating dances with her mother, Alessandra, and grandmother, Lea. Her father, Mauro, fetches up sister-in-law Janice into the dance. Children dash up and down the stairs. Small groups form with people deep in conversation.

Buona Festa Dancing

Buona Festa Dancing

Tom shows some style dancing with beautiful Alessandra and rocking with lively Lea!

Buona Festa Dancing

Mauro pairs up with sister-in-law Janice, while the musician from Rome plays the night away!

Every villager wants to meet our American family chatting them up in Italian. Possessing not ten words of Italian between them (except for Donna), our family members nod as if they understand and charm the folks. Jon Sinclair manages to keep up lively conversations with his hands alone. I attempt to keep translations going, but too much is happening at once! Village elders circle the table tasting each salad nodding approval. I know my American potato salad is a huge success when not one, but five older women ask me for the recipe. And not a single guest mentions the missing pasta!

Geometra Giovanni, with brother David & Tom

Geometra Giovanni, with brother David & Tom

GianLuca cleans up well!

GianLuca cleans up well!

Our Crew Cleans up Well! Here is GianLuca, My Maestro della Caminetti

Our workers are all here shaved and shined up. I am amazed to see our handsome GianLuca all gussied up in his immaculate suit, for I have only seen him in shorts while working! Our crew members are the deserved stars of the show as villagers give tribute to their fine craftsmanship. I carefully pay homage to each, pointing out details of their work: from GianLuca's mastery of my dream fireplaces to Evandro's immaculate bathroom and kitchen tile work to Bianco's carefully crafted cobble stone street and terraces. Mario, the crew boss, and I exchange colorful stories - frustrating mishaps now transformed into humorous moments - and joke with our crew. We all have a good laugh. I know this Buona Festa, held in their honor, is a success as the compliments and wine flow freely. This is their moment to shine!

For a few quiet minutes, I settle into a chair beside the window while our guests mill around me enjoying the party. Gazing out to the gathering dusk of evening and the panorama of vineyards and olive groves, I savor this moment - immensely satisfied. Giovanni joins me. Holding both his hands in mine, I thank him for making my dream come true. We reminisce about my long-ago phone call from Seattle asking for an appointment to see the abandoned glassworks. Together, we have come a long way on our journey to this day.

Tom joins my moment with Giovanni

Tom joins my moment with Giovanni

And then, when it seems that nothing could go more perfectly than our Festa, the lights flicker and go out!

We are plunged into darkness and the music abruptly stops. Our building is operating on a temporary construction hookup, and the sound system plus all the lights blazing has blown the main box. A quick phone call to Signore Ciucci, our electrician in the next village, results in his rush from home to boost the power. He stays at the party, exclaiming that he dare not leave now. We are glad because he has to adjust the power several times until the party winds down.

"La Bella Figura"

The next morning, the success of my "social debut" is confirmed when I am embraced by a bevy of elders sitting on their bench in the main piazza. From that day forward I have my own place with them whenever I wish to "rest tranquillo."

With Alessandra's patient love and stubborn guidance, I have managed to present my a "Bella Figura."

(All photos of the Festa are courtesy of Carol Sinclair, Tom's wonderful sister and a talented photographer.)

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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