There are a bunch of places called “Castelnuovo” – New Castle – in Italy. This particular Castelnuovo is in upper Tuscany and, in particular, in the Garfagnana area; thus the mouthful of a name. We came here to visit Mary Beth, an old friend of Mark’s from his college days, who was here for a week or so while her 12-year-old son Luca was participating in a prestigious music festival.If you’ve ever fantasized about a few days in a Tuscan villa, surrounded by glorious green hills and fabulous food, this was it. Just beautiful. Mary Beth and her family – husband Sven, son Luca, and daughters Isabella, Zoe, and Fiona – had rented an apartment in the neighboring village of Castiglione de Garfagnana while we stayed at Villa Bertagni, a B&B about a mile from the center of Castelnuovo. Set on at least several acres, the proprietors had renovated an old villa and then added a building or two for the six guest rooms. Breakfast was heaven on a terrace, while the two (TWO!) swimming pools were a welcome relief from the mid-day heat. Morning runs along the Serchio River were beautiful.
The highlight, though, was the evening we went up to Castiglione, where Mary Beth, et al., were staying. Castiglione is a tiny town, way up a hill overlooking Castelnuovo, so the first stop was a little bar/cafe with a deck looking over the whole valley. Wine, Aperol, munchies. Amazing. You just sat there and kept gazing out over … Tuscany.
But then, though it seemed it couldn’t, it got better. We’d reserved a table for eight at what was probably the only restaurant in town and there we sat having one of the great meals of my life. To be sure, not everything about the meal was perfect; for one thing, the house wine was a strike against my theory that you can’t get bad wine in Italy. One dish, though, shared by all of us, was historic. The fresh spaghetti with pesto was simply perfect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much; anyone can make spaghetti with pesto, right? (NB: Yes, Mark & I usually avoid carb-heavy pasta. We make exceptions, though, and this was the right time for an exception.)
Ah, but this was special. The spaghetti was truly al dente, slightly resistant to being bit. And the pesto. We all agreed, if any of us had made it we would have put twice as much pesto in, but this dish not only didn’t need it, it didn’t want it. Something about 2,000 years or so of practice and these Italians have something figured out about cooking. And then, when it’s all over, the owner/cook/waiter just puts a bottle of vin santo, sweet wine, on the table along with biscotti, the traditional Tuscan dessert.
Life doesn’t get better than that.And a word about our friends. Total fun, and fascinating people. Twelve-year-old Luca is apparently quite the prodigy; he was the youngest participant in the festival and had recently performed with no less than Philip Glass. On top of that, he was just a great kid, defined in part, of course, by laughing at all my jokes. Even after making a mistake during a key performance in the competition he was miserable for a while but then bounced back like a pro. His sisters, too, all fun to be around.
While in Duluth we hadn’t really focused on where we’d go after Castelnuovo and by now, at the height of tourist season, it was pretty hard to find lodging we liked in other parts of Tuscany. So instead we’re hightailing it across the peninsula to Ravenna, near the Adriatic, and figure out how we spend the next couple weeks in Italy.