10 years and a few weeks ago I walked into a crazy little restaurant in Foligno and asked if I could work in the kitchen. I was immediately turned down (young American girl, obviously I don't know how to cook).
10 years ago today, I woke up feeling determined (more like F-that!). I made gnocchi, and drove over (I barely made it as I didn't really know how to drive a manual car at that point... and definitely got lost among the side streets of Foligno a few times).
So he cooked them, and we sat down and ate them, discussing the differences between mine and theirs over a bottle or 2 of wine (as one did in this locale), and so began my job interview with Salvatore Denaro at Il Bacco Felice.
Salvatore then asked what I was doing for the rest of the afternoon - I obviously had no plans - so he said come with me on a few errands. First we had to wait for the mozzarella delivery man to bring us, and his famous dog Rosa (now departed), to the mechanic to get his old Renault out of the shop (we stopped for a grappa along the way).
Then we stopped by his orto, or garden, filled with wild, overgrown plants (it was spring), chickens, rows of roses, and 2 enormous black pigs. We picked some chicory and arugula and lettuce and I showed him the stinging nettles (my favorite) and we were on our way to make deliveries to his friends (other restaurant owners).
For the rest of the evening we basically ate and drank our way through the Bevagna/Montefalco area. Around 1:00 or 2:00 am the calls starting coming in wondering where the hell we were. So we headed back to the restaurant, bread in hand (for dinner service - we had responsibly picked that up as well on our tour). Salvatore turned to me and said - okay - you’re hired - because you are the only one who can keep up with me (he was referring to drinking). So I took the compliment and began (extremely hungover) the next day.
What followed was a crazy ride of trial by fire. Remember I had only been in Italy for about 2 months so only spoke about four words of Italian and had really no idea how Italian kitchens/restaurants worked - it is a very different system than that of America. Basically Salvatore would leave a bunch of ingredients out on the counter (then leave to run his errands) and I was supposed to magically know what to make. Needless to say I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned quickly.
He loved to make fun of me, calling me a pharmacist, as I measured out portions of pasta. 'That is not how you cook,' he said, dumping kilos of pasta into the water - 'a little more for this table, a little less for them because I don’t like them!'
And so it went, I learned the bases of the Umbrian and Sicilian kitchens (Salvatore is Sicilian), as well as the best products from the rest of Italy as Salvatore was huge in the Slow Food movement in the area. Obviously I learned about wine. I had no choice but to dive head first into Sagrantinos and Montefalco Rossos…. like on hot July mornings when he wanted to drink (never alone) so I was forced to down half a bottle of Sagrantino around 9:30 am while prepping for lunch….
The craziest days were those when he wouldn’t show up until around 2:00pm for lunch (bread in hand) so I would have to be the server (with my 4 words of Italian) as well, begging people to let me give them a glass of wine even if they didn’t want it…. because if he walked in and everyone was not drinking, he would throw us all out!
And no it was not all wine and roses... we fought all the time - he actually fired me twice - basically because I cleaned too much. But I always say that if you have never been on/seen Salvatore's bad side, then you don't really know him. I know him and am still proud to call him a friend and teacher. I am sad that I am missing our anniversary in Italy (I am working at Via Umbria in DC) as we had planned to recreate our famous (infamous) giro... but we can always find a time to share a bottle or 3 together when I get back!