A Bit of rough
Or Bigoli, Bach, Breakfast and a Bathroom
He told me about the all-inclusive breakfast a week or so before we were due to go.
Would you like to come to Vicenza with me and my family, he said. We will see Raffaele play Bach in a beautiful Renaissance theatre, and we will stay in a hotel and have breakfast.
Breakfast? I said.
Breakfast, he nodded.
….? My face remained blank.
He shrugged, surprised at my incomprehension.
You know, hotel breakfast. One of my favourite things! So much choice, so much time, everything you could want in one place. Breakfast Without Limits.
And so it was that last week we went to Vicenza to have breakfast. Ostensibly we went to see Lorenzo’s brother perform at the Teatro Olimpico. Raffaele studies at the music conservatory there and was performing classical guitar. I am totally ignorant about classical guitar, had never heard of the Teatro Olimpico, and had no idea where Vicenza was. In fact I called it Vincenza for the entirety of the trip, much to the (politely silent) bemusement of Lorenzo’s parents who came with us.
Lorenzo, it must be said, is a born teacher. I’ve never met someone more suited to their chosen career. You see Lorenzo doesn’t just talk, he explains. He manages to do it in a way which is neither pedantic or patronising, but interested and vaguely amused at the curious and fascinating thing that is life. He puts his long, thin fingers together in prayer-like pose, smiles slightly, looks down his aquiline nose and begins about the business of patiently polishing my rough and ragged ignorance.
Vicenza, he explains, is a little town in the Veneto region which straddles the Bacchiglione River and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The theatre (and many other villas/palazzi nearby) were designed by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who was heavily influenced by ancient Roman and Greek architecture (the interior of the theatre provides perfectly statuesque evidence of this). A breath-taking space; marble statues of muscular men in pose, a cotton-wool cloud scattered sky painted on the ceiling, and somehow much smaller than you would expect, and so it all feels quite intimate. There are no speakers, which means that the sound is strangely remote and (I thought) pure, something the others lamented, but I liked. Raffaele played a beautiful, moving Bach piece (Lorenzo’s dad snuffled into a hanky next to me) and then we all went for pizza and beer around the corner.
The next day we had some time to explore. Whilst it had been pouring with rain when we arrived (a contributor to the lush greenness of the city compared to home) the second day dawned sunny and blue-skied, so we went off in search of culture (him) and cappuccinos (me). We saw the river, murky after a day of heavy rain, and busy with ducks (some of which are no-doubt cooked into Vicenza’s famous duck ragu, poverini) and the central Piazza dei Signori with St Mark’s lion on his column and the spectacular tower. I found my cappuccino and he his culture. We strolled through a market where I bought some local jam (good label) and a sausage to take home, and then we went back to Raffaele’s little artist’s attic for lunch with the whole family.
The room was in an old, faded-pink palazzo a stone’s-throw from the centre, and it was literally a room, with a cupboard bathroom attached. Like all good impoverished artists Raffaele sleeps on a sofa bed in this single room which is simultaneously hall, corridor, sitting room, kitchen and bedroom. The bed folds up to become a sofa, and it is here that all four of us huddled as Lorenzo’s mum Monica prepared us lunch. There were only 4 chairs around the little pull-out dining table (which doubles as desk) so Lorenzo’s dad sat heroically on the sofa and ate on his lap.
Whilst his parents shared Raffaele’s tiny sofa bed (how the 3 of them got any sleep is a mystery) Lorenzo and I stayed in a hotel a little way out of town, about which he was furious. Lorenzo is not a man who likes to expend energy on futile pursuits such as walking long distances to budget hotels but fortunately – being the creature of comfort that he is – the bathroom and the breakfast made up for it.
Lorenzo is a man who appreciates a good bathroom. And a good breakfast. These two redeeming factors were enough to smooth his frayed nerves after twenty-five minutes of trudging in the relentless rain with our temperamental wheelie suitcases (his was fabric too so all his things were getting wet, I bought myself for the first time a real suitcase made in real plastic).
The room itself was an interesting colour palette of bog brown and lime green, with stripes of both shades painted halfway up the walls and two-tone curtains featuring the same lime and bog. There was a tiny balcony perfect to throw yourself from, a TV facing the bed, a wardrobe and then…the blessed Bathroom.
He made a beeline for it as soon as we had dumped our bags.
He stood there in the centre of the room gazing about him with a look of intense satisfaction on his face.
So spacious, he exhaled.
He looked at me for affirmation.
Yes, I agreed. It’s a good bathroom.
He did another giro of the room, went to the window, opened and closed it (a faintly incredulous look still on his face)
There’s nothing worse than a small bathroom, he said.
That evening we failed to go into town to eat any local specialities (aforementioned duck ragu, bigoli or salt cod) because it was still pouring with rain and L said he a) couldn’t face getting wet again and b) wanted to make the most of our hotel – by which he meant bathroom.
Luckily just around the corner was a mini supermarket, where we picked up a couple of warm beers (Sardinian Ichnusa, naturally, when in Rome/Vicenza and all) some salted crisps (he shares my addiction) and some bread rolls and prosciutto (a balanced meal). I laid out my silk scarf on the bed as a tablecloth (I never wear that thing anyway, just bring it with me on every trip to a vaguely glamorous destination in the vain hope that one day I will turn into Grace Kelly and be able to pull off a headscarf) and we arranged our picnic. We squabbled about something or other and crunched through our savoury snacks. Then he put on a dire Denzel Washington film dubbed into Italian and I fell asleep on his lap amongst the crisp crumbs.
The next morning we woke up early (he had set two alarms so that we didn’t miss breakfast).
I had a shower in the hallowed bathroom and had to admit it was one of the best showers I have ever had. I told him so.
Yes, he said, hardly supressing an ecstatic grin, it is a Good Bathroom.
Freshly showered, we went to breakfast.
There was a sad little sign at the entrance to the dining room.
Due to Covid 19, it read, there is no self-service at breakfast.
Lorenzo was slightly in front of me, and I saw his proud swimmer’s shoulders droop like a flower in Sardinian July. He walked woefully on.
At the breakfast bar stood a formidable woman, masked and aproned, tongs poised over the basket bulging with fresh pastries.
Which do you want? she barked.
Lorenzo mumbled a sorry reply, too sad and shy to select more than two.
She slid to the fruit.
A little bowl of tinned peaches and a mini yoghurt joined his plate of pastries on the brown plastic tray, and then he chose his juice (a fluorescent orange one) and skulked over to a table.
He toyed with his peaches in their bowl, pouting.
It’s not fair, he said, this isn’t a real hotel breakfast.
No, I agreed, commiserating. This is a Breakfast With Limits.
The lady appeared with our (cold) coffees and then strode away again. He glared glumly after her.
Think of the bathroom, I said, squeezing his hand.
After this disappointment, we ate lunch in the artist’s attic in famiglia. It was very snug and romantic really, everything you could ask for in a neat little space. I felt I could have lived there quite happily, and said so.
But the bathroom, he said.
We ate lunch there again the next day just before we had to catch our train. Which meant what with the bed-picnic and the post-concert pizza we didn’t eat any local dishes at all. So before we caught our train I dragged him to a deli where I bought some vac-packed baccala to take home, and a packet of Bigoli, determined to make something once we got back; balm to the breakfast-induced bruise.
Bigoli in salsa, or bigoi in salsa in local dialect, is a dish of spaghetti-like pasta dressed in an intensely simple but flavourful sauce made of slow cooked onions and anchovies (or occasionally sardines). A dish typical of the Veneto and of Jewish origin, it was originally consumed on fasting days (when no meat was eaten) such as Good Friday. It is now eaten throughout the year.
Bigoli is spaghetti-like in length and shape, though often slightly fatter and more porous in texture. Originally it was supposedly made with buckwheat flour and it is often made and used in its wholemeal variation too. The packet I got from Il Ceppo, the deli in Vicenza, has wonderful packaging and is quite dark in colour, but is not – as far as I can tell – wholemeal. The label suggests it is made from the standard durum wheat flour. The sauce, which is simply known as ‘la salsa’ is described as a sort of crema or cream made with just three ingredients; anchovies, onions and olive oil.
As is always the case with pasta dishes, the texture and shape of the pasta itself is an essential part of the finished dish. There is much emphasis on the rough (ruvida) and porous nature of bigoli which means that the intensely flavourful sauce really sticks and each strand is saltily and suitably saporito. Just enough sauce on each strand that when you suck up a string a little too fast it flicks and splashes on your face. The deliberately rough texture of the pasta ensures that this magic moment happens, and that pasta and sauce are truly sposate (married) as they are intended to be.
So, now back in my sweltering Sardinian kitchen, I set about making this happily married bigoli dish for him, remembering fondly the Bach and the busy Vicentine ducks, the blissfully cool rain, the lush green verges and the lime and mud walls, and dreaming of a bigger bathroom…..
Bigoli in Salsa
Serves 2 as a main
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium white onion, finely sliced
8-10 Anchovy fillets
Bring a large, deep pan of salted water to the boil. Meanwhile finely slice the onion and warm the oil in a saute pan. Soften the onion in the oil over a low heat, stirring occasionally until it is golden and translucent (at least 15 minutes). Make sure they do not catch, and if they do, add a splash of water to keep things wet.
Once the onions are golden and collapsed and creamy-looking, add the anchovies and allow them to melt, stirring to help them dissolve.
Drop the pasta into the water and cook until al dente.
Drain the pasta, leaving a little of the cooking water to add to the sauce and then mix the whole lot together, tossing and stirring over a low heat. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary, and then serve.