How one traveler rediscovered Italy through its soulful food.
The dessert menu arrives.
Otto nods, swirling back through the dense maze of white tablecloths. Clinking cutlery and soft conversation fill the sun-soaked yellow walls, lined with aging bottles and colorful paintings.
I gather it’s strawberry season: Cuore di cioccolato caldo di fragole. Chocolate lava cake with strawberries. Millefoglie di fragole. Puff pastry with strawberries. Cheesecake con salsa di fragole. The cheesecake piques my interest, not only because it’s easily translatable. I’ve already made up my mind, but it’s still reeling.
On most travel days, familiar actions lead to familiar reactions: When the airplane lands, there’s a slight sense of relief; when a foreign language reaches my ears, there’s at least a moment of helpless confusion. But when the dessert menu arrives after a leisurely two-course lunch with wine, there’s an empty space where guilt once lurked.
Sitting alone in the corner of a traditional Tuscan trattoria, I am waiting for the dark cloud from a decade ago—when I was a college backpacker here on a budget, when the joy of dining was stifled by paranoia. For even glancing. Uncomfortable in my own skin, my relationship with food was fraught. Just years before, careless treatment for a hormonal imbalance morphed my pubescent body into a scene of strange swollen curves, once described by an awkward admirer as “a Renaissance woman a bit late”—a compliment that only now I appreciate. Alas, low-rise jeans were trending and teenage boys hadn’t studied fine art.
Then, I couldn’t help but fret that everyone around me—the waiter taking my order, my friends sitting beside me—was thinking what I was: you don’t need this. My longing to fit into my skin didn’t stifle my wanderlust, but I knew the ingredients toward that goal weren’t on menus in this country. Long-legged Italian women didn’t help. They carelessly sipped whole-milk lattes and flicked flaky croissant crumbs off their fingers each morning, skinny cigarettes in hand. I was content with my herbal teas and breakfast smoothies, never seduced by tobacco, but I ached to know that freedom.
Sitting alone for the first time all week, I reflected on the past days as I studied the absence of my guilt, hours before my departure. Prior to this luxurious lunch, I was whisked from one business meeting to another, spotting familiar glimpses of Florence’s worn grandeur in between. Meals were settings for discussions, where I gave my colleagues full permission to order like a local on my behalf. Relinquishing that control was a milestone. Learning and tasting were the focus on this trip, with the panache I once envied.
All week, I admired my local dining companions chatting with waiters like old friends, gatekeepers to an experience transcending nourishment. In melodic Italian foreign to me, they discussed what’s in season—I’d gather bits and pieces—what’s freshest, caught nearby, pairs well on this particular day.
Communal tables with strangers—something I once dreaded—were now opportunities. At a sturdy wooden bench over garlicky mussels, I learned from a neighbor that loyalty to regional cuisine stems from sovereign states prior to Italian unification in 1861. Meaning piqued my curiosity as much as menus.
For the first time, I truly tasted the creamy sauces—a staple in northern dairy farming turf—and the thinly shaved white truffles from the ancient hills of nearby San Miniato. I relished the texture of mozzarella di bufala—said to be best from happy water buffaloes—breaking through the thin exterior gently with my tongue to the creaminess inside. The otherworldly tang of fresh tomatoes—introduced as a New World import in the 18th century—embodied a fullness I hadn’t let myself fully appreciate. Consumption was no longer just physical; it was an eager quest to understand the country’s culinary complexity.
Now I see that what I lived twice, a decade apart, I only experienced once. My progress was only measurable retrospectively, by a metaphoric lightness, entirely unrelated to weight. Unburdened by my former self-consciousness, coexisting with a body I now accepted, here, I experienced the world outside myself.
It had happened gradually, then all at once. Fingers to toes and toes to fingers stretching into my own skin in many a yoga class; accepting the tribute from a lover’s hand, tracing the trail of my spine; writhing through meditation that forced me present, echoing the wisdom of Pema Chödrön, reminding me that “this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now…with its aches and its pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.”
Otto delivers a neon shot of Limoncello—on the house—with a grin. I’m treated with a special hospitality as a solo diner, the first to arrive and the last to depart. I gaze at a photo of myself standing at a train platform a decade ago, flanked with two giant backpacks, beaming a proud smile. We are still alike—aside from sprouting white hair today—save for two things: luggage and baggage.
The cheesecake arrives, and I savor my first bite, slowly.