No Pizza in Pisa

 The first night of our Italian adventure begins.
As we leave our hotel we stop at the front desk to ask ‘Sarah’ for directions to “The Tower.”

“Oh, it is very closa. Just go down thisa waya. Turn lefta and it is there.”

We turned before we were supposed to, compelled by some unknown shiny thing, just to see what was there. Streets and alleys and richness everywhere.

When I tell friends before I leave for Italy that I will be spending one night in Pisa, those that have been here say, “there’s not much there. The tower and then you’re done.” To which I would now reply, then you’re just not looking.

There are the narrow streets lined with ancient buildings lovingly patched and repaired. Windows open to the outside, violin music curling its way down to the street. Pots of flowers alive with color on the balconies of the poorest apartments. University students on bicycles and scooters trusting the drivers of cars and buses to keep them safe. People in animated conversation, disagreeing, laughing, sipping wine or cappuccino. Frescos painted in the most unlikely places. There is so much to see and absorb that I wish we were staying longer.

We eventually make our way to the tower and the huge cathedral adjacent to it. Surrounding the tower are restaurants and shops situated specifically for tourists. A man wanders near us with ‘designer watches’ and selfie sticks. We’re not interested.

Our mission now is to find a ristorante. Preferably one off the beaten path.

We wander in the direction we believe the river may be. It’s getting to that golden hour and I can imagine nothing more beautiful than the setting sun warming the buildings along the water. But we are not meant to find the water. We stumble upon a beautiful road with a canopy of wide leafed trees and women pushing strollers, more people on bikes and more traffic than where we were. It seems we’ve wandered closer to the center of the city and it’s full of life.

We decide to turn around. We don’t know exactly where we are or in which direction our hotel is, but it’s clear we are not at the river.

On our way back we find a hipster spot that looks like the perfect food. But there are no seats. We pass a few kabob places but they too seem to be walk up. And we want Italian food. Closer to our hotel we find a quintessential Italian cafe. There are a few small tables outside pressed up against the glass, most are full of gregarious diners sipping wine and eating appetizers. Before we enter we read a sign in English that informs us: “We are not like other cafes, we are an authentic Italian bistro.” In general it said, if you’re American you may not want to eat here. We went in anyway.

And then we left.

There was no service outside. We could sit wherever inside. The vibe overall felt dismissive. So we dismissed ourselves.

Onto the next.

Another cute bistro. There were many empty tables inside and out. We asked to be seated. The young man raised a finger and turned away to consult big book, a little too long. When he turned back toward us he looked crestfallen as he informed us they were full. Arrivederci.

Finally we made it back to our hotel and opted for the warmly lit bistro next door. We were seated immediately by a kind, practical woman who gave us time to absorb the menu.

We requested a half litre of vino di casa. Rosso. Then ordered. I chose a caprese salad. Karin chose a feast of soup, then a whole fish (yes, face to fin – but she’s a Florida fishing girl) stuffed with sautéed veggies and a salad. Everything was delicious and so fresh.

The bistro itself was comprised of three rooms, one behind the other. We were seated in the middle with mostly Italians. Each table was covered in a white linen tablecloth atop heavier warm terra cotta linens, a small vase of white flowers at its center. The walls, an alabaster plaster, meet terra cotta tiles without the separation of a baseboard. Baseboards are unnecessary and usually absent in Italian architecture. The ceiling holds the most interest. Scallops of brick flow horizontally with a dark, thick beam of wood at each descending point. The lighting is low and warm. A huge iron chandelier hangs in the center of our room unlit. We toast each other, take a sip of wine and exhale fully for the first time.

With full bellies we head back to our room and prepare for bed.

We are in Italy. It’s still sinking in.

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