It must have been our friends, Roberto and Giovanna, who suggested that we go up to Castagno d’Andrea … a town high in the hills near the Tuscan border with Romagna … the place where the Arno River is born, beginning its long and circuitous journey through Tuscany, bisecting Florence, flowing to the Mediterranean Sea. A town so tiny the ‘Welcome To’ and ‘You Are Leaving’ signs are on the same post. But when the hot, humid days of summer settle over Florence, the cool fresh air is filled with the fragrance of fir … and when autumn arrives, the air is crisp and the leaves colored.

We arrived via a very narrow road … residential, and as we found out later, not the main route … it was one of those streets that always make us fantasize about driving a Hummer (bright yellow) with a big, chrome brush-guard on the front so that the Pandas and Cinquecentos in our path would nervously yield, pulling in their side mirrors to press closer to the buildings so we could pass.

We walked around the village. There was a pieve, a parish church, in the northern part of town. It seemed, somewhat, to resemble a mission, maybe because of the bell tower with a single bell prominent against the trees and hills behind it. On the main street was larger and older church, unadorned inside, but with a musty dampness familiar in stone buildings of a certain age.

We were pleasantly surprised to run into our banker-turned-friend Mauro there … making espresso at his friend, Francesco’s, bar. But you don’t just want a panino for lunch … there’s a great restaurant down the street. Go there … come back later and we can chat.

The restaurant, with an entry laden with seasonal vegetables and homemade pastries, was filled. The aproned man who greeted us was gesturing wildly … at first he said he was busy, too busy, then told us to come back in half an hour. We did. And oh what a meal we had.

We’ve been back since … again enjoying every bite … and now know Roberto, the chef/owner, and Olivia, his wife, who runs the front of the house. The last time we were there was a drizzly October day for the annual chestnut festival .. a day when we also saw our honey-making friends, Claudio and Liza. And discovered a bakery that makes very good chestnut cookies … which encouraged me to use more chestnut flour in my cookies.

So when our friends Gerry and Claudia came for a visit, we thought this would make a lovely drive to a lovely meal during their stay.

We walked in, and Olivia smiled. I had made a reservation, but on the phone, she said she couldn’t match a name to a face. Now, of course, I know who you are … gli americani. We doubled kissed.

She took us to our table in the main dining room.

By the time we were settled, Olivia brought over a wooden board with a big block of cheese. A pecorino, perfect at room temperature … irresistible. And so it begins, we said to Claudia and Jerry. Olivia then brought bottles of water (still and fizzy), a bottle of wine … white, as Claudia requested, and red … well, just because. Plus a board with a semi-circular chunk of sbriciolona … a semi-soft regional salumi with big pieces of pork and pork fat, and filled with whole fennel seeds. It’s a cousin of finocchiona for those of you familiar with this food group. The cheese was as good as we remembered, and the addition of a pork product kicked up the antipasto.

Olivia returned to ask what primi we wanted. I said, of course, our friends from Los Angeles had to have the local tortelli. And Olivia said they should also try the homemade tagliatelli. D’accordo, bis … I agree, the duo.

As we waited, family-style platters were brought to adjacent tables, steam rising above each, tempting and teasing our noses and eyes. Everyone was talking, eating, laughing, having another helping, toasting with a glass of wine. The platters returning to the kitchen were empty … with new ones delivered to take their place on the table.

The tortelli arrived first. It is stuffed with potato and a hint of tomato giving it a slightly pink hue, and sauced with a ragu of ground beef and pork. It is indulgent and delicious … one of the best versions of this dish that we have had.

And then the tagliatelli. The pasta ribbons were draped in a light sauce of porcini mushrooms. Smoothly twirled on a fork, it was silky and flavorful, the bites of porcini soft and fragrant. While the tortelli was robust and full-bodied, this was elegant and light.

Olivia re-appeared. Gerry and Claudia looked at one another, at us, at Olivia … the food had seduced them. They were ready for the next course. Secondo. Olivia and I nodded in agreement … friends from California should have bistecca. (They’ll never eat tri-tip again, I thought to myself.) And spinach, because we should have at least one vegetable … to make the meal healthy. But no other grilled meats and no fried food, I stressed … really, the steak will be enough. I gave her a stern look … she gave me a motherly look.

Roberto picked an exceptional steak to serve to us … with a huge filet … and grilled it to blood rare perfection, more red than pink. The spinach was bold and bitter, and so good I asked David to plant some in the garden when we find out the spinach planting/harvesting schedule.

And … Olivia brought a platter of fried vegetables … fingers of potatoes, half-moons of eggplant, wedges of artichoke. Well, just because.

We were all fuller than full. But Olivia thought that we should have at least one dessert. It was apple cake, gently warm in a way that suggested that it was sitting in a hot kitchen … cut into four pieces, each topped with a spritz of whipped cream. Buttery crust, sweetly softened apples … so good.

There were leftovers that we would not let go to waste. Olivia brought an aluminium pan and foil … and I packed up a treat for the kitties and their humans [wink]. The steak bone will make a great broth to use in a mushroom-barley pilaf.

We thanked Olivia and Roberto. She kissed all four of us … and said she looked forward to our next visit. We walked around town, enjoying the yellows and reds of the season … and talked to a nonna who had a daughter in Pittsburgh, and was thinking about her next trip to the USA, but hesitant to travel alone since her husband’s death last year. We hope she made a good decision.

Our friend, Francesco, was not at his bar … and the bakery with the chestnut cookies was closed. We wandered leisurely back to the car, pausing in the little park before starting the drive home.

IL RIFUGIO … Castagno d’Andrea (FI).

CANNOLI CUPCAKES

1-½ c. flour
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
Pinch salt
3 oz. butter, softened
¾ c. sugar
3-½ Tbl. oil
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
½ c. buttermilk
RICOTTA FROSTING
GANACHE
Sprinkles or grated chocolate (optional)

- Preheat oven to 350° F (170° C). Line 12 muffin cups with paper or silicone liners.
- In small bowl, combine dry ingredients
- In large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add oil and vanilla, then eggs.
- Stir in flour mixture (in thirds), alternating with buttermilk (halves) until the batter is blended … but do not over-stir.
- Spoon into cups.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until done.
- Let cool.
- To finish the cupcakes, spoon some of Ricotta Topping onto each cupcake, then using a pastry bag (or plastic bag) with a decorative tip, pipe some Ganache onto each cupcake, followed by sprinkles.
- Serve … preferably that day.
Enjoy!

Ricotta Frosting

1 c. ricotta
3 Tbl. sugar
Zest from 1 orange

- In small bowl or mini-Cuisinart, combine all ingredients, blending well. (I like to use a stick blender.)
- Chill until ready to use.

Ganache

9 oz. dark chocolate
1-½ c. heavy/whipping cream

- Carefully melt chocolate and cream, stirring most of the time.
- Remove from heat. When cool, put in refrigerator to chill well.
- Whip lightly so the ganache is piping consistency.
Leftover ganache can be made into truffles … or eaten with a spoon!