Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure is the story of Jacoby Pines, a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday, and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled, travel-laden adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
This is the third novel by Andrew Cotto, an award-winning author whose regularly contributed to The New York Times and has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and Conde Nast Traveller among others.
The story takes you through the villages of Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria and Marche. You will read about the wines of the various regions and meals of fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovies, steamed prawns, pasta with pesto and clams, a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit and pasta with black truffles not to mention the bistecca fiorentina (t-bone steak) or the uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in borth) among others.
What follows is the first chapter of the book courtesy of Andrew.
Jacoby Pines arrived in the south of France with his fiancée of two years, six suitcases, and a secret from the previous century. He also had a hangover. Unable to get comfortable during the overnight flight from New York, his plastic cup was repeatedly filled with a decent Burgundy by the Air France flight crew. Claire curled up next to him right after dinner service, and slept for the rest of the flight with her head propped on his shoulder. Five of the six suitcases, the leather Dunhills, belonged to her. Jacoby’s piece of luggage was a crappy Samsonite filled with most of his clothes and a few other belongings, including his secret: a photograph from 1939.
On a bench in the parking lot of the Nice Airport, under a swimming pool sky, Jacoby tried to rub the nagging ache from his temples. Claire stood before him, erect and alert, her long hair, an auburn cascade spanning the slope of her slender back, blazed in the morning sun. She sucked a Gauloises down to its filter, flicked it to the curb and strutted, cocky as a house cat, into the rental car kiosk.
Through the window of the rental office, Jacoby watched Claire’s hands flail as she spoke her fluent French, creasing quick smiles of charm and flashes of occasional impatience, pausing to toss her hair like a cape, gesturing towards the fleet of cars in the lot and the paperwork on the counter that connected her to a young male attendant whom she was surely turning to mush. Jacoby shook his head as Claire rolled out of the kiosk like a goddess of victory with her playful affectations on full parade. Jacoby was awed by her confidence and competence, not to mention her work ethic and ingenuity; he wasn’t crazy about how dependent upon Claire he was, financially and emotionally, and especially since his recent collapse in New York that cost him his job and had brought them to Europe for what was to be a year abroad, of first escape and then recovery: Both his. That was the plan, but he had the kind of doubts that kept people up at night, even after a bucket of wine.
Jacoby divided the suitcases between the trunk and the backseat of the sparkling, midnight blue, four-door Volkswagen Passat.
“So, whaddya think?” Claire asked as they settled into the leather seats and Jacoby aroused the purring engine before maneuvering through the parking lot. The new-car aroma was almost too much for his heightened sense of smell.
“Not bad, I guess,” Jacoby said, adjusting to the feel of the standard transmission, slipping through the first few gears with ease. “If you’re into, you know, really nice cars.”
“Brand spanking new,” she declared. “Just arrived from Germany yesterday. Or was it the day before…”
Jacoby laughed. And it really was an incredible car, feeling more BMW than Volkswagen to an American driver. The dashboard lit up like a rocket ship. The leather seats firm yet soft. The power and luxury inspired some adrenaline, which helped with his hangover.
“He wanted to give us a Ford Escort or something American,” Claire continued. “Two-door. I told him that I was sorry, but considering the length of our arrangement, we needed an upgrade and the newest sedan in the lot or we’d simply take ourselves and our one-year of business elsewhere. I even threw in some absolute bullshit about choosing to rent in France over Italy due to our status as loyal Francophiles.”
Claire smacked her thigh, and Jacoby smiled along with her silly pomp as he shifted into third, feeling the torque of the large engine made to European standards. They were getting along nicely, like they used to, and this soothed him some, eased his anxiety over the whole trip: His relationship with Claire, and his secret agenda with the hidden photograph.
“I can only hope you’ve taken care of your part of the planning with equal aplomb,” Claire continued in her faux-majestic tone, touching Jacoby’s forearm playfully, despite the decidedly un-playful manner in which she complained in the past about the renovated barn he’d rented for them in the hills just south of Florence, which Claire dubbed “no man’s land” and nowhere near the area she wanted, 20 kilometers to the south in the heart of Chianti country where her English cousins had vacation homes in an area overrun by so many Brits that it was referred to sardonically as “Chiantishire.”
Claire imagined some private apartment carved out of a Chiantishire villa, on a lush property with a communal pool and amenities (like laundry and Wi-Fi) and prepared meals made by local hands; a spot with easy access to a well-known village, equal distance to the cities of Siena and Florence. A Tuscan paradise.
Didn’t work out that way. She’d put Jacoby in charge of finding a place, and he had generally chosen the hills directly south of Florence to avoid being neighbors with Claire’s cousins and countrymen – he’d see plenty of them anyway – but his specific reason for renting in this area was the photograph recently found in a box of his mother who had died when he was very young. He hadn’t thought of her much when growing up, but her absence was present in the sadness that shaded his father; in the melancholy that tugged his face, slowed his walk, tempered his smile. He had died the previous summer from what Jacoby believed to be a 30-year case of broken heart blues.
Jacoby, the only child of an only child, handled all arrangements and matters of the estate, which were meager. His father was a fickle academic who moved them around a lot and never invested in property or saved much for retirement. He died in a cottage owned by the college in western Massachusetts where he’d been teaching classics for the past three years. And it was in that cottage, going through his father’s things, that Jacoby found a small metal box which held some jewelry, letters too faded to read, and a worn photograph of a woman in an elegant dress furled out around her on the lawn of a grand estate. The back of the photo read: Villa Floria-Zanobini, 1939.
The metal box and its belongings were the only things Jacoby retained from the cottage. He gave the jewelry to Claire and kept the photograph to himself. It was all he had left, his inheritance. And when Claire, a travel writer, took an extended assignment in Italy a year later, he suddenly thought of the picture as more than inheritance: It was fate. Maybe.
Jacoby researched the name of the villa and found nothing: no family, no history, no address, only a reference on google maps to an unspecified location in the hills directly south of Florence. The area was definitely not a Tuscan paradise, only a smattering of small, unknown villages. The most luxurious accommodation Jacoby could find was a renovated barn behind a villa in the hills above a tiny village named Antella.
Claire hated the name of the village; and the idea of living in a barn. But she got over it for the most part as the trip loomed and other arrangements took focus, including a night in a swank hotel on the Italian Riviera she’d arranged for immediately after their arrival in Nice to pick up their car, which Jacoby steered toward the airport’s exit, ignoring her quip about the barn and “equal aplomb.”
Claire flipped off her flats and tucked her heels on the leather seat as she fished her phone from a Louis Vuitton bag and attempted to program the GPS system. The airport’s exit was marked with a maze of signs pointing to destinations in all possible directions. Claire punched away at her screen and cursed under her breath. Lack of cellular service made her bonkers. A car honked behind them. Jacoby lowered his window and motioned for it to go around.
“Christ,” Claire muttered and poked away.
Jacoby resented Claire’s impatience. To him, it was absurd and unproductive and the byproduct of privilege, though he had to recognize, painfully, that her impatience had increased in the months since he’d lost his job in spectacular fashion and failed to find another. The months he’d spent essentially in seclusion in Brooklyn, where his confidence faded and his rhythm faltered into a bleak morass which prompted the year they would spend in Italy as a way to change the scenery and inspire Jacoby to get his life together. The idea of a year abroad was amazing – not to mention ridiculously privileged – and Jacoby was grateful for Claire’s support and inspiration, but he hated feeling like a charity chase. And he also feared how this was going to turn out if he couldn’t get his shit together or find any long lost family in the hills south of Florence. Neither scenario seemed likely.
As Claire tapped at her cell phone, Jacoby scrambled to be of use.
“The highway runs along the coast, right?” he asked, turning his head toward the open window.
“Yes,” Claire responded without looking up.
“Then it’s that way,” he said, motioning with his head to the left.
“How would you know?”
“I can smell the sea,” he said with a modest shrug. “It’s on the breeze coming from that direction.”
Claire tossed her phone in the bag, faced Jacoby with a titled smile and wagged a single finger.
“You are an olfactory genius. Did I ever tell you that?”
“Once or twice,” Jacoby said, feeling a bump of confidence as he released the clutch and shot the car down the exit ramp towards the crisp blue horizon over the Côte d’Azur.
It was a curious thing about Jacoby and Claire’s relationship. Even though she was passionate about food and wrote about it often, the one who had eaten in some of the world’s finest restaurants, he was the one with the fully developed palate, a gift of sorts he had for as long as he could remember but never really took notice of until Claire made such a fuss. His father liked fine food and loved to cook, so they took meals out together often and ate well at home, with wine at dinner since Jacoby entered high school, and these engagements were the most stable part of his adolescence, a regular experience of pleasure in an otherwise unpredictable and often lonely campaign; but, if forced to remember correctly, Jacoby could trace his first recognition of smell, and its connection to taste, to the Nabisco factory behind his childhood home, in the small hills beyond an open park that he would visit with his mother as a toddler. It was his only memory of her, not so much her appearance or her voice, but the pleasant aroma that lingered when they were together. And while he didn’t consciously miss his mother, the smell of baking cookies always made him want to cry.