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"CIAO, SAMANTHA!" boomed a voice over the din of murmur in the tiny enoteca, the one I had begun frequenting in Florence after Jacopo, my photography professor, suggested we take our lunch there one Tuesday before class. The voice was Nicoletta's, wife of the owner Gianni Migliorini, and I had just stepped into Casa del Vino.
A little sliver of wood, black- and white-checked tiles, and marble, Casa del Vino is tucked away under a colonnade behind the sprawling San Lorenzo Market on Via dell’Ariento. It feels cavernous if you're peering in, just passing by, except it isn't—the walls just give off that impression, lined from floor to ceiling with bottles of everything from Chianti and Brunello to Barbaresco and Nebbiolo. It's home to arguably the best panini in Florence, sandwiches made to order with the likes of raw sausage and stracchino (soft cow's milk cheese), or artichokes and tuna, or carpaccio of salt cod with chickpeas, olives, garlic, and parsley. I was a regular after just a few months of living there.
But back to Nicoletta: She was always beaming, arms wide and high greeting customers or moving behind the counter with breezy speed. If she was ever unhappy, I couldn't tell. She whizzed around the bar, scooping up tapenade and sun-dried tomatoes, shaving prosciutto crudo, stuffing pomodorini with anchovies and capers. We'd go as a class most Tuesdays, sipping the house red, or trying a new bottle, something perhaps a couple dollars more. I'd never thought as much about wine before—what it tasted like, what varietals even were, if I even liked it—as I did at Casa del Vino. I stopped by on the weekends, too; it was the first place I'd take visitors who were new to the city.
This place is what I associate with Florence, more so than iconic churches like the Duomo and Santa Maria Novella, more so than Michelangelo or Giotto or Masaccio. Casa del Vino was my spiritual home while I was there, rather than a museum or church—where I couldn't hide from my sputtering broken Italian and where I didn't feel inauthentic (or at least that's what Nicoletta would have me think).
I left Indiana—and the country for the first time—seeking to study all the Renaissance greats, and looking back, I also had a boyfriend that needed forgetting about (he was an artist who wasn't interested in paying for his own dinner, let alone mine). Florence welcomed me by dumping me on the side of Via Bufalini in the rain and giving me mediocre pizza. But I was young. Rejection was thrilling.
When I arrived in Italy, I was a vegetarian (if you don't count, that is, the chicken wings from Hooters that I had the day before I left to "break" my vegetarianism in anticipation of my trip). I was conflicted about eating meat again, but it felt sacrilegious to be in Italy and not go ham on capicola, so eat meat I did—all the while grappling with what that meant for my relationship with food. It all changed in this little pocket of Tuscany; walking toward my school on Via Sant'Antonino in the mornings meant a barrage of smells and sights, from bakeries warming up for the day to the tripe cart outside the central market bracing for the lunch crowds.
I grew up where the grocery aisles were bigger than entire stores in Italy, and there was no daily baker visit. Picking up focaccia at one place, cured meats from another, and fruit from yet still another down the street felt, well, foreign. But I loved every minute of it; for the first time in my life, food and the people that produced it became very present, precious, respected. And so did meat.
Nicoletta made sure I never waited for more than a few minutes for a glass of Sangiovese and some Pecorino. Often, if the line was out the door and I was waiting in it, I would catch her eye and she would nod, maybe wink. Her red hat would bob toward me, and all of a sudden I would feel her hands on my shoulders and her voice would be in my ear—“Cosa si mangia?” (What would you like to eat?—and then I’d slip slowly from my place in the march toward the register.
The last full day I spent in Florence was also the brightest and warmest. Most of spring had been a steady 50 degrees, always damp with a thin veil of fog covering the streets. I spent that day wandering the streets in the sun, snooping around my favorite corners, clocking in one last fig and honey gelato from Gelateria dei Neri—and I spent it at Casa del Vino.
I moved past the line that spilled out onto Via dell’Ariento and told Nicoletta I wouldn’t be back for a while. She threw her hands on my shoulders—“Scrivimi!” (Write me!) she exclaimed—and proceeded to write down her address as we both held back tears. I'll admit it—this moment felt like a movie, with swelling music and the drama of leaving a lover, one you’re sure you’ll never see again.
Casa del Vino felt like my secret; where the movement of Florence felt still; where I began to feel something strongly about food, and most importantly, where I learned to love good wine.