In Tuscany, on the last night of the year, there is no Dick Clark. No fake silver ball falls from the sky, and no one sings "Auld Lang Syne". But oh, there's a party—Italians call the night San Silvestro in honor of St. Sylvester, an early pope (280–335), whose feast day is December 31—and tonight I am here, in my favorite city, Florence, at my favorite restaurant, Trattoria Garga, as that party winds up.
Garga is no ordinary trattoria. It is a crowded, three-room mini circus whose walls are covered with colorful murals painted by local artists and positioned in such a way that from behind every table and every leafy potted palm peer images of dark-eyed women, horses, children, mysterious landscapes. And instead of classic Tuscan fare, Garga offers a curious amalgam of Italian and Continental flavors, put together by a wildly charismatic Florentine artist named Giuliano Gargani (and known as Garga) and his equally charming Canadian wife, Sharon Oddson.
By 10 p.m. this evening, the place was packed—not just with natives, who flocked to Garga even when I first came to know it, in the late 1980s, but also with Americans, Germans, Japanese. Dishes began flying out of the kitchen, with Garga himself loudly calling waiters to fetch them. There were platters of veal with tender young artichokes; spicy shrimp served "scoundrel style" with garlicky tomato sauce; al dente tagliarini in a sauce of cream spiked with the zest of lemons and oranges plus parmigiano and fresh mint. Also seemingly flying about were countless bottles of wine—Santa Cristina and chianti classico; lush tignanello; slender bottles of pale, fizzy moscato. From the kitchen came a clamorous clanging of pans and the strains of Garga—sweating extravagantly in his open-necked shirt, a bandanna tied around his head—and his sous-chef, Elio, singing along to their cassettes of Puccini, Dean Martin, James Brown. Sharon, an earthy redhead, who used to have hair so long and wild that she resembled a Scottish warrior queen but who now looks very much the sleek, proud trattoria proprietor, has been presiding over the front of the house, where every table has been full. Again and again she has turned away people who appear hopefully at the door, yearning toward this glowing Aladdin's cave.
A few minutes before midnight, convivial table-hopping began. Sharon sprang around the restaurant, chatting animatedly with her guests. Andrea, her elder son, who works in the front of the house, began passing out sparklers to the diners, who gradually stood up, made toasts, and buzzed with anticipatory energy…and then the clock struck 12! Glasses clinked, couples kissed, music was turned up, and Alessandro, the Garganis' 24-year-old younger son, who was working in the kitchen, ran out into the alley outside the restaurant to explode Roman candles, which cracked and boomed and shook the windows and glass doors of the place. Now it is about an hour into 2002, and the party has not lost an ounce of its celebratory juice. I know that no one will leave till sunrise. I've done this before.
My first New Year's Eve at Garga was in 1992, and under very different circumstances. That night I was behind the scenes, standing at a cool marble counter in front of the kitchen, slicing ripe avocados into a glass salad bowl. Though this city prides itself on simple, almost spartan cuisine, the insalata del Garga, a house specialty, is spectacularly un-Florentine: it begins with torn arugula; then come a tomato chopped into rough chunks, a handful of sliced hearts of palm, and half an avocado, sliced. This is tossed with a splash of lemon juice and a stream of green Laudemio olive oil, then topped with a shower of coarse parmigiano shavings and a handful of sweet pine nuts. It is rough and rich and baroque, and no one can resist it.
I was there strictly as an understudy: one of the regular waiters had broken his leg, and on an evening like New Year's Eve even an untrained American is useful. I had no culinary background, but this is not a formal ristorante, and I had eaten here so many times that I already knew the routine. I knotted a white tablecloth as a crisp apron over my worn Levi's and then carried plates, cleared dishes, and cut slice after slice of torta al cioccolato and Sharon's cheesecake—irreverently un-Tuscan and made smooth with Philadelphia cream cheese and mascarpone.
I had lucked into becoming a regular at Garga. In 1987, I went to Florence on a loosely planned lark between high school and college to study art history. It felt at the time like a proper, romantic thing to do. I rented a somber little room in the home of an elegant widow on a stony, narrow old street where Galileo once lived and where Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot. I met other students, mostly English, Australian, and German. We visited the Uffizi and the Accademia and went to churches to look at frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio; at night we ate in cheap pizzerias and disco-danced. We fended off young Italian men who were as ubiquitous, indiscriminate, and persistent as mosquitoes. I read Cellini and Vasari. But I was still a tourist, a straniera, and I dreaded the moment every day when the stores shut for lunch, the metal grates rattling down with a terrible finality. The pizza and gelato I usually ate while leaning against a wall were losing their fun, as was the drudgery of slapdash student living.
Then, late one morning in early spring, I was in an antiques store buying a pair of round-rimmed tortoiseshell sunglasses and chatting with the owners. Some friends of theirs knocked on the window and poked their heads through the door. "We're going to lunch now," one asked. Then, looking at me, he asked, "Would you like to come with us?"—and in a moment of startling boldness, I said yes. We went to Garga.