My New Year's in Florence

Martin Schreiber

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.

In those days, Garga was a smaller place on the dusty, sunny little via del Moro. (Now it is situated down the road, in the front of what had once been a bishop's palace.) Even then, though, Garga and Sharon were sketching expansion plans on napkins. It was impossible not to hit it off with them, even for a shy straniera. Sharon became my generous translator and guide, Garga the mischievous cook offering marvelously scented dishes for me to try. He put a plate of tender spaghetti with a creamy pale sauce in front of me. It was delicious, I said—but what was it? "Lamb's brains," he said triumphantly, as my new friends dissolved in laughter. (What could I do but laugh as well?) It tasted wonderful, and so did pasta with lamb's intestines, and the ancient Florentine specialty made with roosters' coxcombs. One afternoon, I tasted my first fresh shaved truffles, atop pasta with butter; the aromatic steam curling up from the plate gave me a shudder of pleasure and also some fear—this was something that one might never get enough of.

It was shocking and infectious, because my soul was not primed. I grew up in a household of cooks and gardeners but spent my childhood and teens adamantly resisting good food. I was known for my hatred of tomatoes. I didn't like salad. I liked white bread. I so loathed my mother's homemade marinara sauce with onion and garlic that when I tasted Ragu at a friend's house it came as a surprise and a relief—uniform, smooth, sweet. I had never eaten an olive, a mushroom, a bite of eggplant. And now here I was, happily devouring an appetizer of smoky scamorza cheese with anchovies. I had made a strange leap of faith, one that I can only put down to the intoxicating chance these restaurant owners gave me to take a seat at the table with their extended, food-obsessed family.

I went home in June that year, just as the tiny wild strawberries were coming into season. I had moved out of the signora's flat by then and into a raffish, sun-filled apartment in a quarter notorious for its population of exquisitely beautiful transvestites. Because of Garga, I returned knowing far more about things like arugula, silky green olive oil, and milky rounds of fresh mozzarella—all still novelties in America in those days before Tuscany had become a brand name—than I did about art history.

Five years later, just out of college, I was toiling as a glorified secretary in London, counting the weeks until my work permit expired, when a friend phoned. She was going to Florence for an art course—why didn't I come? She would paint; I could write. Three weeks later, I was back at Garga.

In the time that had passed, Giuliano and Sharon's paper dreams had blossomed on the via del Moro. The dusty gold façade of the place looked the same to me, but the pair had actually moved five meters down the road and now had three dining rooms. The antiquarians and artists who had eaten lazy lunches there had dispersed, but I made a new friend, Amanda, a lithe blond writer from California, whose Italian boyfriend, Lorenzo, was a waiter at Garga, so there was no question of where we'd spend our time.

Once again I talked late into the night with Sharon and Garga, drinking chianti and eating crusty bread slathered with creamy stracchino cheese and sprinkled with salt and pepper. People smoked and played cards. Garga made extravagant sketches on a cloth napkin and sometimes pulled out his paintbrushes and started a canvas. I sat in on staff meals to eat things like tender pappardelle with a woodsy brown rabbit sauce. I listened to arguments about city politics and how polluted the Arno was. (Garga is an ardent advocate for the river, planting thousands of flowers on its banks and islands; he is even attached to its muskrats and once held a funeral for one he called Maurizio.) Taxes and strikes were a frequent topic amid occasional shouting over a dish that was not carried to a table on time.

Since my first trip to Florence, I'd lost some of the quixotic notions I'd once had about Italy, but I was still struck by the pure pleasure so frequently displayed in connection with Trattoria Garga. Those butterfly-bright walls, the Verdi bellowing from the kitchen...every night felt like New Year's Eve.

Now 2002 is another year I have rung in here. For a moment or two I think of my home in Boston; I miss my seven-year-old daughter. It is four o'clock in the morning, and the room is heavy with cigar smoke. Christmas lights still blink in the kitchen. Sharon, Garga, and I trade pictures. Garga takes out Magic Markers and draws me a picture on a white cloth napkin—a man in a rowboat on the Arno. He festoons it with dabs of the expensive scotch he is drinking until the colors bleed as on a tie-dye T-shirt; later, this damp memento will fill my entire suitcase with the scent of whisky, puzzling a customs officer.

In the end, we say good-bye not once but five or six times. I remember back ten years, at almost one o'clock in the morning on the first day of the New Year, champagne bottles empty. The border between server and diner, always thin at best here, had eroded completely. But one couple were still seated. Even by Florence's high standard they were both achingly good looking. He was sleek and Cary Grant-ish, and she was darkly radiant and doe-eyed in a chic black suit with a white cloth gardenia pinned to one lapel. They seemed to have eyes for no one but each other and sat with their hands clasped atop the table during the dancing and kissing. As I cleared the last of the dessert plates from their table, the girl smiled up at me. "What a beautiful flower," I said, and, in what seemed like a single graceful movement, she stood, kissed me on both cheeks, unfastened the white gardenia from her own lapel, and pinned it to my own, pale blue shirt.