March 2, 2020


Spring is travel time! See You in the Piazza, my extensive guide to out-of-the-way places in Italy, is out in paperback on 10 March. I’ll be back in Italy in late spring and already have plans to revisit some of the places I discovered while writing this  book. I hope it leads you back to that essential sense of discovery so crucial to having a great trip. I especially love the tiny town of Puglia, as well as its stupendous beaches. Le Marche, Friuli, and the towns south of Rome were also great favorites. But who can choose? I’ve said it before–Italy is endless. One great city discovery–Torino. Everyone has heard of it but few go there. It’s the greenest city in Italy and a superb food destination. With mass travel ever expanding, my meanderings into the less-trod towns seemed timely. It’s exciting when the GPS simply gives up and leads you into some farmer’s olive grove.



On 31 March, out comes Always Italy, from National Geographic and distributed by Penguin Random House.  With my co-author Ondine Cohane who lives in Tuscany, we traveled to all twenty glorious regions of Italy, something most Italians haven’t accomplished! Each region is unique and diverse. With 350 photos, up-to-the-minute recommendations, extensive wine information, this book takes you there–architecture, design, truffle hunting, outdoor adventures, spas, new museums, and, of course, restaurants, from the tiniest gelato shop to the best dining spots in Italy. A comprehensive guidebook, Always Italy is also a cultural companion. May it lead you to Calabria, Valle d’Aosta, Molise, as well as to an undiscovered Milan, Rome, Venice!


9781426220913 - Always Italy (Nat Geo)



August 27, 2019

Watch us in the latest episode of PBS’s Dream of Italy!

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I’m so thrilled to announce that I’ll be featured in a new PBS special airing this month, The Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special.

Ed and I are joined by host Kathy McCabe as we introduce our Tuscan town of Cortona, provide a tour of our villa Bramasole, and share practical travel tips and enchanting stories along the way to a whole new audience of PBS viewers!

We had such a fabulous time filming, and we hope you’ll join in on the adventure! Find out when the special is streaming on your local PBS station here.

March 11, 2019

See You in the Piazza is out!

March 12–an exciting day for me. I start my tour for the debut of See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy. Please check EVENTS and come say hello if you’re nearby.

My husband Ed and I were down in Puglia, way south, and relishing the tiny towns, the seaside villages, and the Baroque city of Lecce. Many places, Troia, Lucera, Orsara, I’d never heard of. We traveled spontaneously about, discovering more and more rose windows in Romanesque churches, bread makers whose ovens were medieval, country inns with great kitchens serving forth vegetable-based menus, regional archaeological museums with astonishing finds, and secret coves for a swim in transparent waters. Away from the well-traveled spots, I rediscovered an aspect of travel I love:spontaneity. Hence the genesis of this book! Travel forth into the places in between. For a year and a half, we zipped around Italy from top to toe, with leaps over to the islands as well.
What I learned I already knew but now I truly, truly know: Italy is endless. How can there be such diversity in one small country? North in Trentino Alto Adige region:

Way south in sunbaked Sardegna:

and a million place in the middle!

Join me on these journeys into the interior, the heart of Italy.

January 7, 2019

With spring comes a new book from me…

This is the last photo I took before I left Cortona in late fall. What I love about winter there is how the valley fog rises like a sea, leaving us above as though on an island. Now I’m back in North Carolina, longing for Italy but also SO excited to be planning my book tour for See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy. What a grand adventure to travel to little-known places, and to other places you know but hardly anyone praises the way Siena, Assisi, and others are praised? I’m thinking especially of Genoa and Parma. Everyone knows them but who goes, who relishes their grand attributes. I traveled all over for a year and a half–loved Puglia and Piemonte–and loved writing about off-the- trodden-way discoveries. Hope I get to meet you on my American travels in March!

April 11, 2018

Following Spring around the USA

Somewhere there MUST be spring! I’m seeing bits of it on my book tour but mainly it’s cold, baby! Today I am reading for Purple Crow in my hometown, Hillsborough NC, and tomorrow, April 12, I will be in Southern Pines NC at The Country Bookshop and on the 13 April at Litchfield Books luncheon in North Myrtle beach SC, where surely it will be spring. This followed by a signing at Litchfield Books in Pawley’s Island. Ed is driving with me and we get to spend the night on lovely Pawley’s Island. Next week I’m heading to California. Click on EVENTS here to see the whole journey. Meanwhile, I want to share this review from USA Today.

Along the way, sometimes I get a couple of hours to play. In Washington, I was able to see the Sally Mann photography exhibit at the National Gallery. Her landscapes go to the heart of the mythic and primitive South. I also got to visit this old friend, Ginerva de’ Benci, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greats:

On planes, too, there’s time to read such wonderful novels as The Flight of the Maidens  by Jane Gardam. And I just picked up Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. Anyone read either of these?

Onward! Happy spring!

March 11, 2018

New Book, New See You in the Piazza Design, Spring!

La Primavera! Not long now. With spring on our doorsteps, See You in the Piazza  gets a fresh look. And updated info–I have been SO focused on writing two books at once that I’ve fallen behind on my blog, which gives me so much pleasure. My novel, WOMEN IN SUNLIGHT comes out 3 April! I will be traveling north, south, east, and west, plus several in the middle. Please click on EVENTS and if I’m coming your way, do come say hello. Bring cookies! Just kidding!

9780451497666 Women in Sunlight

Here’s a preview:

Women in Sunlight follows four women over  the first year of their friendship. There’s a fifth woman, too, and although dead, she still has an active presence in the life of my narrator, Kit, a writer of forty four who is on the verge of a huge change in her life. Camille, Julia, and Susan, the other women, are older, and truth be told they are beginning to feel somewhat marginalized. Their families and / or their circumstances lead each of them to consider moving to an “active life-style” community of constant activities, no house and garden worries, organic dining, etc. They meet at the orientation. Their friendship takes off and over the course of a summer they begin to consider bolder options.

Enter Italy! The women find a villa on a hillside outside San Rocco. Kit, their neighbor, quickly decides to tell the story of the three intrepid Americans. They travel, they make friends, they enjoy all the benisons of Italian life, but unexpectedly, who each one is begins to expand. Cookbook editor, part time art lecturer, real estate agent–their former careers burgeon into their real and never realized potential. In the land of la dolce vita, they discover ambition, focus, and belief in themselves. And there’s more, but I should leave surprises. At the end of the lease, do they return, refreshed to the known and loved realm of the American South, or do they stay? I honestly didn’t know until the end.

My hope is that you enjoy reading about these friends as much as I loved discovering them. I miss them now, but actually, I will meet them over and over in Italy. What inspired me in the first place was all the women travelers I’ve met in the piazza of Cortona. There’s one–sitting with her cappuccino and notebook at a table under the clock tower. I know her. She’s on a quest. She’s my character, my reader, my friend.


 Here’s a preorder opportunity: If you’d like a signed bookplate, you can have one–no charge–by opening:   And if you’d like to order a personalized book, please contact Sharon at Purple Crow Books in my hometown, Hillsborough NC: or telephone: 919 732 1711. She will contact me and I’ll drop by the store and sign your book however you’d like, then she mails to you. I’ll be heading to Italy in May so contact her in April. This summer I will be polishing SEE YOU IN THE PIAZZA: NEW PLACES TO DISCOVER IN ITALY. That book has been incredibly fun! What a country Italy is!

Meanwhile, now the days are long again, always a relief. I’ve been at my desk all winter and am the color of a turnip. Yesterday, I started moonflower, gourd, sunflower, and morning glory seeds. By the time I’m home from my book tour, Ed will have put them into the ground. These are prime gardening days coming up and I plan to be outside as much as possible before I start boarding those planes. More later!

October 27, 2017

A Deconstructed Kitchen in Sicily

In the next three weeks, I am wrapping up the travel for SEE YOU IN THE PIAZZA: PLACES TO DISCOVER IN ITALY. It won’t be published until April, 2019. This coming April, my new novel WOMEN IN SUNLIGHT comes out. The travel book is such a joy. We have been on the road for most of a year. It has been revelatory: Italy is truly endless! We are finding staggering variety in this country that is the size of Arizona but holds so many worlds.

Just back from the south of Sicily and I want share photos of a kitchen. The inn is Baglio Occhipinti near Vittoria, a wine center and lively town. Fausta, a young landscape designer, restored a tumble of white stone farm buildings, with roots back to the Arabs. Baglio is Arabic for courtyard. Her sister, Arianna, did the same with other buildings down the road where she makes Occhipinti wines. She’s raking in the awards. A big salute to these two women making a difference! And having a grand time. The inn has six calm and welcoming rooms. Ours was all white–sofa, chairs, bed, curtains. The art on one wall was a piece of old painted door, on another, framed botanicals from the property. The were charmingly amateurish, like a project you’d do with a child on a summer afternoon. It’s that kind of place.

In the kitchen, Sebastiano cooks. You can have a cooking session with him, or Fausta can arrange for a wonderful local woman to come cook with you. “She speaks no English,” Fausta said, “but everyone understands her.” Candlelit dinner is served in a lofty space that used to be a winemaking room and, probably a granary, since the ceilings are so high. Dinners are Sebastiano’s set menu–whatever is fresh from the garden. More on all that, and their wine, in my book. What amazed me is the kitchen. I look at Remodelista and other design sites frequently. This kitchen made me laugh thinking of those curated wonders. I love this old world quirkiness and heart.

Here’s the oh-so-necessary island. Tart for breakfast cooling. Pull up a chair. Pumpkin for evening all chopped for Sebastiano’s risotto:


What would be cupboards and counter space:

The stove and stone sink. Door opens to garden tables where breakfast is served:


Food storage and wood oven:


Dinner both nights was excellent. You can talk to guests at the next table or not. Only those staying here can dine. White clad, candlelit tables are set up to the right of this cozy space, the table stacked with books. Guitar by the hearth.

We discovered so many unique-to-the-place, interesting towns. This inn, deep in the countryside is surrounded by fascinating towns where you might be the only tourist. Sicily is another world. Read more about Franca and Arianna’s places:  and


Thanks so much for the suggestions for travel! I welcome more. Can always add a chapter or two.

Also! We have a small olive oil crop this year, due to crazy weather, but the oil is, as always, sublime. You can order for holiday delivery up until 1 November, and anytime after for delivery in and after January. Check the website, which my grandson William designed: Here’s a new photo by Steven Rothfeld of this transforming elixir:

August 28, 2017


fullsizeoutput_9a34Dear Friends! Thanks to all who wrote asking if I’ve fallen off the sharp edge of the world. No. I’ve just been writing two books. Down the rabbit hole! The novel, Women in Sunlight, is finished and I even have a galley copy hot off the press. It will be published by Crown in April. The other, a travel book, is named for this blog: See You in the Piazza: Places to Discover in Italy. 

I am still traveling non-stop and writing as I go. This summer, I have been in the Dolomiti and Piemonte and Puglia and Lazio and Friuli! This fall I will be in Sicilia, Sardegna, Calabria, Le Marche, and the Veneto. Intense but exhilarating! I expect to finish by the end of November. These travel reconfirm what I already knew: Italy is endless!

Please don’t forget my blog; I enjoy the interaction and comments so much. If you have any little-known places you love in Italy, please send! I will be back to normal soon. Ci vediamo!

Above, a heavenly spot in the Dolomiti: Lago di Braies.


October 24, 2016

Sharing a couple of articles

Buon giorno! I am flying to Rome today!  Olive harvest, travels in Puglia and the Marche, cooking with all the delicious fall treats–mushrooms, chestnuts, truffles. Fall is glorious everywhere, of course, but there’s something about the slant of late afternoon light and the linden trees turning golden and the owls at night that seem more present than in the rest of the year.

Before I zip my suitcase, I’m sending links to a couple of articles that I hope you enjoy. “Frankye’s Cookbooks” is a one-sentence ode that came out in The Oxford American awhile back.

The other, a few thoughts on the writing life, appeared last week in The Guardian, which is my favorite paper for literary articles and reviews.

More later!!!

September 6, 2016

20th Anniversary of Under the Tuscan Sun!

Dear friends, Today is the publication day for a special new edition of Under the Tuscan Sun, with a new essay I wrote in celebration. How amazing for me that this memoir has endured and thrived for twenty years. You never know, of course, when you write a book what its fate will be. Sink out of sight, soar to the sun–who knows. This book just happened to find readers and to my surprise, I’ve been flying on its coat tails ever since. At last count the book is in 52 languages. That’s the biggest surprise of all. I thought if readers liked it, they would be more or less like me. As it appears in each language, people from that country make the trip to Cortona and I often meet them. What a gift this book has been in my life. I have traveled, met so many fantastic people and have loved all the letters and thoughtful gifts people have sent me. Today, I’m at home, trying to finish a novel, another launch into the unknown future!  I have beside me on the desk a copy of this new edition, with my house and its flowers tempting me to look at them. Bramasole! Heart’s needle, as compelling for me today as it was when I plunked down my life savings to have it. Twenty years! So long! Italy, by now, has given me many books and I’m grateful. My new book, too, is set in Italy. Please watch for it in the spring–Women in Sunlight. 

Thank you for reading my blog and for the comments which I enjoy so much. Fall is rushing toward us. Hope it’s lovely for all.


April 24, 2016

In Primavera

This photo, taken from the car window as we zoomed across the valley toward Cortona shows how green it already was here at the end of March. The house is one of the Leopoldini structures built in the 1700s to house farm families. With all the mania for restoration, I’ve never understood why these places haven’t been scooped up. People used to say it was because it is too hot in the valley in summer and too foggy in the winter but now that houses are insulated, heated, and cooled, this no longer explains. Arriving at Bramasole, I found my hillside of double daffodils almost over, and the white haze of wild hawthorne already turning out leaves.

Market day in nearby Camucia is Thursday and even though I was barely here, I headed down hill my first morning. The very first piece I ever wrote about the Cortona area was this market. Little has changed. People still come in from the surrounding villages, the men stand in groups talking while the women shop, the stalls spread over several winding blocks. This is an intact aspect of ancient life in Tuscany. Towns still have their market days and though the goods may have changed aspect, there’s still food, seeds, live poultry, clothes, shoes, and housewares. You can find a stylish handbag, I promise. I buy socks, dishtowels, cut flowers, and always a peper-wrapped packet of porchetta, the so-savory roasted pig lying on a chopping board. Everyone has a favorite stand. I have a favorite cheese stand too, though I buy vegetables and fruit all over.  Why I rushed there my first day back is that I knew that artichoke season is in full swing. Trucks arrive from the south and the artichokes are firm, fresh, and so cheap.

 These are the big ones. The ones I choose are the small, violet ones to trim, steam, and simply dress with a little lemon juice and our very excellent olive oil. Then you can eat ten! The citrus is a gift to the eye. We look for the juicy Tarocco, plus clementines that Ed eats several times a day. I’m sadly allergic to orange juice but I like a blue bowl of these in the house at all times.

Below, a lovely sight in spring–raw green almonds to crunch into. I think they’re an acquired taste–strong almond flavor but with an acrid little bite too.  They are definitely part of the spring foraging scene. So pretty the soft green with hints of lavender.


Bramasole always has been a haven for writing. This visit I am focused on Paper Doors (tentative title), the novel I started in the fall. Ed is writing a poem a day. Each one, he says, is a map of the unconscious without trying to filter through the conscious. Okay! He disappears into his study after breakfast and the door is closed until eleven or so. My habits are erratic and right now it turns out that the best writing time for me is 5-8 p.m. Fortunately for me, Ed loves to cook in the new kitchen and has been the chef almost every night. Our new stove has an oven rotisserie. Our old stove had one too but we never bothered to learn to use it. Now we are loving the pork roasts and plump chickens that are just totally easy. We are into easy this trip. We can buy fresh peas just shelled and they are such a short season treat that we have them several times a week, along with Ed’s favorite spring vegetable, agretti, which looks like a cross between chives and long grass. Just look at it and you know you’re absorbing vitamins. Artichokes, of course. The tiny ones are good raw, very thinly sliced with slivers of parmigiano and olive oil. Oh, before I forget, Bramasole Olive Oil won a gold medal at the big NY International Olive Oil Competition. We’ve won four years in a row. (Check out the oil at

A very quick dinner, because we can get excellent veal scallopine here–saute (I can’t get the accent to work) some spring onions gently in olive oil until softened, slice 15-20 cherry tomatoes and add to the onions. Remove to a bowl and add a little more oil to the pan. Flour four veal scallopine and brown quickly on both sides. The flour becomes a bit crispy. Cooks quickly. Stir in the tomatoes and onions, squeeze in the juice of a lemon, tiny splash of white wine. Heat through quickly, sprinkle with parmigiano and bread crumbs. Done! Very good. We do the same with chicken tenders. I love fast food! This kind anyway.

With the work over, it’s easy to settle in and enjoy glorious April. I hold off for two weeks before I begin to plant. Weather can still turn on us. But by the 18th, I can resist no longer. The lemons are brought out of their limonaia, the room where they winter over, and trips to the garden centers begin. Last year we had trouble with wind blowing over the lemon pots, heavy as they are. We had the stonemasons make square bases, scored with a cross for drainage. They were so heavy that they were hoisted up by a crane, lowered with much ado, and cemented onto the ground for stability. Oh, what we do for lemons! We had to build a ramp so they could be maneuvered down two steps. But in place, eight laden trees light up the walkway to the house and allow me to thrust a bag of lemons onto everyone who comes over. We have other citrus scattered around, an orange tree, a kumquat, a cedro. Turning them in for winter, bringing them out in spring–those are the markers that begin and end the lovely seasons.


A few reading and traveling recommendations:

We frequently rent houses or apartments because we travel a lot with our grandson. Since he arises at five, a hotel room is not the best option. For me it’s not fun to look at hundreds of listings, so I was happy to find carefully chosen properties in all price ranges at   Through them, we’re renting a place in Puglia with friends. I’m keeping this one bookmarked.  We’ve also had good luck with   For hotels, too, I don’t enjoy TripAdvisor popping up with a jillion undiscriminated choices. I go to or to mr.& Tablet has email updates on hotels around the world and I enjoy their descriptions. 

Since I’ve been chained to my desk, I haven’t read as much as usual this trip but I have enjoyed the short stories of Charles Baxter, A Relative Stranger. Every morning with cappuccino, I’ve been reading the poems of Greek poet George Seferis. Those Greeks–always mythic and stony and salty. Totally opposite the loopy Irish world of Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light. The writing here is so lyrical and heightened that I read passages several times. The narrative interested me less than the use of language. Two other widely praised novels I read were just so packed with useless detail (she opened the car door and swung out her legs, stood up and walked across the cracked sidewalk… that sort of thing) that I slogged through without much pleasure. No need to name them but they provided a caution for me in my own efforts! I most highly recommend the memoir Dimestore by the wonderful Lee Smith. It’s a book to buy and give to friends. On walks I’ve been listening to Sweet Tooth by Ian Mc Ewan. You have to choose audible books carefully and this is one I would have preferred in print. The discursiveness of it wsouldn’t have bothered me on the page because I could read fast or skim slow parts. The narrator has a lovely reading style but listening has been very drawn out. As always, I’d love to hear of good books from you!

Happy May!

January 12, 2016

Smithsonian Journeys

Two blogs back, I mentioned that I had a great time exploring the Venetian lagoon last summer while writing for Smithsonian Journeys. My article is in the winter issue, in the very good company of Robert Draper, Donald Sutherland, Jack Turner, Nan McElroy and others who love the non-touristy, cultural side of this most enchanting of cities.  Do check out this magazine–it’s different. It’s conceived exactly for readers of See You in the Piazza–the curious, hungry, literate traveler. The first issue focused on Paris. Coming up, I’m excited to read the issue on India!

Here’s the site:

Out in the lagoon:

November 2, 2015

Three Fall Days in Florence

We celebrated Ed’s birthday in Florence. I never have seen the city so beautiful as on these last days of October. The light was transparent, lissome, kind to all. Our regular hotel,  Tornabuoni Beacchi, gave us a large room overlooking the piazza below and a glimpse of the Trinità bridge over the Arno. We love the location of the hotel, its old world decor, friendly staff, and flowery roof garden. Walk out and you’re looking down onto the Arno in three minutes. Rivers are always changing color. In this view, the color reminded me of the porcini mushroom soup I had at lunch! But glassy and still enough for the shadows barely to ripple. Is this the most humane and pleasing city on earth? Maybe Seville is a rival, with its silvery river, flamenco, and scent of oranges, but Florence has the renaissance, a glowing light, and better food.


Florence has always been the same. For years we went and Florence was Florence. Only the fashions changed, and the exhibits, or so it appeared to a foreigner. Now the city is just burgeoning with creative new places and with a new ambience due to banned cars in many parts of the city. Thank you, Renzi, former mayor of Florence and now prime minister of Italy. He made Florence an open walking city. A bicycle city! The only problem now  is that you become so relaxed you can get mown down by a taxi or other allowed vehicle. The major improvement is Piazza San Lorenzo, which used to be so obscured by the leather market that you couldn’t see the church. Many other areas also are pedonale, walking only, a fine, fine improvement. The area around Santa Maria Novella, long a seedy section of the city, is changing by the day, with new shops, JK Place Hotel, and the open spaces all cleaned up.

A grand change happened to Mercato Centrale, the old city market housed in a fanciful iron building that looks as if it were once a train station (but was not). The regular cheese, meat, fish market remains downstairs, and historic Nerbone is still serving the boiled beef panini with glasses of red wine. Upstairs, however, is now a food, as in foodie, emporium, very upscale and chic with long bars for coffees and snacks and, around the periphery, cool stands selling books, housewares, pizza, breads, confections, seafood, and even lampredotto  for the intrepid. Lampredotto–made from the fourth stomach of the cow–is a florentine favorite. I thought it was tripe but it’s a specific stomach, and not made from the first three.There’s much info on line if you’re interested in the distinctions.

The cappuccino is perfect–not too foamy–and the cannoli, well, leave the gun, take the cannoli. This one: chocolate at one end, pistachio at the other. Also on the second floor, there’s a Lorenzo de’ Medici cooking school and a couple of wine tasting bars. This is the right stop for those who love grazing. (You can even get a hamburger. For the past couple of years, hamburgers have been a trend in Italy.)


Two other changes:

Feltrinelli RED bookstore on Piazza Repubblica now has a ground level cafe. The chain also has opened a branch at the train station. I am happy! When your train is late, or you just need to grab a book, there it is, along with a bar selling interesting sandwiches, even arancini, the Sicilian rice balls stuffed with cheese or ragù.

The historic cafes lining Piazza Repubblica have constructed outdoor enclosed seating with heat lamps. Fortunately all of them are identical so the look of the piazza is not discombobulated. We sat with friends as it got dark and still had the sense of being outside.

New restaurants, shops, casual cafes, and wine bars are sprouting overnight.  There’s a demise with this. I will miss the lovely linen shop near the duomo and my stand-by nice paper and notebook shop, Tassoti. But the classic Ginori china shop has transformed, not disappeared. It is one of the most stunning retail renovations I’ve seen.



Those are fragments of old pitchers arranged around the door. The table settings all over the store seem like Edith Wharton should be pulling up a chair, and I’d like to sit beside her. Here’s a little study, where you could count up how many place settings you have!



That striped blue ceiling–what a bold move when the walls are already striped too.  Florence is amazingly short on house and kitchen stores. This is a lovely exception.

Now to the table! For more photos, go to the websites. I don’t mind taking quick photos of plates sometimes but I don’t like to roam the restaurants with my iPhone, even though I’d like to.

We tried and liked very much Golden View, right on the river. The name put me off as it sounded like a million Chinese restaurants, but the white marble counters along the street displayed authentic looking fish and octopus, and there was the river, so in we went. Very contemporary decor with tons of art and near art on the walls, really nice service, quiet, and a good place to toast Ed attaining another year.

At lunch, we stopped at a place we’ve often enjoyed, the café CipollaRosa, Red Onion. There I had the soup the color of the Arno, a rich broth with lots of porcini. Ed ordered spicy seafood pasta, followed by fresh, fresh salads. There is Ed in the window. Stop taking pictures, Frances! This is the kind of place we often choose for lunch. Good, fun, quick. Quick because there’s so much to SEE afterwards. Always, there’s an exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi that will take you somewhere you’ve never been before.


 Florence’s new flying-high, concept restaurant charmed us and our friends who met there for midday pranzo : La Ménagère. It is somewhat of a menagerie, since the site offers a long coffee bar, kitchen items for sale, a gorgeous flower stall, and a restaurant that should be featured in Elle Decor. The space looks  gutted and left to charming  ruin. Multicolored orchids, roots dangling, hang low around the room and some of the light fixtures are made from disembodied arms of chandeliers. Hard to explain!  It’s all very fun and different. So is the menu. Roasted gnocchi with cheese, lemon, green apple and fried cous cous. Cauliflower soup with sauce of almond, anchovies and mozzarella crumbs. A soft cheese mound with potato sauce, mustard, and spinach.  Pasta with tripe, plums, capers, anchovies, parsley, almonds and ginger.  WOW! Not the traditional Tuscan menu.

 For our third lunch we chose Olio on Santo Spirito, so cozy and discreet. I would imagine lovers go there frequently, but there was a changing table in the bathroom so maybe it’s more for young mothers meeting friends. We were very late so had to ourselves the lovely room lined with wine, like a library but with bottles. I felt we should be confiding secrets so I asked Ed to tell me something he’s never told me before. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t that in fifth grade he had a crush on Sister Hedwiges, his teacher.

We do love the traditional Tuscan food and no visit would be complete without a dinner at one of the great trattorie. A favorite is La Casalinga.  We often go, as we did this time, to Camillo, right over the bridge. It’s crowded and the waiters like to joke. Who’s not happy with a plate of fried zucchini sticks to start, boned rabbit, roasted potatoes, and some most excellent Sirah from Cortona. Knowing we live in Cortona, the waiter, when we ordered our local wine, said we were “playing in the house,” an expression I really liked.  Good food, great talk with friends, and a walk out into the quiet. The missing traffic! Magic. Walking home along Via Tornabuoni, we were in a golden city.





August 29, 2015

Summer ’15–Recommendations from a Summer of Travel

They all speed by, don’t they–the summers? Whereas, winter lasts forever. For us, this has been an especially wonderful season. We finished two restorations. We traveled. We had our grandson Willie, now thirteen, visit in Italy for six weeks. We cooked and read and walked and swam. I redesigned and implemented Bramasole’s garden. I even wrote a little. We got up early, took afternoon naps, and stayed out often until two in the morning. Ed cycled hundreds of miles. I got into a regular exercise routine. So much happened, and from the standpoint of late August, it seems to have occurred in fast-forward mode.

Some fantastic recommendations from our travels:

Rome, city with the big beating heart. At the beginning of the summer, we rented an apartment on via di Montegiordano near the Piazza Navona for several days. The massive crowds were just beginning to descend upon the city, rendering it impossible until September. But we were happy and charmed in our neighborhood, and soon had our regular place to go for cappuccino in the morning. We dined at Casa Bleve in a stately glass-covered courtyard, surely one of Rome’s most beautiful restaurants and a top destination for winos like us. Another night, we ate outside under tall trees at Santa Lucia Ristorante next to the vine-covered Hotel Raphael. Taking a recommendation from Elizabeth Manchelli’s Eating Rome, we chose Perilli a Testaccio, an old world trattoria that so reminded me of discovering Rome many years ago. Our waiter, when he heard that Willie was in Italy to study the language, engaged him in teasing banter and gave him a few lessons in gesture as well. What a great place for Sunday pranzo, dining among large local families and devouring that simple but complex pasta, cacio e pepe and homey roast guinea hen.  Another but very different lunch place we like is Roscioli  near the Campo de’ Fiori. Updated classics, a cool and crowded atmosphere, and a terrific wine list. Rome is endless! We rented our apartment through Rome Lofts. I’ve rented five apartments in Rome and this was the best–supremely comfortable with big sofas and armchairs in old world fabrics, a well-equipped kitchen (rare to find), marble bathrooms, two bedrooms. All very gracious and roomy. Here we are, at home in Rome.

 Below, the romantic Casa Bleve. If you go, on the way out buy a little bag of the citrus and nut candy that they bring at the end of the dinner.

A good discovery for me was the small Museo Mario Praz , the Old World residence of the extraordinary writer and collector Mario Praz, who wrote a book I dip into frequently, La Casa della Vita (The House of Life).  What’s clear is that he valued collecting and living among his treasures more than anything. I think he must have driven off his wife and daughter with his fervor for things. But the book is fine, a memoir formed around objects and the stories of those objects. ( In this way, it connected with the Pamuk museum described below.) Exploring small or out-of-the-way places makes summer travel more fun. There was no one at Praz’s abode and the guide had time to give us a leisurely tour and to share stories of her own about the place. Apparently, the children of the neighborhood recognized his quirkiness and thought he cast the evil eye.

The islands of the Venetian lagoon. We went twice to Venice. I was on the exciting assignment to write about the islands for the new magazine Smithsonian Journeys    The article will be out in the next issue and I don’t want to prempt it, so just to say the islands are so varied, surprising, and fun to discover. It’s exhilarating to be out on open water and to step off on little nubbins of sand barely emerged from the tides. The trips gave me a chance to read a lot of Venetian history and also the travel classic, Venice by Jan Morris. If you’ve never read it, grab it now! My suggestions for hotels, etc. are all in the article. On our last night, we stayed in Venice proper and checked into Hotel Ca’ Segredo, which was almost like checking into a museum. The grand, frescoed public rooms are a rare pleasure–a glimpse into an outlandishly splendid way of life in a magnificent palazzo. The rooms are sedate and refined and the position of the Grand Canal just perfect. The price was reasonable for Venice, in fact, our room cost the same as an American chain hotel in Boston.  The position on the water is similar to the Gritti, where I loved staying once, but the rate there now is really high. A little jewel in Venice is the Locanda Orseola, but you must book way in advance. We were on boats for hours a day and came to know Venice in a larger and more elemental way. This is no Tiepolo cloud!

Willie and I on one of the many great staircases in the Ca’ Segardo. I loved the soapy sheen of the worn marble. Willie is now taller than I am.  He’s 5′ 8″ here, and now at the end of summer almost 5′ 9″, which seems impossible.

Bologna is a long time favorite city and now I have a favorite hotel / restaurant there: I Portici, named for the arched covered walkways all over that handsome city. We had the mansard room with a balcony. Willie adored all the high-tech amenities–buttons to push for lights, windows, locks, etc. We all three adored the white, white room and bath under the eves and the cool minimalist decor.

At the hotel’s restaurant, a one-star Michelin, Willie discovered the concept of the tasting menu. We were proud that he was willing to try very unfamiliar seafood and sophisticated preparations of more familiar food. He loved every bite. I’m so glad my daughter and I, both picky eaters, didn’t pass on our tame palates. Bologna is full of bookstores, intriguing doorways, and interesting looking people. On a building facing Piazza Maggiore, we spotted a wall of photographs of partisans who died in World War II. We wandered for a couple of hours in the archaeological museum, staggered as always by how much remains of the ancient world. The old market neighborhood is pure joy to wander. It would be fun to rent an apartment there, just to cook and to be able to bring home flowers from the market area.

A major treat of the summer was Istanbul. One of the perks of a house in Italy is that so many places are within short flying times. My daughter and her husband joined Ed, Willie, and me in Rome and we flew quickly to Istanbul on Turkish Air. What friendly skies–nice attendants, enough room for Ed’s legs in coach, and a quite tasty lunch served on board. We stayed at Neorion in the old part of town. It’s a moderately priced hotel with an extremely helpful and friendly staff, nice spa and hammam, and a perfect location. Ed and I have been to Istanbul three other times so we wandered in markets and the Archaeological Museum, while the rest of the family took in the mosques and Topkapi. I was amazed to see so many more women covered up than I saw eight years ago, and not just the scarf but the whole black regalia with only slits for the eyes. Several locals claim the women, who seem to travel in groups, are visiting from Saudi Arabia but that can’t be the whole story. What are they on, field trips? Seemed to me that a strict religious wave has washed over. I even saw little girls in scarves and long dresses with their brothers in shorts cavorting around them.  One can only hope that totally obscuring yourself is a choice made by the women. They can’t even eat normally. By my lights, it’s hard to believe that anyone with real free choice could want to be so invisible in the world. Perhaps this is my own limitation.

By far the most exciting place we visited in Istanbul was the Museum of Innocence, brain child of the writer Orhan Pamuk who wrote the fascinating Proustian novel of the same name. While he was writing, he began to collect objects that are mentioned in the book and to conceive of displaying them. The museum is a three-story Ottoman house filled with cases of these objects, which take on artistic lives of their own. I can’t do justice to the museum here–do look into it. I like the novel very much, and also his brilliant Istanbul, which is both a memoir and a biography of the city.

We were all crazy about the food! One of the great world cuisines and a neglected one by us American cooks! Ever since we came home, my daughter and I have been cooking Turkish food. Tomorrow we’re making a whole dinner. We love the unexpected combinations of herbs and spices. Our carry-ons were stuffed with bags of Aleppo pepper, sumac, cinnamon, cumin, sesame, black mustard seeds, cardamom, and other seasonings from around the middle East such as Zaatar and dried Persian lime. These baklavas demonstrate the wonderful combining of flavors–pomegranate and saffron, raisins with pomegranate, fig with walnuts, mint with hazelnuts.


Now we are back in Hillsborough NC for this lovely late summer bounty of the garden and farmers’ markets. I would always like to be in the South for tomato, butterbean, corn, okra, yellow squash and peppers that burgeon in the garden. There’s little better in the wide world than big southern vegetable dinners!  I’m just relishing these last days of a memorable summer. Next week I’ll post a list of books I recommend from a summer with lots of time to read on trains, boats, and planes. I would love to hear travel recommendations from you!

July 29, 2015

Living Again at Bramasole

29 July, from Bramasole

As readers of See You in the Piazza know, Bramasole has been under intense renovation for almost two years. I think it cost me two books. Ed has flown over so often that flight attendants recognize him and even a customs officer at the Rome airport.  Serious work! Much of it invisible–insulation, electrical, solar, heating upgrades, all the no-fun stuff. But much is visible.  I am posting some photos, hoping that you might get a flash of inspiration from them.  The destroyed–completely–garden is looking good. We decided not to replicate what we had but to try a new design. I may go back to some of the old ideas next year.  What was the Rose Walk is now rather formal. Our lemon trees line one side and balance the boxwood hedge on the other side. The hedge and five topiary boxwood trees are a remnant of the long lost formal garden from years ago. Trying to reduce grass, we made a river-pebble walk with a mid-point circle for an old olive oil jar. In a fierce wind storm in March, we lost our jasmine arches. For now, we’re leaving the stairs open.

The olive oil centerpoint is easy to accomplish. I built up the soil to raise the jar, then planted a circle of dwarf boxwood, some ivy here and there, and then tucked in low flowers that have bloomed all summer. That’s gaura falling into the picture.

The area we call The Lime Tree Bower used to be grass–scraggly under the linden trees–but always our shady respite in summer. It’s now pebbles, too, with comfortable outdoor furniture and a big stone topped table. My old yellow wooden table finally succumbed to age, and was not helped by a worker spilling a gallon of black creosote on it. I found this old iron table base and had the stone top cut to seat twelve. Handy to have it a bit wide so that two can sit at either end. I picked up the beautiful green wine demijohns beside the trash pick up and cut off the old woven straw basket full of insects and dust. To clean them of dregs and dirt, our gardener told me to put a handful of pebbles inside, add soapy water and whirl it around. Not easy. The globe is big and slippery. I broke one but did okay with the others.  They reflect the landscape and cast lovely green shadows. All along the back of this terrace, there’s a stone wall and a hedge of  hydrangeas.

The living room floor had to be ripped out because of moisture problems. We also removed a staircase, which gave a little more room. Then the room was replastered and we painted the beams white. We were able to find old cotto bricks to replace the original ones. I had the furniture made by a local craftsman. The room is my museum of treasures gathered over the many years I’ve wandered around antique markets. I contemplated painting the room a light chalky blue but finally decided to leave it white because it reminds me of small Greek churches I saw in the Mani. 


Maybe the household gods do reside in the details:


The very best prize of the restoration–a new kitchen! Perfect for two cooks. Ed has his sink and I have mine, both cut from single pieces of marble. The room ends with a glass half-octagon that allows us a view of the hills and valley at all times of day. It’s especially lovely when it’s raining. The new kitchen was the old limonaia at the side and back of the house and we broke through the former kitchen to join it. The pendant lights were made in Murano at Schiavon Vetreria Artistica. The floor (heated underneath)  is old brick cotto. The metal table is new but looks as if James Joyce might have sat there sipping absinthe.  The antique platters I found in Taormina. For over a decade they lay in a chest of drawers, just waiting for the right moment to be displayed.  The Ilve stove is dark, marine blue. We are lucky to have found marble we love and a great marmista who fitted everything beautifully. The new connection:



Here are a couple of detail shots:

We were able to squeeze in a tiny half bath at the back of the kitchen. I couldn’t find a sink for the small space.  La marmista to the rescue. I love this little sculptural work of art! Brancusi could wash his hands here. We mounted it on a slab of pietra serena stone.

But isn’t the light switch ugly! Devil in the details!

Many things are the same:

But we are living in a new way in the house we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. Worth the time and money and stress? Yes!

Would love to hear comments and suggestions!

More later on good books of the summer and some great travel recommendations. We have been lots of places with our grandson, who is a super traveler. This year he discovered tasting menus and had many surprises. A very packed summer. Now I’m hoping for a calm August and time, time, time to write.

Hope your summer, too, has been full of good surprises!

May 11, 2015

The Best Aioli

As you can see, this is one well-worn cookbook. I bought it when it came out in 1986. Camille Glenn, by my lights, had it all right.  Her collection of traditional southern recipes has been a boon anytime I’ve realized that my mother’s recipe in hand obviously left off instructions or omitted ingredients that she assumed any fool would know! I love Camille Glenn’s crab recipes, the corn pudding, chocolate pound cake, buttermilk biscuits, and so many others.  You can just tell that these are recipes she and her family have cooked over and over and that you would love to have dined at her parents’ country inn in Kentucky! I also treasure the many vintage photographs throughout her book. She died in 2010 at age 100.



For years I’ve made her mayonnaise. She calls it Blender Mayonnaise but I use my food processor. My mother made her own mayonnaise in a bowl, using a fork to whisk the ingredients into an emulsion. She used peanut or corn oil. I’ve tried to create her wonderful light mayonnaise with sad results. Then I found Camille and happily made her mayonnaise for years. I used to follow her instruction to use “1 cup good-quality flavorless vegetable oil (or use part olive oil if you wish).”  I was always bothered by her “flavorless” adjective, and a few years ago, I started using all olive oil.  The best olive oil, of course. Yes, indeed! Then I varied it again by adding a clove of minced garlic. Ecco: aioli, the French riviera cousin of plain mayonnaise., the provencal staple that is so good on crab cakes, shrimp salad, and French fries. I think traditional aioli doesn’t have lemon juice in it but for me that lemony hint is essential. You make this in a flash and it’s SO much better than any mayonnaise you can buy.  Google “aioli” and you find that most recipes still call for grapeseed or canola oil entirely, or for adding “some” olive oil. Most think olive oil should be diluted.  But, no, terrific oil is fruity and has a kick that jumpstarts the flavor.  Try this and let me know what you think. Camille had no access to great olive oil back then; I think she would be revising that recipe for mayonnaise if she had.

Here’s my version:

1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk, room temperature

1 cup of the best olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/4 teaspoon black or cayenne pepper, or both

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Into the food processor, put the eggs, 1/4 cup of the oil, salt, pepper, mustard, and lemon juice.
Turn on the processor and swirl the mixture for a few seconds.
Slowly, slowly pour in the rest of the oil.
Midway, open the top and stir any off the sides of the bowl.
Continue to process, pouring very slowly.
Store in a glass jar in the fridge.
There are belabored videos out there that make aioli seem complicated and time consuming.  It’s not. Five minutes and you have a lovely golden jar that will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge. What we’ve been loving this spring is aioli with a plate of vegetables. Or, you can take out a couple of tablespoons, thin it with more olive oil and use it as a dressing for crisp romaine and avocado salad. A little dab on grilled fish is just right. Of course, spread liberally on sandwiches. Use instead of mayonnaise when you make chicken salad. Flavor it with chopped chives or tarragon or thyme.  And, surprise, lavish a bit on corn or the cob. Aioli is terrific to have on hand and just totally will spoil you for mayonnaise. In the South Duke’s Mayonnaise is a household word.  Sorry, Duke’s, your soybean oil just does not cut it!




If you make a batch, let me know your favorite ways to use it.  Welcome summer! More later…..

April 1, 2015

Paperback Publication of Under Magnolia

Along with the daffodils and tulips popping up, Under Magnolia  just stepped out in paper. The cover is simplified–just my eighteen-year-old face looking out at the world from a long time ago.

At the end of the book, I included an essay, “A Life on Paper.”  I write about why anyone would want to attempt a memoir. Aren’t you risking bad scenes with the family at Thanksgiving? Aren’t you disturbing those who’ve passed on and are are beginning to cool off nicely? And what about the accuracy of memory?  All answered! More or less.  Also included, a list of memoirs I’ve found important as a reader and writer, and a section of questions for book club discussions.

Since I finished my memoir, I’ve found that I wish I’d written more about a few things. Isn’t that writing, though–you get to a point and you’re finished, and later  more material rises to the surface.  Here are notices about short pieces I’ve written since the memoir. “Frankye’s Recipes” is in the Spring 2015 issue of The Oxford American with its lovely peachy cover.

“Frankye’s Recipes” is one sentence, the longest one I’ve ever written. The links and clauses and dashes seemed, as I was writing, to keep me close to the process of memory itself. Writing this felt a little like drawing without lifting the pencil away from the paper.

Magnolias, of course, are symbolic for me but they are also ever-present. I have two old beauties in my garden. I wrote about their power for Garden & Gun, April / May issue.


The third short essay was published in South Writ Large, an online magazine which I recommend checking out. My “The Monumental Cakes of Frankye Davis Mayes” appears in their Summer 2014 food issue. It’s about the grand cakes my mother made, especially caramel and coconut, but also about how such anticipated appearances created for me an expectation of great things to come for my whole life!  Here’s the link:

I am traveling in April (see TOUR) and writing a lot online. I enjoyed writing “A Perfect Food Day” for  The day begins with watermelon in North Carolina, moves to Italy for merenda and pranzo,  and ends with drinking  bitters late at night back in the South. Here’s the link:

Now it is time to launch a new project. That most exciting moment, when you begin and everything is possible!

Thank you, as always, for reading See You in the Piazza!  I imagine I will be seeing some of you just there during the coming travel season.  The Euro is stunningly low and all of Italy awaits.  Pack your bag with great things to read, some orange espadrilles, and big sunglasses. Keep those eyes open! Occhi tutti aperti! 

February 23, 2015

Wise in Winter

“I’d like to exit this place next February,” I said to Ed, as I flipped the kitchen faucet on and no water flowed.

“It will thaw in a couple of hours.”   Wallace Stevens, he reminded me, said that you must have “a mind of winter.” Then he went on, extolling the joys of dinners by the fire, starting new writing projects, having friends over for hearty suppers, stamping around the bare garden when you see its outlines clearly and can plan for summer, reading that stack of books, watching two movies a night, and on and on.  I had to reconsider. What’s a week in Turks and Caicos compared to all that?

At least we are warm at last. We lived here while the house got a new insulated metal roof, the attic and basement were insulated with state-of-the-art materials, while the many layers of paint were sanded off by many men in hazmat, while crawl space was excavated–seemingly by the tablespoon–and the asbestos and pipes and wires, generations of wires, were stripped from the basement, and geothermal heat was installed in the house. This required five small but 300′ deep wells to be dug across the front yard, which destroyed the garden and irrigation. We had only space heaters for two months. It wasn’t so bad. Space heaters have improved but with the electric bill, we could have bought several round-trip tickets to Italy.

Still, a miracle to be warm in a house this old, here at the end of February!

Time to do all those things Ed rhapsodized about.  Here’s one thing I like serving.


I roasted vegetables separately, as always, but instead of simply serving them on a plate, I made stacks: eggplant slice, zucchini, asparagus, another eggplant, a slice of mozzarella, and a thick tomato slice roasted with chopped shallots and thyme on top.  Around this I served big wild-caught shrimp that I flash-sautéed in roasted garlic and olive oil then drizzled with lemon juice. As you see on the pan, I use olive oil liberally.  This is a very tasty and easy first course for a feast or a nice Sunday supper.  A grand treat–two hunks of parmigiano Ed brought home in his suitcase.  Yes, it’s okay to bring in, as long as it’s shrink wrapped.  Ask, in Italy, for sotto vuoto. On the left, parmigiano aged 45 months, on the right, aged 24 months.  Much of what we get in the US is aged 12 months.  Still excellent, but it is revealing to taste the different ages.  The 24 month is a bit harder than the usual, grainier, and with a more pronounced flavor. You need less  when sprinkling it over pasta. At 45 months–amazing!  Very grainy, almost sandy with bursts of flavor from those grains. Dryer, and I want to say sweeter but that’s not exactly right.  Deeper in flavor and so intense.  My photo is not bad! Looks like a little corner of a Vermeer.  That’s the lovely hard light of winter angling into my kitchen.

If you go to Italy, it’s worth the extra weight to bring back a huge piece of the almost four year old parmigiano. Ed also brought a substantial wedge of Fior di Monte, a pecorino we love.  His suitcase was full of tax receipts for the renovations in Italy, all nicely perfumed with the scents of the cheeses.

An unexpected little disaster during the North Carolina renovation was a gas explosion and fire in the kitchen.  And you wondered why I’ve neglected my blog….   Anyway, the up result of this is that we have a new stove. A gorgeous new stove.  (Was it worth it?  Ummmm?)  After hours of research, we selected a six-burner American Range, whose major burners have 25,000 BTUs.  Not that I even have a wok.  The oven is my dream oven.

That’s pasta with sausage and four cheeses coming out.  This is an all-time favorite recipe–essence of a cosy winter night with good friends.  (Recipe in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.)  What’s even greater are the leftovers.

Now for other winter pleasures–watching and reading.  Gran Hotel!! Okay,  it’s a melodrama.  But anything that draws me to the treadmill at five every afternoon for forty-two episodes running has got to be compelling.  Watching Amaia Salamanca and Jon Gonzáles is compelling.  He’s kind of a Spanish Raoul Bova. Anyone else drawn to this series?  I wonder if another season will come to Netflix.  Try it!  After awhile I didn’t even notice the subtitles.  Here are several books I have read and liked recently:  

The Trace by Forrest Gander. The place itself is the main character in this novel. The place is the Mexican desert and a harsh and scary place it is.  The prose here is lapidary and visual.

 Transatlantic by Colum McCann. Uncanny the way he grasps the immediacy of a character. Here, he strangely weaves stories of eminent men with those of decidedly peripheral and unrealized women. Deftly done but somehow there seems to be a missing core to the book.

The Stories of Jane Gardam. Well, I’m a fan.  She’s telling the story but telling it slant. A refreshing, off-beat style. I like where she goes for her stories and her sometimes shocking humor, also from unexpected places.  Wry and smart writing.

Good Behavior, Loving and Giving, Time after Time by Molly Keane. I discovered Molly Keane when I read an interview with Hilary Mantel where she said Good Behavior was her favorite novel.  Keane’s territory is the crumbling aristocracy of pre-war Ireland. She’s satiric, and her jabbing humor is even more wicked than Gardam’s, but the characters are vivid and memorable.  I ordered all her books from England. I’m finding that I need to read other things in between–a steady stream is overwhelming.

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan. The subtitle says it all.  As a big Gatsby reader over the years, I loved her insights, minute attention, and her passion for this book.

10:04 by Ben Lerner. The writer is hell-bent on pushing the borders of what a novel is.  This reads like memoir then parlays the same material into a fiction, but perhaps it’s all fiction. Lerner’s love of language is the pleasure here. The dramatic narrative “hooks” set up at the opening never really resolve, but the imaginative arc of the novel is exciting.

As always, I’d love to hear from you about books you’ve liked this winter.  Now I’m about to travel to Italy and I’m loading several books onto my iPad for the long flights.  When I return, the daffodils and tulips all will be in bloom in North Carolina.  Winter will be over.  Despite all the cosy fun and the one beautiful day of snow, I never hate to see winter end.  And, in spite of Ed’s praise of winter pleasures, I can’t help but think back to last year’s escape.


An aqua sea, two yellow umbrellas, powdered sugar sand. I’ll take it!

From Italy, I’ll post the photos of the almost-finished restoration of Bramasole.  Two projects at once has been madness–but we’ve preserved both wonderful houses for their next hundred or so years.  A good feeling.  Here’s the renovated attic at Chatwood. It used to have an old chimney from a defunct boiler rising through it, and it was a dark, cut up space.

 We added the dormer in the first photo to match the one on the right side of the room. We left the floor as it was, just repaired the hole where the chimney was, then finished it with tung oil. What would you do with this space? It has views of the garden on three sides. Isn’t it too pristine for old boxes and suitcases?

The rewards of renovation are solid and lasting–a thought to hold onto when your house is draped in hazmat sheeting and fifteen workers are plying their trades and the power is off and the house is shaking.

I am totally excited to finish this work and to get back to writing.  More from Italy.  Keep in touch!

January 9, 2015

The Tuscan Sun 2015 Engagement Calendar

Chronicle Books published the agenda for fifteen years–and I loved every page.  Steven Rothfeld’s sun-drenched and perceptive photographs were a weekly joy as I turned the pages.

It’s hard to start the year with a utilitarian gray spiral calendar. I do not use the computer calendar, as, I guess, many, many do.

I appreciate all the letters and comments about the loss of this lovely little grace note to the year. I’ll ask Chronicle to read all the comments on my last few blogs just to see how adored this agenda was.

Thank you all–Frances

November 10, 2014

Crazy Year!

The holidays rising right up before us will pass in a blur at our house. Although the restoration of Bramasole is not yet over, in October we launched a big project at Chatwood, our farm house in North Carolina.  I hope never again to hear the expression “can of worms,” which amplified here to “exploding can of worms.”  All I really wanted was a kitchen to replace the weird L-shaped narrow one that we currently maneuver.  A 1930s sunroom along the back of the house, with a wide and close view of the garden, seemed ideal for transformation. It has leaky windows, an ugly floor, and is too narrow for any good arrangement of furniture.  Double the size, we thought, and there’s a dynamite greenhouse kitchen right off the big living room.  The current kitchen, with the panty knocked out, could become a bedroom.  And we want to insulate this old board house which is impossible to heat well.  We decided on geothermal. After many meetings with Fred, our architect friend, and the preservation committee, we gained approval. Restoration stories! They all have the same narrative threads running through them! I’ll cut this short.  What is happening is that all the stabilizing work that must precede the dream kitchen and bedroom, is draining the coffers so fast that we may end up with a completely solid house–but no new project!  The estimates were, for us, over the moon. And so much to do to prepare. First, asbestos all over the basement. (No mention in inspection report.) A crew in hazmat, with a guard, spent a week sawing pipes–loud–and running huge filter fans and shaking the house. Then, to install the geothermal and ducts, a huge basement excavation began and it’s still going on. Three men running wheelbarrows of red dirt to a huge berm that’s growing in the front yard. They’re into the second week of that. It’s like tunneling with a spoon for a jail escape. I can’t believe how good natured and cheerful they are.  Forgot to mention, we took out an internal chimney that ran through the kitchen and attic (hence the awkward L). It was a 40s vent for the basement boiler that must have been a relic of the industrial revolution. When the chimney came out of the attic, we decided to put a dormer in the roof, matching the dormer on the other side of the room. Soon the attic will be an almost-room, a secret reading spot.  I loved finding the pegged beams at the peak and the Roman numerals on each beam along the roof peak.


The new roof is next. Off it comes so that insulation can be installed underneath.  The new one will be weathered zinc metal, replacing what Ed calls “”urp-colored asphalt shingles.” Then painting. Of course, of course, there are layers of lead-based paint, so welcome back the hazmat suits.  What insulation there is in the attic just won’t do and must be sucked out. Basta!  Enough!  Suffice to say that our days are full, the satisfaction of preparing the house for the next hundred years is great, and that we can’t wait for it to end. And Bramasole, too should be drawing to a close in the next couple of months, leaving us with–again–a healthy and solid house.  Much of this, though, is like buying a new washing machine. Not fun like a new painting or sofa, just invisible, virtuous improvement. There are morals there but I’m not inclined to pursue them, as I would prefer the greenhouse kitchen!  

I haven’t seen Bramasole in six weeks. The stone masons there must have been beamed in from the renaissance–they are masters of their craft, patient, and proud. Their work is gorgeous, whether brick or stone.

September in Italy is sublime–the most dependably serene weather, with one golden day piling onto the next.  The highlight of our six weeks was an intimate dinner at Villa Taverna, the American embassy residence in Rome, and getting to know our terrific ambassador John Phillips and his super wife, Linda Douglas. We were invited to stay overnight and were given the presidential suite! All the American presidents have stayed there, most recently Barack Obama, and it was such a thrill to lay my head on the pillow that so many world leaders must have dreamed on.  The villa is ensconced in formal gardens, where wandering late, you might hear the distant roar of a lion from the zoo at Villa Borghese. Full of art and southern Italian tile floors and courtyard light, it’s a fine residence for the American ambassadors. May I have his job when he’s finished with it?  I took a few pictures but I guess it would be tacky to post them.

Returning to the chaos of Bramasole, we felt full of energy and excitement and started up immediately on finishing the plans for the new kitchen there.  We took another short trip to Florence, which just keeps getting better and better. If you go, do visit the new second floor of the Mercato Centrale, now a chic and contemporary haven for artisan bakers, vintners, and all things food! Many more streets are closed to cars, prompting a revival of bicycles with Italian drivers. Watch out! I also recommend a visit to the newly revamped Richard Ginori store on via Tornabuoni. Dazzling!

For the first time, we are not in Italy for the olive harvest. You might have read that 2014 is a tough year for olive oil. A heat wave in May blasted the teeny developing flowers and they fell. Many people are not even harvesting. We have a protected grove and were somewhat spared. Fabio and friends brought in the oil for us, since we had to get back to NC. Our mill just shipped us a few cans, so we are already tasting the crisp fall air of Tuscany, the green goodness, and the spicy after-bite of just-pressed  oil. Nothing like it! First use–a pan of vegetables tossed with olive oil, salt, and fennel seeds, then roasted.  Great with Ed’s stuffed pork roast, and leftovers go happily into a pasta sauce.

Next year I plan to be on the other side of renovations and to post only about travel, books, gardens, food! All the fun things our homes are backgrounds for. My attic will be orderly, the garage pristine, the house warm, and the basement free of snake holes and possum nests. I will make peace with my L-shaped kitchen and find a comfortable chair and lamp for the attic dormer where I can plot a writing project.  Oh, writing! I almost forgot about that.  Time to forge ahead into blank white pages.

Instead of the bountiful, laden table I’m used to, our just-family feast will be Julia’s beef bourguignon followed by a stroll along Hillsborough’s new Riverwalk. Ed will be heading to Italy soon after; I will stay to supervise here. What a crazy year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

PS–The November issue of OUR STATE magazine has a huge section on the charms of Hillsborough. I wrote a short ode that’s included, too.

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