About two minutes after we settled into the van taking us to our hotel in the hills above Florence, I reminded my 12-year-old son of what I’d told him earlier about Italy: virtually everything we’d eat would be superior to what we had at any establishment in the States. Including my kitchen.

All it took was some sharp turns on streets lined with golden stone buildings and a glimpse of silvery olive orchards on the hills and I was drunk on Italy, rhapsodizing about the wisteria in full bloom and the food we’d soon be eating.

“I don’t really know why it all tastes so good,” I told him. “Maybe it’s the ingredients, the preparation. Or the water, the earth. I mean, even celery tastes better.”

He was looking out the window at some soccer advertisement, or maybe trying to catch a glimpse of the Duomo, which he’d excitedly spotted during our descent to Florence’s airport. Either way he was not paying much attention to my propaganda. He already had a sense of my not-so-secret agenda: I saw Italy as an opportunity to expand his eating repertoire.

Dolan is not a particularly picky eater but he’s not as open to new tastes as I’d like. Before he was born, I’d traveled to Venice with my pre-teen nephew several times and watched in fascination as the young Matt gobbled down bowls of pasta e fagioli, a thick, nourishing soup of beans and pasta of limited visual appeal, and platters of tiny shrimp mixed with lemon and diced arugula. A chef once emerged from the kitchen, curious to see who this sophisticated child was who had vacuumed up two plates of pasta with a ragu of duck, goose and liver. Matt ate fish soup, deep-fried olives and never, ever whined for an Italian version of chicken tenders.

That’s what I wanted from Dolan during our two-week tour of Florence, the towns of Cinque Terre and Venice. Gastronomical gusto.

We had an agreement, the two of us. For him every day there would be pizza, pizza I’d assured him would blow Otto (sorry) and my pizza (made with the Mozza cookbook’s excellent recipe) out of the water. Gelato, too, every single day. But he had to willingly try new things as well.

WE OPEN IN PIZZA

After unloading our bags at our pensione, we walked up a country road toward Fiesole, where I had lived for a year as a very small child. It was afternoon, we’d come in on the overnight flight and he was starving, so I had no intention of holding him to his promise yet. We plopped down at the first open trattoria that would take us. No consulting guidebooks, no asking for recommendations. I offered him some of my prosciutto and mushroom pizza but he was far too busy scarfing down his margherita to bother. It was “fantastic,” he told me, without complaining about the basil on top of it. Score one. We adjourned to the gelateria next door, ordered the usual combo we get in Maine, chocolate and lemon, and stood in the warm piazza eating it.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Gelato Fiasco has a lot of catching up to do,” he said.

So sorry Gelato Fiasco, which we adore and will continue to patronize incessantly. But the Italian standard is the Italian standard.

He ate pizza at each of our lunches out in Florence, including a meal at Da Nuti, the pizzeria my brother and I adored when we lived in Italy as children. I watched him plow through more than a dozen pizzas. For our last lunch in Florence, at a more upscale place filled with Italian families, I told the waiter to bring him a secondi (main course) of grilled pork ribs to follow his margharita. From the look of the pizza, I suspected it was exceptional, but Dolan proved it by wrapping his arms protectively around the plate and barely speaking until it was gone. He liked the ribs, but that pizza became the gold standard.

Staff writer Mary Pols hoped a two-week trip to Italy would expand son Dolan's palate. Mary Pols photo

Staff writer Mary Pols hoped a two-week trip to Italy would expand son Dolan’s palate. Mary Pols photo

WE NEXT PLAY ZUCCHINI

A buffet breakfast and family-style dinner was included with our room rate for our pensione. My sister, who had stayed there many times, had told me the food was very good, but I worried that we’d be confronted with some meal that Dolan wouldn’t touch. That first night he did balk at the beautiful little slices of grilled swordfish, but a first course of pasta with a simple tomato sauce meant he wouldn’t starve. The saltless Tuscan bread startled him, but he gnawed through a few pieces at every meal anyway.

Vegetables were a special mission for me. He eats broccoli happily, tolerates beans and resists almost everything else. I get that. I wouldn’t eat beets until I was past 30 and shamed into trying them because I was at Chez Panisse and you don’t say no to anything that comes out of that kitchen. The next night I beseeched him to try a gently cooked zucchini tossed in oil and herbs along with the excellent pork and potatoes. “You promised,” I reminded him.

When I was a child, lucky enough to be living in Italy for a year, I’d experienced the joys of stopping at the rosticceria with my parents and driving home digging my hands into the bag for chunks of rosemary roasted potatoes and perfectly fried zucchini, a vegetable I’d previously considered disgusting. Since then I’m not sure any other zucchini has lived up to those, which entered my own repertoire and have never left it.

So I held my breath. He ate the one, but was unmoved. Perhaps he was distracted by making a slow-motion video of my sister eating pork and posting it to her Facebook page without her knowledge.

THEN ON TO GELATO

Desserts presented few problems, whether a chocolate mousse cake or a bowl of sweet strawberries dressed lightly in lemon. But gelato ruled the day. Roughly half my photos of Dolan in Italy are of him either clutching up a “coppa” (cup) or a “cono” (cone) of Italian ice cream, which is low on fat and high on flavor.

By the time we reached Cinque Terre, the five Ligurian towns just south of the Italian Riveria, I’d relaxed so much I was allowing him to double his daily gelato ration. I’d sit on the beach, alternating reading with gazing out on the crystalline blue waters of the Mediterranean, hand him a few euro and tell him to go scout gelaterias. There were only taxis and municipal vehicles on the streets in Montorosso, the first town we stayed in, and it was gloriously safe to let him wander and discover Italy on his own.

His confidence grew from getting his own gelato, so by the fourth day into our stay on the Ligurian coast, after he declined my offer of a yogurt and fruit breakfast, I handed him a 10-euro note and suggested he run down to the store that sold seven or eight different varieties of pizza made on focaccia, another speciality of the region. He returned about five minutes later, empty-handed.

“Were you too nervous to order?” I asked.

“No,” he said, slightly indignantly. “I already ate it.”

OUR NEXT JUMP IS PARMA

In Cinque Terre I ordered whole plates of anchovies served slightly marinated with slices of lemon and dishes of gnocchi with pesto, both Ligurian specialties, but I wasn’t about to push either on him. I wanted him to have something to eat as a primi (first course) before the simple pastas with meat or tomato sauce he wanted so I started ordering him prosciutto di Parma and melon. He generally regards prosciutto with the suspicion of one who prefers his pig in bacon form. But he loves melon.

The thing about children, or at least the ones I know, is that a drop in blood sugar and the resulting hunger, can make for a very bad mood. I’m not beyond taking advantage of these moments of desperate hunger to get a child to try something like prosciutto. It worked. But by the time I handed Dolan a speck (ham) and brie sandwich on a train from Bologna to Venice, my heart was no longer in the battle of experimentation. It was the only option the train café offered that seemed remotely close to something he’d eat. I just wanted him to hang in there until we met my family for pizza at our favorite neighborhood joint in Venice.

By then I was no longer sure why – or if – it mattered to me that he fall in love with zucchini or try white asparagus. As the spring scenery flew by the window of the train I asked myself if this was truly about my impulse to want him to have the best, richest time or whether I hoped to massage my parental ego in some way.

I knew this though; he was having such a good time. He’d trucked up and down steep hills, listened to me talk politics in terrible Italian, gotten soaked through to his socks in Corniglia during our one rainy day in Cinque Terre, and he’d fallen in love with the Duomo. What more could I ask of a 12-year-old?

On our last day in Italy he had a slice of pizza for lunch. Then we had a gelato. We clutched each other in joy throughout our gondola ride. Then I got him another slice in the late afternoon while I ate cicchetti (Venetian finger food) outside a wine bar. At our last supper, he ordered pizza. Then we each had another gelato. La Dolce Vita.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.