February 2021: I’m often asked my favorite country to visit. Of the 51 countries I’ve visited, I can’t help but answer “Italy.” I’ve traveled there 16 times, and there’s just something about it that keeps me coming back. Of all the times I’ve visited, my trip in February 2019 was one of the best. Sure, it’s nice to go in October during the grape and olive harvest, but the crowds of tourists drive me insane.
My best friend, Rachael, lives in England and we travel together at least once a year. Although we had already met in Italy on previous trips, we decided to go to Italy in February. We packed our coats and scarves (Rachael had more scarves because she’s from cold England). We spent several days in Rome, which is definitely my favorite city in the world. The lack of tourists was startling. Instead of walking the streets trying to avoid running into people, we were able to look all-around, taking in the incredible architecture and scenes of everyday life in the ancient city. Even the Trevi Fountain was nearly deserted when we visited one morning after our cappuccino and maritozzo, the traditional Roman breakfast pastry.
Rachael and I took the train from Rome to Cortona, which is in Tuscany, high on a hill overlooking vineyards and rivers. The Cortona Resort didn’t know what they had coming when we arrived. We befriended everyone who worked there and soon had them catering to our every hungry need. (I didn’t mention that when Rachael and I travel, we try to taste every local dish and drink, explaining that it’s all for the purpose of “research.”) The chef was soon preparing his special pasta dishes that he knew we would love. And, of course, we did. Every afternoon when we arrived in our room we had pastries waiting for us.
Each day, we traveled to surrounding cities in Tuscany, where we found local wine bars, pizzerias and ceramic shops. I had been to Siena and San Gimignano numerous times during the high seasons for tourists, and I was thrilled on this occasion to be nearly the only one. We took a cooking class in Cortona from Chef Ryan in his 200-year-old house, making fresh pasta and grilled Tuscan steaks with the wine he got from his neighbor’s vineyard. My friend, Antonella, met us in Montepulciano, where she took us to an olive oil farm to teach us how to taste olive oil properly. The wife of the olive farmer prepared lunch with fresh bread and soup she had made that morning. We sat on her veranda looking over the valleys of Tuscany that were still green despite the wintery weather. The chill in the air was startling since I had previously experienced Tuscany during much warmer months.
I returned to Italy later last year during the busiest tourist season. I couldn’t help but recall the deserted streets and empty cafes I had experienced in February. Since that visit, I’ve told everyone I know that they should plan their Italian getaway for Valentine’s Day. It may take a bit more luggage if you pack extra scarves, but it’s worth it in every other way.
The first time I went to Tuscany, I learned to make this lemon pasta that is one of my favorite dishes of all time. And it’s perfect to make for Valentine’s Day, even if you’re stuck in Oklahoma.
Spaghetti with Lemon, Basil and Cream Sauce
Serves 8 - I first had this pasta dish at a little hotel and winery in Castellina in Chianti, Italy. The chef generously shared his recipe with me and told me he often throws in a splash of limoncello, which I also do. I later learned that this dish is commonly made in southern Italy, where lemons are abundant. It’s an easy recipe to make, and great for feeding a crowd. Make the sauce ahead of time, then reheat it to pour over hot pasta.
1 lb. spaghetti pasta
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp. butter
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 cups heavy cream
20 basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add garlic and cook for one minute. Add the lemon zest, juice, cream, and half of the basil leaves. Simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until reduced to half. (This may take less time)
Heat a large pan of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt to season the water. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions. Drain and add pasta to the cream mixture. Stir in Parmesan and remaining basil. Add salt to taste. Serve immediately.
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