It’s time to head down to the city. The walls, built for defensive measures but never used as such, are perfect for an evening stroll, forming a kind of vertical expressway with handy exits. By sundown the parapets are overrun with chirping teenagers, industrious joggers, picnickers enjoying golden focaccia by the battlements, and any people who think they are in love. I commute along the north side to the Palazzo Pfanner, a hydrangea-scented refuge abutting the walls, and the most geometrically lovely spot in Lucca, a copse of bamboo reaching up to the San Frediano bell tower. Within the space of a half-hour, I traverse the length of the city to find Lucca’s gem of a botanical garden, where an 1820 Lebanese cedar provides tall comfort. To build an appetite I do some browsing at Carli, the famous jeweler along the Via Fillungo. Forgive what I said earlier about jewel boxes, because that’s precisely what Carli is, with its hushed, private air, its 17th-century safe, its bright frescoes, and its outstanding collection of silver, watches, and unusual objects such as Neapolitan corni (horns), amulets carved out of red coral that are imputed to ward off the evil eye.
Tonight’s dinner is at Trattoria da Giulio, an airy, pleasantly undistinguished space smack-dab by the walls. Shilpa and I sample a heavy and chewy zuppa di farro that clearly benefits from the use of only the best grain and that inspired Shilpa’s mom, on a previous visit to da Giulio, to proclaim it every bit as flavorful as khichdi, the Indian national comfort dish. Somewhere out there, the Northern League is not pleased.
The next day I circulate hungrily within the city walls. At the touristy but still vital Buca di Sant Antonio restaurant, I lunch on a grilled fat-ribboned baby goat cooked on the spit along with an artichoke pudding that holds, but does not entomb, the complex, salty flavor of artichoke. For dinner, I lean back at Ristorante All’Olivo’s outdoor terrace, which is seductively shrouded in bougainvillea and the aromas of a superior kitchen. I partake of a langoustine that might as well be butter, amazing red mullet, fatty raw oysters, and a sauce of balsamic, oil, pepper, salt, and, yes, fellow kebab-defenders, soy.
But the best restaurant within the city walls for my euro is the newcomer Pult Drink & Food, centrally located in the Piazza dei Mercanti on the Via Fillungo. The staff here is as talkative and knowledgeable as the crew at Grano Salis: “I wouldn’t get that bottle first,” the waiter says. “It’s a little too insistent and powerful.” He steers us instead to an expansive Ribolla Gialla from Friuli. The owners used to have a popular shack by the sea and now they’ve gone big in the city, creating an outdoor summertime oasis favored by up-to-date locals—everywhere you look you’ll spot those famous Lucchese schnozzes buried tide-deep in fish. We feast on the red mullet and scampi so typical of nearby Livorno, and sweet shrimp that bring to mind Japanese ama-ebi. Pult has the best crudo in town, which is saying something, and nicely salted and olived sea bass. The fritto misto is ethereal, particularly the zucchini and shrimp; indeed the art of frying at Pult is deft and Japanese. The only warning: During late nights in summer, a terrifying dance party may break out.
This tale ends far outside Lucca, in the seaside city of Livorno. A short train ride away, tourist-free Livorno is everything Lucca is not. Flattened by Allied bombs, lacking any must-sees except for some canals in the so-called New Venice district and a church featuring, forgive me, one of Vasari’s ugliest paintings, Livorno nonetheless manages to thrill because of its diversity. The port city was once home to Italy’s largest community of Jews living outside of a ghetto and some of these free-range Jews are still in evidence, along with churches bearing Armenian, Dutch, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox affiliations. In addition to the slightly corroded sea air, I’ve come to sample Livorno’s famous dish, cacciucco, at Trattoria Antico Moro, a seafood restaurant that smells entirely like its wares. Cacciucco is one of several local dishes that have Jewish origins, a metaphor for multicultural Livorno. The fragrant stew is an amalgam of at least five different kinds of fish, made from whatever the fishmonger has on offer, set afire by liberal use of red pepper, enhanced by tomato and red wine vinegar and plenty of toasted garlic bread. With its array of dismembered sea creatures, a flotilla of fish tails peeking out, a distinctively non-Jewish langoustine hiding underneath, cacciucco looks like an underwater Battle of the Somme. It is the messiest dish I’ve ever seen or eaten, and it burns my stomach, ears, and eyes in a way that is memorable and real. After the studied perfection of Lucca’s cuisine, I am happy to live in a world where muddy fish stews can exist a short train ride away from heaps of golden tortelli lucchese, where kebabs are cheap and plentiful, and where a simple Tuscan farro soup can remind an Indian mother of home.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.