The man sat on a platform bench, directly in my line of sight as I peered out of the water-stained window of the train carriage. His shirt hung completely open and the dazzling rays of the Tuscan sun reflected off the curves of his generous belly. The equally reflective surface of his bald head was surrounded by a thick ring of dark, unkempt hair that spilled over the tops of his ears. He held a brown glass bottle in one hand which he rested on his knee. An unlit cigarette dangled from the fingers of his other hand. It was lit as if on schedule by a passing man of about the same age who was, bafflingly, wearing a knitted beanie and sweater. Large sunglasses were perched on the bare-chested man’s nose, heightening the sense that he should be the head of a crime ring in some Hollywood movie. He held a grotesque fascination for me and before my train pulled away from Pistoia station, I fought the urge to take a picture, reminding myself that I was in his direct line of vision just as he was for me.
The train I was on was headed for Lucca, a walled city about 140 km from Florence. Almost three hours earlier, I had entered Santa Maria Novella Station after a brisk twenty minute walk along the sun-baked streets of Florence. I had approached a small biglietteria, a stall selling tickets for the buses that stopped on either side of the city’s main station. There, I met the very first impolite person I had come across in Florence, an insipid man who reminded me (in appearance but not in attitude) of my high school economics teacher. He had set his mouth, sliced his hands through the air and in no uncertain terms told me “Lucca? NO!” promptly turning away as if I had just asked for his bank account details.
A more kindly man at another stall had told me that he too did not sell bus tickets to Lucca, but that if it was him, he would take the train. I needed no more reasons to opt for the train, especially as I hadn’t been looking forward to the queasiness that I often experienced on drives along winding roads.
Through a combination of my suboptimal touristic Italian and my misreading of the train boards (who knew that they would have both departure and arrival information?), I failed to board one train and had to wait an hour for the next one. It gave me the opportunity to explore Santa Maria Novella station. The hub of the Florentine rail and bus networks, it’s imposing ceiling was what kept drawing my eyes upwards. An intricate arrangement of criss-crossed steel beams supporting panes of grey tinted glass looms over scores of purposeful commutors and bewildered tourists. It’s cavernous underside houses a string of shops selling anything from cheap clothing, to mobile phones and gelato. The shopping was not exactly a must-do in Florence, but an acceptable way to while away half an hour or so, if one happens to misread the train time signs.
All that speed-walking around a city and missing of perfectly good trains makes one hungry and so I picked up a pizzetta (mini pizza) at a nearby pasticceria. The round of flaky puff pastry was smeared with pizza sauce and topped with good prosciutto, a puddle of mozzarella and sprinkling of herbs. It was a simple but satisfying snack that proved to be worth the train mishap. I picked up another for the journey and vowed to replicate the recipe in my own kitchen.
Finally aboard the train, I settled into one of the comfortably cushioned seats and set my bottle of water on the tiny table. In front of me was a young African woman who was engaged in a very loud and animated phone conversation, seemingly oblivious to the annoyed looks she was receiving from other passengers. Across from me sat a middle-aged man in army pants, sporting a mohawk and impossibly dark sunglasses. He left the train at a station midway to Lucca, with a chesty swagger that I couldn’t help but watch. A young, slim woman, probably a gypsy, walked up and down the aisles using printed flyers to beg for money. As always, I was mildly surprised that she wore jeans and a sweater rather than the flowing skirts and jangly bangles of storybook gypsies.
So it was that for the eighty minute ride to Lucca, I took in the undulating emerald green Tuscan hills, dotted with old farmhouses and historic towns. At each station, I admired the bright scarlet poppies that grew like weeds along the tracks and around the stone buildings. I peeped at the laundry drying out of windows and in balconies, guessing what kinds of people lived there and how many. I observed the Italians that I saw on the many platforms that we passed. Some were intriguing like the very proper little old lady dressed all in grey, others distasteful like the bald, abundantly bellied platform sitter at Pistoia.
I was surprised to find the train mostly filled with residents rather than tourists. For me, the gentle rhythm of a train has always had a lulling effect, and it was a forced time-out in what had so far been an overly active holiday. I sunk into my seat, chewed on my pizzetta and I people-watched. The good, the bad and like that bare-chested gentleman, the downright unsavoury.
A recipe is probably more effort than a pizzetta needs. You see, it’s as simple as an assembling of tasty, quality ingredients followed by some oven time. When Spiral Foods sent me a few bottles of their Sugo (Italian Pasta Sauce), I started using this to smear onto the puff pastry and it worked a treat. It truly is a fresh, homely tasting pasta sauce. If you are vegetarian, swap the prosciutto for a few thin slices of flavourful tomatoes or red onions.
In other news, can you believe this is my 100th blog post?? I must admit I’m a little shocked that one with as limited an attention span as myself (ohhh…..look…..a butterfly!) would have lasted this long. But here I am. And here you are, reading each new post and supporting me with your presence, comments and encouragement.
Thank you! Keep coming back, and enjoy the Pizzetta.
4 sheets good quality frozen puff pastry, thawed
Melted butter for brushing
1/2 cup passata
1 tsp (3-5) fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a couple of leaves
Generous pinch salt
8 slices good quality prosciutto
150g buffallo mozzarella
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Preheat the oven to 200 C.
Quarter the pastry sheets. Lay 8 pieces out onto oven trays and brush with melted butter. Lay the remaining 8 sheets onto the brushed sheets, lining the corners up with the middle of the sides to form a star.
In a small bowl, mix the passata, basil and salt with a drizzle of olive oil, or use Spiral Foods Sugo straight up. Taste and add a little more salt if desired, remembering that the prosciutto will be a little salty. Spread the sauce over the middle of the pastry squares, leaving a 2 cm border clear all the way around each square.
Lay a slice of prosciutto onto each square and top with pinched off pieces of mozzarella, again leaving the border clear.
Scatter torn basil leaves over the top and season with salt and pepper.
Bake for 15-18 minutes until the pastry is fully cooked and browned.
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, however Sugo product samples were provided by Spiral Foods.