It's World Cup Football Championship time again. For those of you not in touch with this sporting rite, it is THE international football championship that takes place worldwide every four years. Don't get me wrong. I hardly watch football (that's soccer for you Americans). But, I am, after all, married to a Dane and lived many years in Europe where if you are not following at least a teensy bit of football in the news or on the television, you are living in a shoebox.
The World Cup also makes me think of Italy, where we often vacationed when we lived in Europe. Four years ago we were doing just that when the Italians won the last championship. What an impression that made. We were in Rome when the quarterfinals took place. As tourists, we naively ventured into the city for dinner during the quarterfinals match. While the restaurants were open, they were sparsely populated - and only with wayward tourists such as us. The staff were, to say the least, distracted, hovering over radios or watching small televisions in the kitchens or at the bar. We quickly deduced that we might as well just settle back and root for our new favorite football team without being overly critical about erratic table service. After our meal we knew there was no hope in finding a taxi driver to bring us back to our hotel until after the match. So, we wandered into another restaurant with a lounge and cheered on Italy as they won. From that moment on the streets came alive with revelers, cars honking, sirens blaring. This continued well into the night, long after we had gone to bed. It was just the quarterfinals.
The semi-finals took place after we left Rome for Tuscany, where we shared a villa with some friends near Montepulciano. The afternoon of the match, we wandered the crooked, narrow streets of the medieval village and came upon the town square, or Piazza. An enormous screen was being erected against a building façade while rows of folding chairs filled the open space, encircling the fountain to create an outdoor theater. It made me think of the film Cinema Paradiso. No worries if you didn't own a television - all the villagers would gather that evening and watch the football match together, cheering on their team.
The finals played on one of our last nights in Italy. We had moved to the Isle of Elba and were staying in at the lovely Villa Ottone. The staff was professional and proper, the clientelle was well-heeled and dignified. So, imagine the night of the finals, in the middle of the first dinner service, when a tuxedoed maître d' wheeled a television into the center of the dining terrace. As if on cue, all protocol was suspended. Waiters, busboys and hotel staff gathered around the television. Diners pulled up their chairs, balancing dinner plates on their laps. The French tourists cheered on France. The Italian tourists and staff cheered on the Italians. We were all caught up in a passionate TV dinner for the next 2 hours. When we finished eating we crowded into the bar, squeezing into sofas, balancing on the arms of chairs, sitting cross-legged on the floor, elbow to elbow with our fellow football fans. A Swedish photographer bought us a round of drinks. We reciprocated and bought drinks for the French couple sitting at our feet. The bartender invited our children to perch on the bar and gave them free sodas. Together we cheered and booed as Italy won the world cup. What an equalizer. Who said that English is the international language?
This year the World Cup takes place in South Africa. But I cannot help but think of Italy whenever it takes place. If I had to create something to eat while watching a football match it would be these Tomato Bruschetta.
For the tomatoes:
1 pound cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in 1/4" pieces or quartered if small
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the bread:
8 slices levain or peasant bread, cut 1/2" thick
1 large garlic clove, lightly smashed but still intact
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup basil leaves, shredded plus whole leaves for garnish
Prepare the tomatoes:
Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and toss to combine. Taste to adjust seasoning. Let sit at room temperature while bread is prepared.
Prepare the bread:
Preheat oven grill or griddle pan. Rub bread on both sides with garlic. Brush lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over bread. Grill, turning once, until both sides are golden.
Arrange bread in one layer on a platter. Stir shredded basil into the tomatoes. Top bread with tomatoes. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve immediately.