Youth Games

Suggested Wines: Cabreo Vigneto la Pietra, Ruffing (Grape: Chardonnay); Saffredi, Pupille (Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Alicante)

I never liked high school, least of all literature, history, or anything that involved reading or studying. Math and technical subjects, I didn’t mind because I was good at them. But still, if I had to tally up the hours, I’d bet I spent more time getting excused from classes than I did attending them.

The only period I looked forward to, besides cooking, was physical education. That wasn’t because I was physically fit or a natural athlete, but because my second year at the Scuola Alberghiera coincided with the Giochi della Gioventi. The Giochi, which ended with the national finals in Rome, was a series of Olympic-style games for high school students. For me, that meant sanctioned school-skipping. The more events I entered and won, the more school I could skip. After researching which sports were least popular- and least competitive, increasing my chances of winning and advancing to Rome- I signed up for the 16-pound hammer throw, the 110-meter hurdles, the marathon, the javelin, and the 3,000-meter run.

My couch knew I wasn’t a great athlete, but he was a regular customer of Vipore, and very patient with me. With his help, I actually made it to the provincial competitions in three events and to the regionals in one, the hammer throw. With every new heat, I got to travel to a different city and, best of all, try new restaurants and dishes. In Pistoia, I discovered torta di San Marcello, a cake made with bitter almonds; in Florence, I had great spezzatino, traditional veal stew. When I returned to Montecatini, I’d discuss these meals with my cooking teacher. He joked that the Giochi weren’t doing much for my athletic ability, but they were contributing enormously to my gastronomic education. That’s exactly how I saw it.

The ruse wore thin at the end, however. In Rome for the hammer-throwing finals, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the stadium. Even though it was what I had worked toward for months, I was too afraid of making a fool of myself. I was no more a hammer thrower than a prime minister. I withdrew at the last minute, then headed for Piazza Navona, where I had one of the best bucatini all’Amatriciana of my life. It was just as gratifying as blue ribbon.