The Sunflower Dishes

On April 1, 2004, the week of Palm Sunday, our family of four started out on a long awaited vacation to Italy. Although it was far it was not a difficult journey, it was exciting to be traveling together to Europe. Our first stop was Rome where we spent four days touring Vatican City and the Vatican and shopping and walking the busy streets. Next we took the Eur-rail to Florence for a two day stop where we saw the statue of David, drank a Bellini at famous Harry’s Bar and strolled the clean and narrow streets and shopped for treasures on the Ponte Vecchio. Then we railed once more to Venice where we spent two more days walking and sightseeing by gondola and sleeping in a Palace along the Grand Canal.(The Gritti Palace) It was all very exciting and quite extraordinary to travel the country of my husband’s roots, where everyone spoke Italian and appreciated it if you tried too.

In Florence we visited a leather shop at the suggestion of a friend. Hope Hanna had given us an excellent recommendation as the leather jackets, slacks and coats were the best we had ever seen. Tom ordered both he and Louis suede leather jackets and we bought shoes and other leather goods as gifts. We struck up a conversation with the owner/designer Jennifer Tattanelli who corresponds with us to this day.

During our trip I had been shopping for dinnerware. Florence is world renowned for hand painted ceramics. And they were absolutely beautiful and colorful, however priced well above my budget. The place settings alone for eight would run over $1400 Euro which converted to $1800 dollars.

Tom suggested I ask Jennifer if she knew of any ceramics shop to recommend. She was most excited to say she had only recently had one shop do her entire new home and was very pleased with their work. When I told her I was interested in purchasing dishes she pulled out her cell phone dialed the number of her connection “Giovanna” who owned the factory in Montelupo.

We learned that every trattoria (family owned restaurant) in Tuscany has their own vineyard. They produce their own vegetables and grapes for their own delicious food and wine. Well, in similar fashion, ceramics factories are not what Americans would imagine. They are small places where maybe two or three artists work hand painting and firing ceramics to be sold in the shops all over Italy and the world.

Jennifer arranged for us to meet Giovanna at her shop in Montelupo in one hour. We rushed back to The Grand Hotel where we were staying and Tom arranged for a car to take Lindsay and I to meet Giovanna. The driver whisked us off in his mini-van to what we could only describe as a scene from “Under the Tuscan Sun”. In minutes were riding along the autostrade. The rolling patchwork of hills dotted with fields of sunflowers were breathtaking. Every few miles we would see a bell tower and a farm house. Pinch me…. The driver spoke NO English and tried to sell us his own friends ceramics by shoving a brochure into my hand and repeating “cheap, cheap”. Within the hour we had arrived in front of the shop along a narrow street with cars parked on either side. A attractive well dressed Italian woman, stood blocking the parking space in front of the shop so no other car could take our spot. The driver parked and let us out. He would wait for us while we inspected the wares, hoping we would consider his recommendation.

When we entered the shop Giovanna introduced herself and explained she had asked her friend come to translate as her English was “Not so good”. She also introduced her smiling full-figured Mother who spoke no English at all. They seemed genuinely happy to see us.

The shop smelled new and was bright and cheerful. Along the walls were shelves displaying jars and bowls and pieces of every sort.

I explained that we were there to purchase dinnerware. I told her Jennifer had told me she would give me a good price and that she had highly recommended their work. I was sure that I could not afford to buy all of the pieces I would pick out, but, I would have a “wish list” that Tom could pull from for special gifts. They had a web site so that would work perfectly.

Giovanna, then her interpreter, suggested first we needed to choose the shape of the plates. I asked Lindsay for help, after all, these would be her dishes one day and I wanted her to love them too. They showed us the options and we settled on plates with some character to them. We agreed on the dinner plate and bread plate and then chose the bowls.

When we asked for coffee cups and saucers they brought out small demitasse cups and small saucers. I asked if they had any larger….”grande” I said. She laughed and ran to a shelf grabbing a large coffee mug. “We see these on TV Friends.” she said. I told her they would be perfect.

Next we began to pick out platters of all sizes and shapes then bowls, then canisters. Giovanna asked if we wanted the wording to be written in English or Italian? “Italian, I want Farina, Cafe’, Zucchero, Sale and Biscotti.”
It was all coming together. When we were finished we had thirity-eight items on our list.

” Now you must choose a pattern.” said Giovanna. I looked at Lindsay and we began to browse the shop. We turned a corner at the same time and seeing the deep cobalt blue background and bright golden sunflowers we shouted in unison….”sunflowers”.

“Please give me the cost for the entire order Giovanna.” I asked. She busily tapped on her calculator and spoke in Italian to her friend. “How about $1500 Euro?” she asked coyly. “Does that include shipping?” I asked.
She looked at her friend and they agreed it would be around $300 Euro to ship to the USA. She replied “Yes, it includes shipping.”I smiled and said, “We will take them ALL!”

Giovanna was as excited as we were and agreed to throw in a spoon rest and an olive oil and vinegar cruet. She could have the order made and shipped in just three weeks. Everyone was thrilled.

Our ride back to Florence was wonderful as we dreamed of the beautiful dishes we would use everyday for many years to come.

When the dishes arrived, they were even more beautiful than we had expected.

Tom never said a word about the price because it was the memory we created. It was wonderful to have something meaningful from our trip we could pass on to Lindsay and her family from our unbelievable trip to Italy 2004.

Sunflower Dishes from Fantasie D'Arte, Montelupo Firenza.

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