The next year, in 2016, I hauled 40 people to Castelluccio to celebrate my birthday; six of them were Cooper’s age. Watching one kid playing in the Piano Grande is fun; watching seven of them puts a permanent grin on your face. Peppe, at Taverna Castelluccio, was a champ, especially after I emailed him beforehand what we all wanted to eat: nine pappardelle with wild boar, six penne alla norcina, seven strangozzi funghi e tartufo, nine agnello scottadito alla brace, four Bistecca maile in dolcezza, nine filetto di trota fario, gratinato al forno, and spaghetti with parmigiana for the kids. And, oh, two green salads.
That day, the sky, as it always is in early July in Castelluccio, was cloudless and vibrant. After lunch, my belly full, I sipped a last glass of trebbiano while sitting on the terrace of the taverna looking at the Pian Piccolo, the smaller plain on the other side of the village. My friends had scattered — some to stores in the village, some to hike up to the top, some to cavort on the colorful plains below. “You may have the universe,” Giuseppe Verdi wrote, “if I may have Italy.” Surely moments like these were what he meant.
Now, five years later to that day, we had finally come back, after the earthquake, the slow rebuild, the ongoing pandemic. We planned a group horseback ride and I had emailed Peppe weeks before, of course, to make our lunch reservation. The photos he had posted on Facebook over the past years had sustained me, after all.
A few days before we were supposed to drive to Castelluccio, a handful of people at the riding stables there tested positive for the coronavirus.
We canceled our ride, put on our masks and headed to Castelluccio anyway, making sure to stay outside. We were a much smaller travel party this time, only four of us. Cooper came.
Heading up the switchbacks from Norcia, the sight of the Rifugio Perugia lodge made us stop the car. The entrance was still flattened from the earthquake. We rounded the bend and the Piano Grande spread before us: the same open vastness, the same gorgeous blooms.