From Bitter to Sweet: A Kitchen Transformation, along with a Dollop of Detours

The subject matter and tone of the last update were heavier and more emotional than most renovation stories, I realize. For this one, I thought I’d share some of the ridiculous situations and on-the-fly decisions inherent in any good reno project. And, because no one has ever appreciated silliness and spontaneity more than our late-friend Christophe – as showcased by the photo below – this update is also dedicated to him, the amazing life he created, and the ways he lives on within us every day.

For a laugh, this is during the last renovation project in Lucca, Italy. Christophe lying on the floor, while I sprawl across the countertop. I think he’s passing an electrical cord up to me, but who knows really. Matt walked into the room at this moment, totally baffled, but smart enough to snap this funny pic. Just another day in the course of a crazy renovation.

I intended for this to be a story about a kitchen, but like a loose thread dangling from the seam of a favorite shirt, once a finger was on it, unravelling commenced in all directions. It’s not possible to tell you about the kitchen without also sharing stories of adjacent spaces, namely the living / dining room (sala in Italian) and lounge (often referred to as salone). Because unlike the route that saner people might have taken, we inexplicably chose to tackle every single space of the apartment, at the same time – that’s 9 rooms in demolition/rebuilding phase, with all the humans it takes to accomplish that task, swirling around inside a cloud of dust, noise, and chaos, every single moment of the day. All the while, we lived inside that storm.

Few will ever accuse us of being of sound mind.

Because it is a cement-mixer-in-the-sala kind of renovation.

“Oh my, I didn’t realize this is a cement-mixer-in-your-living-room kind of renovation,” a rather-stunned friend commented one day when she dropped in to see firsthand.

“That’s hardly the half of it,” was my reply.

Prior to viewing this apartment, our realtor Lorrain had said it was in use as a doctor’s office, not a residence. Thus, we weren’t surprised to find the kitchen (as well as one of three bathrooms) in use as storage space. What did surprise us was the existing floorplan. Spaces had been chopped and sliced by adding walls to create bitesize zones. For instance, the dark, dingy kitchen was made even more dreadful by a thin wall partitioning off closet space, resulting in an extra-large storage area greedily gobbling up a tall window!

The Kitchen “before” when the primary usage seemed to have been as storage space for a doctor’s office. Also, check out the closet with giant window. It’s primary use seemed to be as a garbage bin.

“Imagine if that wall wasn’t there,” Matt said. “The kitchen could be huge, with big windows on both sides.”  We immediately saw the transformative potential of this relatively-simple task to capture natural light and cross-breezes – two rare, highly-coveted assets when located within a densely-packed city center.

“And, look, it’s the same Tessiere style of floors!” I screeched (you know that’s accurate) in Matt’s direction. We soon discovered that the tiles were indeed from the very same historic Lucchese company who, over one hundred years earlier, had hand-crafted the floor tiles in our last apartment as well. You may remember that we visited the factory during our House Hunters International episode?

These tiles would soon present one of the biggest challenges of the renovation, but…I’m getting ahead of myself.

An apartment within an apartment.
Why would any sane person choose to live in a house during renovation? That is not a rhetorical question. Tell me why, please.

Yet, we did just that. Again. If you’ve followed earlier updates, you know it wasn’t our original intention. But, as we all know, things don’t always go as planned. Once we postponed the closing, for a second time, and began to realize we could never finish the renovation before moving out of our former apartment, I began searching furnished rentals. Frankly, the timing sucked!

Going into mid-April, every landlord was in recoup-mode after the devastating economic effects of Covid and every short-term rental I could find was holding out for tourism reservations. Why would anyone rent to us for a reasonable weekly or monthly rate when they could make bank on short stays. “You wanna spend $5,000 on renting a place we will only use to sleep and shower or buy furniture for our new home?” was the decision Matt presented.

For better or worse, we know which direction I chose.

“You can’t really live here,” said our muratore Francesco, with genuine concern showing on his young, handsome face. As the guy, along with his co-worker Mattia (equally young and handsome, it should be stated), who specialize in tearing down walls, he intensely understood the problem.


It translates as dust, but is used to describe all manner of debris created from destruction and construction. This is a whole different universe from the familiar wheelhouse of reno materials in the U.S. Trust me, drywall and brick have nothing on the storm-clouds created when breaking into hundreds-of-years-old stone walls – nor the 75 layers of paint, glue, and gunk stacked on top.

One of the first projects was demolition of a wall separating the salone from the apartment’s long central corridor. We knew this one change would open up the home significantly, providing light to the apartment’s darkest area and creating an expansive, welcoming feel. When demo was complete, we set up house in that room, taping plastic sheets as curtains covering the now-expansive opening. One dust-free zone, that was the aim. This sexy, beautiful room with intricate wood ceiling and 19th century fresco of peacocks became our apartment within the apartment. With everything we owned – in the form of about thirty moving boxes – stacked against one wall, Matt went to work unpacking only what was needed in the short term and creating a makeshift kitchen, living room, and bedroom.

Aside from polvere, our other big concern was living three or more weeks without a kitchen. We’ve done it before – twice, actually – in previous renovation projects, but for some reason this felt different. Perhaps because we are older and have grown more attached to life’s little luxuries…like refrigeration?

We did discuss purchasing a mini-fridge, a cheap investment and totally worth it, we just actually never got around to it. Armed with a two-burner cooktop and giant roll of tape for continuously re-securing our plastic drapes, a daily comedy routine began.

Though the workers had keys, our buzzer always rang sharply at 8 o’clock. “Permesso?” they would yell while ascending the stairs as Matt and I dragged ourselves from the mattress on the floor (ah, the glitz and glamour)! Matt made coffee while I doled out allergy meds like candy to combat the baseball-size-eyes and head congestion caused by the polvere. “Covid’s got no shot getting into these clogged nostrils,” we joked. Hey, at least there is an upside.

Matt would carefully open our plastic door as I carried out a tray laden with beautiful glass cups I had scored at an antiques market to serve espresso to everyone and anyone present. Many mornings, I would dash across the street to the pastry shop for sweets, too. “Did I remember to brush my teeth?” seemed to be the thought sticking in my brain every time I stood at the counter. “What about my hair?”

“Good god, have I changed out of my pajamas?” I even asked myself on an occasion or two, suppressing panic as I looked down to survey my body’s scene.

As those beautiful 19th century peacocks watch over our bubble room.

I think it became the running joke of everyone how Matt and I insisted on maintaining these plastic sheets and the illusion of separation. And, what an illusion it was. Channeling John Travolta’s “Bubble Boy,” (Americans of a certain age know what I’m talking about), we sealed ourselves in the space when not working, usually to study or finish homework. Oh, hey, have I mentioned that we were also going to school during this time?

Inevitably, every few minutes, someone with a question – contractor, plumber, electrician, confused patient of the former medical practice – would call out from the other side of the sheet. The great non-divide.

Let’s face it, you can’t have a conversation with an Italian through plastic. There’s no way to see the hand gestures! Within seconds, we’d barge out or they’d barge in. Twenty times an hour, the plastic was lifted, moved, poked, and prodded, bringing in swells of dust with every motion. That we attempted to secure the bottom with those much-loved, old-timey green-glass olive oil jars was just more comedy, I’m sure.

Still, as ridiculous as it was, we did manage to create some zen in that space. Late one afternoon when contractor Andrea and geometra Matteo stopped by for their usual twice daily check-in, we grandly gestured them into our “home” with a laugh. Andrea sat on the classic 1950 Paolo Buffa-designed sofa, while Matt waved Matteo into “his” chair, a 1970’s Bonacino-designed lounger – both vintage pieces we scored at Lucca’s outdoor antiques market. We served coffee or wine, I can’t remember which, while the proud and colorful peacocks watched over us from the room’s exquisite fresco. There was jazz playing quietly in the background and the room was softly lit by two floor lamps. Matt slide a stool over to Matteo for propping up his feet, then plugged in a heating and massage pad, slipping it behind Matteo’s back. It was downright luxurious, even a tad-bit elegant (okay, maybe that’s a stretch). Regardless, somehow, it quickly became the kind of space that encourages lingering and deep conversation.

 “So, why did you move to Italy?” Andrea asked abruptly. As always, when presented with this question, we fumbled and mumbled, looking for the words. We told him about our travels, about my Italian roots, and a bit about our lives in the US and, inevitably, that led to sharing with him about our near-death experience during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. It’s a long story and not easy to tell, even in our native language. But, Andrea was patient and let the story take the time needed. Meanwhile Matteo, with feet up and back massager roaring, was uncharacteristically quiet, I assumed because we’ve known each other for several years and he knows our story well. Occasionally, he would interject explanations when our grasp of Italian failed, but otherwise he let us talk, and talk.

At some point, Matt wrapped up, saying, “That event, it changed our lives.”

Then, from his corner, Matteo let out a sigh and said, “This room, it changes my life.”

Total Zen, wrapped in sheets of plastic.

An expensive gamble.
It turns out, being without a kitchen wasn’t a real hardship. Between the hot plate’s coffee-making goodness and nearly-nightly dinner invitations from friends, our stomachs didn’t suffer. I should also mention that in our new neighborhood, there are two of Lucca’s best forni (ovens) within steps. One serves up freshly-prepared, ready-to-go lasagna and melanzana parmigiana and the other dishes out focaccia by the slice, loaded with mozzarella and prosciutto.  

For the record; the polvere however was a BIG deal. In fact, it was much worse than we had imagined. I confessed in an earlier update that there were several times when tears rolled from my cheeks into the mop bucket at the end of the work day. Armed with two buckets, Matt at one end of the house and me at the other, we’d start mopping our way into the middle, trying to stay upright, as we cleaned the expansive space in an attempt to achieve a precious few hours of sleep without swirling dust.

If I had to make the choice again, I truly don’t know what I would decide. The words, “Fuck furniture,” would surely roll through my mind, but also as we became well aware, part of the reason the renovation rolled at lightning speed is that we were there, present, and working side-by-side with the professionals, every minute. As I’ve mentioned before, this created very-much a team atmosphere which made the process – though gutting, at times – overall, an endeavor of joy and gratitude.  

Another element that contributed to the success of our timeline was the ordering of the kitchen. Against all good advice, we placed the order in January, months PRIOR to closing on the apartment. Yep, you read that correctly.

Indeed, we knew it was a gamble – and, a big one. Back in December, during the kitchen research process, we met with four different custom shops in Lucca to explore options. This is a time-consuming process because like all things in this beautifully-complex country, Italians take the creation of a kitchen as an ultra-serious endeavor. It’s art and treated as such. We spent hours (18 hours in total. Yep, I kept track) meeting with each shop’s consultant. How do you use your kitchen? What and when do you cook? Are you both in the kitchen at the same time? Do you entertain in the kitchen?

Those were only the introductory questions. With each meeting we discussed all possible materials, configurations, and optimal uses. After 2-3 meetings at each business, the respective designers presented their designs. They were all lovely and surprisingly well-priced. But, like with falling in love with a person at first sight, we had known which kitchen we would choose from the moment our feet hit the showroom. Sleek, sexy, and yet classic, it was the perfect vehicle for contrasting and complementing the ancient wooden beams above and historic flooring below.

There’s always a catch and this one was that it would take a minimum of three months for creation and delivery. It became a question of how long we were willing to live either with the old kitchen – which we weren’t even sure worked since it had not been in use for a very long time – or without a kitchen. Characteristically, I guess, we decided to go for it.

That leap of faith – wooee, and was it one! – is what allowed us to have a kitchen ready to be installed one month after moving in. Anything could have happened and the closing could have fallen through, leaving us on the hook for a custom kitchen, mind you, so I’m not recommending this course of action to anyone. Just sharing our story, for what it’s worth.

As I’ve said many times, Matt and I are equal parts courageous and crazy; and, for this kind of renovation, you really need both.

A floor on the fly.
Soon we were asked to make another weighty decision regarding the kitchen. The original floor had more dips and drops than a ski slope and was structurally deemed only safe “ish.” “It may be good for ten years, maybe more, maybe less,” was how it was presented to us. We heard two stories – which were two too-many – of floors collapsing and sending a kitchen and a bathroom crashing downstairs into a neighbors’ spaces. These structures are centuries old, remember.

That was an easy, though expensive, decision – and a good example as to why every reno budget needs a generous “contingency” line item. We would pull up, reinforce, and level the floor, then re-install with those same historic tiles. As a bonus, this would give us a chance to move some off-color tiles to positions underneath the cabinets as well as give them heavy-duty cleaning and fresh, new grout.

“Jessy, vieni,” someone yelled, calling me into the kitchen. During the pull-up process, there was quite a bit of breakage of those 100-year-old tiles and they were beginning to realize we would not have enough of the original to cover the entire kitchen.

“What do you want to do?” Andrea asked as Matt and I stared blankly at each other with no idea of what was even possible. At this stage, the last thing I wanted to do was give up on those historic tiles, but some weird patchwork of old-meets-new wasn’t appealing either. Italy being Italy, we soon learned that there’s a nearby business stocking thousands of vintage tiles taken out during renovations of homes throughout the region. Finding our exact pattern was a longshot, but perhaps we could score solid-red tiles to create a pleasing mix-and-match effect.

“No, no, that would look terrible. You must use wood,” one of the installers empathically suggested. “Wood inserts will give it a modern feel.” This is probably a good time to mention that the course of this conversation is the way almost everything works during a renovation here. From the position of light switches to the direction a door opens, and all things between. One worker voices an opinion, usually with force and resolve, then everyone else offers a completely different opinion – or 12! All options are hotly debated for at least 15-20 minutes. Then, finally, someone turns to you and says, “The decision is yours, so what’s it going to be?”

We liked the idea of wood as a compliment to the massive ceiling beams, but we weren’t convinced. For the work not to come to a grinding halt, we needed to make a decision immediately, they said. By end of day. Nope, no pressure there.

“What about marble?” our contractor asked. The very thought of marble made us both light up. After all, we are just over 30 miles from the world-famous Carrara marble quarries. “But, won’t that be expensive,” I asked. “And, having pieces custom cut, that’ll take forever, right?”

Within hours we had cost estimates for each option and they were, wait for it…the exact same cost. Marble, baby, marble. And, the very next day, that custom-cut marble arrived to our kitchen. Only in Italy! The workers turned to us to decide the pattern of the marble within the historic tiles and, just like that, we made yet another big decision on the fly. Taking inspiration from the border pattern of the adjacent room, I danced it out for them, stepping in one spot and yelling “Tessiere!”, then jumping to the next row and yelling “Marmo!” and, following that pattern and dance around the room. The unanimous nods of approval – a rarity, as mentioned above – told me it was the right decision.

A few days later, the kitchen installation crew arrived and on the very same day that our in-house team planned to create a bridge spanning (and blocking) the internal stairs in order to hang a central light fixture. I’ll tell you more about the “light event” later, because it was one wild event, for sure! But, let’s stick with the kitchen for now. The build took a team of two men nearly three full days. Mind you, this is after the muratori had already carved all the necessary canals into the walls and the plumbers and electricians had filled all those canals with their tricks. After the floor installers had created this old-meets-modern, tile-meets-marble foundation. And, after we discovered and uncovered yet another fresco. Yes, there’s a fresco in the kitchen as well!

Fittingly, the finishing touch on the kitchen was thanks to Christophe. Weeks earlier while visiting him in France, we had sat together in his family’s kitchen searching lighting options online. We spend about an hour talking through possibilities and flagging choices.  

We gravitated toward this very sleek and sexy series of hanging globes with red-metal finishes. It was bold, even a bit outrageous, but still it felt more like, than love. We were holding out for love, as always.

As I looked up to the lighting track he had chosen to install in his own kitchen a few years earlier, I commented on how fun and playful they are.

“Chopsticks,” he said. “That’s what they’re called. They were like a craze in France at one time.”

“Just looking at them makes me smile,” I said.

And, Chopsticks, it is.

Thanks, friend. It is love, through and through.

Here’s the Kitchen: After

And, here’s the Sala: After

And, finally, the Salone: A work still in progress, with furnishings to come along with restoration of those amazing peacocks.

How do you tackle and finish a full-scale renovation project in three months? These amazing people. What a team!

Next up: All the connecting spaces, including the entryway, library nook, and staircase, plus master bedroom!

Stay tuned, friends!

2 thoughts on “From Bitter to Sweet: A Kitchen Transformation, along with a Dollop of Detours

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