Food is the center of an Italian's life. Breakfast, lunch and supper each hold their own palatable pleasures. Then there are those wonderful holiday meals, and in between them feast days, where we celebrate with delicious sauces: Marinara, Pesto, Bolognese, Carbonara – the list goes on. One of these delectable tastes will cover lush, chewy pasta of choice for the day. I haven't even mentioned the antipasti, vegetables, meats, poultry, seven different fishes we have each Christmas Eve, all followed by dolci, sweets.
As an Italian-American, of course, food would be included in my memoir, My Father's Daughter, From Rome to Sicily. Writing about food was never contrived as I penned my story about going to Italy and Sicily with my mother and father, and my husband Stu. My goal: to uncover my heritage.
Food is in every step of the journey; from the day we arrived in Rome and walked to the trattoria near the Vatican to our final meal back in the grand capital, where we brought panini, grilled sandwiches, to our rooms after finally making it to the Spanish Steps.
In between there were numerous ristoranti, and pasticceria, bakeries, and dinners at cousins’ homes such as the one in this scene that takes place in Maria and Pasqualino's dining room in Gualtieri Sicaminò, Sicily, after we went to Sunday Mass at the church in the main piazza. Maria only speaks Italian, and Stu only English:
“Get this recipe,” Stu mumbles under his breath, as he dives into the pasta Maria made mixed with ricotta, tomatoes and eggplant.
Mom and I tell Maria how much Stu enjoys her pasta. He smiles at her and nods his head up and down crooning a sound of delight while chewing his food. When Mom and I ask Maria for the recipe, I’m not surprised that there’s no formally written instruction. A description of a little of this and a pinch of that follows.
Creative cooking has always made Stu a little crazy. At home he pokes his head in the kitchen and says, “Any chance you’ll follow a recipe tonight?” I rarely do. It’s more fun to be spontaneous and adventuresome in mixing together food with different spices, herbs and sauces. The challenge comes when I can’t repeat the same dish twice.
It usually tastes close enough to the last time I prepared the chicken, meat, pasta, fish or vegetable dish. Besides Stu’s idea of cooking a meal comes from his bachelor days of peanut butter and jelly on a muffin, opening a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup or his infamous green-olive sandwiches on toast with a touch of mayo.
It’s no wonder he loves every bite of Maria’s pasta, which is as appealing as her personality. For the secondo piatto, second course, she serves bistecca, steak, a rarity in Italy. Italians don’t have grazing land for cows and steers like we do in America. So having beef two days in a row is an indication of a special occasion. Insalata and potate arrosto, salad and roasted potatoes, are served along with olives, bread, homemade pickles and other various antipasti. There’s coffee and the dolci that we brought from the pasticceria before Mass. Afterwards, we get up, stretch, then sit back down in the living room and in Italian style rest for part of the afternoon.
Each time I reread the food sections of my own memoir, my mouth still salivates and the next thing I know I'm in the kitchen stirring up a pasta dish of one kind or another. As for my husband, he still talks about Maria’s pasta with ricotta, tomatoes and eggplant, along with every other meal he ate during our trip there. He also continues to stick his head in the kitchen and ask if I'm following a recipe. I rarely do. Instead I continue to create new recipes, more often than not, with Italian herbs and spices – basil, marjoram, parsley, oregano, rosemary, thyme and any other herb that calls out Italian.
Gilda Morina Syverson, artist, writer, poet and teacher, is the author of the recently published memoir My Father's Daughter, From Rome to Sicily. Visit her at www.gildasyverson.com.