Star Child Awarded 2013 Nautilus Medal
Star Child has been selected for a 2013 Nautilus Silver Medal Award. The award program, whic…
In describing my multi-cultural heritage, I have often laughingly commented that, ”Italian is the only thing I am not!" But somewhere in the recesses of my gene pool, I suspect there is a snippet of DNA that makes a liar of me. Why else would I return again and again to Italy, and when I cannot be physically present there, to its food? It seems that more than any other cuisine, I owe my passion for cooking, exploring and eating to this sumptuous lineage.
When did it begin? I think my childhood in South Buffalo was a great place to learn about lots of different foods and the people who made them for us. Our little Irish Catholic neighborhood was soon home to Polish families and then Italian. And along with them came their foods- kielbasa, pizza, lasagna and baked goods- biscotti and amaretti. I had one friend, who moved to our street from Italy and spoke no English. In spite of the language barrier, we managed somehow to play together. I still remember the day she invited me to her house. The faint sweet smell of anice cookies greeted us as we walked to their second floor flat. Entering through the upstairs kitchen door, I glanced into the rear bedroom. Covering the bedspread were handmade raviolis, little half moons stuffed with cheese. I had never seen such a thing. Is that what inspired me more than fifteen years later to learn to roll my own pasta?
Growing up it was always a special treat for us to order takeout pizza from LaBelle’s down on Seneca Street. One of my mother’s cousins married an Italian man, “Uncle Sammy” and I remember one day he showed up with a grocery bag and taught us to make the best meatballs. And I can honestly say that it was my passion for Italian food that lured me into the catering business. My husband Buck had given me a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking for a gift and I had worked my way through all the sauces and many entrees. My friend Bill Woodward in Chapel Hill was already rolling out his own fresh pasta and he gave me a demo on my Imperia machine purchased in New York City’s Little Italy. I began making small packages of spinach and egg pastas that I dried in my kitchen on wooden dowels and selling them at a cookware store in Chapel Hill. I was working on my Master’s in Clinical psychology at the time and this was my own weekly therapy.
One evening, we invited our friend, Joel Fleishman over for a dinner that featured spinach lasagna with bolognese and béchamel sauces. The leaves of pasta were paper thin and light and the lasagna otherworldly in its delicacy. Joel promptly asked me if I could create that same menu for 40 people?!? Immediately accepting his offer, I began my catering career.
Earlier this month, Buck and I embarked on a trip centered around his invitation to a conference in Trento, Italy. Since the closest airport was in Venice we took a weekend sojourn there before heading to the beautiful “college town” in the foothills of the Dolomites. This being my fifth trip to Italy, our arrival felt like another welcome home.
The weather in Italy was unexpectedly perfect, clear and spring like. We arrived in our water taxi a bit bleary eyed from the airport and found ourselves climbing through a hobbit-sized glass door from our boat to enter our hotel. I laughed in delight at the moment and the promise of adventures to come.
Around us was beauty, both natural and built stone by stone in Venetian cathedrals, its palaces and bridges. Likewise, I could glance up the street in Trento and see a mountain vista framed with aged stucco houses and church spires in a palette of ochre and gold and pink. It is as if every turn was the setting for an Italian landscape painting. No wonder that Italy has produced so many artistic masters. Which came first, I wonder over my exquisite rustic lunchtime pizza, the landscape or the embodied aesthetic? Surely this world, viewed from the moment a baby opens its eyes, shapes the sight and brain and sensitivity to such beauty. When this is what a human knows and experiences, there is hope for humanity.
And what better combination of artistic sensibilities and the natural world than expressed in the culinary arts? Just look at some of the photos from my short sojourn in Venice and Trento. I just wish you could taste what I tasted:
Tiny gnocchi in brown squid ink sauce with even tinier squid. And orange spiked risotto topped with scallops, spaghetti with smoked fish in a creamy sauce, and pizza, ah pizza, served in an out of the way storefront with fresh baby artichokes, arugula, a local cotto ham on a thin crust coated with the essence of tomato sauce.
The seafood market near the Rialto in Venice was itself a masterpiece of fresh and incredibly varied fish and shellfish. Nearby farmers displayed their baby purple artichokes. Lunch ingredients that day at a small out of the way restaurant Osteria alle Testeviere had been right from the market.
The list goes on.
In Trento in the square where the Duoma flanked one side, I sat at a cafe and wrote and took in the early morning routines of students and businesses opening for the day, rolling down the awnings and setting out tables and chairs. I know I am in Europe when I can smell dark roasted coffee, baking bread and the slight whiff of the fuel of Vespas that zip by the table.
Spying a tiny grocery in the corner, I made my way over, looking for some simple snacks like almonds and fruit. What I found was a collection of some of the most beautiful produce and eggs and cheeses- wild strawberries, mushrooms, arugula ..more of an urban farm stand, that I had ever seen. I asked in my broken Italian, punctuated with finger pointing, what the tiny bundles of greens were? I didn't recognize the name, “bruscandoli”. The reply was essentially “wild asparagus”..perfect for an omelet! I was so sorry I didn't have a kitchen to sample the delicacy for myself.
And then there is the seeming reverse of my "foodar" that brought me to so many unexpected delights. Invariably, the waiters of the establishments where we dined brought us extra food and wine: the glass of prosecco, the sweet golden limone at the end of the meal, or a dessert that we were clearly too full to order. At one of our last nights, the proprietor of a bustling upscale neighborhood restaurant sent two glasses of champagne to our table after we had each ordered a glass of wine. He said that we looked like we were celebrating something special, the glow of an Italian revelry on our faces. He was right. For me, being in Italy, eating fine Italian food, will always be something to celebrate.