Italy is as close to me as appetite. Indeed, my first memory of the country is gastronomic. It’s September 1948. I’m coming into Italy on a train from Cannes, and, at a station stop in Ventimiglia, on the Italian side of the frontier with France, I push down the window in my third-class coach. From among the crowds of milling people and porters on the platform, I unerringly single out the food vendor from whom, with gestures only, I buy my first Italian food, a panino— crusty bread around paper-thin slices of smooth white-flecked mortadella, a noble, venerable, and fragrant sausage of Bologna considerably debased in this country as baloney. The good air, the animation of the people, the fact of being in Italy, and the taste of that basic, fundamental food delivered me into the kind of transcendent exaltation I once experienced long before, as a child, at the solemn moment of First Communion.
Arrival in Italy was communion; it was the sense of Italy as the base of my identity and bloodline; the place where all my grandparents, and everyone before them, had been born. My desire for Italy had surfaced on its own thrust, breaking through layers of family repression where Italy and all things Italian were somehow put out of sight and mind, tinged as they were with indefinable feelings of shame and embarrassment. The family fervor was to be “American.”
But receptiveness is all: this arrival was something I seem to have longed for before I could even name it as l’Italia. And somehow it became focused in the then almost totally Wasp world of Wells College. There, we were three students in Miss Grether’s advanced Latin class: Mary Jean Wells (descendant of our college founder, Henry Wells of Wells Fargo fame), Joan Borden (called Jinx), and I, the odd one with the unpronounceable Italian surname. We were reading the elegiac poets of Rome, and it was Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, et al. who awakened in me atavistic longings for the Mediterranean world my grandparents had departed from, and my parents had denied.
Although my parents, children of immigrants, had eagerly wanted to be melted down in the common pot, they could not quite do it thoroughly with food. We ate American, but there were some wonderful exceptions: each night my father brought home from the Columbus Bakery on Syracuse’s Italian North Side, a loaf of fresh bread, his allegiance inviolate to the staff of life which, in his estimate, was insulted by the spongy stuff we called disparagingly “American bread.” Pasta, which was known only as “spaghetti” and was always spaghetti, we had on Sunday. Christmas meant grandma Cardamone’s filled cookies, and the strict observance of the fish courses on Christmas Eve. It was at my grandmother’s house in Utica that I had my first foreign foods: braccioli, ravioli, Italian vegetables from her backyard garden like pole beans, escarole, broccoli and zucchini, which were not known then in American homes. And grandma herself was foreign, always dressed in black with her hair in an old-fashioned knob, and always standing and stirring pots of sauce at her big black wood-burning stove in a kitchen which emanated odors strikingly different from those in my mother’s remodeled kitchen with its all-white cabinets and allure of a hospital. Generally I was not interested in food; what we ate at home and in the school cafeteria, and what I was taught to prepare in my ninth grade home economics class—Welsh rarebit, blanc mange, tunafish casserole—was what being American meant in those days before we discovered the world.
Once in a while my mother would have me accompany her to the North side to get cheese (having a strong, pungent odor, it must have been Romano, certainly not Parmesan) in an importing store which I hated to enter because of the smells—smells that were Italian and intensified my determination not to be. I hated the fish store on the North side because of the revoltingly un-American eels and squid that were on display there. I even hated Josie’s pastry shop because Josie, who made all those foreign-looking cookies, was fat and foreign-looking herself, with black circles under her eyes—not at all the image of life I was seeing each Saturday afternoon at the movies.
Nonetheless, I was ready for Italian food the moment I leaned out the train window at Ventimiglia and had my first taste of it on Italian soil. My gastronomic celebration of Italy started there and went on: at Clitunno (which Propertius had praised in odes) I had trout just netted from the clear waters and broiled with garlic and sage and served under an arbor with liters of Umbrian wine; fresh figs with country prosciutto on a Tuscan hillside at the stone house where Leonardo was born; the taste of free-ranging, not battery, chicken roasted on the open hearth of a farm in the Apenines; the delectable, woodsy taste of those large, fleshy mushrooms, funghi porcini, which appear each fall and can be grilled like steaks; the exquisite aroma of white truffles being thinly grated over fresh, homemade tagliatelli; my first experience, in Taormina at Easter, of true cassata alla siciliana; the sight, smell, and sound of every marketplace in each Italian town—sensational in enveloping the senses, fulfilling, gratifying.
That my memories and ties to Italy are gastronomic seems forecast from the start. The word “recipe” itself is Latin—the imperative form of the verb meaning “procure,” i.e., commanding the ingredients to be gotten together for whatever dish—and takes me back to that Latin class at Wells where my voyage to Italy seems to have been decided. In my case, destiny saw to it that I arrived in Italy not knowing anyone and armed only with the name and address of one Antonio Barolini, an author and journalist living in Milan. I was in Europe as an exchange student to the University of London, and having gotten that far, I had to reach Italy. I was writing features for the Syracuse Herald-Journal and was glad when a fellow student in London provided the name of that journalist contact in Italy.
I did meet signor Barolini. He did not know English, nor did I Italian. My other language at Wells was Spanish, taught with the Castillian lisp which considerably limited my courage to speak it. After college I had started teaching myself Italian by following words in the libretti as I played opera records and sang along with Tosca, Violetta, Mimi, and Gilda. This I implemented by going to study verbs once a week with a patient Italian typesetter who worked for La Gazzetta, Syracuse’s Italian language weekly newspaper. But I hadn’t gotten very far, and, when we first met, Antonio Barolini and I spoke a lingua franca of French, Spanish, and Latin until he found that the true common language between us was food.
Antonio courted me with the exquisite strategem of dining well and often. In Milan he’d head for an elegant bar like the Sant’Ambroeus (which, mirabile dictu, I have seen, these 40 years later, reincarnated on Madison Avenue in New York City). He introduced me to Rabárbaro, a rhubarb-based aperitivo which he said unaccountably (for our acquaintance had just begun) would be good for my liver; Cynar, of the artichoke, would fortify me against the rigors of modern living. Bitter Campari was good for the character.
Or we’d take tea with an extravagance of new and wonderous pastries. Dinner might be at the Biffi Scala with Antonio’s writer friends, a group which included two future Nobel Prize laureates, Salvatore Quasimodo and Eugenio (but called Eusebio) Montale; poet Maria Luisa Spazziani, novelists Guido Piovene and Marise Ferro, and artists ítalo and Nini Valenti. I didn’t know enough Italian for conversation; I looked, listened to the brilliant pyrotechnics of dialogue which whirled about me, and ate—tasting my first osso buco, the elegant simplicity of the paillard di vitello, and the Milanese veal cutlet which is a large sumptuous breaded chop completely unlike the American version. It was at the Biffi that Montale remarked concerning my quietness, “E’ molto serena.”— she’s very serene. Years later, when Antonio and I were traveling by train with him and Mosca (the woman companion who fostered his career and whom he was to marry in their old age), and chatting in Italian, he recalled that early impression of serenity and said, “But now you’ve found your tongue.”
Montale was quiet and dour, timid, and fearful, often sarcastic, but a man of great intellect and artistic sensibility. He was not only a world poet, he also had a fine musical talent from having trained as a singer in his youth, and he delighted in drawing with pastels. When Antonio and I were married, Eusebio gave us a gift of one of his delicate floral compositions which is always with me and which I see every day, remembering.
That first year of mine in Italy, when Antonio knew I would be alone in Rome for the holidays, he invited me to spend Christmas at his mother’s in Vicenza, where he would join me from his post in Milan. In 1948, trains were still few. I was lucky to get on one, literally, for the trip north; it was so packed I stood all the way, jammed in the corridor among other holiday travelers for the seven- or eight-hour trip. In a coincidental and Orwellian transposition of figures, in 1984, I again made a journey to Vicenza, this time comfortably seated in the crack Freccia della Laguna rápido to visit the memorial dedicated by his city to my now deceased husband.
On a June day, I stood in the sunshine in Via Santa Lucia reading the plaque affixed to the wall of an old palazzo. There the city fathers recorded that in that dwelling Antonio Barolini had written his first volumes of poetry and the novel called Giornate di Stefano, which was the first work of his that I was to read in my newly acquired Italian. I remembered the shivery time I had spent at Christmas all those years ago in the top-floor apartment of the converted palazzo where we sat in the kitchen around the stove to conserve heat. There signora Lucia, Antonio’s mother, had prepared her famous strudel di gris, a long roll-like preparation of spinach and ricotta encased in pasta and served as a first course for Christmas. And there had taken place the serious deliberations of where to get the festive panettone and how large it should be. The purchase was made at the aristocratic Gaffe Meneghini on Vicenza’s Piazza dei Signori, its tiny quarters meant to accommodate only the precious few while, across the way, the hugely democratic Gaffe-bar della Repubblica had room for all the others, I still remember that Christmas dinner with its (to me) exotic accompaniments of mostardo, cottognata, mandorlato.
Antonio was not only a man of great humor and humanism. , but he was also deeply centered in his traditions and in family. Montale, reviewing Antonio’s stones, Our Last Family Countess, which had appeared first in my English versions, then were translated back into Italian (and noting as a masterpiece, the story “The Great Bird-Barbecue of Cousin Canal”), wrote, “Barolini was not born modern, that much is known and reveals nothing. More interesting to ascertain is that he has not moved a finger to become so.” In fact, it was that perduring, tradition-rich air about him that was also so compelling an attraction to me in my longing for a family past.
I went to learn Italian at the University for Foreign Students in Perugia where, among many nationalities, an ex-G.I. and I were the only Americans, I found a room in the dank medieval building on Via Ulisse Rocchi where Count Lorenzo Beni Fabiani and his florid, ribald countess took in paying guests in the period following the war because they, as everyone, were impoverished. Again for warmth, in those austere days, we sat together in the log-filled kitchen under festoons of grapes drying on clotheslines strung crisscross through a room redolent with the aromas of the count’s fabulous cooking. There I learned about minestrina and minestrone! And wines! There, I savored the infinite variety of pastas and sauces which made the Sunday spaghetti dinners of Syracuse fade into nothing. There, for the first time, I began to learn of Italian cheeses—not the strong Romano of my childhood, but the fabulous asiago, fontina, Gorgonzola, cacciotto, and delicate marscapone. The count showed me how good an accompaniment a piece of Parmesan was for a ripe pear, intoning, “Al contadino non far sapere/Quanto è buono il formaggio con le pere.” This advice of keeping from the peasant (or anyone else) the knowledge of how good cheese and pears are eaten together, so that, presumably, there’d be more for the cognoscenti, was downed with the good wines of the region. And so my education began.
In the Fabiani kitchen, close by the ancient Etruscan arch which is one of the glories of Perugia, I got to know Italian through listening to the count’s stories and recipes. When the countess wasn’t engaged in her activity as a livestock broker, sometimes she would be there, too, up to her elbows in flour making the week’s supply of pasta e pane, singing arias from Norma or Madam Butterfly, and often accompanied by the sounds of the count chopping wood for the stove, or the cackling of hens from a small cubby next to the kitchen. The hens were an important part of the household until the arrival of company or an important festa turned them into the dish of the day.
The countess introduced me to festas, the first being the grape gathering harvest, or vendemmia, at the country place of one of the farmers she brokered for. It was the end of September when the vines were heavy with the sweet grapes of Umbria, and we picked them swiftly, dumping our basketloads into huge wooden barrels where the contadini pressed them. After the picking, we spread blankets and ate in the vineyard, the farm women carrying huge baskets of food on their heads from the farmhouse—baskets full of freshly roasted chickens still on the spit and huge discs of white pizza fragrant with oil, fresh herbs, and cheese.
The countess also made sure I knew about that particularly Perugian phenomenon known as the Fair of the Dead, which took place all up and down Corso Vannucci the first week of November, commemorating both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, and the dead in general. But not mournfully!— each year the city takes on a carnival aspect for a festival that goes back to medieval origins. The main street and square fill with vendors from all over Italy who come to set up their booths and sell everything from the first pasta-making machines to winter underwear, eight-way food choppers, costume jewelry, fine old books, crockery, Florentine silver, gaudy neckware, and everything else an exuberant market oners to crowds including hot sugared bombe, like jelly doughnuts, and the confections known as “dead-bones” made for the occasion. I still have my precious purchases from that Fair of the Dead: one is Le Avventure di Pinocchio, the first book I read in Italian, and the other is the Divina Commedia (with the Dorè illustrations), for a close reading of which I once received a promissory note from my eldest child, the Dante scholar, as a Christmas gift (on which I have still to collect).
In time I learned Italian in Perugia, as well as my italianità in Italy. And then I married Antonio Barolini and learned to cook. Antonio taught me many things, from the poetry and polenta of his Veneto region to the classic torte of Horace; living in Italy and eating well taught me the rest. My Italian marriage even had a good effect on my mother’s cooking. For, won over by Antonio’s charm from the moment he first kissed her hand and called her Mamma, she started resurrecting her own buried Southern Italian heritage.
Actually, after the end of World War II, Italy became fashionable and right. Soon my mother was dredging from her memory foods from her own mother’s Italian kitchen: hand-made manicotti, stuffed shells, calamari in red sauce, delicious fritters of minced celery leaves, and the wonderful summer vegetable stew known as giardiniera. The first Christmas after my return from Italy, we were photographed for the Syracuse Herald-Journal making Italian Christmas sweets—cannoli, cuscinetti, amaretti, biscotti all’anice, the whole repertoire. Starting in her kitchen, my mother found her way back to her heritage, and this, I suspect, happened for many Italian American families who were rescued from lives of denial by the ethnic explosion of the sixties.
Since I had felt the pull toward Italy while reading the Roman poets, it was altogether fitting that the first thing Antonio and I ever cooked together was what he called la torta oraziana or Horace’s torte. It is also known as the cake of two flours for it incorporated white flour and yellow cornmeal and I remember it clearly, on a summer day in my mother’s American kitchen in Syracuse while everyone else was out playing golf and Antonio, both to distract and entertain me (for I was pregnant with our first child then) and to satisfy his own nostalgia for his distant birthplace (for this was his first trip out of Italy), said, “I will make you a sweet from Horace’s own recipe!” My mother later eyed it skeptically and noted the great quantity of her butter and almonds it had taken, but I ever after was enthralled by Antonio’s gay improvisation in the kitchen and learned that cooking is also of the heart as well as the book.
Somehow, it did not happen until the summer of 1984 when I went back to Vicenza, Antonio’s birthplace, to see the plaque that had been dedicated to him by his town, that I recovered my old sense of connection with the place which had been so fundamental to my life and growth. Years before, on a gray day in February the town walls had been covered with the notice of Antonio’s death, and I was there to follow the coffin to where it would rest in the part of the cemetery reserved for Vicenza’s illustrious citizens. Near his fellow poet, Giacomo Zanella, and the Count Ros si who had started the wool industry in that part of the Veneto, and other notables, Antonio, too, was interred. I deposited Antonio’s papers in the venerable civic library of Vicenza, la Bertoliana, and said goodbye to Italy.
The summer of 1984 I was glad to get back, glad to have all the good memories intact. Vicenza was a delight—flourishing, busy, beautified, filled with the color of flowers as I’d never seen it. And then I realized: I had always been there in the season of its gray fogs and damp or postwar austerity: even our wedding in the chapel of San Nicola had taken place in a bleak November. Never before had I seen it in such bloom.
I walked through the old historic center to the Ponte degli Angeli. When I first knew the surrounding quarter, it had been war-damaged, dilapidated, and down on its fortunes. The Bridge of the Angels ends in a square esconced on each side with a noble 17th-century building, and there begins Via Santa Lucia, an old, old street of arcades. Toward the beginning of the street is the venerable palazzo where Antonio’s grandmother, Caterina Crivellari, had grown up. Caterina’s recipe book, in her own beautiful hand, is with me now, a gift of my sister-in-law. Further down, next to the grand entrance of Palazzo Faccioli, an imposing building with balustraded windows and impressive archways, was the tiny entrance to the apartments which had been carved out of the back part of the palazzo. And on the top floor lived Antonio’s mother and sister with an apartment giving onto the courtyard; next to them, in a veritable garret, was a distant cousin, Gilda Faccioli, whose husband had been of the noble family whose notable palace still graces the center of town, but who, before his death, had gone through his fortune. War had done the rest.
In the entrance to signora Lucia’s apartment was the beautiful walnut credenza which is now here with me in my American home; in the dining room, which also served as salon, were the 19th-century lady chairs and nonna Lucia’s chaise longue which also became part of my home. Then there was a kitchen, a larder opposite it, three bedrooms off the long corridor and, at the end of it, a bathroom with gas boiler above the tub to heat water. Bookcases in the corridor housed what was left of Antonio’s once huge library, most of which, along with other furnishings, had been lost in an American bombing of the city.
There is no one, now, of the Barolini family who lives in the old historic center. Antonio’s widowed sister lives in a modern apartment on the newly developed outskirts of town with her great joy, an American kitchen. On Via Santa Lucia there is only the plaque which records that Antonio Barolini lived there from 1924 until 1951. And, in a new part of town there is a middle school, the Scuola Media Statale Antonio Barolini, where, I like to think, students are still reading his stories.
I refound Italy and with it the nostalgia for all those family feasts Antonio and I had engaged in, the cooking and eating we had done, and I thought with some sadness and sense of loss at the complications of living, of the distances (geographical and other) which now keep me from setting a family table. I thought of the disquieting hairline cracks now perceptible in what had been, I thought, the everlasting structure of our family rituals, of family itself.
One Christmas Eve my New England son-in-law sat at my Italian table, a table which had come from a country kitchen of Antonio’s ancestors—a vast kitchen of other times, something like that of the Counts Piovene whose awesome kitchen was pictured for Time-Life Books’ The Cooking of Italy and with whose family Antonio’s mother’s family had kinship, thus giving the title to his short story collection, Our Last Family Countess. In good sport my son-in-law wondered aloud if I weren’t inventing that whole rigamorole of the seven fish courses which I served on Christmas Eve. “Is this another of your new traditions?” he asked jokingly, as if I had made it up on the spot. Certainly it was not what he, not a fish lover anyway, knew about Christmas from his background, and that was to be understood. But what gave me pause, was my daughter—that same Linda Lucia of the Santa Lucia childhood rituals!—who began to abet her husband and call into doubt the tradition of the seven fish.
Doubt the seven fish dishes of Christmas Eve? Good Lord, even if everything else goes by the board, that is one occasion that is solemn in any Italian household, and even my watered-down Italian American childhood records Christmas Eve as special and traditional and Italian. One might as well —as I never did and still do not (Naive! naive! cry my three daughters)—doubt Antonio’s words that the torte of two flours was Horace’s own recipe.
Mangiando, ricordo. My memory seems more and more tied to the table, to a full table of good food and festivity; to the place of food and ritual and celebration in life. Yes, I believe in good food, and in festivity. Food is the medium of my remembrance—of my memory of Italy and family and of children at my table. O nights and banquets of the Gods, Horace invoked. And let his word be the last.