Moving away from Italy was possibly the best thing I could do to truly become interested in the food of my origins. Before then, Italian food was just food, normal food, everyday food, something not worth talking about, not original, surely not interesting. I knew about regional differences, and I had a pretty clear idea of what the most iconic and traditional dishes from each Italian region were. Travelling around the country with my family, I would try the specialities of the area. Also, sometimes at home, my mum would prepare something exotic like sarde al beccafico (rolls of butterflied sardines with bread crumbs, pine nuts, and raisins, Sicilian style), or fagioli all’uccelletto (stewed beans, Tuscan style). Still, I was interested in the flavour, in the story maybe, but not in the recipe.
Living abroad, though, I became more of a nostalgic cook and more curious about Italian traditional recipes linked to a place and a culture. I have been travelling back to Italy quite often, looking for traditional dishes, eating in local, honest osterie, imprinting the flavours of Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome, Friuli, Umbria, and Sicily in my memory. I also started to collect Italian cookbooks – something I never thought I would do – digging into recipes as much as into the travel stories and everyday tales the author would unfold around them. I discovered a fascination for traditional yet unusual recipes that were new to me, and I found it especially in books written by non-Italian food writers – Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David especially. I loved seeing the food and the country through the eyes of someone who was not originally from there, but could still appreciate Italian culture and its local cuisines, and had the curiosity to go beyond stereotypes and write honestly, reporting regional differences and bits of the culture that Italians would bring in the kitchen and to the table.
“Aò, nun vedi che stai a fà un casino?” (Hey you, you are making a mess, don’t you see?)
We were sharing the first course, a big plate of steaming, saucy tagliatelle al sugo d’involtino. Or trying at least, as I was failing in the attempt of splitting it: I stained the tablecloth while trying to transfer a forkful of tagliatelle on my plate, and succeeded in creating a very intricate bundle. The waitress hurried toward us and promptly sorted things out – not without commenting on my poor performance. She stripped the two forks I was clumsily holding, and skillfully rolled the tagliatelle into two perfect portions. They were fantastic, of course, like the rest of the meal, of the day, of our stay in Rome.
We were lodging in a small apartment not far from the Vatican – or better said, not far from Bonci’s pizza spot in Via della Meloria. On New Year’s Eve we woke up to a bright, sunny, spring-like day, and made plans to take the metro to the Piramide, wander around Testaccio and Trastevere, and fit a good meal in between. “You must try Da Felice”, a friend told us. We phoned and booked a table for a late lunch.
Italians love preserving summer fruits and storing them for the winter months: from fruit and vegetable jellies, jams and compotes to tomato canning; from pickling to drying and salting, the food history of the peninsula is studded with recipes to store and maintain food and to make it available all year around.
My grandma, age 92, is no exception. As far as I remember, she has always made preserves in the summertime, with the vegetables from her own garden. It is simply something she does without asking herself any questions: the abundance of food spurs her to make conserve (preserves, in Italian). She has always been more about the vegetable than the fruit ones, so home-made jams weren’t really part of our traditions as much as tomato sauce and other vegetable preserves.
My absolute favourite is her salsa di melanzane (aubergine sauce) – a mix of aubergine, green bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes, stewed together in some oil at very low heat for a while until all the vegetables fall apart and a creamy, chunky sauce is formed.