I grew up in the warm embrace of Italian grandparents, which meant all my senses were constantly being charmed to one degree or another. A deep connection was fashioned between the lyrical sounds and meaning of Italian words with what I was experiencing.
Their Indiana backyard was a Tuscan garden. The herbs were dominated by the king of them all, basilico. Emerald green leaves, warmed by the sun and exuding their unmistakable aroma, filled my nostrils and hands. My nonna, Olga, pulled off sprigs of rosmarino, mente and salvia, teaching me their medicinal and culinary purposes. Inhaling their distinctive smells, she would add them to the collection growing in the palms of my hands.
As she taught me their Italian names, the vowels seemed to linger on my tongue as I pronounced them out loud, matching the longing in my soul to linger there with her.
My grandfather, Ottavio, cultivated Italian vegetables (le vedure), mostly lettuces. The bitterness of radicchio and the peppery nature of rucola, tempered by luscious green olive oil, were early trainers of my taste buds.
Zucchini would frequently arrive a tavola , stuffed and baked. This was a favorite childhood dish and one I attempt to make that measures up to Olga’s. I am still trying.
But it was the flowers (le fiore) of the zucchini that seduced me. Bright, yellow-orange sirens which at the moment we removed them, were rinsed, battered, fried, drained and showered with parmigiano. Morsels of pure bliss.
Ottavio meticulously looked after his garden tomatoes, il pomodoro. The literal translation is “golden apples” and indeed, their summer taste was fit for the gods. Blood red juices mingled with creamy mozzarella, dark green olive oil and tender leaves of basil, creating a dance on the tongue of the four most iconic of all Italian ingredients.
And not only the taste, but the texture. The density of the firm tomato, the smooth and suppleness of softening cheese, the subtle detection of tender herb, the lush silkiness of oil….and perhaps just the slightest crunch of sea salt, all tantalizing your mouth at the same time. The word “texture” in Italian, is “tessitura”.
More about texture, later.
There were fruit trees in their garden and none more evocative of Italian life than the fig, la fica.
For fifty years, Ottavio nurtured that tree. After giving up its fruit for the season, he pruned and covered it to protect it against harsh Indiana winters. Olga prophesied doom. Ottavio believed in its resurrection.
Later in life, I learned (during a Roman “rite of passage” romance), that “una fica” is a metaphor for the vagina. It was a provocative revelation, but if you have ever opened up a fresh fig, no further explanation is required.
Adding “issimo or issima” to many an Italian word makes it a superlative. Hence, describing something as “ficchissima,” can indeed refer to an extremely alluring woman (or really, anything that is ultra-fabulous), but in its essence, it contains the meaning of a piece of fruit that is so gorgeous, it is adorned with garlands.
The sensuous nature of the Italian soul is so often connected to food. Buonissimo.
What Italian garden would not have a vineyard? Like any self-respecting Italian immigrant, Ottavio made his own wine (even during Prohibition, I am told). He built a sweet arbor for his grapes, and as summer deepened, so did the ruby red glow of the juicy fruit, nestled among the dark green leaves. Production would go on in the cool damp confines of the basement. I learned how to eat and drink like an Italian.
Years later, when I serendipitously found my family’s farm in Tuscany, my cousins took me into la caverna del vino. They told me that when Ottavio visited them in the early 1960s, after fifty years of being in America, he helped them build it.
My childhood was saturated with food at my grandparents’ table and with music as well: Italian grand opera, as sumptuous as a four-hour Italian meal.
Next: Part Two – Italian Opera Words
"Italian food is seasonal. It is simple. It is nutritionally sound. It is flavorful. It is colorful. It's all the things that make for a good eating experience, and it's good for you." Lidia Bastianich
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