When I was twenty three, I traveled to Italy to spend a month with my friend, Stefania and her family in Abruzzo. The Di Falco family owned a hotel in Teramo, and after we drove for a couple of hours north from the Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome, we stopped there for a meal. I was one exam away from graduating from the University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with a degree in Italian and English, but nothing prepared me for a proper Italian repast.
Sure, I had pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce before, but I had no clue what constituted a real Italian meal. Assuming that our Italian professors had managed to teach us some common Italian traditions, my hosts kept on bringing plates of pasta followed by grilled meats, vegetables, salads, and desserts. Pretty soon all the members of the extended family who worked in the kitchen joined us at the table. The wine was flowing and the spirits were high. I was a guest for about half an hour, and then they took me in as one of them.
I thought that Serbs were loud and obnoxious, but the Abruzzesi won. They played music they thought I might recognize and I threw some old San Remo favorites their way. They talked to me as if I had known them for ages, and brought down all my barriers. Their earnest embraces brought me out of my usual reserved and introverted shell, and I joined them in their infectious laughter, trying to catch all the nuances of the dialect exacerbated by copious amounts of alcohol.
It was August, and all the relatives gathered in one place, some traveling all the way from Venezuela. Stefania and her boyfriend Filippo were soon joined by a dozen cousins in playing hosts. They showed me around their home town of Teramo while the brightly colored Vespas were buzzing around. They took me to the beautiful, sandy beaches of Giulianova where I sat looking at the Adriatic from the other side, wondering how long it would take for the waves lapping around our feet to reach the coast of Dalmatia. We went to the majestic Gran Sasso mountain to traditionally celebrate the fiesta of Ferragosto. We drove around Abruzzo in a dark blue Fiat Panda with another cousin’s boyfriend, fearing for our lives at every hairpin turn, screeching in delight appropriate only in the early 20s when one feels foolishly immortal.
Stefania’s mother spent her days at the hotel running the front desk and dining room, and her father went to work as an agricultural engineer. Every morning there was strong Italian coffee and fresh croissants waiting for us when we got up. We would sit at the table while the morning sun spilled its light over our coffee mugs, spreading butter and anchovy paste on croissants, and planning the day’s events. The family would gather in the afternoons around steaming plates of spaghetti alle vongolle* and crisp white wine. I enjoyed listening to her father’s passionate diatribes about local and national politics. Fascinated by history, I asked him hundreds of questions, trying to follow his Italian, as he talked faster and faster the more excited he got.
We would stop by the hotel for dinner, a fresh fish fillet or a bistecca and a salad, after the hotel guests were gone to their rooms. All the aunts, uncles, and cousins would emerge and join us at the table, finished with their day’s labor and ready to relax. At night, after we came home tired and excited, Stefania and I talked for hours, sneaking into the kitchen for a bite of cheese or salami, careful not to wake her parents.
I was surrounded by food, skillfully prepared, fresh, and local, but at the time it was pure sustenance, pleasurable and enjoyable, but still only fuel to give me energy to go out and soak in some more of the Italian life. How I wish I’d spent time writing down the recipes for all the delectable dishes they served! Years later I look back with nostalgia to the month I spent in Abruzzo, missing the people, their hospitality and love of life, and craving the food I did not fully appreciate at the time.
March 17, 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of risorgimento, when Garibaldi united various provinces and cities under one Italian flag*. I remember Signor Di Falco questioning the wisdom of uniting so many different people in one country, doubting that South and North would ever see the world with the same eyes. So instead of going to Ireland today, I am giving a tribute to Italy, grateful that I had the chance to visit and spend time with such a wonderful family.
I usually make my own ricotta, but Husband bought an extra container for the lasagna he wanted to make last week. I consulted several recipes for guidance. The gnocchi were like light, soft pillows, mild in taste and wonderfully complemented by sweet and tangy marinara sauce and pungent basil.
*If you would like to learn a bit more about the unification of Italy, there is an article on Wikipedia that talks about it.
RED, WHITE, AND GREEN RICOTTA GNOCCHI, adapted from Not Quite Nigella
- 500gr ricotta, drained*
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup all purpose flour (I used more because I forgot to drain the ricotta)
- 1 tsp salt
- freshly ground pepper
- ¼ grated parrmiggiano reggiano or gran padana
- chopped herbs
*pour into a cheesecloth-lined bowl, wrap, press with a big can or another heavy object, and let drain for 1 hour
Put a large stock pot of water to heat and add a handful of salt. In the meantime mix the ricotta and eggs in a bowl. Slowly add flour and the rest of ingredients, mixing just until incorporated.
Form gnocchi using two teaspoons and drop them into boiling water. Cook only several at the time. Once they swim to the surface, after 2-3 minutes, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and place into the simmering marinara sauce. Serve garnished with basil and some more grated parmesan.
I am linking this post to Manu’s Menu, a blog written by Manuela, an expat Italian living in Australia, for her post that celebrates 150 years of unity.