Superstition (Review), Issue 15, Spring 2015
I make my young sons pastina in brodo, garlic soup with fried bread, spaghetti bolognese, creamy risotto, and gnocchi with burnt butter and cinnamon because that is what I love to eat. And the stories I tell them about these dishes always start the same way: When I was a little girl. My six-year-old, Will, hears me say this so many times he copies me. I laugh and gently remind him he was never a little girl. Will looks perplexed; he must have thought that was how all good stories begin.
When I was a little girl, we moved to Italy, but before that we lived in Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, and before that we lived in West Point, New York. Like Act One in a grand opera, they set the stage for what was to come. The rust-colored cliffs and steel-blue of the Hudson River, molten reds and oranges in the fall, lilac and white fences in the spring awakened me to the beauty of nature, and not far away, Chinatown’s fun, taste, and serendipity (fortune cookies) ignited my love affair with food. In Ft. Sam Houston, my mother studied Italian with a cold washcloth plastered on her forehead; the weather is hot, dry, and arid; everyone wears cowboy hats and boots. The footwear alone, given what we were about to experience, was a startling contrast. But just when my mother said she couldn’t stand one more day of the wretched heat or grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, it was time for us to go.
In 1962 I was eight years old. The four of us—me, my mother and father, and sister Suzie—got on a plane, and our enormous white Buick with the shiny chrome, jetlike fins got on a boat. The car went to Genoa to be delivered to us later; we landed in Frankfurt. A family friend from West Point (now stationed in Germany) drove us to our destination: Vicenza, Italy. Most of the trip was at night; it was hard to see anything. The windows were rolled down; the air was sweet and warm. Where were the big green highway signs, I wanted to ask; all I could see were tall, purple mountains surrounded by dark forests. It was as if the curtain on our future was closed, just waiting to be opened on Act Two.
My father had been assigned to the forty-fifth Field Hospital at the Caserma Ederle, the U.S. Army Base in Vicenza. He was the CO, Commanding Officer. There was military housing nearby, the Villagio, where most of the Army families lived except for us. We would live “on the economy,” my father said, as finding housing outside the base was called. Our family was different from the rest of world; rules, other than our own, did not apply.
With the help of some of the Italian doctors on staff, my parents found a villa for rent high on top of Monte Berico. The Berici hillsides were covered with red-roofed farms and sprawling vineyards and orchards. Our house, Villa Chiara, sat on a tight spine of one of the hills. We had sweeping views south over the flat plains toward Padova and north toward the mighty Dolomites, circling the valley below us in a snowy embrace.
The villa and garden were full of wonders. Two carved stone fountains sat on either side of a white pebbled path leading from the large front door to a dark-green entry gate. Flanking the gate were two enormous magnolia grandifloras with leaves like leather and white velvet blossoms that smelled like honey. We had all kinds of fruit trees: fig, pear, persimmon, and plum. Red geraniums spilled over pots on the window sills; a cone shaped bay leaf tree guarded the front door, smelling pungent and sweet at the same time. Surrounding the garden was a thick boxwood hedge and vine-covered fence, separating us from two other villas, one on each side. There was a bare spot where the vines did not grow. This became the parlatorio: the place where we talked to our dear neighbors, the Gallas, and caught up on the latest news. Our villa had a slanting roof, with a brown trim and green shutters and balconies that looked out over the wide valley and beyond, to the hills of Soave and Verona in the distance. At night all the scents of the garden and the cool air from the hillsides comingled and curled up into our bedroom windows and lullabyed us sleep. It was as if the builders of this house had imagined the most perfect place in the world. My mother knew it that day, watching the workmen hauling in our furniture, crunching back and forth on the pebbled paths. She knew but did not say, as if admitting it would break this spell and send us all back across the ocean to Ft. Sam Houston and the Piggly Wiggly—far away from this place that took our breath away and stole our hearts.
My mother joked that during the time we lived in Italy, we visited so many churches and monasteries that we could have been canonized, but I had a different kind of religious experience. There wasn’t anything I’d rather pray for than a big bowl of spaghetti bolognese, or zuppa di pesce, or crème caramel. And when my ballet teacher told me, eyeing my stomach, that I would have to choose between pasta and dancing, I made a huge sacrifice (not really) and, of course, chose pasta.
Our eating adventures in Italy, and throughout Europe when on vacations, were orchestrated and led by my indomitable mother. She took her job of finding the perfect food and dining experience very seriously: researching, reading, asking friends, the hairdresser, grocer and my sister’s ballet teacher (my sister did not give up pasta). We had amazing meals in Vicenza’s local trattorias like handmade fettuccini with fresh porcini at Da Gobi and vitello alla griglia at Taverna Aeola. We dined in small out of the way places in Verona before we settled down for an evening’s performance of Aida. And we explored the regions to the north, like Bologna, where we ate remarkable tortellini and Bassano del Grappa where, in the spring, we savored the famous white asparagus. But the best meals, the ones that stayed with me with the stickiness of good meringue, were always in Venice.
The drive was not long. Not more than forty minutes. Sometimes we drove in the Buick but mostly we took father’s car, a convertible Fiat Cinque Cento that we fondly called il Topolino, or little mouse. It barely fit two adults in the front and barely fit two small children on a tiny shelf in the back but we happily squeezed in. We left the car in a large parking lot and bought our tickets for the Vaporetto.
Venice was unlike any place I’d ever seen. The streets were made of water and the buildings lined up, shoulder to shoulder, narrow, elegant, balconied, in shades of gray, white, and pink. You had to ride a buslike boat to get anywhere. My father, having grown up in Istanbul, was already familiar with boat transportation up and down the Bosphorus, but for us this mode of travel was new and exciting. At the time we were among a handful of Americans who ventured beyond the Army base. But we did not feel or look out of place, mostly because of my mother’s insistence that we eat, dress, and speak Italian, which, thanks to our beloved maid/nanny Maria, Suzie and I did perfectly.
Exiting the boat at Stazione Piazzo San Marco, we stopped to feed the pigeons and then off we went in the direction of the Rialto Bridge; the restaurant was somewhere nearby.
Mother led the charge, the red Michelin guide tucked under her arm like a Bible-toting Baptist, brandishing it in our path as if it were a flaming red torch lighting the way through a maze of dark and gritty alleys. We’d walk and walk and walk until I thought my feet were going to fall off. It was getting late and dark; we were hungry. The talking stopped: My sister and I sulked magnificently; my father drew in air through the spaces in his teeth, but my mother never gave up. Finally, we were there.
The restaurant was all gleaming gold and polished brass. Warm welcoming lights beckoned us through sparkling glass doors to a white wonderland of crisply starched table linens and waiter’s jackets. A sharply folded napkin hangs over the waiter’s arms, like a rudder that guided them effortlessly from kitchen to table, and table to kitchen, accompanied by a smart click of a highly polished shoe.
“Venga, venga Signori,” the bow-tied maître d’ greeted us, bowing; menus held firmly under his arm. Please enter. Father in coat and tie, and Mother in her bespoke suit, silk blouse, and striking good looks, turned heads. My sister and I were dressed nearly identically, skirts, matching sweater sets, and velvet headbands.
We were shown to a table set with an emerald green bottle of sparkling water and shiny hotel silver, but the best welcome of all was the smell: tangy lemons, woodsmoke, tomatoes, basil, rosemary, and nutty parmigiano.
The table location was perfect, not anywhere near the service door (that would be disaster), and my mother smiled, pleased. No doubt we had made a good impression and were about to make an even greater one. We knew the “rules.”
The wine was ordered first, either from the list or a carafe of house red or white. In Venice, the house was usually excellent. I knew this because I was given a small glass mixed with a little bit of water, just like all Italian kids. The waiter brings a silver basket with different kind of bread and long, skinny grissini in thin, tissue sleeves. My sister and I were allowed to nibble on the breadsticks. Even they tasted delicious.
Then, if the restaurant had un carrello degli antipasti, a shiny cart topped with small glass dishes filled with jewel-colored tidbits, you would get up and check out what was in them. “Ekrem,” my mother whispered to my father, “go check out the carello.” He reported back: white anchovies al saor, insalata russa (his absolute favorite) marinated funghi, and white asparagus alla maionese. The selection helped us decide whether or not they went with the carello (si o no grazie, we would tell the waiter). However, sometimes the antipasto was a good decision, especially when the waiter informed us that the risotto would take a few minutes, which in Italian meant about twenty.
Next, ordering prima, also called minestra. If the restaurant was noted for a particular dish (thank you, Michelin guide), then it made a bella figura to order it. Bella figura, literally translated, means to make a “beautiful figure”; or basically, to make a good impression doing or acting appropriately for that given moment (hard to explain). And it would be a bruta figura (the opposite) to order anything typically not found in a Venezian restaurant, like pizza napoletana or spaghetti abruzzese. The conoscienti (those in the know, like us) always ordered the house specialties. This tells the waiter that we are someone to be reckoned with. I ordered spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti with clams; Father ordered risotto frutti di mare.
The rules for ordering the second course were basically the same as ordering prima: order what they eat in Venice. The waiter took our order. Father and Mother: dentice alla griglia (seabream on the grill); Suzie, costoletto milanese (the Italian equivalent of chicken fingers), and me, ah, sogliola. Sole, lightly floured and sautéed in olive oil. You could also order contorni, vegetables, and/or insalata mista, a mixed green salad. In summertime, the salad came with quarters of sweet, green tomatoes.
The waiters brought our dishes on wheeled carts draped in white linen. Plates were put in front of us; the vegetables and fish were served tableside from gleaming copper dishes. Leaning over toward me, the waiter smiled and asked conspiratorially, “Facio io o facia lei?” Should I debone, or should you? What an incredible position of power for a ten-year-old—an adult offering to do something for me, and I got to decide! Facio io, I said, proudly. It felt like a great secret has been shared, an understanding of mutual appreciation of this piece of fish, where it came from, and the proper way it was to be served: the beautiful artistry of knife meeting backbone, removing a tender filet in one quick stroke; a dash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon; perfection.
There were really no rules for dessert except to order what gave you pleasure, whether it was macedonia, diced fresh fruit in syrup, or gelato served in frosted silver cups with a flat spoon. For me it was always crème caramel with its glassy dark cap of hardened sugar. Our meals ended with a brisk walk back through narrow alleys, darkened squares, past stray cats, over curved bridges to the vaporetto; back to the car, and a contented, sleepy drive home.
Act Three. The Finale. It turned out that getting to Italy, across the Atlantic by boat and plane, learning the language, finding our way, was the easy part.
After four years, we had to say good-bye to the Vaporetto, to the sounds of a Vespa whizzing around a corner; to the cries of the bread man in the morning, pane pane; to Verona and Aida; to the Topolino; spaghetti bolognese; skiing in Cortina, summers in Argentario; and to our Villa Chiara and the Berici hills, the sweet smells of the garden, the sound of pebbles crunching beneath our feet—sights, sounds, smells that had become as familiar to us as breathing, inhaled deeply into our consciousness to forevermore inform how the rest of our lives would be lived.
In Italian, buona fortuna can be used two ways. One, to simply wish someone good luck: a salutation to a nice American family from shopkeepers, stationmasters, tour guides. Or as a good-bye, with a kiss on each cheek—a teary farewell from Maria and her family, the Gallas, all the people we knew and loved. We all cried, but it hit my mother the hardest. These were the golden days, and she would never get them back. Leaving Vicenza left a fissure in her heart, a crack too deep to heal. I imagined I could see it, a red stain of heartache that never went away.
But wait. The curtain isn’t coming down quite yet. There is an encore.
In the summer of 2005, I took son Will, now twenty, to Italy. Our plans were to land in Venice, go the opera in Verona, Aida, of course, and then Vicenza to visit Maria, her family, and friends. I had not returned in nearly thirty years, not since 1975 when my parents decided to move back to Italy, but that is another story.
In Venice we stayed near Piazza San Marco, and Will let pigeons eat out of his hand and land on his head. Then we were off to find the famous restaurant near the Rialto. Will ordered gnocchi in sepia, gnocchi in squid ink, and ricotta-filled squash blossoms. The best food he’d ever eaten, he told me dreamily, Except for your cooking, Mom, he added hastily.
In Vicenza we stayed at a quaint inn near the Basilica di S. Maria di Monte Berico to be close to my old house and Maria. She still lived in Arcugnano, a small village higher up in the Berici hills and where, in a local trattoria, we had a heartwarming reunion and a fantastic feast with three different kinds of pasta, wild boar, and grilled veal and sumptuous cakes for dessert. Not only did my son get to meet dear Maria, who had been such an important part of my life, but tasting the food, driving through the vineyard covered hillsides, my stories had come to life.
On our last night, I took Will to what had been one of our favorite places to eat in Vicenza near the center of town: Ristorante Agli Schioppi. I was so happy to see that it is still there. We found a table outside; it was a clear warm evening. People were walking by, shop windows brightened in the darkening sky. I excused myself and went inside. I asked the maître d’, who was wearing jeans instead of a bow tie, “Scusi, dove il gabinetto?”
The man, probably in his forties, looked at me strangely and said in Italian, “Ah, Signora, you speak Italian beautifully, but do you not know that gabinetto is child-speak for bathroom? It is, how they say in English, potty. Maybe you meant to say toilette?”
My face, I’m sure, was bright red. I wanted to tell him—but that is how I learned to say it, when I was a little girl.