“To eat good food is to be close to God” – Primo (Tony Shalhoub) ‘Big Night’
In Italy, memories of a place are often also of a plate.
On the threshold of my new novel, Beautiful Ruins, which is set in Italy, I’m sharing my number one tip for a perfect Italian vacation: 1. Marry an Italian—or at least a second- or third-generation Italian, someone with relatives up and down the boot ready to cook for you.
On my first trip to Italy in 1997—when the idea for Beautiful Ruins was born—our first stop was the apartment of my wife’s cousin, Tomasso. I’d been warned by my brothers-in-law that I’d be judged on my capacity for food and drink. I thought I was ready.
A small, precise man, Tomasso swept into his tiny kitchen with bags of fresh produce and meat, and for the next four hours, he bombarded us: cheeses and breads and olives and peppers and nuts; bottles of wine were swept in and replaced. I was already shell-shocked when the heavy artillery came: a booming spaghetti alla carbonara that brought little weepy noises to my throat—“oh”—the crispy pancetta, fresh pasta, garlic, parsley and parmigiano-reggiano, and on top, two raw eggs which cooked as Tomasso stirred them into the steaming hot pasta.
It was glorious torture, like being pasta-boarded. I would’ve confessed to anything. “Basta!” (Enough!) I wept after the third heaping scoop, but Tomasso merely laughed and brought me a Cornish game hen and grilled baby artichokes. We were only halfway there. At some point between the salad, the chocolate cake, the gelato, espresso and grappa, I slipped into a food coma. Thankfully, I awoke in time for dinner.
My other great culinary memory of that trip took place in the setting of Beautiful Ruins: the lovely cliff-side villages of the Cinque Terre. This was in early March, well before tourist season, and we got off the train alone in Monterosa al-Mare. It was night; the narrow streets were slick with rain. The next morning, we opened our shutters on a gorgeous, sunny day, a breathtaking view of the Ligurian Sea. It was as if we had the “five lands” to ourselves. A parade of uniformed schoolchildren marched behind a Virgin Mary sculpture; fishermen pushed out in their boats; stray cats lounged in the piazza. We hiked along an olive- lined trail to Vernazza, and there, walking down its empty streets, we came upon a man carrying a fish over his shoulder. He pointed to his restaurant. We followed him in.
While we watched, he cut three fillets from a fresh swordfish and threw them on the grill. He made us some green beans with garlic, pulled out a loaf of bread and got a bottle of unlabeled wine from his own cellar. And on the patio of that empty restaurant, my wife, the proprietor and I had the most amazing meal. It was as simple and quiet as our first meal had been expansive. The sea lapped at the shore a few meters away. The streets shimmered with yesterday’s rain. Our host’s English was as rudimentary as our Italian. Still we tried. And what did we say? No idea. That’s the thing about Italian memories. Words may fail, and pictures fade, but I recall every bite of that profound meal.