My favorite story from Tomatoes Garlic Basil

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Tears in Italy

It was the trip of a lifetime for my wife Cindy and me. We headed to Italy to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Two weeks of heaven.
This was only our second trip abroad and I was so nervous that day outside Newark International Airport, I couldn’t even finish my beer at a little restaurant in Jersey. That’s never happened before…ever.
A couple of happy pills later, I was sitting in a half full plane with Cindy and our new Italian friend Gino, having another beer and starting to relax into the feeling of escape from a demanding work schedule and all that goes with raising three children and keeping a roof over our heads.
After we helped Gino smuggle some American cigarettes into Italy, he got us a cab outside Leonardo da Vinci Airport and that was the last we ever saw of him.
Our first Italian meal was there in Rome, at Trattoria La Toscanella, within walking distance of the Vatican. And there were others, many others. Sitting on the sidewalks of Rome enjoying antipasto with the freshest ingredients and drinking house wines started us thinking of food in another way. The tomatoes, garlic and basil in each dish were the freshest possible, as was anything else we tasted in Italy.
It changed the way we looked at our cooking.
Part of the reason for the trip was to explore the area that Cindy’s grandmother grew up in, the Falerna region in the toe of Italy’s boot. Her extended family from the village of Castiglione Marittimo , greeted us with open arms, and we spent three days being wined and dined and touring the sites that Cindy’s late grandmother Tracy Righi had enjoyed as a child, before she immigrated to the States.
We learned more about how to use tomatoes, garlic and basil from cousins Giovanni and Mariella Barletta, as they served us home cooked dishes that astounded us – like their transcendent eggplant Parmesan, with its strong taste of basil and a surprising crunchy layer. More about that recipe later.
Our time spent with the Barlettas was just the beginning of our culinary reorientation. Next stop: Umbria.
They say you can never have a bad meal in Italy and we proved it to ourselves a week later while staying at the farmhouse “Pian della Valle” in the shadow of the hill town Orvieto.
Each day we road our bikes a kilometer and a half to the market to get the day’s food for our table. Sometimes the owner wouldn’t sell us the produce, because of an impending delivery of something even fresher. The fruit and vegetables looked good to us, but they didn’t meet his high standards.
When we arrived at the market on a Sunday it was closed. In fact, nearly everything was closed on Sundays, we discovered – just one more thing we took for granted back home.
We rode back to our farmhouse wondering what we would do for dinner. We scavenged everything left in the pantry: half a loaf of bread, some dried meats, olive oil, cheeses and some garlic, which our hosts had provided.
We toasted the bread, cooked the garlic and nibbled on everything else in concert. In some ways, sitting there in our rustic kitchen, drinking the local wine and listening to the local radio station playing the latest Italian dance hits, we had to agree: This might be the best meal we’ve had in Italy.
But it was on our last day in Orvieto that the power of food and family finally overwhelmed us.
We were at Tipica Trattoria Etrusca, a quaint restaurant tucked into the narrow stone streets of the city. Cindy’s first course was a simple red pasta dish. She took one bite and her face took on a look of disbelief. Then she fed me a little.
“It’s my grandmother’s sauce, the exact recipe!” she said.
I had to agree. We hadn’t tasted that perfect mix of spices and pork for more than 20 years, since her grandmother passed away. We thought the recipe had gone with her.
As Cindy savored the next bite, she began to weep and continued crying as she finished every bit of the dish, soaking up the sauce with hard-crusted Italian bread.
Everything had caught up to her: experiencing the views her grandmother once enjoyed, walking in her footsteps along the stone streets of Falerna and seeing the ancient cemetery where Giovanni’s mother and grandmother were buried.
I tried to explain to the waiter in my bad Italian and using ridiculous hand gestures, that there wasn’t a problem, that actually this was one of our most wonderful moments in Italy: This woman is crying, I said, because of the emotions your red sauce is evoking.
All it did was confuse him. He never returned to the table, sending another waiter to finish the job.
I wanted so badly to explain to the owner how special the moment had been, and to get the recipe for Cindy’s grandmother’s sauce, but it wasn’t meant to be – at least, not then.
As we stepped back onto the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, the irony was not lost on either of us.
We had to come 4,000 miles to get a taste of home.
I wrote a column about it for the Post-Gazette and a year later I got a call from a woman who told me she took the story back to the restaurant in Orvieto.
Soon after that, I got an e-mail from Erica Garcia, who was visiting in Orvieto and had seen the article posted on the window at Tipica Trattoria Etrusca. Erica asked if they had sent me the recipe yet. When I said no, she got it for me and sent it along.
It’s funny how food – something as simple as tomato, garlic and basil turned into sauce – can move so many people.
That’s why I wrote this book: to share with you the adventure of growing fresh food and filling your kitchen with irresistible aromas…and fond memories. I’m betting that after a while, you’re going to have your own stories to tell.

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