Imagine yourself walking along an arborvitae lined dirt road, it is a sunny day in May, the Cuckoo birds are singing and the air is filled with the promise of spring; green, verdant and crisp. Occasionally, centuries-old stone homes peek through bougainvillea covered fences or you capture a glimpse of vineyards, olive and lemon groves or newly emerged, straightly-lined vegetable gardens surrounded by ancient rock wall fences and rosemary shrubs. Winding your way up the road to an overlook, the vistas are breath-taking and looking out over the rolling green and golden hills you see a castle in the distance jutting out surrounded by thick walls and tile roofed homes. It is a scene from The English Patient, or any of the famous painter’s renditions of Tuscany, Toscana…Italy, Italia.
Only one-fourth of my blood is Italian, but it is the heritage to which I most closely identify myself with. And not just a little…the first time I set foot on the soil in Italy I felt like I was home. Home in a way that every part of my being resonated with the earth, I felt like all was right with the world and I had found the place where I most belonged…Italia. Walking along the roads in Tuscany, I could imagine running into old friends, family and places where memories could be made and people knew me as Mama Caruso.
I learned to cook when I was 8, but I learned to eat and absorb and understand Italian food from the time I was much younger. First there was Grandma Leone, the neighborhood “watch-dog”, she was the person who watched out for all of the kids in our small Italian neighborhood which was primarily made up of Carusos, Leones, and Pavanos. It was Grandma Leone who would yell out the kitchen window at us if she even thought we were getting into trouble…she always seemed to know…and it was Grandma Leone who would always make sure that we got fed…in fact, the first Italian word I learned “mangiare” (eat!) was taught to me in every sense of the word.
My Scottish paternal Grandmother was the person who saturated my soul and my very being with Italian food – the simple complexity and robust flavors of traditional rustic peasant Italian were found in her kitchen daily. I have sisters who didn’t find out until much later in life that our Grandmother was not Italian because she was the very definition of Italian to all of us. “Mangiare!”; it was my Grandfather who taught me to be Italian, to eat and enjoy everything that was Italian, except, unfortunately the Italian language, which I still just sink into and wrap myself in whenever I hear it. I love the Italian language and wish that it had been taught to me as a child – in my home, the adults spoke French when they didn't want us to understand what they were saying…how I wish I had been exposed to Italian when I was younger. But alas, I was exposed to the food and that is the part that I am most excited to share with you!