GOING BACK TO MY ROOTS
Connecting Cape Cod to Italy
Story and photos by John F. Carafoli
After years of hard work and much frustration, I was granted an Italian citizenship. During the process people asked, “But why do you want it?” My answer? Who would not want dual citizenship in Italy if they could have it?
Last fall, with my new Italian passport in hand, I boarded a plane for Bologna, Italy, to spend a month immersing myself in the language, culture and everyday Italian lifestyle. I found an apartment and a school. I had classes every day and homework every night. After school, I would have lunch and look over my notes from class. I would then head to the grand marcarto (large market) not far from my school to shop for my evening meal. Everyone, including myself, carried a sacchetto (small bag) to shop, carefully selecting the best produce for the meal. I found specialty shops for my pasta, il marcellaio (butcher) for my meats, a place for the famous horn bread of Bologna, the one I grew up with. Each played a part in my daily routine. Mostly I looked for what was fresh, different and local in the market and stores; no different from what I do here at our farmers’ markets and specialty stops on Cape Cod.
Italians only cook with seasonal ingredients. This was confirmed by Elda and Lisa, mother and daughter, who owned and made fresh pasta in their shop. I bought potato and spinach gnocchi, the best I ever had, and squash tortelloni (large pasta tortellini filled with slightly sweetened squash and scented with nutmeg). When I asked for them in the middle of November, Lisa responded, “Ma no, fine! The squash (zucca) for the season has ended. Not until next year.”
During my stay in Italy I realized how rich and full my life was as a child, living in the small Italian village of Sagamore, Mass., and how much it influenced me today. My mother, father and I lived with my grandparents Inez and Luigi and Aunt Maria. Only Italian was spoken in our home. On occasion my grandfather would take me by the hand to the cellar, and we would roast castagne (chestnuts) together in our coal stove. Before leaving the cellar he would pick a bottle of his homemade wine from the rack. At the dinner table, a small glass of wine was poured for me, swirled with a little sugar as we all sat peeling the warm chestnuts and placing them in the wine. On those cold, damp days when I was in Bologna, a big treat was purchasing a small bag of warm chestnuts from my special vendor, Roberto, on Via Rizzoli. I would buy 15 chestnuts for three Euros. They were warm, comforting and soothing. As I ate them on my way home I was reminded of that fond memory from my childhood.
A perfect dish for the late summer and fall is bagna cauda. My grandfather used to bring fresh produce from his garden and my grandmother made this dish for the family. It is one of the most flavorful savory peasant dishes from the Piedmont region of Italy and it is quick and easy to prepare. You can serve it either as an appetizer or as a full meal, in the same dish or pot in which it is made.
I forage for my own mushrooms in the fall. Here in the U.S. we have a version of the Boletus similar to the ones found in Italy. Usually after a full moon and a rain storm the forest is full of them. I thinly slice them and dry them in the oven. When completely dry, they are placed in an airtight jar for further use. I learned about mushrooms as a child from my neighbor Rosina Boffetti. I noticed her coming home one day with an apron full of exotic mushrooms. Being an adventurous child I went out the next day and came back with a pan full of fresh mushrooms. I brought them over to Rosina. She quickly picked out the inedible ones and told me to go home and cook the rest with a silver dollar, a sprig of parsley and a slice of bread. “If the silver tarnishes and the parsley turns a strange color, the mushrooms are not good,” she told me in her broken English. “But what about the bread?” I asked. She threw up her hand expressively and said, “You feed the bread to the chicken. If the chicken dies, you throw out the mushrooms!”
Recently while eating supper with my partner on our back deck, I spotted a brown circle under a pine tree on the lawn. At first I thought it was a leaf. I realized it was the first fall Boletus. With a sharp knife I cut the stem—when forging for mushrooms, they should not be pulled from the ground but rather cut at the stem so they will create more spores. I sliced the mushroom, drizzled it with a little good olive oil and placed it on the still-hot grill for a few minutes. A real fall treat. I recently made the following meal for a few friends. The bagna cauda was our appetizer. Then we sat down to the porcini risotto that I served with a petti di pollo, breaded chicken breasts pounded slightly with fresh herbs, dusted with flour, dipped in an egg wash, breaded and sautéed in olive oil and a little butter. If it is a cool evening, I suggest you try my grandfather Luigi’s roasted chestnuts in wine or for a different finale to your Italian meal, a chestnut and ricotta semifreddo served with an almond cookie or a biscotti.
John F. Carafoli is an internationally-known food stylist based in New York and Cape Cod. He wrote Food Photography and Styling. Carafoli has presented papers at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, published in Gastronomica, is a contributor to The New York Times and was profiled on the Food Network.