I was just shy of 18 when I first fell in love, at a seaside
restaurant on the Italian island of Ischia. Franca, an olive-eyed
beauty, was sipping red wine, a bowl of linguini drenched in a spicy
squid sauce cooling by her tanned elbows. Three years later, I sat with
my cousin Paolo in the dining room of my Grandma Maria's house, the
kitchen empty but still filled with the aromas of her rabbit sauce and
espresso. We had just returned from her funeral, and we both knew that
our days with her would remain special.
Love and death both unfold in the fine company of food.
To Italians, a meal is a window into the hearts of a
people and the soul of a country. Each region's cooking is a peek into
-- whether it be the spicy peasant flavors of the south
or the richer, more elaborate food of the north.
Life's moments, both crucial and mundane, are built
To know the people, to appreciate their art, history
and culture, to fathom what it means to be Italian, it is important to
understand the power and passion of their cuisine. The memories that
linger are built not around what is eaten but with whom one eats it.
The first time I saw the Italian countryside I was 14,
on a train heading from Rome to Florence, sitting across from my Aunt
Anna as she happily dished out large platters of chicken and eggplant
parmigiana to me and my cousins. I would see that countryside many
times, across many meals. I saw it again in 1988, when I went to Italy
to bring my father home to die. We sat in the back of a Mercedes sedan,
each lost in thought, as we headed from Naples toward Rome and the
"Have the driver pull over," my father said, his once
strong voice now in a froggy rasp.
"Why here?" I asked.
"There's a restaurant just off the road," he said, his
eyes very much alive. "Your mother and I ate there on our honeymoon.
Then we went back again when we found out she was pregnant with you.
Each time, she wore the same blue dress with white dots and we both had
pasta and a wood-roasted chicken and sliced potatoes cooked in wine
vinegar and rosemary. Be nice for you and me to eat there now. Be a good
way to close it out."
We did eat there that day, ordering the same meal my
father had first shared with his bride more than 35 years earlier.
Neither of us said much, allowing scenery and food to rule the moment,
both of us content to store those hours deep inside our memory.
It was our last meal together. Eaten on a day I will
This article originally
appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER ®