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 Italy's character
     -- 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 around food.
     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 airport.
     "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 never forget.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER magazine.


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