Food was the beginning of the love spell Vittoria cast upon me.
First it was a box she’d just received via Overseas Express from her uncle Silvio in Ponza. A pile of dark, clam-like shellfish she called patella rested in a bed of fragrant, moist seaweed. She showed me how to use the sharp edge of one shell to extract the firm flesh underneath another. I thought patella meant kneecap because they were roughly the same shape, but the term comes from patellidae, or limpet, a marine gastropod mollusk that browses on and clings to shore rocks.
During WWII explosives that commandos attached to enemy ship hulls were named limpets, and the word has come to mean "one that clings tenaciously to someone or something." As I sat close to Vittoria and chewed that succulent delicacy from the Mediterranean I thought: Don’t I always keep a tight grip on the things I love? Yes. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing.
Vittoria said the scent of the seaweed and the salty taste took her right back to summer visits to her grandmother in Ponza. Nonna would feed her so many delicious things. Pastina with cheese, her favorite, and fellone, large King Crabs, which tasted so sweet. One afternoon her uncle Silvio taught her how to swim. How? He simply picked her up and tossed her off a high rock. She fell a long way, then hit the water and descended amidst a cloud of bubbles. It was hazy green down there, and she heard a gurgling, rushing sound. She looked up at the bright shimmering silver of the surface, and rose. She shook her head, coughed, and treaded water. A swell lifted her gently, and as gently let her down again. From the high rock Silvio called out, “Brava, cara! Brava!”
Then not too long after the limpets Vittoria came to my apartment with a plastic sack. I watched her in the kitchen. She crushed a couple handfuls of cherry tomatos in a bowl. Then she finely chopped two cloves of garlic, shredded some leaves of basil. She stirred with a fork, poured the mixture on two thick slices of crusty bread, drizzled olive oil on top. Salt, pepper.
“Here, try some,” she said. “It’s called pane pomodori.”
I did. Absolutely delicious.
The tomatos, basil and garlic, she told me, had been pulled not an hour and a half earlier from her husband’s garden. The bread had come right out of the oven this morning at a cousin’s bakery in Long Island.
“In Italy we use only fresh stuff,” she said. “If it’s not fresh, then forget it.”
At noon today, as I plucked warm tomatos off the vines for my lunch, I thought of my extraordinarily pleasing gastronomical encounters with Vittoria. The smell of a tomato plant will always bring back those memories.