The GPS directs us east in perfect Italian as we travel through tiny villages scattered among the hills, until we reach the piazza of a small mountain town that no one has ever heard of. Suddenly our Italian driving companion is out of answers. She has no more round-abouts to direct us through. The map ends here leaving its travelers stranded. As I look up, I see the church tower and follow the narrow street across the top of the tree lined piazza until we arrive at the side of San Matteo, the new church that my dad has told me about so many times over the years. Admittedly I have an embarrassingly poor sense of direction, but from this point, finding the quaint yellow house by the church is second nature to me no matter how many years have passed.
Mike and I approach number 19, accompanied by my cousins Patrizia and Elvira. I’m grateful for Patrizia who speaks both Italian and English. We’ll need her help to compensate for my rusty Italian. The same excitement and emotion that I always feel making this trip comes back to me as I knock on the heavy wood door. I brace myself for our first encounter because today’s visit is weighted with deeper emotion and bittersweet joy. This is the first time that our inevitable conversations of my dad will take place in past tense. The door opens slowly and we’re met with bright eyes and tight hugs, familiar smiles and simple Italian, reminding me how much time has passed as we pick up exactly where we last left off. I can feel the tears building up as I hug my zia Pina.
I’m so overwhelmed. It becomes a blur. The next thing I remember is my Zio Alberto handing me a napkin holding six figs. It’s well past fig season but the unseasonably warm weather produced six late blooming pieces of delicious fruit which my uncle generously saved for me. I think to myself, perhaps my dad had a hand in this tasty surprise. I don’t even wait or offer them to anyone, I just bite into a ripe and juicy fig as if it came from my dad’s tree that once stood high in our backyard.
The excitement of finally seeing my dad’s side of the family after so many years temporarily distracted me from the beautiful table that had been prepared for us. Coming here to this place where my dad spent his childhood always follows the same routine. Eat. Walk. Farm. It has never deviated since my very first visit many years ago. First my Zia Pina dazzles us with an amazing lunch (pranzo), then we walk the small town visiting the churches and the 2 houses my dad lived in as a kid then finally we visit the family’s farm. It’s a comforting routine that always leaves me wishing I had more time here.
It’s no secret that Italians have a reputation for long and lingering meals, and my Zia Pina’s table is one of my favorite places to enjoy this tradition. Pranzo is exceptional consisting of simples dishes made with farm fresh ingredients. The pasta is cooked perfectly and coated with my aunt’s meat sauce, undoubtedly made from tomatoes picked and jarred fresh from their farm to preserve and use all winter, long after tomato season has ended. Even the crisp and crunchy potatoes that surround the roasted chicken are home grown. I should know better, but I can’t resist taking seconds of both. This is a rookie mistake as crusty bread appears begging to be dipped in freshly pressed olive oil made from the olive trees that border their property. I don’t think Mike and I have even looked at each other for the last 10 minutes but when we do, we nod in agreement. He’s having such a good time. He even seems to be following the conversations picking up enough Italian words and using gestures and expressions to put it all together. We’re both so full and we haven’t even gotten to the main event. I’m still picking the crunchiest potatoes straight off the serving plate when it arrives. Only found in this region of Italy, my favorite part of the meal is ventricina, a cured, dried meat that is perfectly spicy and salty and tastes unmistakably of this region and this town. I should have skipped everything but this and the olive oil. I wish I could take them both home with me. Of course there is salad and fruit and homemade dessert, but after the ventricina everything else fades for me.
By this time, we are all ready for the customary passeggiata (walk). My zia Nicoletta, who is really my dad’s aunt, always leads us through the narrow and winding streets pointing to the many houses inhabited by various D’Aulerios in the Montenero of my dad’s childhood. As we turn a tight corner we arrive at the first house my dad lived in. It is small and weathered and tucked away in a street that wouldn’t even accommodate the most compact cinque cento, Italy’s quintessential little Fiat. As our walk continues we reach the second house which is located two doors from Nicoletta’s current home. I pose for a picture on the front steps like I’ve done so many times before, but this time with Mike by my side. A strange face is peering out the top window, undoubtedly wondering who we are and why we are congregating on his steps. As I smile for the photo, I imagine Mike excitedly recounting every detail of this experience to my dad and wishing it was possible to do so. I struggle to hold back tears as we continue on our way to the old church of La Madonna di Bisaccia where my zia shows us a statue dedicated to the parish by a D’Aulerio I can’t place. I imagine my dad as a kid in this church probably getting into trouble and wishing he was outside running and kicking a soccer ball with his friends. As we wrap up our passeggiata through the piazza and by the fountain that didn’t exist before my dad left for the states, we happen upon a brick wall that has a large iron cross with a rooster perched on the top. Mike snaps a photo and reminds me of the night just last year that we sat with my dad showing him the town on Google maps. He was so amazed and literally guided us through his neighborhood as we pointed and clicked through his childhood memories. He had specifically described the cross to Mike, and explained how the wall was damaged in the war and part of it had to be rebuilt. He used to sit on that wall all the time and there we were showing it to him with the click of a keyboard. I can still see the wonder on his face.
As usual we conclude our visit to Montenero at the farm where my cousin Marco and his girlfriend Elena have taken over responsibility of it’s upkeep. I am definitely not a nature lover, but I am always impressed with the bounty this farm produces. There are bayleaf trees as tall as the farm house and rows and rows of vegetables punctuated by every herb imaginable. There are lemon trees and olive trees and trees that currently stand dormant until a new season brings them back to life. I’m left imagining just how much Mike and I could cook with this luscious treasure trove at our disposal. Marco pulls a fennel bulb out of the ground, dusts it off and cuts in in half for me to take an impossibly fresh, pungent bite. This is how my dad grew up. At points I begin making a mental note to tell my dad and then I remember. This is the happiest and saddest visit I’ve ever made to this beautiful town. I love it more today than ever. Until next time…