I’ve been to Italy several times over the years to visit my family, but my favorite trip has always been the first one when I was just 9 years old. It seems odd that my adult visits to Italy would always pale in comparison to that one special, childhood trip, but this has always been the case…until now! Last month, Mike and I ended a busy but fun-filled October in beautiful Italy. We were finally prompted to book this dream vacation in order to celebrate my aunt’s 90th birthday in Rome. Seeing Italy with Mike who was seeing Italy for the first time, was a completely different experience. It felt like the moment we had been preparing for ever since we met. In a very natural and organic way, family, food and tradition have played a huge part in our relationship and our mutual goals for our future together. So I knew that Mike would absolutely fall in love with Italy and my family and that is exactly what he did.

You would think that he would be nervous to meet so many relatives for the first time, in another country, all speaking a language he didn’t quite understand, but he seemed more excited than nervous. He couldn’t wait to see the country, taste the food and experience the culture (and especially taste the food)! With every meal I could feel his anticipation and appreciation. I could practically see the wheels turning in his head, planning how we could recreate each delicious dish in our tiny kitchen in New York. This trip will easily affect our cooking back home.

Along with the delectable food, there is breathtaking scenery and rich tradition in Italy. Every town and every monument has a story. In Rome we wandered through tiny streets marveling at the ancient forums illuminated at night only recently by huge floodlights, making Rome even more captivating and romantic when the sun goes down. Revisiting famous landmarks like the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps, which I’ve seen on many previous visits, was new and exciting once again through Mike’s eyes. As we threw coins in the Fountain of Trevi together, I was struck by the thought that my Trevi wish had already come true.  Although our time alone in the city was minimal, it was extraordinary. It felt like scenes from a movie and we were the main characters somehow getting into illicit adventure together. In reality we were just eating pizza and drinking wine, but everything is more exciting on vacation. By the time we toured the city again with my cousin Francesca and her boyfriend Simone, I felt like the city was ours.

The food and scenery may have been amazing, but seeing my cousins for the first time in so many years was was a true joy. Introducing them to Mike was pretty cool too. They welcomed him without reservation and quickly reported back to my mom their approval of him. It felt good to see how happy they were for me, for us. Mike was so easily absorbed into this part of my family and before we knew it, my cousins were fighting over who got to host us for dinner first, complaining that our 10 day trip was too short.

The most important stop of course was Ciampino, the neighborhood in Rome where my aunt lives. Behind a large locked gate is a garden and a driveway that leads to the warm and welcoming home I remember from my previous trips to this wonderful part of the world. My aunt appeared smaller and perhaps moved a bit slower, but her raspy voice was exactly the same and her dialogue as rapid as ever. My Italian was not proficient enough to keep up with her and everything she wanted to say to me. I struggled to greet her properly and to introduce Mike, wanting to adequately express exactly how I felt about seeing her and having this time with her. Luckily, words were just secondary and I know she understood. Although Mike didn’t understand her, she continued to talk to him as if she’d known him for years. Sometimes the actual words just do not matter.  Of course within minutes, we sat down to a traditional breakfast (colazione) of cappuccino and cornetti with nutella, while our internal clocks, still on US time told us we should be fast asleep. There was no time to spare on this trip though as we had many relatives to see, homes to visit and stories to share.

Similar to our lives in NY, one meal ran into the other during our stay in Rome.  While my cousins and the children of my cousins began arriving, one by one to welcome us, meals were being planned and prepared. How I wished I had brushed up on my Italian before this trip. Graciously and perhaps  a bit too generously, my family complimented my poor Italian. Not so surprisingly, Mike seemed to pick up much of what was being said around him. I think he secretly studies while I’m not around.

As you can imagine, each day revolved around lunch (pranzo) and dinner (cena).  The dishes were familiar but the flavors magnified. Everything was enhanced with olive oil freshly pressed from olives picked from their very own olive trees. The meats and cheeses all local and of the highest quality melted in our mouths. I don’t think Italians import foods from other geographies and the foods they export must be simply the products they deem unworthy to sell in their own country.

The main event of our trip was my aunt’s birthday party which was held at a restaurant located on Lake Albano near Castel Gondolfo, the Papal Summer Palace. The dining area, with its multitude of windows overlooking the lake, was simple but spectacular and so was the food. Basic but impossibly fresh and in-season ingredients were prepared and presented perfectly. There was thinly sliced and barely cooked fish that tasted of the nearby sea and flavorful meats like salty prosciutto and fatty mortadella accompanied by perfectly grilled vegetables and bowls of mussels with silk like texture that I’ve never tasted in the states. This alone would have been more than enough food and we should have been smart enough to eat sparingly, but our will power was lacking in light of such culinary treasures. To follow was a creamy risotto with oversized prawns and fettuccine with fresh porcini mushrooms followed by more meat and fish and vegetables and potatoes. We wanted to photograph everything but sometimes our appetites got ahead of our desire to document.

Although the food was delicious the moments with my aunt  were priceless. Every time I’ve seen her over the past ten years, I’ve wondered if I’ll ever get such an opportunity again. Each time I do is more emotional than the last. At 90 my Zia Isabella  is strong and healthy and surrounded by an adoring family. She and her late husband, my Zio Italo created a wonderfully close and loving family which I am blessed to have and share with Mike.  We’re so grateful to have this family in Italy keeping us connected to this beautiful country of my heritage. And while we love having this connection, we can’t help but wish they weren’t so far away. Our time in Rome was too short especially since we made several other excursions before leaving Italy. In the next few weeks, Mike and I will take you north to Parma, Florence and Milano; south to Ravello, Amalfi and Positano and more importantly east to Montenero di Bisaccia, my dad’s hometown, as we recount more of our Italian vacation. Thank you for following along with us as we share our stories and memories of family, food and tradition. Arrivederci!