Jun 152014
Grandparents Domenica Iacovone and Giuseppe della Croce, great-grandmother Laura Iacovone with my father, infant Giovanni, after arriving in New York City, 1909.

Grandparents Domenica Iacovone and Giuseppe della Croce, great-grandmother Laura Iacovone with my father, infant Giovanni, after arriving in New York City, 1909.

My father left his native Toritto as an infant in his mother’s arms in 1909. With his young parents and grandmother, he sailed for Ellis Island in steerage. The family said that in those bleak times in Puglia, they had survived by eating the wild greens that grew in the fields where they had toiled. Although he returned to Italy many times as an adult, especially to the Carrara quarries to buy marble for his shop in America, my father never went back to where he was born. What kindled his memory was the food he was raised on. His favorite was pasta with beans or chick-peas. He insisted that my mother cook the bitter greens—cicoria (dandelion greens) and cime di rapa (broccoli rabe)—which the emigrants grew in their gardens or occasionally managed to find in Italian markets.

Pasta e ceci, pasta and chick-peas, from the cucina povera, "poor kitchen." | Photo: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.ccom

Pasta e ceci, a dish of the cucina povera, “poor kitchen.” | Photo by Paolo Destefanis for Roma: Recipes from in and Around the Eternal City, by Julia della Croce

Despite a lifetime of traveling Italy’s far corners and byways, something has also kept me away. Last month, some six years after my father’s passing at nearly 100, I decided it was time for me to feel Toritto’s dirt under my feet.

"Welcome to the land of olive oil and almonds." | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

“Welcome to the land of olive oil and almonds.” | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

I made a stop in what seemed like a desolate town and then headed for the countryside where I knew my family of poor sharecroppers was bound to have lived.

Toritto, piazza flanking castle walls. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Toritto, piazza flanking castle walls in the town center. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

A conical stone 18th century peasant hut, called a trull, outside of town. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

In the nearby countryside, a trullo, a traditional peasant hut with a conical roof. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Following a dirt road out of town into what seemed like a maze of endless olive groves, I saw a lone man tending a garden and stopped to talk to him.

Outside the city walls, olive trees as far as the eye can see. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Toritto, in the distance, and olive trees as far as the eye can see. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

His face read familiar, and his vernacular, too. His house, a simple tower without running water or power, made of stone retrieved from a nearby ruin, was surrounded by cherry, almond, and olive trees, artichoke fields in bloom, vegetable patches, and fields of the cicoria and cime di rapa that my father adored.

A tower fashioned from a ruined trullo. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

A tower fashioned from a trullo ruin. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Antonio Bartolomeo in his open-air kitchen with self-portrait, Toritto. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Our host in his open-air kitchen with self-portrait in stone. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

He invited us in to the tower, a work in progress—there was no roof yet; the garden is where he really lives.

Antonio Bartolomeo's garden in the middle of olive groves, Toritto countryside. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Antonio Bartolomeo’s garden in the middle of olive groves. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

 I ate fistfuls of cherries and mulberries, roasted almonds that we smashed with stones to open, accepted bouquets of artichokes, and was soon, too soon, on my way.

In Antonio Bartolomeo's garden, Toritto, a bouquet of artichokes. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

I was sent off with a bouquet of artichokes. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Antonio Bartolomeo is the gardener’s name and he sends me messages from my father’s land now and then, like this one, in time for Father’s Day. Have a happy one.

May 192014
A 3,000-Year Tradition Makes for Sublime Italian Prosciutto

If you’ve been following my posts this month, you know that I’ve been in Italy at the invitation of the Italian Trade Commission exploring the products of food artisans working in the country’s twenty regions. Throughout May, I’ll be publishing vignettes on some of the food producers I met, both at the 78th annual artisans expo in Florence in April, and subsequently traveling throughout the country. Italian artisans have been making air-cured hams as far back as Etruscan times some 3,000 years ago, originally from the haunches of wild boar. Eventually, pigs were bred and pampered specially for producing prosciutto crudo, [...more...]

May 162014
Miggiano, Puglia: A Sighting of an Olive Wood Nymph

Meandering through the ancient olive groves owned by producers Marta Consiglia and her brother, Vito Lisi in Miggiano, Puglia, I came upon an olive wood nymph. If we hadn’t captured her on camera, you wouldn’t have believed me. The tree from which she emerged is 500 years old and still producing olives for oil, the lifeblood of a region has been cultivating olives for oil for over 5000 years. Until modern times, much of the oil was crude and inedible, destined for lampante, lamp oil that lit the streets, homes, and churches of Europe. Today, the family produces organic, high quality [...more...]

Mar 292014
To Italy with Julia: Venice by Lagoon

Almost in the very middle of this little sea, enclosed between the water and the sky, lies Venice, a fairy vision, risen as if by miracle out of the water that surrounds it and like green shining ribbons, cuts through its beautiful body. So wrote Giulio Lorenzetti, in his famous 1926 guidebook, Venice and its Lagoon: A Historical and Artistic Guide (updated in 1994 and still the most authoritative guide). Yet there it is, the ancient “Serenissima,” a glittering city decorated with gold, arising out of the lagoon, firm and fixed. We can barely grasp how architects could have imagined its plan and how [...more...]

Mar 052014
Upcoming Culinary Tours to Italy with Stars as Your Guides

Many a tourist has been hustled along the deep-rutted routes of Venice-Florence-Rome-home, yet some travelers got off the highways and criss-crossed the countryside, writing about the cities, small towns and byways. One such traveler is former New York Times staff writer, Zester Daily contributor, author, and Tuscany resident, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who has savored Italy with great learning and a deep and abiding love. Today, previously overlooked regions that she has captured masterfully in her writings are popular destinations for the American traveler interested in the glorious food of Italy, and there is hardly a better guide. Nancy has announced two upcoming tours to [...more...]

Mar 042014
Heart of Nicaragua: Grace and Magic in a Corn Masa Cookie

Travels with Julia || Nicaragua Maybe because growing up in a family that endured the last world war in Italy, often hungry, my journey as a writer is concerned with food. For me, everything about it fascinates—growing it, harvesting it, cooking it, understanding its cultural trajectory. The recipes are metaphors, albeit edible ones. When I traveled to Nicaragua recently to meet up with my daughter and make our way together to a remote village in the country’s highlands, I learned such a recipe, one that has come to have meaning for me far beyond the discovery of a new dish. [...more...]

Oct 122013
Uprooted to Lancaster

Summer is my season. I can no more abandon my garden for a beach holiday than leave a bubbling pot on the stove to burn. I love watching my vegetables grow and the perennials exploding in the flower beds, putting on one gorgeous show after another. There are zucchini flowers to pick in the early morning, and sauces to be made when only fresh tomatoes will do; Romas to be oven-dried and frozen, and peppers to be roasted and put up for the winter. Autumn is a bittersweet time for the likes of me, invigorating and melancholy all at once, [...more...]

Aug 012013
Reader Mail: Why Does Everything Taste Better in Rome?

  Every cookbook writer loves to hear from their readers and find out how they’re getting along with the recipes that are lovingly tested to make them foolproof before they’re published (but, hey! don’t expect the results promised if you go off and “do your own thing”). Here’s a message I got recently (what a treat—they even sent a photo!): Before my wife had given me your Classic Italian Cookbook, I had only nostalgia for the dishes I had tasted during my stay in Rome. Now I am able to re-create those same dishes in my own home, and I [...more...]