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I remember falling in love with Italy at 15 on my first visit. Feeling a simmering warmth from the belly of my soul all the way to my tips of the hairs on my head. I was awestruck by the bright smiles and sweet embraces between people on the streets;

 
By the rolling flavors of the freshest lemon pasta with bursting sun dried tomatoes on my tongue as if sun rays were actually bursting from them.

From that first trip, I knew in my bones this culture and way of life spoke to me.

I have traveled to Italy many times since, and every time I’ve been, I’ve tried to make sure I immerse myself in the culture as heartily as possible, to hopefully satiate the feeling of withdrawal that will inevitably arise upon my return to the states.
 

I’ve had several Italian dating experiences but only recently did it become clear to me that part of my desire to date an Italian is heavily in part due to the time they spent doting on me through sharing and preparing food. I’ve always loved food (hello Greek family) and find it to be the most inviting exposure to a variety of cultures. Each Italian man opened my eyes to something new and contributed to nourishing my love affair with the country.

 

Nello. Nello the waiter. 

 
Nello with the wide Cheshire Cat smile that took up his entire face. Nello with the pasta and fish.



 
 

I met Nello when I had joined a day trip as a part of a geriatric tour being led by a family friend and her husband, Francesco. They were visiting Francesco’s family restaurant in Cercina outside of Florence for an olive oil tasting and followed by a big lunch. With everyone on the tour being well over 60 years old (though as we now know don’t count them out for me), I stuck out quite a bit as the only flirting prospect.

Nello kept trying to catch my eye as they were preparing little sips for us. Despite his efforts to grab my attention, I became fascinated with the display being set up for us. I had never thought olive oil was something to be tasted, but the rainbow of peppery, citrus, and smooth olive flavors I experienced immediately changed my perception. A few minutes into our sipping olive oil, an older woman waddles out from the kitchen with a napkin tied around her head, carrying a lump of yellow pasta dough. This woman is introduced as “Bruna,” who was there to demonstrate how to make homemade ravioli for everyone.

 
Nello’s attempts to get my attention dwindled as it became clear I was enthralled by the mangled arthritic hands of Bruna kneading and rolling out pasta dough.

After our session with Bruna ended, Nello tried a new tactic. He waved me over so he could show me the kitchen. I spent the rest of our visit in the kitchen being fed sauces, fresh beans, and cheeses by Nello and Bruna. They explained the best they could with practically no knowledge of English as I attempted to understand their Italian. I had only taken 3 Italian classes so far and was by no means conversational so the best vehicle for understanding was the expression on my face as I experienced the beauty of it all.   

Nello and I became a little bit of a thing and we quickly blended our groups of friends together. At some point, his friends decided they wanted to host a homemade dinner for us. They insisted on cooking and explained it would be a multi-course meal of varying fish. I don’t remember all of the details about what we ate.

 
The experience of having 4 grown men wearing aprons and frantically cooking in a teensy tiny galley kitchen for 4 women was a role reversal none of us had ever experienced.

My friends and I were lounging in the living room with 2 open bottles of wine while these men were smashed shoulder to shoulder fixated on impressing us with platter upon platter of fish. We had a feast of grilled octopus with parsley garlic and olive oil, octopus salad with mayonnaise dressing (every Italian man I’ve dated has loved mayonnaise like I’ve never seen), marinated shrimp with garlic and Calabrian chilies, calamari, and spaghetti with clams. I feel like I can still hear the sounds of oil splattering every which way, the clicking of the clam shells, and incredibly fast, animated Italian being spoken.




Federico. Federico the Venetian. 

 

Federico with the lemon tree. Federico with a chunk of farmland on Sant’Erasmo. My evening spent cooking at Federico’s (only cooking) practically set off World War III with the Italian man I was dating at the time.

 
 
Apparently making a meal together was worse than sleeping with another person.

In hindsight, he was right. Alas, my interest in the food was much greater than my interest in either of the men.

 

I was lucky enough to experience the Sant’Erasmo violet artichokes on one of these dinner occasions. They are native to the lagoon island and even have their own festival in May.

The artichokes Federico brought for us were about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide, fairly small and of a vibrant deep purple color. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by artichokes and not quite knowing how to tackle them. I practically had a notebook ready to take down whatever Italian secrets I was about to learn on how to cook away the toughness. Much to my surprise, he rinsed them and said we were to eat them raw.

Apparently, these are softer than the larger green artichokes you typically find. After rinsing, all they needed were to be sliced thinly, drizzled in good olive oil and lemon juice, and sprinkled with a touch of salt and pepper. There’s a strong mineral flavor and you feel like you’re really tasting the freshness of the island soil. The perfect iteration of the Italian food mantra “simple, fresh, and local”. 


Ema. Ema the night manager. 

 
 
Ema the vegetarian, by choice, who also happens to be allergic to fish. A completely miserable life if not for cheese and bread.

Ema with the country house. His unwavering interest in the community and immense pride for what they produce dictated at least 75% of our conversations. We talked a lot about the nuances of the countryside communities, the local traditions and mentalities, and of course most frequently the specific foods or wines they’re known for. 

One of the errands that became routine for us was going for a drive to see Sergio at his house to pick up jars of honey and stopping by the local cheese shop. Sergio always had different honeys and kept them in a bookcase in his living room. His daughter would play, showing me farm animals as he was explaining the rotating flavors of honey he had for us. One honey I hadn’t ever tried before was Tiglio. It has this light minty taste followed by a soft citrus palate that spreads all over the inside your mouth. Something sharp yet refreshing and a sweet that hits the back of your teeth.

 

The first time I had this verbena grappa was in September 2017 on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Ema had come down from Venice to visit - it would be our second time ever meeting almost exactly a year since we’d met in Venice (that story requires its own book). It was the second and last night Ema and I had before my Mum and I were off to Taormina.

We’d usually get back to Ema’s house after these drives and make an aperitivo feast of the honey, the local hard cheese with crystalized bits that left the taste of toasted almonds, and a bottle of the driest, most crisp homemade prosecco from his neighbor. My favorite treat though was the nightcap of homemade verbena flavored grappa. 

Ema had used an old plastic ice cream container to pack 2 little grappa glasses with etched floral designs on them, wrapped in paper towels.
 

Accompanying the glasses was a little bottle of this verbena grappa from his neighbor. I have never tasted something so sweet and herbaceous and lemony all at the same time. It wasn’t too sweet because the herbs and tart kick of lemon evened it all out beautifully leaving a little warmth sitting in the back of my throat. We sat on the Spanish Steps for hours in the middle of the night, staring out at complete emptiness down via dei Condotti, smoking and drinking this grappa. 

It has always felt like a treat to learn about Italy through the food people have shared with me. Italian men have been a prominent vehicle for that exposure in my life, doting on me in the way I desire most - through food. To me, food equals love. And my love of Italy is unwavering.

So maybe it’s okay to follow the hand that feeds you - but only if the food is worth it.
 
 

 

Rachel Downes

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