In our rented Fiat with the steering wheel on the right hand side, we motored around steep, winding curves. The Italian Alps surrounded us, their white, sun-drenched cliffs peaking in the clouds above. One gorgeous and awe-inspiring sight followed the next, and we snapped photographs out the side windows even with the vehicle in motion.
We fired off shots of hidden glades packed tightly with alien conifers, of meandering brooks that bubbled and babbled down soft inclines, of tiny mountain towns with their terra-cotta roofs perched high atop the world, and of Lake Garda dotted with tiny sailboats and winking back at us from the valley below. Its vastness made it look like a roaring ocean.
Our cameras stopped clicking only to enter one of many unlit and unlined tunnels that patched their way through the mountains. Drivers flipped on high beams and attempted to communicate, through flashes, a logical order for traversing the darkness. Of course, logic in Italy is mostly launched out open windows, and many of the seasoned Italian drivers shot through the tunnels blindly and at warp speed.
By about mid day, all the sight seeing and avoiding death had made us hungry, so we pulled off the road for lunch at a tiny lodge that was directly out of Swiss Family Robinson. Great plumes of white smoke billowed from an ancient, stone chimney and beckoned us inside with the sweet and musty scent of smoldering cedar.
I don’t remember ever seeing a menu. We were seated at a large, wooden table near the fireplace and, almost immediately, the waiters lead a procession of food from the kitchen to our table that could have easily fed Mussolini’s army.
We ate long braids of doughy bread and washed them down with white wine that was so clear and crisp it could have flowed directly from a mountain stream. We ate homemade cheeses and salads covered in nuts from the surrounding forest. We gobbled down tender strips of rabbit, pheasant, and pork that was marinated in balsamic vinegar and roasted to perfection over a spit. It was, quite possibly, the most delicious meal I’d ever eaten.
Afterwards, I remember leaning back from the table and basking in the moment. The meal had served as a catalyst. I knew we were blessed to share this experience together in the land which bore our roots.
My glance panned from relative to relative, each of them Sicilian, until my eyes set on my aunt’s smiling face. And suddenly, I realized two surprising but fundamental truths.
One, my aunt was not Sicilian at all. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but she was the only one at the table without a single drop of Sicilian blood in her.
Two, this couldn’t have been the most delicious meal I’d ever eaten. It wasn’t second, third, or even sixth on the list either, because all of those slots had been dutifully filled over the years by that same aunt.
She’s roasted ducks and filleted flanks of beef and constructed authentic pasta dishes that have kept me awake at night just thinking about them. Even more impressive, every one of her holiday dinners have withstood the rigors of the gourmet world’s most stringent critic: my father. I’ve seen the man eat a five star meal and when I ask him how it tastes he says, “It’s ok.”
It’s ‘ok’ he tells me.
But when he’s in front of a full plate at my aunt’s dinner table he’s hunkered down like a sea captain in a squall. You can’t wrestle a pea away from him. And nobody tries because they’re too busy attending to their own plates.
It’s like, one day my aunt found herself alone in a room full of noisy Sicilians. And she boldly dared to tame them with their most sacred entity: food. And she pulled it off.
And for that I must alter one of the fundamental truths I thought I’d realized that day in the Alps. Maybe my aunt really is Sicilian after all.
Yes, I think she has been all along.