Aside from the fact that I am frozen solid- hello, I booked 4 nights in a castle, what part of 16th century stone building wasn’t I getting- this is a wonderful experience. What is every food traveler’s dream? To meet the locals, eat with them, talk with them – be a part of the culture. Well, I am deep inside this olive orchard staying at a family run B&B, that happens to be their weekend home. So, last night I went to the birthday party of an 11 year old nephew of the gal who has been my interpreter. There I met the sisters, brothers, mother and enjoyed a dozen 11 year olds screaming, shouting and running around in the castle’s main room, heated by a fireplace – only. It was actually a lot of fun as I have not been around kids or dogs much at school and I miss them both. Nonna baked the birthday cake, it was screaming homemade, and it was wonderful. No frosting, just a pan di Spanga, which is like a sponge cake and a wonderful light, but rich, filling. I asked what it was – “Solo marscapone e panna.” Hmmmmm, marcapone and cream, no wonder it was fabulous. Before I left for bed last night, after a long session with the grandkids answering questions in English, I was invited to dinner the next day. They were pretty insistent. So, I went to Terlizzi and was back by 1 PM, as instructed.
Dinner started at 1:30 and it progressed exactly as any holiday dinner would – with about 7 courses. We started with local olives, homemade: foccacia, marinated zucchini, sundried tomatoes, freshly picked and pickled mushrooms, fresh local fennel and celery and locally produced wine. Oh, and tiny fried hearts of artichoke- not canned. After that came a plate of penne rigate with grated fresh local cheese. We rested a while and then I saw Nonna headed out to the bar b que with a bowl of some sort of meat and I wondered what that might be. She returned shortly after with a bowl full of teeny tiny lamb chops, barely even a bite and they were delicious. Served with the lamb, grated cheese instead of salt, and a platter of prosciutto, a bowl of locally made fresh mozzarella boccini’s and a platter of 2 types of cheese. After the meat course came fruit. A serious platter with all sorts of fruits, you guessed it, local. Pears, oranges, clementines, kiwis(from Calabria) and pineapple from Africa. Italians really love their pineapple. I ate half an orange and it was so sweet and juicy I couldn’t believe it.
We progressed to the dessert courses. First we had leftover birthday cake, then came a platter of mini desserts that I bought at a local pastry shop, and after that, there was a package of sussumieles, a cookie that my Nonna made and is from Terlizzi. It was so sweet that she went out and got them for me after we discussed them last night. When all that was over the Lemoncello came out and that was followed by coffee. I was stuffed.
During the dinner, when Papa’ was at the table the girls filled him in on my quest to find my roots. I have 5 photos from 1982 of my Mom and Dad in Terlizzi, standing in front of her Father’s birthplace. Turns out Papa’, who is a toothpick (stussicadente) and consumes a vast quantity of food, is a restorer of old houses in old Terlizzi. He studied the pictures, asked some detailed questions and intends to take the photos to town tomorrow and find the place. I don’t know if that will actually be a reality but I was absolutely touched that would even try. In the meantime this lovely, ordinary family has taken me into the fold and fed me, talked to me, and is helping me reconnect with my heritage. How cool is that?
In the end, I had every meal with them; they toted me through the neighboring cities, took me to Carnivale, brought me to the ceramic factory when I said I wanted to buy some ceramics from Terlizzi and checked out my schedule. They wanted to know when I was leaving Italy, exactly.
Mamma also designated her daughters to take me to the city office to look up my grandparents. The first trip seemed successful until we got home and looked more closely at the dates. It could not have been my family as they were already in America by that time. We returned the next day after I did some internet research in town at the Internet-Hotspot-Foreign Telephone-Store, owned by the obligatory Arab immigrant. I found more detail and better dates. When we presented the data, remember of course, I am the only one who speaks English, but Isa was getting the message across to the city employee, the gal behind the counter when over to a set of metal bound little books, about 6” by 12” and looked up the marriage dates – no Romanos. When that avenue was exhausted she walked from behind the modern counter (modern for Italy, about 1970’s style) down the hall and into a room. We followed her tentatively since we had not been invited.
As I peered around the corner I was dumfounded. In that room, about 12’ x 12’ were shelves from floor to ceiling. On those shelves were books old and tattered and smelling of the 150 years of dust that was collecting on them. One the left side of the room they were all labeled “Nati” and the date, on the right “Morti”, and the date. In the middle of the room, on a serviceable metal table, were stacked whatever books had been the subject of research and not returned to its place, an assortment from 1889 to 1952 of books large and small. A picture was out of the question, so I studied the room and its contents and committed it to memory. It started with smallish books, maybe 8 x 10 and in 1850. A series of perhaps 10 books were that size, and then a new clerk had decided on a bigger book size, maybe it was the fashion or perhaps the birth rate was higher. Then, a decade or so later the books jumped to a new size that commanded attention on the shelf. These books emanated gravity and significance, covered in dark green fabric and the size of a coffee table photo collections. Their bindings did not hold up to the usage they received and all but one or two had been rebound and the hand lettering of dates was on the spine. The books went completely around the room. Eventually, as if to convince me of the truth I wished wasn’t, the clerk turned the book towards me and invited me in to look at it. We went down the alphabetical list of names; each hand written, in the same hand, obviously collected and collated after that year’s last birth. A beautiful register of all the births in Terlizzi 1889, but no Romano had been born there. I was disappointed for a few minutes, but it passed quickly. They were simply born elsewhere, I knew they had lived there, not where exactly, but I did have a picture of the door.
When we met for dinner that night, Papa came to the table and said he had found the street and the door. We would go tomorrow and see it.
“You’ll never find It.” That was Dad’s sad response when I said I wanted to go to the place in the picture he was holding. Dad explained how difficult it had been for them to locate the actual house in Terlizzi, and they had family with them who knew where to look. That was 1982. Somewhere in my young mind I put that desire in a little slot and left it untouched for about 30 years. Over the course of the last two years I had a chance to look at those old photos again in Florida, and took a set of duplicates home with me- the pictures of Mom and Dad and cousins and uncles, all in Terlizzi and Livorno, right in front of the homes they had sought. The desire was jostled loose from its niche in my brain and began to pop up occasionally over the next 18 months. I put the little packet of photos in my overstuffed suitcase, and although I dropped some clothes, a hairdryer and Alaskan souvenirs in Florida, I kept the photos in there. I did not have a plan, just the pictures. The plan evolved over time.
Ciao for now,