Today, in the United States it is Mother’s Day and though we don’t share the same date for this holiday in Italy, we do have such a day to celebrate our mothers. This day still makes me wax nostalgic and think of my mother, Adelia and my life in Italy. I was cheated of knowing her and caring for her as a grown man. She died at a very young age when I was only thirteen years old. Still, though I was young, my memories of her are profound and usually associated with food and love. It was she, Adelia, who gave me my love and passion for food and cooking.
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I was born at home in Portogruaro and grew up there in what was, at the time of the Roman Empire, called the Concordia Sagittaria, an area famous for both its arrows and its river shrimp. I grew up near the river that was once controlled first by Roman legions then by the Catholic church. Whoever controlled the water at that time, controlled the power of the cities nearby. That river powered the mills and provided freshwater shrimp and trout so it was incredibly valuable in terms of ancient commerce. In my time there, we were famous for our trout and freshwater shrimp, Housewives often made a very famous frittata filled with that succulent and sweet crustacean. I never got a chance to cook for my mother on Mother’s Day. In school I did what American kids do, make funny little cards and objects to bring to her and she treasured those things as mothers do. She, however, took care of me and often made my gnocchi, because she knew it was one of my favorite things to eat. I remember my head coming to just the edge of the table where she worked the gnocchi dough and every so often, I’d snatch one of those soft little bites of heaven and run.
Today, in honor of her, I am making the gnocchi I love, in a different, more Californian way since we don’t have the white mountain potatoes I grew up with. If I could cook for her today, I would make her the things she loved: baked apples, radicchio, polenta and a few other special dishes. I think I would fill the table with all her favorites, but since she is not here, I will make gnocchi, baked apples, and eggplant.
The apples my mother often bought and that were her favorites were a variety called Abbondanza, a variety not found here, so I will have to make do with Granny Smith. I remember they smelled most intensely of apples and when she baked them over a wood fire, the smell would permeate our home and drive us all mad with desire for them. There’s a reason apples were seen as temptation and/or seduction in biblical writings. I think it has to do with the scent of them baking. That incredibly strong smell of Abbondanza apples would seduce an angel or a saint. My mother’s baked apples required no spices, no sugar – we ate them just as they were, hot and sweet right out of the oven. I am wishing you all a very happy Mother’s Day and hoping that your family is creating beautiful and poignant memories like mine built on an architecture of food, family and love. Buon apetito!