Our van climbed the winding road to Roccamonfina in Campania, my grandfather’s birthplace. As we followed the snow-covered Apennines from Rome, I practiced Italian with Luigi, our driver.
“E’ lontano, Luigi?”
“No, quasi cento kilometre.”
“Bene. State attento, eh.”
It was a clear January day. The trip along the autostrada was splendid; small hill towns painted into the landscape, beautiful valleys dressed in winter grays and browns, scattered cypress trees still holding their green, houses sketched on the mountainside, fields tilled to neat parallel mounds and ready for planting, undulating grape vines strung like strands wound together, waiting for the fruit. Perfect.
The winding road was bordered by leafless chestnut trees, hundreds, perhaps thousands, neatly trimmed, with stacks of pruned wood arranged perfectly at each base. The gray trees blended with the land, their trunks in turn blended with the uneven hills. Homes mingled with the trees dotting the countryside, smoke rising from the chimneys.
I pictured their families at lunch.
We approached the town center. There was Cousin Vincenzo. He smiled with chicklet- sized teeth, walked with short quick steps, and wore heavy glasses that settled low on his nose. He had on a soft gray hat with a short brim.
His small hands protruded from a bulky, gray winter coat. “He walks and looks like my father!” I embraced him. Due baci.
We followed him to a modest, two story house with an unlandscaped yard that sat behind a wall. An orange tiled roof that suggested an entrance to a temple hung over the gate. His chestnut trees surrounded the house.
We met his wife, Anna who invited us to join them for lunch.
We sat while Anna left for the kitchen and returned carrying dishes with generous portions of lasagna, each enough for a meal.
I had a feeling that we needed to pace ourselves as this perhaps was the beginning of a gustatory parade. I was right.
“My goodness, look at this lasagna.” The lasagna had layers of pasta so thin that we could see through them.
It melted to the taste. And the sauce was just as thin, perfectly lacing, and not intruding upon, the lasagna. Vincenzo brought out his homemade wine.
After the lasagna, Anna served meatballs and short ribs that were in the sauce from early morning and so soft and tender that we did not need a knife. Another dish was stacked with sausages, which Vincenzo made. They were firm and spiced with just enough salt and pepper to make me want to eat all of them. Following came fresh roasted chicken. This dish was rimmed with crunchy potatoes, rabe and mushrooms. Then Anna served pork and insalada; the wine vinegar seeped into the pork. I sopped up the sauce with more bread.
The food linked me to memories of Sunday dinner. And then came pannetone, provolone, and his chestnuts. Now, three hours from the lasagna, it was late afternoon, and the meal was topped with café’… espresso…limoncello…. anisette.
I looked around the dining room at the pictures on the walls…their wedding, children, and grandchildren.
I was sorry the day had to end.
“Grazie, grazie, cugini. Vi ringraziamo.”
“I would love to return to see you.”
“Si. Si. Anytime, anytime.
It is an invitation that is hard to overlook.
Our traveling companions became part of our family that day; laughing, sharing, eating, enjoying with wonder and admiration.
They seemed overwhelmed, consumed while they consumed, surely by the food, but moreso by the hospitality; generosity from the heart.
We could almost have been anyone, anywhere, anytime with Vincenzo and Anna. This day it was Roccamonfina.