Food has a way of bringing people together in a myriad of ways. As the Guarascios’ guest, I was invited and included into their home and their family and enjoyed a lovely, homemade meal. I also experienced the togetherness of a family that lives and works together.
For years I have visited and written about the culture and cuisine of northern Italy, especially the areas in and around Bologna, Modena and Ferrara. Last February, I found myself headed south to where the Apennines Mountains, the 750-mile mountain range that continues through the spine of Italy, end – at the “toe” in Reggio di Calabria, the largest city in Calabria.
This is a region I have always been interested in visiting, and using this as my home base I was able to explore this exciting, rustic region of Italy.
One of my first adventures was to the quaint town of Scilla, north of Reggio Calabria in the Costa Viola, a stretch of beautiful coastline looking out towards the Aeolian Islands. Here I visited with Rocco Galletta, whose vineyard grew on shelved terraces on the steep slopes. Rocco took me for a ride through the vineyard on a rickety device called a “monorack,” something like an old carnival train, which broke down at the half-way mark. This monorack (when it’s working) carries freshly picked grapes through the vineyards for making wine.
From here I headed to the ancient castle of Scilla, perched high on a cliff, to marvel at the breathtaking views of the sea below and beyond.
My next excursion took me out of the city to sample an array of Calabresi specialties at Sirianni.
This factory/store is owned and operated by Angela Zappia and makes specialty products. I tasted the typical hot peppers of Calabria, chopped and packed in oil; the famous Tropea onions, cooked and turned into a condiment; a marmalade made from the bergamot fruit; and the region’s famous enduja (pronounced en-DOO- ya), a spicy, spreadable pork salami that has become a unique food item here in the states. I sampled them all! And I was able to pack a few of the specialties in my suitcase and take them home with me.
A few days later I ventured up the coast to Cosenza, a cultural hub with museums, theaters and the University of Calabria. Here I roamed the town’s ancient buildings and landmarks and explored the “open air museum,” a street stretching several blocks through the center of the town. This “museum” boasts a wide range of modern art sculptures. One that especially caught my eye was a sculpture of St. George and the Dragon by Salvador Dali, .
As I ate in restaurants and tasted a variety of wines I was served a sampling of delicious mountain cheeses made with goat and sheep’s milk. I needed to learn more about these wonderful cheeses. I made a few inquiries and heard of a four-generation family of cheesemakers high in the mountains outside of Reggio.
I decided to pay them a visit.
In the morning when I left my hotel in it was clear and sunny, with the temperature in the 60s. I threw on a light jacket, got in the car, and headed up a winding road filled with hairpin turns and speeding cars. Two hours later, when I arrived in the village of San Giovanni in Fiore, high in the mountains, it was snowing, sleeting, and miserably cold.
But when I got out of the car I was greeted by the friendly, smiling faces of the Cuarascio family of cheesemakers I’d come to visit. They escorted me into a small and even colder room where they made their specialty cheeses. From here we went to the barn, where there were hundreds of sheep and goats with different colored streaks on their backs signifying their age. It was several weeks before Easter, and I was told many would be slaughtered and sold for the holiday and only 100 would be kept for making cheese.
Then it was back out into the sleet and snow and up a flight of stairs into the main house. I was immediately drawn to the roaring fire in the fireplace to warm up. As I warmed, I looked around and saw what you would typically expect to see in an Italian home: There was a picture of the Virgin Mary, a crucifix on the wall, a wreath of artificial flowers over the fireplace, and a large table down the center of the room covered with a plastic table cloth
I was introduced to Filomena, the mother, who immediately covered the table with a fancy embroidered tablecloth.
Then came the food: a plate of the family’s special formaggio stagionato, a hard cheese made by blending equal parts sheep and goat’s milk and aged for at least 10 months (similar to the Parmesan of the north); formaggio semi sragianato, a semi-hard cheese, made the same way but aged for only two months; a platter of head cheese. This delicacy is made from the meat of pig’s head and something I remember my grandparents made regularly in the fall; a fancy platter of homemade sausages, marinated olives and slabs of ½-inch thick prosciutto; a basket of bread and — of course– a bottle of homemade red wine. I felt right at home!
Food has a way of bringing people together in a myriad of ways. As the Guarascios’ guest, I was invited and included into their home and their family and enjoyed a lovely, homemade meal. I also experienced the togetherness of a family that lives and works together. I know the Guarascio’s sensed my appreciation and love for what they were sharing with me, a validation of their love for food and family.
Connecting with these, hardworking families with their customs and traditions, is where I find my passion and pleasure and experience my biggest joys in life.
When I arrived back at my hotel in Reggio, the weather was warm and sunny. I thought about my trip to the mountains and meeting the large Guarascio family. It reminded me of my warm, family bonds I once had as a small child in Sagamore.
Ricotta Pesto Spread for Crostini
Serves 6 to 8 as as appetizer
Calabria is famous for its ricotta cheese. I had it several times and it is one of the best I have ever tasted. Here is a version made with fresh pesto for use as a spread. It can also be tossed into fresh warm pasta.
1 cup of whole milk ricotta cheese
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh pesto (recipe below)
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
12 to 14 (1-inch) wide slices of toasted bread from a French baguette
In a medium bowl mix the ricotta with the pesto. Spread on toasted bread and serve.
Fresh Basil Pesto
Makes about 1 1/4 cup
If I am not pressed for time I like to make my pesto the old-fashioned way, in the marble mortar and pestle I bought in Italy. If I am pressed for time I use the food blender.
Instructions for blender or food processor method.
1 pinch coarse salt
2 cups fresh basil leaves, cleaned and with spines removed
2 large garlic cloves, peeled, with the green heart removed
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons each finely grated Parmesan and Romano cheese*
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, approximately
A dollop of soft butter
Salt to taste, if needed
In a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade combine the basil and garlic and blend into a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl when necessary. Add the pine nuts and cheeses and process until smooth. With the machine running, add the olive oil in a steady stream and mix until smooth and creamy, then stir in the butter. If sauce is too thick, a little warm water poured through the tube while the machine is running will smooth it out.
To keep the pesto, place it in small containers 90 percent full and pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top, cover and refrigerate will keep for several days. *If you choose to freeze the pesto, eliminate the cheeses until ready to use. I use a small ice tray to freeze pesto. Portions are perfect for using in sauces or for a serving of fresh pasta.