I grew up in Livorno, a boisterous town in Tuscany. In Livorno, the flavors of food, the colors of nature, and the scent of the pittosporum bushes along the passeggiata a mare, the beautiful promenade along the sea, are bolder and less domesticated than anywhere else in elegant Tuscany.
The nonaristocratic beginnings of my natal town have chiseled a certain expression on its people's faces and marked their vernacular with a wit that lashes out and leaves a mark. The word that describes our most characteristic traits is beceri (boorish), and the Livornesi have almost managed to convert this admittedly insulting adjective, used strictly in Tuscany, into a term of affection. Yes, loud and boorish we definitely are, and we take pride in the countless tales of pirates and brigands indissolubly linked to our history.
I lived for a great part of my childhood with my parents and grandparents in a big three-story house. My parents always ate downstairs at the table in the dining room with my grandparents, Nonno GianPaolo and Nonna Valentina. My brother, my sisters, and I were supposed to take our meals upstairs. The exclusion from the adults' table itself was enough to make me wish to be part of their evening ritual, even if it meant only being allowed to say two phrases during the entire meal: "Grazie," "No grazie." The few times we were allowed to dine downstairs, flawless dishes would be brought in by Emilia, our beloved cook, who bustled unperturbed between her stove and the dining room. The food was invariably white -- uniformly white -- and bland. Always very good, always impeccably executed, but so bland. Many soufflés, lots of sformati (timbales), paste al gratin, and beautiful fish -- maybe a merluzzo (a small Mediterranean cod), steamed to perfection, with a whisper of extra-virgin olive oil. Food was judged by the same standard as fashion: spiciness was as vulgar as a skintight dress.
One day as I passed through the kitchen after playing in the garden, my senses were suddenly awakened, stirred by a vivid aroma that I had never experienced at the table with my family. Emilia was eating the meal she had prepared for herself. It was an explosion of colors: vermilion tomatoes, green basilico and parsley, and contrasting black pepper dots. And the smell! Pungent, strong, and exotic enough to stop me, and my seven-year-old nose, in my tracks.
Emilia must have recognized a soul mate in my startled, hungry look. "Vuoi provare?" She scooped up some of that wonderful redness with a big morsel of bread and offered it to me. "Oh, Emilia!" I gushed. "This is so tasty." I had finally discovered real food, and I was hooked forever. Now I knew that life -- real life -- happened behind the kitchen doors and not in the subdued, elegant atmosphere of my grandparents' dining room.
Having shared her food with me, Emilia went a step further and offered to give me cooking lessons. I eagerly accepted.
Emilia was a fierce, thickset woman, one of many siblings born in a small fishing village a few kilometers south of Livorno. Sent to work at a very early age -- as was the custom at the time -- she had come to the big city in search of a good job and somehow landed in our home, becoming a constant presence in our life. Emilia had been there for us children since our births.
At the start of our afternoons together, Emilia enveloped me tightly in the blue-and-white-striped apron that would protect my clothes. She carefully rolled up the sleeves of my dresses and sweaters to avoid likely disasters and showed me how to wash my hands thoroughly, scrubbing fingertips and nails with ruthless vigor. Only after she was satisfied that the garden grime had been scoured from my arms, hands, and fingertips did she allow me to dip a spoon into a dish of flour or to help her knead dough.
Emilia asserted that a good cook had to be able to handle the range of more disgusting chores, and I obeyed wholeheartedly. "Attenta, Bimba! Be careful not to leave any trace of bile, or the chicken will be unbearably bitter. Look inside the stomach and scrub it meticulously; the bile is dark and easy to spot," Emilia cautioned. The tiny brown livers had to be put aside for future gourmet usage. I gingerly played with their spongy consistency, examining the white filaments that enshrouded them like a fishnet. Within hours they would end up in delicate ragù sauces or -- mixed with veal and prosciutto -- become a delicious filling for the little vols-au-vent often served as appetizers.
Inserting my fingers into the gills and guts of fish and poultry were all part of my formal kitchen education. I learned to scale fish, standing on a stool in front of the gray marble counter, and instantly took to this particular task. The messiness of sending millions of translucent, silvery scales flying all over the sink and onto the kitchen floor fitted beautifully with my innate love for visual anarchy. I quickly learned the secrets of sending to the tavola dei Signori the perfectly elegant sformati while savoring the conspiratorial joy of producing strong, lush sauces to complement spaghetti, polenta, meats, and fish for just Emilia and me. We prepared thick ragùs with veal, sausages, and prosciutto. We sautéed the dark leaves of cavolo nero (Tuscan black cabbage) in olive oil, red pepper, and lots of garlic. I no longer yearned to sit at the adults' table; my meals with Emilia were far better!
Herbs were an essential part of Emilia's cooking, though not all of them were destined for my grandparents' table. Oregano, which has to be used in small quantities to avoid prevailing over other savors, was an important and acceptable addition. She sent me to the garden to pick what she needed for both my grandparents and herself: basil and parsley from the pots immediately outside the kitchen door, the other herbs from the patch near the chicken pen, where a few bushes of rosemary and sage grew tall and lopsided under the old medlar tree. I learned the characteristics and value of particular spices when she taught me her favorite dishes, the food from her family tradition. I learned to love the spiciness of peperoncino rosso, the strong red pepper from Campania, in the south of Italy, and the pungent bite of the black peppercorns she crushed into meat and fish.
Salsa di Pomodoro d'Emilia
Emilia's Tomato Sauce
Emilia would add a sprig of basil or rosemary or a glass of red wine along with the tomatoes, according to her mood. The sauce always turned out a bit differently, yet it was always delicious.
1 medium yellow onion
1 medium carrot
1 clove garlic
12 stalk celery