The Italians capture summer by the sea in one word, “salsedine”. It defines the fragrance of the salty air, the ripples of ocean life, beating new life into worn-out city dwellers. My own memories of Italian beach life, from a child to a teenager and then as a mother bringing her own children, is the sense of freedom and the priceless contentment it affords.
As a child, my Italian summers were spent with my grandparents, Maria and Armando. Their little village is a 20-minute bus ride to the “Spiaggia Libera” – the public beach. Armed with our umbrella, straw mats and 1000 lira, I and my cousins visiting for the holidays would board the bus. Breakfast was giant sugared donuts called “ciambelle” or custard-filled “bombolone”. We waited eagerly mid-morning for the “coco boys” selling sliced coconut from water-filled buckets, or “grattachecca” from the pushcarts along the shore, mesmerised with their skill to shave blocks of ice topped with endless choices of fruit syrup. We munched on anise bagel-shaped crackers whilst waiting for the bus home. Of course being in Italy, the timetable was merely a suggestion of the departure time!
What I do remember is we had to be back at Nonna’s for lunch at 1pm as there were no restaurant lunches for us. Why get a stranger to cook for you “we have the best food here” was my Nonna’s mantra. The house would be filled with the smell of simmering tomatoes. The table crockery consisted of glasses recycled from Nutella jars. There weren’t enough matching plates or chairs to cope with the ever-extending brood of grandchildren. Three generations would break bread at that table together. Lunches were an exhausting two-hour affair and my Nonna wouldn’t have had it any other way. She had waited a whole year for her family to be reunited and was sure to make the most the time together.
Starters were fried “alici” – sprats caught in the nets of local fishermen, fried courgette chips and their flowers plucked from Nonna’s garden. The stuffed flowers were seductive bites, filled with moreish melting cheese and anchovies. Main course was sometimes her own homemade pasta, effortlessly pinned out with a broomstick to a few millimetres of thickness, or spaghetti Vongole. Simple tomato and green salads grown a stone’s throw from the kitchen, dressed with her own vinegar and oil. Knots of milky buffalo mozzarella from the nearby town of Mondragone and jars of homemade salty cheese preserved in oil and chilli from the springtime.
Dessert was plates of local fresh figs or wild strawberries found nearby. My grandfather sat quietly among the chaos of the kids, diligently cutting fresh peaches into jugs of his uva fragola wine – an indigenous local red grape with scents of strawberries. All her food was “pulito“, “naturale“ and “genuino”. Translating literally to mean, clean, natural and honest – I guess organic in today’s vocabulary. They had respect for the Earth, nothing was thrown away, bottles and jars recycled to store her homemade passata, preserved vegetables and dried pulses. Her entire wealth, family and food, lay around that table.
In the evenings my grandfather would play card games or “bocce” in the village square with his friends. The dimly lit path home was illuminated with fireflies and the sky resembled Van Gogh’s Starry Night. My Nonna would remain at home with local neighbours and distant relatives, gathered round her table chatting into the night. We were met with a line of double-cheek kisses, endearing cheek pinching and introduced not by our names but by our parents’ names. This is “Gina’s daughter” or “Gianni’s son”. I never really knew who our immediate relatives were, as everyone was absorbed under the title of “parente” – a general term for family or acquaintance.
Goodbyes never got easier and became even harder as an adult as I comprehended my grandparents’ mortality. The ritual was always the same. My grandfather would go to the fields at 5am to pick figs and tomatoes. My Nonna would sneak bottles of homemade wine, cheese and passata into our cases. As the luggage was packed into the car for the journey to Rome airport, my grandfather handed me a shoebox with the carefully wrapped figs – my mother’s favourite. “For mamma,” he would say with tears in his eyes. His gift was priceless, the currency of love for his much-missed daughter back in Glasgow. I hugged them tight one last time. Their table had been the centre of my universe all summer, I was so sad to leave their world. Their food would define our restaurant summer menu 40 years later with the hope of sharing with another generation the simplicity of another time. It is no coincidence that the sign above the door today reads “Food, Family, Life, Passion”, a tribute that ties us to their unpretentious world and the old table that was intended for its purpose, to bring people together.
2 x 200g Tuna steaks
1/3 potato, sliced
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium red pepper, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced
2 anchovy pieces
40g Gaeta olives, pitted
Pinch of chilli flakes
20g of basil, sliced (plus few smaller leaves kept whole for garnish)
1/3 fennel, shaved
Parsley, finely diced
Salt and pepper
1. Deep fry the potato slices until golden brown, season and set aside.
2. In a hot pan, sear the tuna with plenty of seasoning, set to one side.
3. Using the same pan, sauté the cherry tomatoes, pepper, red onion, and anchovy until softened, add the chilli, parsley, capers, olives and basil.
4. Place the puttanesca mix in the centre of the plate, slice the tuna steaks into 4 and place over the warm putanesca mix.
5. Garnish with the shaved fennel, crispy potatoes and basil leaves, finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.