I cried our first night in Treviso.
Richard spent a romantic evening in Venice and didn’t want to leave. It took me five embarrassing and frustrating minutes to find reverse on the rental car. The GPS that Nicola arranged fell through. I was the ire of a sleep-deprived 20 year old.
With Richard checked into the Treviso hotel, Marina and I tried to navigate streets without signposts (street names are hidden on buildings) from the hotel to the Treviso information center. We took a 30-minute detour around the city, hopelessly lost. A sweet Italian who knew as much English as we knew Italian went out of his way to get us to an “internet café”—common ground. From there, the tourism office helped us find a phone number for my father’s cousin, Settimio, with whom we had had one initial email correspondence. In that email (written in English by a translator), Settimio said that he was 86 and had been blind for 10 years. But still, he welcomed us.
It was a mistake to come on a hope and a prayer and an international driver’s license believing I could manage a foreign car on foreign soil. What was I thinking? Was I thinking? I cried over pizza (prosciutto and arugula) as Marina and I sat in a restaurant. In the midst of an emotional meltdown I came up for air. Was there was a way to salvage the trip? Figure this out.
We needed to do two things: 1. Contact Settimio. 2. Get GPS. The rest, I believed, would fall into place.
|Settimio on his newest toy|
Our Italian translator sound asleep, we asked the hotel clerk to call Settimio. After some confusion and three or four calls, we made arrangements to go to his home the following day. The clerk also called the airport, once again reserving our much-needed GPS.
A new day. Marina helped me find the airport. We got our GPS! We returned to the hotel to pick up Richard, one conquest under our seatbelts. We plugged in the address. Hey, this is easy! Settimio and his son Luca greeted us at the front door. In minutes we were touring Settimio’s garden. The house was surrounded with fruit trees—persimmon, cherry, apricot—all used as supports for his tomato plants And there were basil, zucchini, cabbage, pepper, eggplant and bean plants. And fig trees, glorious fig trees! I had come looking for our roots in Italy, and found them in a Treviso garden.
Where’s your garlic? I asked Settimio through Richard. Though sightless, Setimio knew his way around his garden. “He doesn’t grow garlic,” Richard interpreted for me. “He doesn’t like garlic.” My Italian relative doesn’t like garlic? Talk about a shattered image.
|Luca slicing prosciutto|
With Richard’s Italian and Luca’s English we pieced together a lively conversation with Settimio, wife Ilda, and sons Luca and Marco. Settimio and his family visited my parents in State College in 1985. Apparently the highlight of the trip was riding in my parents’ 8-person van! Settimio spent 35 years working for Barilla, an Italian pasta company whose products are sold these days in our neighborhood Weis supermarket.
In the heart of his home, Settimio has a room lined with racks of wine he bottles himself and a hand-cranked prosciutto slicer. Then he led us to the dining room, where we gorged on prosciutto sliced as thin as ribbons, marinated mushrooms, pasta, pork, vegetables, a different wine with each course, and finally, as if we had any room, chocolate cake and grappa with espresso. We finished the afternoon with Luca taking us on a tour of the Palladian villas built by Venetian nobility and a stroll through the streets and piazzas of Treviso. This ancient city is encircled by stonewalls and crisscrossed with Sile River canals and bridges.
(Quick and condensed history lesson: The Veneto, which includes Venice, Treviso, and much of northeast Italy all the way to Austria, is one of 20 regions in Italy. It was part of the Roman Empire, invaded by the likes of Atilla the Hun, and then reigned as the Republic of Venice from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. In 1797 Napoleon dissolved the Republic and ceded the Veneto to the Austrian Empire. In fact, it wasn’t until 1866, after our Civil War, that the Veneto joined Italy.)
The following day we picked up Settimio in our rental car for him to escort us to my grandfather’s birthplace, Fregona, about 30 miles north. So, with an 86-year-old blind man giving directions in Italian, Richard translating them, and the Brit on GPS as backup, we drove past vineyards and villas through the Veneto countryside. Fregona is nestled in the backbone of the Pre-Alps, and roads are steep, narrow, and zigzagged. Near the top of the village was the house where my grandfather, Abele, and Settimio’s mother, Adele, were born. After a brief stop for photos, we continued our journey.
Settimio warned me to drive slowly as we approached the first of seven hairpin turns up the mountain behind Fregona entering the Cansiglio woods. The trees of this beech forest were carved into giant oars for rowing the battle ships of the Venetian Republic. My great-grandfather, Settimio told us, used that same beech for his livelihood, making thin, round boxes for the local cheeses. The forest is also home to the Calieron caves, where Italian resistance fighters hid as they sabotaged German troops.
Up up we climbed to a lookout where, on a clear day, you can see Venice. We continued driving up over the “crown” of the Pre-Alps and dropped into the hollow of the Cansiglio Plateau. The rural beauty took my breath. Sheep grazing in green pastures. A dairy filled with homemade yogurt in glass jars, fruit strudels, cheesecakes, and wheels of local cheese. A visit with Settimio’s eldest son, Adecchi, at his weekend home in a tiny village in the Cansiglio. I knew there was a reason that when I climbed Fleur-de-Lys’ hen hill I broke into song: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music…” My Italian roots have branches that reach into the alpine hills, my heritage.
We had worked up quite an appetite. Settimio took us to a restaurant where he was greeted like family. He guided us through the menu, selecting a platter of “funghi” (mushrooms, like the ones he gathered in the woods in his younger days), gnocchi with speck (juniper-flavored ham) and more funghi, cherries served in a bowl of ice water, and “red deer” in a rich sauce spooned alongside three peaks of golden polenta…just like my grandmother used to make.
At last, yellow polenta. And the waitress spoke English! I asked her why every restaurant in Venice served white polenta, but her restaurant served yellow. The bianca, she said, is refined, like the Venetians; the yellow polenta is the food of peasants. Like me. Cincin! Laurie Lynch
Translation:Cincin (pronounced cheen-cheen) is “Cheers” in Italian.
|Fregona cemetery, Settimio’s parents Adele and Roberto buried|
Background: My grandfather Abele Fedon was one of 3 million people who left Northern Italy to escape poverty between 1861 and 1961. He settled in Pen Argyl, Northampton County, PA, where he worked as a cobbler. It wasn’t until this trip that I realized his nickname, which I had only heard spoken, was “Bele,” the diminutive of Abele, not the word “belly,” for his ample one.
More Background: I knew my grandmother, Nives Marcon Fedon, was born in Danielsville, Northampton County, PA, but that her older siblings were born in Italy. I did a little digging after we returned and found that her older sister Dolores was born in Colle Umberto, just four miles south of Fregona. Nives’ parents were living when my older cousin was born, so the Nonno and Nonna names were already in use. He called his grandmother Nives “Nene, “ and it stuck. Her sister Dolores became “Dodo.” Family gatherings were quite a hoot: Nene, Nonno, Dodo, Nonna. Sheesh!
Looking Forward:Settimio and Ilda also have a daughter, Donatella, who I met via the telephone while visiting Italy. Donatella has a daughter Kendra who is living in Cambridge, England. Marina and Kendra plan to get together this fall when Marina starts her Master’s degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies.
The Recipe: I can still picture Nene, with both arms, stirring a kettle of polenta on the stove. For hours, she’d go round and round with an 18-inch long wooden paddle as the cornmeal belched steaming bubbles and thickened until the wooden paddle stood upright on its own.
Luckily, years ago my mother (of Polish heritage, mind you) found an easier way of making polenta. It’s the one I use, and I’ve often doubled the recipe without any problems:
1-½ cups yellow cornmeal
1-½ cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons butter
In saucepan stir together cornmeal, 1-½ cups of water, and salt. Gradually pour in 2 cups boiling water, stirring constantly. Bring mixture to boil. Partially cover pan and cook over low heat for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring often. When the wooden spoon stands up straight in thickened polenta, stir in butter and serve.
Nene always served polenta smothered in “tocio” (which sounds like tocho). Luca tells me “tocio” is Venetian for “sauce”. The basics of my favorite Nene sauce are first sautéing chopped onions in olive oil, then adding chicken breasts sprinkled with hefty amounts of cinnamon to brown. Once both sides are browned, add tomatoes, tomato paste, and herbs. This cooks long and slow until the meat can be gently pulled from the bone.