I still remember those noisy lunches at grandma’s. The house was small, but the dining room, which was used only once a week and was otherwise kept closed, clean and darkened, became something huge and sacred on Sunday. We were all there together, despite living far apart: Sunday was the day when every one of us, through the food we were eating, could reflect in their own way on a value shared by everyone: family.
What always comes back to mind are the vivid smells of that day, that rowdy, happy ritual that nonetheless had its own rules and its own touch of formality. Every so often those smells collide again, and I know them immediately: opening a cupboard or a drawer on some holiday or other, it’s as if I was right back there. I can see the tablecloth, the good one, and the almost obsessive way of laying the table; the sauce bubbling in the pan, as it had been since the early morning. The homemade ravioli, with spinach and ricotta from the local shepherd. My mum and my aunt preparing the crostini neri, a mainstay: some – usually the elderly relatives – would want them dipped in broth, others not. Then would come the meat, the roast beef or some other roast, depending on the season. And always so much bread, that white, saltless bread. Some would be eating a crust, some the soft white inside, others a thin slice or a large one. There would be cheese “to cleanse the palate”, and then the most eagerly-awaited moment, dessert. Often, we would take our second helpings to the sofa with a steaming cup of coffee. This would be washed down with grappa, and then we’d be ready for the start of the Sunday soccer matches.
At the head of the table there’d be grandfather, keeping a kindly eye on proceedings, overseeing the wine, his daughters – my mother and my aunt – their husbands, and us children. We ate so much, too much.
The four-pillared baroque architecture of the Italian lunch was plain for all to see on those Sundays. The table groaned with a vast array of antipasti, based around crostini and cold meats, given their own little twist by the skill of the cook and the time of the year. Then there would be first courses of fresh or dried pasta, often filled with the flavours of the festivities; meat with sides of vegetables, cheese “to cleanse the palate”, those wonderful desserts, coffee from the percolator, bubbling up to fill the whole room with its exotic aromas. A full bread basket and red wine on the table, traditionally in a flask, now in a bottle or carafe. We would talk about anything over the course of this gastronomic marathon, often jibing and riling each other, but always in good fun.
As a child, though, I sometimes find it rather boring having to go for Sunday lunch with my grandparents. I occasionally felt that I should throw a tantrum, as if to declare that I were grown up enough to deserve my own independence. Yet that way of being with other people – affable, not invasive, with endless food and the sense of goodness being so close to beauty – shaped my personality, my very way of being. It was a sort of emotional education, made of words and mouthfuls. Sunday lunch is still a living tradition in our families. So many years have passed. There are other children and new grandparents in the family. It’s curious how certain situations keep recurring. The same smells fill the room: the sauces, the smells of home, the long, elaborate preparations that go into such a gathering, the ritual of going to buy dessert from the bakery; dressing with a certain formality and feeling the sweet melancholy that brims in the eyes of the grandparents, overwhelmed by the joy they see in the grandchildren.
That way of being with people - affable, not invasive, with endless food and the sense of goodness being very close to beauty - it shaped my personality, my very way of being. It was a sort of emotional education, made of words and mouthfuls.