May 13th, 2023
One of my food picks for a “stranded on a desert island” is pizza.
Basically, all day I talk myself out of eating a version of pizza and all things that are a combination of bread and cheese.
I usually start off the day wanting an egg sandwich…with cheese… with bacon…. But then I talk myself down to an egg bite packed with veggies’ with a bowl of berries on the side. For lunch I want a sub with protein, cheese and veggies but I end up with some version of a salad with protein, leaving the dream of a NY deli behind along with the ok Maryland bread that is in a bag, in the draw, untoasted, undressed, waiting…. well… for cheese
For dinner give me pasta any night but if you want to make it easy just give me a wood fired pizza. Pizza with a good salad and a red bottle of wine is a perfect night.
Again…. I talk myself out of this meal every day.
But not last night, last night I took my first really long shower in a few days, did my hair, got out of my post op sweats, packed up my little blue scooter, some zucchini bread, a bottle of wine and scooted over to my friend Deboras. Debora is from Rome and came here after marrying her cute, American, envy of all the thinning haired, husband Scott. Debora never has to talk herself out of carbs and cheese when she is cooking for others. In fact, during covid she talked her whole family into building her a pizza oven in the back yard. For weeks after building this oven Debora would show us, through our little Facebook world, her progress on her pizza making.
In truth it was not that hard for her. She is one of the best cooks I know and was taught how to cook and make pizza by her mother and her aunts and her friends’ mothers and their aunts and even their aunt’s grandmothers. As such I have inserted myself into her life hoping to fall in line as one of her relatives. I never just invite myself over to dinner but after Debora’s fifth post on pizza I just texted her, despite some covid restraints and said, “Can I come over to watch you make pizza? I will just sit in the yard and watch.” That very night our whole family ended up at her table. I think she turned out at least 16 pizzas!
Last night, upon opening the gate to the back yard, we were greeted with a bed of strawberries boasting white flowers and promising sweetness. Debora’s lemon and olive trees had been brought out and lined the patio for a chance of a summer growth spurt. The high fenced in garden in the distance was primed and ready for the small veggie plants she prepped from seed in her closed in porch. In the distance a grape vine had begun its climb along a Tuscany type arbor. I sat down to the table and ran my hands over the plastic floral tablecloth, the kind that can weather not only the weather but spilled sauce, cheese flakes, breadcrumbs, olive oil and wine. Just touching it made me miss my Aunt Rose who also used to cook for us right out of her garden. Little plates of olives, cheese, focaccia and nuts decorated the table. Wine was poured. The fire in the pizza oven was already cranking up to the 900 degrees it required to crisp and sweat the hint of salt out of the dough.
Debra was busy with apron on but stopped to wipe her hands, hug, laugh and hug us again. To the right of the pizza oven is a section that holds her tools which consist of long polls stuck smartly upright in pbc pipes holding a variety of big flat spatulas and tools to keep the temperature gaged. Beneath all this was the wood to burn and little tubs of water with worn rags to wash down the oven floor. On the other side of the counter were all the toppings to make the pizza. Way off to the right, on yet another counter, was a long white tuber wear container holding the dough. Inside resting on a thin bed of flour sat six perfectly round balls of dough that Debra has also made from scratch. And yes she is going to make them all. There are four of us.
Debra rolls, kneads, stretches and sifts extra flour onto the bread. She lays it out on her big spatula. She opens the tuber wear of homemade tomato sauce made from the last jar of the tomatoes she canned from last year. I know that this is gold. A cook knows that to grow, can and then make your own tomato sauce is a yearlong act of love. I could cry. Debora adds the sauce and cheese to the first pizza to start us off. The pizza cooks in under 2 min. Before she takes it out, she holds the whole pie up to the top of the oven for 10 seconds just to get it perfect. She then takes it out and tops it with fresh basil that she chops at the very last second. From my seat the basil seeks me out and enters my system in a green wash of Italy. My mouth waters. She serves with an urgency. “Eat..eat…Now!” The first bit is crisp and melty, bright with tomato and edgy with basil. But before we finish the first pizza Debora is making the second pizza which has arugula and fresh tomatoes with burrata on top. The third comes with marinated zucchini and ricotta and pesto. The last pizza is her signature, a rosemary potato. This, she explains, is actually the most popular pizza to eat when in Rome.
Moreover and I mean “ more” and “over” there are homemade meatballs with hits of spinach and ricotta and roasted vegetables toasted with breadcrumbs. The meatballs are floating in homemade sauce that makes me miss my grandmother. “Is there pork in this sauce base?” I ask. “ No..no…no…. carrots, celery onion, chopped small…it’s easy… easy…I’ll show you.. I’ll show you.” This is how we talk all night. Me begging to know.. Debora happy to teach. This is how you become a good cook. Cooking is an oral tradition passed down one bite at a time. Cook books are limiting, lacking flavor, vapor and licks. There is an art of withholding to cooking, a game that is played that you only win by showing up time and time again in the garden, the kitchen, at the table and in the kitchen again and again to clean it all up and find evidence of ingredients left out.
I am eating as slow and mindfully as I can. I am eating half of a half and putting my food down between bites, sitting back and breathing. I am petting the dog, looking at the changing sky, opening up to the bouquet of this feast. I don’t want it to end. I have been keeping really good track of what I am eating this past year and it has paid off but at one point the experience becomes untrackable. I can’t possibly reduce this as calories. Exalted comes close. My Scott takes my hand to pause. We lock eyes so grateful. He knows what it means to me to have someone cook like this for me with the joy I cook for others.
As I smell and touch and taste and watch I am so grateful for every ounce of food sensitivity I have. I sit and I think to myself, this is one of the reasons I came to this earth… to eat like this.. to eat out under the sky warmed by the memory of a perfect day of sunshine and a distant pizza oven. Little white string lights slowly turn up as the sun goes down. They hang above softening the faces of these good easy friends who love each other and us and the puppies at our feet.
(And Yes Walter is always invited to dinner when we go. He was freshly groomed, smelled great, looked handsome and was on his very best behavior. Eggsy, their beautiful doodle, established herself from the first moment as the Italian Alpha in her yard and Water bowed down, humbled.)
But Deborah is not the only one at the table, so is her husband, Scott. Because Debora’s Scott is also in my phone as just “Scott” I have on many occasions texted him things that were meant for my husband Scott. Sometimes this has become very awkward and because of this Scott knows a bit more about my marriage than most. Like the time I texted, “get home quick we have ½ hour.” Thank God Deborah trusts me. Scott and Scott coached our sons in baseball for many years and forged our 15 years plus couples’ relationship. Coach Scott also coached Jack in soccer and in many ways taught my husband Scott what rec league coaching was about. (hint..not like college, not always about winning) Very much like Deborah, Scott knows how to bring us all to the table. Time and time again Scott made being together as a team about family and truly loved bringing out the flavor in each and every kid. Scott being an engineer is behind this amazing outdoor Italian pizza extravaganza and is behind the scenes in so many loving ways in general. Scott and Deborah are also dedicated readers of my posts and always know all the details of my life because of it. Often, they fill my Scott in about my posts. Sitting with them last night was beyond delicious, beyond familiar and beyond family. It was home.
Each time I am with Debora I take back with me a treasure. I put potatoes and string beans in my pasta water, raw egg in my pesto and always save some of the pasta water to pull it all together at the end. I know now there is a respectful difference between lemon zest and squeezed lemon, that good olive oil is a treasure that is smuggled into the country in suitcases and raw fennel with raisins can only work if you make the homemade dressing a little sweet. Her Italian accent rings the DNA in my cells and calls me back to a land were eating is never denied or shamed but shared and gifted even when it is the last jar of canned tomatoes. Also cooking and eating is a place where no one cooks alone. Now I pass what she taught me on to Lucia and Jack through last minute zoom calls while their hungry friends wait at their own tables in Denver.
Debora unwraps the home-made zucchini bread my mother helped me make. I am grateful I was able to bring something to the table. Out of nowhere she quietly reveals a lemon curd with blueberries she has casually made to drizzle over the bread. The cream opens up the vanilla and cinnamon on the tongue making a cozy and happy ending for our taste buds. Debora’s Scott never gets tired and is great at keeping the conversation going late into the night, always making us feel that sitting and listening is a most delicious act of all. It was a beautiful night last night and this morning I am so very full… not wanting of anything at all on my desert island but good friends….friends that can perhaps cook and maybe even build a pizza oven… just in in case.