Like most people that have been to Messina, I had passed through many times but always only to use the ferry services that run between Villa San Giovanni and Messina, or in other words, to cross the thin strip of water that separates Sicilia from the rest of Italy, the rest of Europe, which might as well be the rest of the world. This visit though, would be different. I’m coming to see an old friend of mine in her home, built in a part of Italy that doesn’t’t even have the right to exist.
Rosa collected me downtown and we zipped around in her little car, among the traffic that seems more North African than European, a mad sort of lawlessness that somehow has its own playbook. The car windows were down and folks discussed traffic back ups in casual conversational voices. ‘Would you let me in, we’re late for lunch’. ‘I would love to but I’m late myself. OK. But just this once’, and winks are exchanged. Rosa, as I’m learning all over again, has a real way with men.
As we approached her home ‘architecture’ as I’ve come to know it, started to thin. Standard Italian building materials, uniform bricks, paint and stucco, became rarities. Cinder blocks. Corrugated metal. Sheets of re-used fibreglass panels. Exposed mortar and hodgepodge brick. It was a city built by non-house builders, a shantytown, really, as if you asked ten-year olds to build forts out of flotsam and jetsam, just with satellite dishes and hand-made curtains.
And like other communities I’ve visited in other parts of the world (in Mexico city and Caracas), unless you visit them it’s impossible to see these as happy places. In reality, everyone I saw was smiling or laughing.
Rosa’s mother Gianna couldn’t’t have been more pleased to cook with me. She was going to show me some typical plates from Messina. Only that, in her over-enthusiastic zeal, she finished everything long before I arrived. (We arrived at 11 am, with lunch in this part of the world usually hitting the table around 2 pm). She was slightly embarrassed by her own behavior, the way you would after having ripped open a birthday present when the person that gave it to you was still in the other room.
Rosa had located a wine that she never even knew existed, a 1999 Faro, the local DOC that I had never had before. It poured brownish-orange into our goblets, leaving neither of us hopefully. Her nose twitched and she silently got up and came back with a pitcher of house wine poured from a re-used water bottle.
We started with breaded melanzana, crisp and crunchy and deliscous.
Gianna’s pasta al forno was classic Southern Italian: a factory pasta sauced with a rich tomato sauce, interspersed with cooked ham, hard-boiled eggs and peas, topped with a crunchy crust of grated sheep’s milk cheese and home-made bread crumbs. And again classic to this part of the world, the dish was served reheated, but just. (Pasta al forno is mom’s ‘Sunday Roast’ or ‘Mom’s meatloaf’ here in the South, with all of the same cultural saddlebags. 1) It’s comfort food but with, 2) Everyone swearing that his or her mother makes the best, but, 3) Most versions are more alike than different. And, 4) there is the omnipresent irony ‘the best in the world’, implies wide-sampling from which one could draw an opinion. The reality is, of course, the opposite, with 5), ‘Best in the World’ really meaning, ‘the only one I’ve ever tasted, I just really love it a lot’).
Gianna’s was excellent.
The second course was again a page ripped from nearly ever recipe book from the South.
Le braciole are little meat rolls, rapped around a thin piece of cheese, usually with a little parsley and salt and pepper. They can be simmered baked or pan-seared, or better yet, simmered in a tomato sauce, which will then be served first over the pasta.
Gianna asked me all the questions you’d be asked by women of her generation from Southern Italy: Don’t I live with my family? Who cooks for me? How come I’m not married yet? Don’t I want to be married? How often do I see my family? Who cooks for me? Is it true that I don’t live with my family? Who cooks for me again?
I explained again what I do for a living but that I always cooked for myself even when I was a high-school teacher in Northern Italy. She treated this comment as if I said that I preferred to bathe in lakes or that I powered my house with a mill and a mule: Not with admiration but a profound sympathy, a widening of the eyes, a subtle shaking of the head.
A gelato truck passed, the driver singing out in dialect. I understood not a single word but folks came running from every direction, not all of them children.
After lunch Rosa took me around Messina and I begun to see the city with fresh eyes. The duomo is one of the prettiest in all of Italy, the bell tower needing to be seen to be believed.
We walked up a hill engrossed in conversation about the radio show she does for fun several times a week. We turned to the Strait of Messina below us, the region of Calabria, stunning, just across the water. It was where I’d be headed next.
As we sat overlooking the shiny sea, something crossed my mind in the opposite way it normally does, that after spending time with Rosa and her mother, that they were not different or special but just normal and ordinary, run-of-the-mill, in a way.
And Southern Italy is such a remarkable and heartbreakingly beautiful place because of it.