Lately I have been yearning for seafood. Not just any – but the freshly dug up clams, tiny squid, razor clams, rosy shrimp, whole live fish caught and sold at market on the same day. The summers of my youth were idyllic, mostly by the sea either at our family’s beach house in Terracina or at my aunt’s villa in Elba Island. The “villetta” that my grandparents built was a modest three- story house located in Salto di Fondi, to be precise, a bay that stretched from Terracina to Sperlonga, approximately 120 kilometers or 75 miles south of Rome.
The house was built at a time in that location, wild and undeveloped, when there was no electricity, nor running water. All of that came later as those big improvements were made in the years that followed. It had a spectacular view overlooking the sea, one that changed with the seasons and the time of day.
The house of many rooms accommodated a growing family of grandchildren, nine girls at first, then followed many years later by twin boys. It had a long lane leading up to it from the main road. Bougainvilleas grew in wild abandon throwing their riot of color in splashes against the pink walls.
My parents toiled endlessly to create an Eden facing the sea.
In winter they painted, planted, pruned, until come summer and spring, the grounds burst with color. The little “piazzale” facing the ocean became a favorite place for leisurely lunches and dinners al fresco under the olive tree and pines. Almost immediately, the house became a gathering place for family vacations, meals, laughter, and conversations.
The routine of our daily lives was pretty much the same every day. It involved feeding lunch and dinner sometimes up to twenty-five people including guests, growing children and teenagers, aunts, and grandparents!
My parents would take off for the market in the early hours of the morning. My mother would hit the open fish market, the vegetable market, and the “alimentari” where she purchased large loaves of bread, cheese, prosciutto or salami and other groceries for the day.
My parents, and sometimes I in tow, would arrive home loaded down with baskets full of vegetables, fish, beef or poultry, and large rounds of bread and pizza “al taglio” (street pizza with only tomato, no cheese, cut into squares and folded over like a sandwich – perfect breakfast food!). Here is where I cut my teeth as a cook learning to prep the meals for the day before we headed for the beach, the sun, and the water.
I am particularly nostalgic for those times, especially for the dishes that varied widely depending on what my mother would find at the market. Imagine large, large bowls of spaghetti or short pasta done in every way imaginable, huge fish fries of the tiniest, most tender morsels of shrimp, fresh anchovies, and squid, enormous green salads with “misticanza” – a mixture of all kinds of miniature lettuces such rucola, fruit bowls of “macedonia” of cut peaches, melons, wild strawberries, and plums usually to conclude the meal. With this long preface, a memoir of sorts, let me try to recreate for one short while, the aromas and flavors of that time.
Spaghetti di Mare (of the sea)
With a pound, or a little more, of clams, rinse them and place them in a bowl of cold water with a little salt added. We used to keep them in buckets filled with sea water to “spurgare” or purge the sand from the clams. Let them sit for about five minutes.
In the meantime, heat some olive oil in a pan and drop the clams into into it.You can cover the pan and cook quickly 2-3 minutes until the clams have opened. Discard any clams that have not opened as they are not fresh. Remove from the heat and allow the clams to cool slightly and remove them from the shell. Keep a few intact for decoration. Filter the water into a small bowl and set aside.
Have a handful or two of fresh shrimp tail-on ready. In the same pan saute’ chopped garlic in some olive oil, some crushed red pepper if you like it spicy, then add the shrimp, and a sprinkle or two of white wine. Jiggle the pan a bit and add about 1/4 cup of “passata di pomodoro” or crushed tomatoes. Let it cook in a lively manner for about 5 minutes, then add the filtered water and the clams. Give it another stir to mix well. Turn off the heat and your sauce is ready! Drain your spaghetti and keep a bit of its water in case the dish gets too dry. Toss the spaghetti into the pan with the seafood a handful of chopped parsley, give it a quick last stir and serve.
Also this week I came across some whole black rockfish at the farmer’s market. Again my memories tugged at me as I remembered being at Terracina’s fish market where fish was sold still jumping on marble slabs. It couldn’t get any fresher! My mother would often barbecue entire fish (cleaned of course, but left whole), then carved it opened and slathered it with a sauce similar to gremolata made with chopped parsley and minced garlic, sometimes capers, lemon, olive oil. I couldn’t resist! I imagined a fine dinner Terracina-style with barbecued fish and spaghetti “alla mondezzara” with salsa cruda.
As the late Anthony Bourdain stated, “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” He had a point. And so it goes…. food has a special quality of bringing us back to places, flavors, aromas, and convivial times that reside in our memories. I may not be able to go back to those times, but I can recreate a small part of it and share it with you.