Garden heritage project documents, preserves Italian traditions
A double-header of earthly delights is on tap at Wigle Barrelhouse and Whiskey Garden in Spring Garden on Aug. 29 with Italian-theme gastronomic events.
The fun begins at 3 p.m. with Fig Fest!, where folks can feast on all kinds of treats made from the fruit of ancient Rome, followed at 7 p.m. by Terra Buona, a five-course dinner designed to showcase heirloom vegetables from local growers, as well as homemade pastas and hand-cured meats.
“A Celebration of the Late Summer Italian Garden” is presented by Vallozzi's Pittsburgh, Wigle Whiskey and The Italian Garden Project, an organization intent on inspiring today's home gardeners and cooks to infuse Italian heritage into their lifestyle.
Mary Menniti founded the project six years ago as a means of documenting, preserving and celebrating the earth-to-table traditions of her ancestral homeland.
“We are lucky to have in Pittsburgh a really nice Italian-born community that is keeping these traditions alive,” says Menniti of Edgeworth. “Many of these immigrants are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, though, and their way of life is dying off.”
“I want to shine a spotlight on them, because they deserve to be recognized, and they have so much to teach us about living more satisfying, less fragmented lives, connected to the earth, our food and each other.”
What is considered gourmet today, such as making your own pasta and cheese, is a way of life that many Italians brought with them to America and still practice, Menniti says. “It's in their blood. They would say, ‘Of course, everyone knows how to cure olives and make wine.' ”
The classic Italian garden includes fig and chestnut trees, grape arbors, flat Roma beans, eggplant, zucchini, a variety of herbs, such as basil and parsley — of course, garlic — and tomatoes of every shape and size, she says. “The tomatoes are incredibly delicious. It's a taste you almost can't get anywhere else.”
Immigrants who brought seeds and tree shoots with them decades ago continue to reap the harvest of those original plantings, which makes the bounty authentically Italian, Menniti says.
Saturday's eventgoers will get to taste heirloom produce, like cucuzza, a 4-foot long zucchini, otherwise known as bean squash, from the Pleasant Hills garden of Antonio Machi, who uses seeds from his hometown of Sant'elia in Sicily.
Machi is one of more than a dozen local growers who participates in the Italian Garden project and who will donate produce to the Aug. 29 event.
Mariano Floro is another. At 85, he still maintains two large gardens and three chickens on his property in Sewickley. Living off the land is something he takes in stride.
“In Italy, you don't go to the store every day,” says Floro, who came to Pittsburgh as a young man and got a job in a steel mill.
One of the first things he planted was a cutting from a fig tree his father-in-law gave him. Today, its progeny are still yielding fruit. Floro maintains peach and pear trees, a grape arbor and more than a dozen different vegetable crops, including lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and hot peppers. He works in his garden every day, fertilizing with mushroom manure and with winter wheat, a method that is old-school organic.
“I never spray my garden. There are no chemicals in my food.” says Floro, who recently squeezed 12 jars of juice from a barrel of tomatoes, and roasted and peeled bushels of peppers and eggplant to freeze for the winter. He makes his own hard salami, wine and limoncello.
“I wouldn't trade myself for a 20-year-old. I work like a horse,” he says. “I could eat for a year without going to the store.”
Rather than cakes and candy, he'll grab a handful of dried figs when he craves something sweet. “We dried figs by the bushel when I was a kid,” he says. “I eat only good food. I eat no junk.”
Josiah Henry, executive chef of Vallozzi's restaurants, Downtown and in Greensburg, is designing the Aug. 29 dinner around offerings from Floro, Machi and other project gardeners. He has spent weeks visiting the gardens and conferring with the growers to determine which crops will be at their peak. Wanting to do justice to their harvest is both nerve-wracking and inspiring, he says.
“It's a pretty big honor to cook with the things they grow,” Henry says. “As well-traveled and as diverse as I am, I'm seeing new things, like the cucuzza. Every one of the gardeners has a different breed of bean or tomatoes, and they're all delicious.”
Henry's garden tour was video-taped and will be shown before the Aug. 29 dinner.
“I can't wait to put my heart and soul into making this meal,” he says. “The gardeners deserve that.”
Fig Fest will feature five different kinds of fresh figs paired with meats, cheeses and custom cocktails, plus samples of vermouth that Wigle currently is developing. Jill Ciciarelli, author of “Fermented,” will demonstrate vermouth-making. Guests also will be treated to demonstrations in olive-curing and wine making — including grape-stomping — plus a talk on fig-growing by food writer Hal B. Klein.
The real stars of the event, though, are the Italian gardeners, who will be present to meet guests, Henry says.
“They will inspire you if you take time to talk with them,” he says. “They came to this country and figured out a way to grow what they couldn't find here. What they put into keeping a fig tree alive all winter — how they respect that tree — is really something.”
“We take so much for granted,” Henry says. “But when you visit with these growers, you develop a new appreciation for where your food comes from.”
Proceeds from the Aug. 29 event will help support the garden project's effort to document Italian-American vegetable gardens, and to preserve heirloom seeds and fig trees. To date, the project has documented 30 immigrant gardens in Pennsylvania, California, New York and Ohio. Working with the Village Garden Club of Sewickley, the garden project has contributed images and other data in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens.
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
This gentle twist on a classic summer favorite comes from Wes Shook, corporate bartender at Wigle Whiskey. Wigle's Landlocked White Run is distilled from local buckwheat honey and has lingering notes of fresh figs on its own. Pairing that with fresh figs, sugar for balance and lime for some tartness, this Daiquiri variation works nicely in the remaining summer heat.
2 small figs
3⁄4 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces Wigle Landlocked White Rum
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Lime wheel, for garnish
Muddle the figs in the simple syrup until they are fully pulverized. Add the remaining ingredients and shake vigorously with the ice. Fine-strain the daiquiri into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wheel.
Makes 1 drink.
This recipe for a medley of garden vegetables is from Mariano Floro of Sewickley.
3 green tomatoes, thickly sliced
1 ripe tomato, thickly sliced
1 medium zucchini, sliced
3 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons sea salt
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1⁄2 medium onion, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
Crusty bread, for serving
Homemade wine, for serving
Put the tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant in a large bowl. Sprinkle the vegetables with 2 teaspoons of sea salt and toss. Heat the olive oil in 12-inch skillet, add the garlic and onions and saute the mixture for 2 minutes. Add the sliced potatoes to the pan in a layer, and then add the other vegetables on top.
Cover the skillet and cook for 8 to 10 minutes over medium heat. Lightly stir and toss all of the vegetables and cook, covered, for 25 to 30 minutes more, until the potatoes are tender and are easily pierced with a fork.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Enjoy the meal with crusty, rustic bread and a glass of homemade wine.