By Danielle DeSimone
For me, summer means pesto.
It’s usually our go-to, last-minute dish. It’s the “There’s-Nothing-In-the-Fridge-But-People-Are-Coming-Over-In-Ten-Minutes” dinner that is thrown together in a flurry of crushed garlic, clanging pots, and the hiss of boiling water. Now that I no longer live close to my family, it’s the dish that I always request when I come home, falling back into familiar patterns, arms, and smells.
Unlike many stories of Italian American cooking, I was not taught at the stove by a mother, a grandmother, aunt, or sister in the enclaves of Italian communities like New York, New Jersey, or Cleveland. I’ve been taught by my father, in southern Virginia. The Italian side of my family is from the grey, factory-studded hills of upstate New York; before that, Puglia. But with my father in the military, I’ve known so many homes that I’ve lost count of them, and the homes of my ancestors can sometimes seem distant and untouchable.
But here, in my family’s kitchen in the middle of June, I can almost feel them again. It starts with the directive from Dad – “Go get some basil from the garden.” I’m handed a tall, brown paper bag and I slip out to the side of the house as evening begins to fall, where bushes of basil as tall as an eight year old fill terracotta pots.
The beauty of basil is how easily it gives off its scent – barely brush against it, and it bursts into the air in waves of peppery mint and cloves. The smell gets under my fingernails as I pinch off the leaves. With the bag full, I go back into the kitchen where Dad claps his hands twice. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s get moving.”
My Italian family is from Puglia, but pesto is not a Pugliese dish. As we all know, pesto comes from the northern region of Liguria, and is often attributed to the city of Genoa. So it makes sense, then, that my dad learned to make pesto not from his family, but from an elderly Genovese woman named Vera who lived in the apartment directly above us while my father was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Gaeta, Italy, when I was just a baby.
As bossy as she is kind, Vera first burst into my parents’ lives the day she forced a 6-course meal on them in their first week in Italy. From then on, my parents would visit Vera and her husband, Ennio, almost every week. While my father would eagerly follow Vera, watching her bustle around the kitchen with the sort of burning hunger of a music pupil watching a maestro, my mother would sit awkwardly in the living room with Ennio as he smoked his cigars.
As a member of the older generation, Ennio didn’t approve of my father’s love of cooking, and he was confused by my mother, who – with her Irish and German upbringing – had only really mastered the art of scrambled eggs. Meanwhile my father, looming over Vera at 6’1,” would try to decipher recipes with the most basic of Italian (ciao, si, grazie, per favore) while Vera spoke no English at all. My dad learned to cook from Vera with miming hand gestures and indiscernible noises. He learned in pinches of that, handfuls of this, a dollop here and there.
So now, when my Dad and I are in the kitchen, we don’t cook by a printed recipe or even a handwritten one, passed down through the generations. My father teaches me how to make pesto by sight, smells, and tastes. He’s a serious man, but in the kitchen he comes alive, and you can see the enthusiasm that he must have had when he followed Vera around her own kitchen as he gives me directions on how to add the olive oil gradually while pureeing the basil, or why you should pull a cup of starchy pasta water out of the pot, to mix in later.
I have come to associate the smell of basil and pesto with summer and, by extension, with cooking with my father. It can sometimes feel like we are not a traditional Italian American family; our recipes are a combination of a few, lingering traditions, and techniques learned from living in Italy itself, not from the great-great-grandmother I never knew. But then, being Italian American – to me – means evolving from tradition.
From polpette to spaghetti and meatballs, from bruschetta to garlic bread, from ragù alla Bolognese to Sunday sauce (or gravy), we have all transitioned from being just Italian, to Italian American. And so when my father looks over his shoulder and whispers in that conspiratorial way that Vera’s recipe never had butter but he sneaks a sliver in, or that he includes more pecorino romano than parmigiano reggiano because our family likes the sharpness of the sheep’s milk, that constant push to become something different, something more, continues. A tweak here, a pinch of salt there, and our family pesto changes from Vera’s recipe to something of our own creation – the DeSimone’s very own interpretation of what being Italian American means to us.
Nowadays, living far away from my father’s garden full of plump basil and the dozens of other herbs and vegetables he grows, I rely on a solitary potted basil plant for my own pesto dishes. I call my dad on the phone as I cook, checking with him at each step to make sure I’m doing everything right. My own interpretation of the recipe hasn’t evolved much since I’ve started cooking it alone – it still emerges a silky, bright green, clinging to farfalle pasta and filling the kitchen with that sweet smell of summer, just like my dad’s. I miss being in that brightly-lit kitchen with him, working in unison while Sinatra croons in the background, and so for now, this recipe – to me at least – doesn’t need to be changed just yet. It’s perfect just the way it is.
Danielle DeSimone is NIAF’s Social Media Manager & Assistant Editor.