We shared a platter of fried calamari and drank white wine and navigated first-date jitters on a balmy summer afternoon. Even though we had met years before, it was only now that circumstances were right for us to be together. It was August 2004, and I thought it would be fun to take him to Bailey Island for lunch with a spectacular seaside view.
While sipping our only-adequate Chardonnay, he told me about a white wine he drank in France while eating fresh-shucked oysters. Picpoul de Pinet. I scribbled the name on a tiny scrap of paper. Something new to try, if I could get it here in Maine. We spent the next 15 years finding Picpoul, Falanghina and Verdicchio. And those were only the whites.
When we parted that evening I handed him a container of soup to bring home: pasta e fagioli, bean and pasta soup. Marcella Hazan’s recipes taught me how to cook authentic Italian dishes for 20 years. But because my husband was Italian-American, and had eaten at the table of his discerning parents, Millie and Tony, I had a lot to learn.
I had the gift of 16 years with Patrick, and although he rarely cooked, his stories about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s became my stories, and also became important lessons in my cooking education. His father’s quest to find a fresh-killed chicken, running it under a trickle of ice-cold water for hours before roasting it, translated to “always search for the best, freshest ingredients and take care in preparing them.” And there were many such stories and lessons.
Pat did make pizza, my favorite being handed down to him by his father: Stuff small patties of pizza dough with ricotta and a cube of mozzarella cheese, perhaps some ham, seal them with a few pinches, drop them into hot fat and watch them transform into puffed up morsels of crunchy, chewy, creamy street food, straight from Naples. I liked mine dipped in tomato sauce. That drew a disapproving glare – I was deviating from Grandpa Tony’s method.
The most spectacular display was the Feast of Seven Fishes, made for Christmas Eve. Seven types of seafood presented in courses, ending with what I called “the superfluous fish,” because by the time all else had been eaten, one more thing seemed just too much. But then the delicate white meat of a perfectly roasted branzino would be presented at the table and, yes, I had to have a few bites.
To end the dinner, my husband presented “his tiramisu,” a cakey, creamy dessert made with espresso and mascarpone soaked into ladyfingers, the search for which was epic every December, and powdered cocoa dusted on top. He often made two, because even after a multi-course feast, we wanted more.
Patrick passed away on a New Year’s Eve while packing for another January in Italy, where he taught Italian literature to 20-odd Colby students. We had already been planning our meals, a visit to a winery near Verona and a cooking class with the students. Never mind what clothes to pack – we were planning what food to eat, wine to drink, knowing there would be stories, memories and recipes to treasure as keepsakes.