Coming home to cavatelli and zucchini flowers
I grew up listening to my grandmother's stories about Capaccio, a small mountain village overlooking the Tyrrhenian sea in the Cilento region of Southern Italy. Next to her knitting supplies she kept a box stuffed with letters received from our relatives still living there along with photographs they had sent and the occasional piece of jewelry. Also there was a fresh supply of airmail envelopes which she would fill with her own letters written on onion skin paper and photographs of the family in New York.
In my early twenties, I finally made my pilgrimage to Capaccio. By then my grandmother's memory was fading, but quickly sharpened when I showed her photos of her beloved hometown. She rattled off the names of the nearby towns Battipaglia, Roccadaspide without hesitation and smiled when I showed her a photo of me standing next to a monument to the Madonna of the Pomegranate that her father had erected in the town after surviving a dangerous fall from a scaffold.
After my grandmother passed away, contact with our family in Capaccio ceased. Ever in my heart, I began to collect my grandmother's recipes. Research led me to Arthur Schwartz, a New York food critic, radio personality and cookbook author who ran a successful cooking school near Capaccio.
We became fast friends. In 2013 Arthur invited me to lunch in Little Italy to meet his dear friend, Baronessa Cecilia Baratta Bellelli, who runs the two farms where Arthur hosted his Italian cooking school. I told the Baronessa about my connection to Capaccio and she immediately asked for my grandmother's surname.
"Scariati, of course," she said. "You know your cousins recently opened a beautiful agriturismo in Capaccio?"
My heart leapt. I had been to my now deceased great-uncles home on that first pilgrimage, but did not know the myriad of other cousins, older and younger than me, who still lived in Capaccio. She wrote down my contact information on a scrap of paper.
A week later, my phone rang and an Italian phone number flashed on the screen. The joyful voice on the other end was Giovanni Scariati, an Italian cousin. Indeed, he had built Borgo La Pietraia an agriturismo that was a celebration of the local land, food and history.
He insisted I come visit them as soon as possible and that I connect with his children on Facebook who ran the Borgo. I quickly connected with Arianna and Antonio on social media and was stunned to see their faces which resembled my own. We had never met, yet shared so much.
My first visit to the Borgo began with a very delayed flight where both nerves and fatigue left me fumbling to speak any comprehensible Italian. But as I drove across the countryside, I remembered the familiar landscape and my mind flooded with grandmother's stories.
Giovanni, Arianna and Antonio greeted me warmly and led me to the dining room. A glass of cold Falanghina wine had already been poured for me and the table set with a plate of Antonio's handmade cavatelli dressed with zucchini flowers.
I sat down and noticed that next to my plate was a small pile of photographs of my grandmother, grandfather and uncle, all gone and deeply missed. These were the photos my grandmother had tucked into envelopes and sent from New York to Capaccio over many decades.
I was home. And Feast on History was born.
Cavatelli (makes about 4 dozen cavatelli)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
On a wooden board or clean flat surface, put your flour in a large mound. With your index finger, form a hole in the center so that it looks like the crater of a volcano. Pour 1/2 a cup of warm water into the center and then slowly and gently integrate it with the flour using a fork. Add the rest of the water, mix again, then add the olive oil. Once the flour, water and olive oil are well integrated, use your hands to knead the entire mixture for about 10 minutes. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes underneath a clean dish towel, then knead once again, about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, elastic ball. Wrap the dough in plastic film and let it rest in a cool place for one hour.
Unwrap your dough and use a knife to make one-inch thick slices. Take each slice and roll it on a lightly floured board into a rope, about 1 inch thick and a foot long. Use the knife once again to cut the dough into 1/2 inch segment.
To form the dough into cavatelli, place your index and middle fingertips into the center of a segment and draw back. The dough will roll back and slightly curl. Repeat for the entire mound of dough, placing each cavatello on a tray to dry.
If you’re cooking your cavatelli immediately, let it dry for 1 hour. Then prepare a large pot of boiling salted water to cook. Add the cavatelli to the boiling water and cook until they rise to the top, about 3-5 minutes.
If you would like to freeze your cavatelli, let them dry for 2-3 hours, then add a light dusting of semolina flour or corn meal. Then add the cavatelli to plastic bags, press out the air, seal shut and place them in the freezer where they will last for up to 3 months.
For the zucchini flower accompaniment. (Serves 4)
20 male zucchini flowers, stamens removed. Check inside to make sure there are no bugs. If the flowers haven’t been sprayed with insecticides, they shouldn’t be washed.
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of peeled garlic, crushed with the back of the knife
Pinch of red chili flake (optional)
1/2 cup of pasta water (reserved from the cavatelli pot)
1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese
Coarsely chop the zucchini flowers then set aside. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a low flame. Add the chili flakes then add the garlic and press it against the pan’s surface with a wooden spoon to flavor the oil. When the garlic becomes soft and translucent, remove and discard it.
Add the zucchini flowers the oil and stir to coat. Then add the pasta water to your pan and cooked cavatelli. Mix all the ingredients together in the pan until well integrated. Place the entire mixture into a serving bowl and cover with a dusting of grated pecorino cheese.