Grazie, Sebastiano

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I’ve been living in Paris for more than ten years now, but I still have days — usually gray, cold, rainy ones — where I ache to be back in the comfortable chaos of sunny Rome. A friend’s daughter, who lives in Ottawa, gets the same feeling years after they moved back to Canada from our old Roman neighborhood of Trastevere; Virginia Stovel, now 13, calls it being “romesick.” And while I don’t much miss the noise and unpredictability of bella Roma, I too suffer from occasionally fierce bouts of “romesickness.”

For the first few years after our move to Paris, there wasn’t much I could do to ward off romesickness until a friend told me about a hole-in-the-wall Italian food shop a twenty-minute walk from our apartment. I passed it by two or three times since I only knew on which street I was supposed to be able to find it; I had no street number to look for and the shop (surprise!) had no sign.

But when I finally pushed open the door, my nose — as much as my eyes and ears — told me I was in the right place. I could smell the mortadella and prosciutto di Parma, the pancetta and bresaola, all the different sorts of salami. Even the chest-high glass display case couldn’t keep me from breathing in the sharp, full smell of Italian cheeses, few of them as pungent as their French cousins, but beautifully, delightfully stinky in their own Italian way: gorgonzola, pecorino romano, parmigiano reggiano, provolone, and container after container of mozzarella, in all its shapes and sizes. I could smell the tiny black olives, salty and sharp, and the big fat green ones, sharper still.

I could see the jumble of new provisions just in from the delivery truck; and over the blaring of an Italian song in the background, I could hear Sebastiano, the tall, skinny one-man-show who runs the place, speaking non-stop in that easy patter Italian tradesman so often have, greeting everyone who walked in — no matter what language they spoke — with a warm bath of Italian words that made me feel as if I were suddenly back near Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, picking out the raw materials for the day’s three meals.

The shop not only smelled and sounded like the thousands of tiny alimentari — tiny grocery stores — that dot Italians towns and cities, but made me feel as if I were actually there. That feeling only increased when I picked up a flyer that told me that the shop was part of the very same dairy cooperative — Cooperativa Latte Cisternino — where I used to buy much of our food when we lived in Rome.

My daughter and I pop down to Sebastiano’s place whenever we get a serious craving for real Italian mortadella, sliced in the Italian fashion, so thin that it’s practically transparent. Supermarkets all over France sell packaged Italian mortadella but it’s nearly always sliced to French meat-eaters’ proportions — thickly — which completely ruins the experience. Whenever Julia and I buy mortadella from Sebastiano, we never get more than a few steps outside the door before we break open the package and steal a slice or two for the walk home.

Sebastiano’s shop also brings back much earlier memories of the old Italian food markets in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which also emitted those wonderful smells, back in the days when Italian food was considered down-market and from the wrong side of the tracks. At least one of them, the Sorrento Importing Company, is still in business, still at the corner of Main and Capitol. A friend of my brother reminded me of it the other day in an email from Argentina, where he was traveling on business and reading Keeping the Feast during down time. The mention of the store, not by name but only by address, set off memory bells for George, and he found himself “bawling.”

“Sorrento’s Importing is where my mom would send me almost every day to buy milk, eggs and the cold cuts,” George wrote, adding that a year ago, while visiting his mom at nearby St. Vincent’s hospital, he ducked in one day and ordered an Italian hero — we would have called it a “grinder” when I was little — for lunch. It was, he wrote me, “delish.”

What I remember most about Sorrento’s was the day Bridgeport had a particularly nasty ice storm in the late 1970s or early 1980s, which meant my grandfather, Tony, would have been in his early nineties. My mother and her sister had each called him, to warn him not to leave the house for any reason, that the sidewalks and roads were ultraslick from the storm. My mother was going to pick him up later in the day so he could eat dinner at their place, and she told him she’d get him anything he needed then. As she drove down Capitol Avenue, guess who she saw slip-sliding his way home from Sorrento’s? Tony himself, of course, who brushed off her worries, saying it wasn’t that bad and besides, “I needed bread.”

I need to stop in at Sorrento’s the next time I’m back in Bridgeport. Now that most of my mother’s generation of relatives are dead, Sorrento’s is one of the few repositories of knowledge left about things Italian-American in Bridgeport. I’ve been thinking for some time that I want to try making my grandmother Jennie’s old recipe for “pizza gain” as she called it, a two-crust, calzone-like pizza eaten after the Lenten fast, and filled with all kinds of meats and cheeses. One of the ingredients is “fresh cheese” and nobody I ask can tell me what it is. I bet Sorrento’s is going to be able to straighten me out.

Maybe that’s what I’ve always liked about Italian food shops: you always come out with more than just a sack of groceries. The last time Julia and I were at Sebastiano’s, I told him in passing that I’d just been interviewed by the big Italian glossy magazine called “Grazie,” which was interested in the Italian food memories interwoven into Keeping the Feast. Sebastiano, who doesn’t speak English, suddenly seemed interested in the book too, and told me he’d like a copy to show his English-speaking customers. So I walked out with a sack of parmigiano, pecorino romano, mortadella, green olives, artichoke hearts and an unexpected book sale. Grazie, Sebastiano!

(And if you visit Paris, you can find Sebastiano at 37, rue Godot de Mauroy in the 9th arrondissement. Look for the shop with no sign… If you’re in Bridgeport, check out Sorrento’s Importing at 2487 Main St. Better still, ask them if they still carry “fresh cheese” at Easter and if they know what it might be called in Italian. Then I can ask Sebastiano if he has any.)

52 Responses to “Grazie, Sebastiano”

  1. Marzia Elgani says:

    Hi. My name is Marzia, Marcia to my American friends and family. I presently live in northern Italy, but I grew up in Upstate New York. The fresh cheese you’re refering to is called “primo sale” here in Italy, and can commonly be found in any Italian grocery store. It’s a fresh, but firm cheese that doesn’t have a particularly strong taste. It becomes soft when heated but retains its shape and is often used in things like savory pies. I often grill slices of it in a skillet on top of the stove… very yummy!

  2. Hi Marzia, Thanks so much for writing. I’ll check with Sebastiano next time I go and see if he has any primo sale here in Paris. I’ve also been told that in Sicily they use something called la tuma in their Easter pizza but I haven’t been able to find that in France. I hope I can find your suggested cheese here. I really appreciate your taking the time to write to me!

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