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. Scott Haas says:

    La dolce vita, indeed!

  2. Connie says:

    Reading this blog is a lovely way to start my day in Middlebury, Connecticut. I only wish I could describe my own experiences living in Italy, Switzerland and Germany as beautifully as you do Paula.

  3. pascale says:

    Paula, I love your new post …need to find an alimentari in CF!
    love

  4. Kathy Conklin says:

    Wonderful memories – beautifully told! The best pizza in Arlington, Virginia is made at the Italian Store. They have all sorts of other wonderful things, so it is difficult to exit with just a pizza!

  5. judith butturini says:

    Thank you for including us on your blog, We enjoy your writings and look forward to many more!!!

  6. adele riepe says:

    Any of my memories of Rome are tangled in my memories of you and John. As for Italian food–the best meals were eaten at your table in Rome, Berlin and Paris. But both the blog and especially your book, make my mouth water and I couldn’t read either without wanting to go straight to Sebastiano or Sorrento’s to buy something to nibble on while I read.

  7. Kathy, Next time I’m down your way, maybe you can introduce me to the Italian Store…

  8. Linda Henneman says:

    What a treat to find you in my inbox! I am honored to be included among those lucky enough to receive this first blog posting; please keep them coming. Thanks for the tip on Sebastiano’s. I’m going to send it on to a coworker who is leaving for Paris tomorrow.

  9. Rhoda Blecker says:

    Thanks for including me on your bloglist, Paula. I remember well my two visits to Rome – one in which Padre Cesare almost walked me to death, and one in which you and John were such loving and generous hosts. If you are including Village Books in Bellingham as part of your U.S. tour, you must stay with us so that Keith and I can return the hospitality!

  10. bill trott says:

    all this has made hungry for a chile relleno.

  11. Could I have two, please, with a side of cabrito???

  12. Rhoda, I’d love to get to the West Coast at some point, and I’d love to see you and finally meet Keith. Hoping I’ll be able to cobble together some sort of West Coast tour in the future, and will keep you posted if it ever looks promising. It’s tricky (and pricey) trying to organize visits from the other side of the Atlantic, and somehow squeeze them into Julia’s school vacations to boot… What I need now is a U.S. map and pushpins.

  13. Larry Chance says:

    In addition to finding the kinds of Italian grocers you describe, my Dad’s hometown, Niles, Ohio, used to have a street fruit peddler named “Nino” who sold many of the meats and cheeses found at the grocers. He had a unique call out to draw attention to his being nearby, “bananas ay-ep!” We have a small Italian market in Winston-Salem, but it’s not stocked as well as those back home in Ohio.

  14. Larry, I love this (and I miss street peddlars).

  15. Karen says:

    I’m romesick, too!! no problem as no doubt you’ll soon be asked to organize “keeping the feast” tours of campo dei fiori and i’ll fly over from london to join you…..

  16. Now THAT would be fun…

  17. Rhoda Blecker says:

    And, of course, if you get here, we’re only two hours away (one by car and one by ferry) from Mother Miriam’s foundation, the beautiful place she lived before she went to Italy. It would be my pleasure to take you there, just as you took me to San Vincenzo.

  18. Larry Chance says:

    It’s very easy to be Romesick. Speaking of Rome. One day my family and I were eating a meal in Amalfi. Sitting across from us were two, very American ladies on a tour. Their next stop was Rome. One of them asked us “Is there anything to do in Rome?”

  19. John Deppen says:

    Blog-included and happy to be, Paula. I’m embarrassed to report that Sorrento’s was within walking distance of 2 of my homes in Bridgeport and I never once went in. Happily, we have a place here in North Haven, CT, called Liuzzi’s which is an absolute haven for cold cuts, imported foods, and the occasional sfogliatelle. So, Kate and I are making up for lost time. My guess, Larry, is that the two ladies spent their time in their hotel room watching television while Bernini’s statues chuckled at their ignorance.

  20. Sandra Cleary says:

    Grazie, Paula, for highlighting your blog. Due to your lovely description I found myself positively salivating! Ah, yes, that mortadella must be paper-thin and best eaten around a crisp “grissino.” Luckily there is a great Italian deli not far from me here in Sacramento which I frequent often but can’t wait to eat the good stuff in Lucca next year. Buon appetito!

  21. Debbie Frazier says:

    Speaking as a person that was nearly brought to tears by tortellini in a lemon cream sauce, I loved the blog. In fact, it prompted me go to out and get a pound of prosciutto, sliced thin, which will be wrapped around honeydew. Ah rapture.

  22. Rhoda, Needless to say, I’d love to see her foundation, and I’d forgotten it was a ferry ride away.

  23. John, sounds like you and Kate and I need to make two pilgrimages this summer, one to Liuzzi’s, and another to Sorrento’s.

  24. My fondest memory of Lucca, aside from its beauty, Sandra, is eating farro with porcini there. So pass on any farro recipes you might find there this summer.

  25. It’s too early in the day to be thinking about prosciutto, Debbie, especially on a day when Sebastiano’s place is closed. And worse yet, I think he’s on vacation all week as well.

  26. Pat Remick says:

    This made me so hungry…. and I just had breakfast. I hope there are no extra calories from just reading this — made me wish I was Italian, as well~

  27. Larry Chance says:

    I’d be interested to know if farro is a gluten free grain. Does anyone here know?

  28. Larry, as far as I know, farro is NOT gluten free since it’s basically an unhybridized form of wheat. It’s wonderful, though, whatever it is. The Brits call it ‘spelt’ and for all I know we may call it that too.

  29. Larry Chance says:

    OK, Paula. I am familiar with spelt but wasn’t aware of what that grain was called in Italian. Thanks.

  30. Toby Sonneman says:

    This is a lovely story, Paula, and a reminder that we can find a little bit of Italy in a shop! You capture the smells and tastes and above all the warmth of the people…Thank you!
    Toby
    http://tobykitchen.wordpress.com

  31. Donna Badmann says:

    Paula, this was as enjoyable as your book. I am so jealous of your lifestyle. I live outside of Philly – doesn’t even come close to what you experience every day. I just hope my dream of going to Italy comes true some day! Keep the blogs coming.

  32. Paula: thank you for including me on your blog mail.We are fortunate to live near NYC which has excellent Italian groceries. We do drive through Bridgeport and will visit Sorrento. Our fondest memories are of dining and traveling Rome and then driving and eating our way to Florence. We are looking forward to another Italian trip and plan to use your book as a guide. Marc & Carla

  33. Thanks for your message, Donna, but I don’t have a “lifestyle” — just a life.

  34. Marielle says:

    Just returned from a short trip (computer-less) to find your lovely comment on my blog http://whenlifesendsyoulemons.blogspot.com/.

    I will continue to recommend Keeping the Feast and I look forward to following your blog.

    It was a pleasure to hear from you. I envy you your time in Paris. No matter how trite it seems from an American vacationer, I LOVE Paris and have wonderful memories of three trips so far–(1) two week and (2) one week visits. We go for the food, first and foremost. And, I can never get enough of just walking everywhere and absorbing the total experience.

    I also (as a grandma) love Au Pariel du Meme. It’s dangerous for me to be in Paris!! But, our grandchildren sure are stylin’.

    Thanks for taking the time to follow-up with me. I’ve added your blog to my reader.

  35. Anne says:

    Literally just finished reading the last page of Keeping the Feast. How ironic to now live in Fairfield, close to Ash Creek, after a lifetime in the SF Bay Area, and to have been introduced to your story by dear friends here who heard you speak locally. Thank you for your beautifully written story, so infused with the love of family and cooking that I now find myself in my own kitchen, hoping to bring to life something delicious for our own family feast. Thank you so much, Paula, for the hard and honest lessons and equally honest joys and delights that your book has brought to my life here in Connecticut. I am not the same.

  36. Anne, I woke up hours too early today, about 4 a.m., and one of the only things good about it was finding your message in my inbox! I love these little epiphanies that occur now and again — that you would move clear across the country to Fairfield, not far from Ash Creek, and be told about the book by friends who’d heard me speak! Do me the favor of passing word of the book along to other friends and family, especially anybody who might be going through a tough time… And I hope you enjoy settling into Connecticut; be sure to spend as much time as you can at Fairfield Beach. It’s still one of my favorite spots in the universe. Looking forward to getting back there this summer.

  37. Alana Milazzo says:

    Paula, I hope you received my email. I am one of the Sorrento daughters and you have captured so many memories of my family in your beautiful story. After years in finance, I have opened my own Sorrento, just outside Philadelphia named “Tredici”. Although nothing can compare to the original, I couldn’t be happier carrying on the tradition and keeping the grinder alive!

  38. Alana, thank you so much for writing to me and all the best for your “Tredici” near Philadelphia! Hoping you can keep the grinder alive down there in Hoagie-Land. That’s what I seem to remember they call grinders down there. The best of luck to you and all your family, who I hope to visit in Bridgeport this summer.

  39. Gerry says:

    Being a big fan of Sorrento’s on Capitol & Main, I’m glad to hear of the next generation opening a store in Philadelphia. My daughter goes to school and I will have to let her know about it. Where in Phil is it?

  40. Alana Milazzo says:

    Ah, hoagie-land it is, but the locals are starting to come around! Tredici is located in Wayne, PA, I myself ended up there after having gone to college at Villanova University. Hopefully your daughter is at a nearby campus!

  41. Gerry says:

    Thanks for responding. She is at Villanova so it is close by for her.

  42. Alana and Gerry,

    Glad to see Tredici may have a new customer soon, and that Gerry’s daughter will find a bit of Bridgeport while she’s off at college…

  43. Kerry says:

    being ‚Äúromesick” i love this! (trying to think of a clever paris phrase and drawin a big blank)

    i will have to ask murray’s cheese in NYC about this one.

  44. Kerry, let me know if they give you an answer; I’ve been told that ‘fresh cheese’ is the u.s. attempt to make ‘la tuma,’ a cheese from sicily, but even Sebastiano doesn’t carry that one, as his store stocks products from the Rome area…

  45. Lea says:

    Hi Paula,
    Everything I ever read from you makes me hungry. This is just what I needed to read before heading to Italy in 2 weeks…I should begin fasting now so I can eat my way through Sorrento and Parma(:

  46. Maria Ucchino says:

    Paula:

    Your book was such a feast for the heart and mind! And your blog has me yearning for my childhood spent in Italy. My favorite memories are of my mother and father taking me shopping in San Pietro Al’Olmo, and stopping for a focaccia and then topping off my day with a mortadella panino and a glass of aranciata. We were not rich, but I was always well fed!

  47. Marta, I love your line that “We were not rich, but I was always well fed!” I think I could write another blog one day on that thought alone; it certainly was the same in our family.

  48. Carol Boytos says:

    A happy story about simple pleasures that are life’s most important events. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  49. Hi Paula,
    I realize this thread is pretty old, but having read it, I just had to share one of my Sorrento stories. My mother was born and raised in the Hollow section of Bridgeport, and my father was born and raised on Capitol Avenue, between Main and Madison. I left Bridgeport at the age of 4 and grew up in Trumbull. Now, however, I have returned to Bridgeport (since 1992). I am very familiar with Sorrento’s, and even remember Frascinone (sp?) up the road. One day, about a week before Easter in 2007 or 2008, I was standing in a very long line at Sorrento’s deli counter to buy my cold cuts and cheeses for my ‘Pizza gane”. When they called on me, I quickly shouted my order for sweet capicola, prosciutto, sopressata, provolone – all sliced about 1/3 inch thick. After I placed the order, some woman, about 65 years old (I was about 40 at the time), volunteered that she makes her pizza gane with sliced cold cuts. Well, I was already frazzled getting my shopping done, and i didn’t need this old lady chiming in about her freakin pie, so I very politely told her that it was my family’s tradition to dice the cold cuts and cheese. Erroneously thinking I’d freed myself from this discussion, I returned my gaze to the counter. “I think it’s too chewy diced” I hear. I hesitated, then (couldn’t help myself) turned to her and said “every time I have had pizza gane made with sliced meat, half of the slices stick together and form slabs too big for MY mouth.” That was the end of the discussion. Only in Bridgeport.

  50. Hi Joe, Sorry it took me so long to get back to you; I was offline most of the summer and when we got home I found that our entire internet/phone/tv service had died while we were away. We’re back up now, and I wanted to thank you for your hilarious comment. But don’t think it’s only in Bridgeport — I heard a lot of similar comments in Rome… Every Italian cook seems to have his or her own way of doing things, and most of them think that their way is the only way. It makes for great street theater! FYI, my cousin, lived on the corner of Capitol Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard till he moved to Trumbull too. He’s the guitarist, Paul Gabriel.

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