Welcome to our neighborhood
There it was again.
The intrusive buzzer that made us jump each time it echoed through our Italian villa. Someone was at the security gate, asking to come in. An unfamiliar part of our new life in Naples included a security fence around our home with a pedestrian gate for guests.
Looking out the window I saw our Italian neighbor, Rita, smiling up at me with a plate in her hand. It was her sixth visit in the three days since we’d moved into this small neighborhood, and I knew what the buzzer meant every time I heard it.
Rita was delivering another plate of “welcome to our neighborhood.”
The first time Rita showed up the Italian movers were unloading our furniture. Delighted when she walked into the yard carrying a small metal pot of Italian coffee and several tiny plastic cups, the men eagerly swigged the potent shots of coffee.
I politely sipped mine. The strong acid flavor of the thick, dark brew was a far cry from the milky lattes I was used to drinking at home in California, but I didn’t want to be rude, and that quickly became a pattern.
I felt a twinge of guilt every time Rita appeared at our gate. The Italian fare she made was pasta or starchy Gnocchi which I politely sampled in small bites, mindful of the calorie count.
My husband, on the other hand, was thrilled when Rita appeared.
“We are lucky!” he exclaimed each time I passed him one of her culinary gifts, which he devoured with relish. Yes, we were fortunate to live in a beautiful villa next to a friendly Italian neighbor.
“What did she bring today?”
He was already sniffing the plate I’d carried inside. “It’s all yours,” I said, feeling relieved that Scott was so delighted with Rita’s cooking.
I had caught a whiff of the strong seafood aroma coming from the plate, and it was too pungent for my taste on a lazy Sunday morning when all I could think about was pancakes and eggs.
“OK, well, I’m eating it.”
We sat on the back veranda gazing out at our view of the Mediterranean.
“Honey, this is wonderful, are you sure you don’t want some?”
I was sure. Watching him pick up the tiny shells scattered atop the pasta to suck out the meat inside wasn’t stirring my appetite in the least.
“I wonder what kind of seafood this is?” he said, studying the shells on his plate. That’s when it occurred to me my husband did not know he was eating snails for breakfast.
“That is not seafood; those are baby snails.”
I felt a little wicked. Despite being self-described “foodies” who often experimented with different cuisines, I knew my husband was no more a fan of Escargot than myself.
“Ack! Why would you ruin it for me?!” he exclaimed, setting the plate down and swigging his mimosa. “I don’t like snails! Why didn’t you tell me?!”
Chuckling at the reaction, I knew that despite my reluctance to partake of the pasta and snails, Rita had made something very special for us. It was time for us to reciprocate Rita’s gracious homemade Italian welcome.
But what does an American cook for an Italian?
My specialties were international dishes – Thai and Mexican. They wouldn’t adequately represent traditional American cuisine at all.
“Why don’t we make something special for Rita?”
He must have been reading my mind. Scott was back to eating the plate of pasta, but I could see the snails had been carefully set to one side. “I think maybe I’ll deep fry a turkey for her,” he said. A deep-fried turkey for the consummate Italian?
Leave it to a boy from North Carolina to come up with fried poultry. Next, he’d be suggesting corn fritters and collard greens. But who was I to judge? At least it was traditional food from our country.
Two weeks later in our back yard at dusk, Scott looked like the culinary equivalent of a coal miner’s daughter. Decked out with a headlamp against the dimming light and clad in denim overalls, he brandished a cigar in one hand and Kentucky bourbon in the other. My husband was boldly displaying his southern roots, gesturing proudly at the turkey fryer and 14-pound bird, waiting to be dipped.
“Why don’t you go get Rita so she can watch?” He asked.
When Rita arrived, we stood together on the terrace above the yard and watched Scott dip her turkey into the pot on stilts. Amazed at the bubbling oil and mouth-watering aroma emitting from the smoke, Rita was fascinated.
We watched for several minutes, sipping the homemade wine she had brought and let the moment bridge the language barrier.
An hour later, the crispy bird arranged on a platter, Scott offered to carry it across the street. The look on Rita’s face spoke volumes, and strangely, I recognized her expression.
It mirrored mine the morning the snail dish had arrived. Oblivious to the nuance and reading it as reluctance to accept his grand gift, Scott carved off a piece of breast meat and held out to Rita on a fork. The steaming hot bite had an unmistakably spicy Cajun aroma to it.
He had injected it with spices, I should have known.
Reluctantly, Rita took the large bite in her mouth then frantically began waving her hands in front of her face. Gulping her wine, her eyes were wide and watering.
“Troppo caldo! Troppo caldo! Molto Spezia!” She exclaimed. I rushed to get her water as my mortified husband stood by, unsure of what to do.
Snails came to mind.
Consistent in her graciousness, Rita took the offending Cajun turkey home. We later learned the bird had been passed to the homes of three of Rita’s relatives – none of whom could eat the spicy fowl.
Two weeks went by with no more gifts from Rita, and we started to wonder if we had seriously offended our Italian neighbors and broken the chain of food gifts with our Cajun turkey.
One day two bottles of homemade champagne showed up outside the gate, and I knew that the mistake was forgiven. Maybe my list of things to do while I live in Italy should include learning to cook snails.