Dining With the Gods – A Travel Essay

La costa degli dei ©Accenti Image Bank

After almost half a century living in Toronto’s Little Italy, I make a return journey to the place where I was born: Maierato, a small agricultural village in Southern Italy, nestled in the valley of the River Angitola just before its waters flow gently out into the Mediterrenean. I sleep in a hilltop townhouse in the medieval heart of the village: our family home before we sailed away on board the Queen Frederica bound for Halifax – our port of entry into the eldorado we all knew as lamerica. I was 12 years old. My first night here is restless. In that state between sleep and waking my childhood as a tailor’s apprentice on the shores of the Mediterranean and my teen-age years working at Tip Top Tailors on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto merge into a dreamscape in which the distance between home and away evaporates like the waters of the Angitola in the summer heat.

At the crack of dawn I am startled by the church bells calling the faithful to matins. The silent house awakens to the sounds of the village coming to life – roosters lead a chorus of other animals greeting the dawn of a new day, older women greet one another as they hang out their bucato, the few remaining contadini wend their way to their fields, a clatter of children take in a morning game of hide and seek in the maze of alleyways before rushing off to school.

On this last Sunday in September the piazza is festooned with lighting panels and luminaries for the celebration of the last feast of the summer: the Festa degli scrisi, an ancient thanksgiving celebration of the harvest. As a returning immigrant I have been invited to be a juror in a food-tasting competition featuring authentic local cuisine and wines.

Morning mass is over and the faithful spill out onto the piazza. I notice many familiar faces from Toronto. At the local bar where I have gone for my cappuccino, many inquire about my kinship, wanting to know if I have any living relatives in the village. When I tell them that most of my family has settled permanently in Canada, a distant relative – an older woman flaunting her splendid pacchiana, a traditional costume dating back to the sixteenth century but now dusted off for special occasions such as this feast day – seeks some clarification: “Ma vui siti americanu di College Street o di Woodbridge?“ (Are you an American from College Street or from Woodbridge?), she asks in the ancient dialect that only older immigrants like my aunt Teresa on Euclid Avenue in Toronto, caught in the time frieze of immigration, still speak as their mother tongue. My new friends at the Bar Valotta insist that I should try the luxury resort, the Popilia, named after the ancient Roman road that, running through these parts, connected Sicily to the centre of the empire. I explain that I like to wake up to the sound of the church bells, but that I will go later in the day for a glass or two of the local wine.

Centuries before the Romans built the Via Popilia as a southern extension of the Via Appia, the Greeks settled in this land so rich in vineyards that they baptized it Oenotria, “land where the vine is cultivated.” The Oenotrians inhabited the territory from Paestum to the Southern tip of Italy, roughly the itinerary of the Popilia. When I read Aristotle at the University of Toronto I was thrilled to learn that Italus, the legendary Oenotrian king whose name evolved to become Italia, oversaw the transition of his people from a pastoral to an agricultural society. In the process he instituted a system of common meals, which we can safely conjecture were accompanied by wines made from the ancient Gaglioppo grapes indigenous to Calabria. In the ancient winemaking area we know as Cirò Marina, these grapes were used to produce Cremissa, a ceremonial beverage used as a toast to the gods by the Olympic champions of ancient Greece. Recent DNA research on Italy’s most famous grape, the Sangiovese, from which such stellar wines as Brunello di Montalcino are made, have established a Calabrian parentage to this vine. I take a certain pride that I will be dining, so to speak, with the Gods who once roamed here and gave Italy not only its name and its noble wines, but also that quintessential Italian tradition of gathering together over a meal.

The area is known here as La costa degli dei (the coastline of the gods), a clear reference to its glorious heritage as Magna Graecia’s window on the western shores of the Mediterranean, presided over by the ancient city of Hipponion, now Vibo Valentia. An imposing Norman-Hoehenstaufen Castle sits majestically on the ruins of the acropolis of the ancient city and has witnessed the trampling of many conquering armies. The castle, built around the turn of the first millennium with materials from the area’s Greek temples, now houses an important national archeological museum.

On my way to Pizzo, I take lunch at the agriturismo Il Borgo sul Lago, a cluster of cottages whose red clay-tiled roofs shimmer in the sea of green of the Angitola valley, where ancient olive trees extend their protective embrace to newly planted orange groves. I opt for the local, traditional and rustic fileja con ‘nduja di Spilinga, a traditional Calabrese dish of home-made pasta with ‘nduja, a type of sausage from the nearby town of Spilinga. Family recipes are closely guarded secrets, but the ingredients are known to consist of a spicy mixture of pork trimmings, including innards, tripe, liver, and other such delicacies, cured with local herbs and spices, with lots of the devilishly hot peperoncino. Before resuming my long walk, Giorgio, the very affable owner of the agriturismo, offers me a glass of Alchimia, a passito wine made from zibib grapes cultivated in the area. An ancient Egyptian vine, zibib was introduced to the region by Phoenicians. As we savour the golden yellow fruitiness of the Alchimia, Giorgio is more interested in talking about Canada, where thousands of Calabresi make their home. He is old enough to remember the mass emigration from the towns on either side of the Angitola. As a child, he tells me, he used to watch the trains in the now abandoned station in Pizzo take friends and relatives away. Some he would never see again. I tell him that I may have been on one of those trains. We take some comfort for our interrupted childhoods in the warm afterglow of the zibib wine.

Pizzo calls itself the gelato capital of the world. I join throngs of pizzitani in the daily ritual of the afternoon passeggiata, savouring our gelati as we watch the sun set into the Mediterranean. Across from the gelaterie, on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea stands the 15th century Aragonese castle. It is now a museum dedicated to the life and exploits of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, who had served as King of Naples. In a failed mission to recapture the kingdom for the French, Murat was himself captured, and imprisoned in this castle. On October 13, 1815 he was executed in the courtyard. A brave soldier, Murat chose to face the firing squad without the customary blindfold. A vane, handsome man, he gave polite instructions to the firing squad to spare his face. “Soldats! Faites votre devoir ! Droit au cœur mais épargnez le visage. Feu !”

The scene has been recreated as a living history exhibit and is very popular with tourists and wedding parties alike, who immortalize their visit by smiling for the camera, gelato in hand, under the icy gaze of the former king of Naples staring death squarely in the face.

In the twilight I wend my way back to Maierato where the food-tasting competition is getting underway. I take my place on the jury, which is composed of five men, only one of whom is from the village. The rest of us have roots here, but now live in far-flung places around the world. Many delicacies are paraded in front of us, all of them prepared by local housewives. I give my highest score to a cucina povera dish featuring a local sausage, spiced with fennel, oregano and peperoncino, served on a bed of cuscusu (couscous) with tomato sauce, and garnished with broccoletti in umido. Although the woman who prepared this dish does not win, she approaches me, wanting to thank me for giving her the second highest score. She asks if I remember her. She puts a merciful end to my embarrassment by pulling out from her handbag an old, tattered black and white picture of a grade five class. My name is Rita, she says, the tailor’s daughter. In the picture we are standing next to each other, our hands wanting to join but too shy to do so.

As summer comes to an end, I must make my way back from the home of childhood to my grown-up home in Canada. I take advantage of my last day here to go for an early morning walk down to the river, and from there, up to the top of the hill to take in the view of the village and the valley in which it is cradled.

On the plateau sits a lone farmhouse, a sentinel looking out to the sea in the distance. From behind the wooden shutters the clatter of morning preparations spills out onto the country road. A group of young children in their pale blue school uniforms, red knapsacks strapped on their backs, are ushered onto the road by their grandmother dressed in black. Buongiorno signore, they greet me and giggle among themselves, until the bright yellow scuolabus, (Norah Jones, like a modern Pied Piper, whispering on the radio…come away with me…) pulls up on the dirt road to whisk them away to their daily appointment with the creeping globalization in the classrooms in Vibo Valentia. I watch their grandmother wave them away, then disappear into her house, the door shutting behind her. Slowly, I make my way down the hill and across the river back to where a car is waiting to take me to the airport.

“Dining With the Gods – A Travel Essay” was a finalist in the 2022 Accenti Writing Contest. For details on next year’s contest, click here.

 Damiano Pietropaolo’s preferred medium is creative non-fiction, which allows him to explore the interplay between memory and the passing of time.

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