Summer. Tomatoes. Italy. Is there anything better? Perhaps not. There's something about the warm tomato season that tends to make me nostalgic. Sometimes for Italy (where I once enjoyed a memorable family vacation), but also for Vermont, where I attended graduate school.
Specifically around the Fourth of July, I remember Montpelier. It's the quintessential American small town. A local coffee shop, a few restaurants, children playing in the street, that sort of thing. One year, I spent part of the afternoon taking a long walk through the neighborhood around campus. People sat on porches drinking tea, neighbors walked their dogs. One street was bustling with a potluck, with friends and family gathered around a long table in someone's backyard. The air was warm but not stuffy. There was a breeze, and the color a bit muted, understated.
Last year we flew to Napa for a friend's wedding (heavenly), but this year we stayed home to enjoy our new neighborhood, where friends live a mile away, and we could see the fireworks show in the marina from their rooftop.
All this is to say that summer, year after year, brings nostalgia with its heat and tomatoes. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either. We're all feeling it. All trying to hang on to the fleeting days, and when it comes to summer memories, this poem hits all the right notes and will have you dreaming of Italy by the end of it.
by Pat Phillips West
Papa Joe, the owner, shows me the garden
behind his café. His wife sits on her heels
dress tucked between her legs tending herbs
and vegetables. Every so often
she kisses her fingertips, Così bello!
Papa Joe talks about Insalata Caprese,
a favorite summer salad he insists I try.
Ripe, deep-red tomatoes, he shakes his head
side to side, never soft, never refrigerated.
Only young basil
grown in the earth and sun.
I inhale oregano and rosemary, feel at home
in this space. A young man pulls out a chair
at my table on the sidewalk as if I had been waiting
for him. He tears off a chunk of crusty bread,
holds it out like a gift, fills my glass
with chilled white wine. Papa Joe stops
to ask, Molto gustoso, si? With a nod
toward the young man not my salad.
I refold my napkin, finger a spoon, cross
and uncross my legs. Food on my lips,
excitement wicking through my fingers,
I can only grin. Finally, the young man
points, Come, I take you to see the Duomo.
I look at his scooter, my aunt’s send-off
remark flutters in my ear, There’s more to life
than being safe. I tuck my skirt
between my legs, climb on,
and press against his back.
This is most certainly a poem of place. From start to finish, we're transported to a romantic Italian city. With offerings of bread and intoxicated by the scent of rosemary, our speaker is swooning, but still asks a reasonable series of questions Do I go see the Duomo? Do I hop on the back of a scooter?
Do I dare?
As it turns out, food is the peace offering, the calming force, the reason. The bread and the rosemary, the cooking tips, the young basil, it's enough to learn one of summer's great lessons: "There's more to life than being safe."
Reading this poem is not unlike when you attend someone's wedding. While watching friends pledge their love for each other, you can' help but reflect on your own vows. Although this memory is not my own, I could see it so vividly and imagine myself in the same circumstance, wind blowing in my hair, stomach full with caprese, utterly happy.
ROASTED CAPRESE TARTINE
In the summer, there's nothing better eating tomatoes with as many meals as possible. For these tartines, I chose a medium-sized tomato that fit perfectly on the bread slices.
Serves 2 for lunch, or 3-4 as an appetizer
1 pound tomatoes
Salt, pepper, and oil
8 slices bread (like ciabatta)
8 slices mozzarella
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Slice the tomatoes lengthwise into 1/2-inch pieces and place in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, and a drizzle of oil. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until shriveled and caramelized.
Turn on the broiler. Slice the bread into 1-inch slices and place on a sheet pan. Layer with the tomatoes, then lay some cheese on top. Broil for about 4 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and the bread begins to char just around the edges. Sprinkle with basil. This is also a good time to pull out your prized bottle of thick balsamic vinegar and add a dash before serving.