I grew up hearing about it, but never knew where it was.
Vasto. The village in Italy my great-grandparents, Domenico and Philomena Smargiassi, left in the early 1920s to sail to the States. I didn’t look it up on a map until high school, and only recently did I type the name into a Google Images search. I had no expectations of this coastal town in the Abruzzo — where my great-grandmother had her first child before giving birth to my grandfather in her new home in the States — when we decided to include Vasto on our honeymoon road-trip through Italy.
After spending a few care free days in Rome, we picked up a car and drove the three hours straight across Italy, from one coast to the other. Our goal wasn’t to sightsee in Vasto; I just wanted to get a sense of the place. Right after my wedding, I wanted to walk the same streets my great-grandmother had walked after her wedding almost 100 years before.
We arrived on a sunny Saturday June afternoon, with the mobile number of a distant cousin in my pocket. A town of 40,000 people, Vasto is larger than I imagined as a child, yet has a small, charming center with a piazza full of senior citizen ladies sitting around chatting. I immediately thought of my great aunts, filling the kitchen on a Sunday during my childhood, gossiping and chopping garlic.
As we turned into a narrow maze of historic streets at the town’s heart, the church bells began a lengthy song. Squeezing into the last available parking spot outside of our bed and breakfast, my first impression of Vasto was those ringing bells and getting out of the car to see dozens of birds flying overhead; they build nests beneath the roof tiles and were gathering grub for their waiting babies.
The sun began to set as we first explored Vasto, following the winding street down to a wide promenade with sea views. We came across a small church, the source of the bells, and strolled past a dozen restaurants getting ready for dinner service, with familiar smells wafting out their windows. Locals were seated outside for a drink or chatting with neighbors in the street. With the Italian language all around me, I remembered how Grandma Philomena never learned fluent English, but would watch Sesame Street with her grandchildren to learn bits and pieces.
When hunger struck, we settled into a table for a feast of all things local at a restaurant called Trattoria Zi’Albina. We started with a bottle of Pecorino wine, a local white wine made in Abruzzo. An enthusiastic young staff (who spoke some English) walked us through the menu, designing a family-style meal where we could share a few different seafood specialties. In my great-grandmother’s town — where the roots of all my cooking knowledge originate — I was surprised to be treated to the most forward-thinking meal of our entire three weeks in Italy.
The first nibble was a grilled swordfish sandwich, topped with crema di ventricina, made from a prized local salami called Ventricina del Vastese. It was served on a shiny black plate, with salami shavings as garnish. With fish so fresh it somehow evoked the memory of splashing into the sea, this meal was off to a solid start. Grabbing the wine from an ice bucket and topping up our glasses, next came the pasta course — a delicate gnocchi with a crustacean ragu and folds of buffalo mozzarella. A rich seafood stock gave this dish the depth only time can achieve; a strategy my great-grandmother surely would have approved of.
For the finale, we chose a local specialty, brodetto di pesce alla vastese, a large bowl of fish stew with whole fish, mussels, clams, and more. As it was placed on the table, so was a fresh basket of bread, for sopping up all of the flavorful juices. With this course, they provided a paper bib, which I happily tied around my neck, shielding my white blouse from the inevitable tomato splashes that accompany devouring brodetto (I am lucky that my husband finds my lack of grace when eating these types of meals charming). Soon, all that was left on the table was a pile of fish bones and empty shells.
With the Pecorino polished off, we thanked our kind hosts, and retreated to the main town square. An important soccer match was taking place that evening, and a big screen had been set up in front of the historic castle at the town center. We grabbed a table at a cafe and sipped a cocktail as locals cheered on the Italian team. Almost 100 years after my great-grandmother left Vasto, I was sitting in the main square on a warm June night, perhaps in the same place she sat with her new husband, dreaming about what her life would be.
In the upcoming “Noi Vastesi – Part II” I meet a distant cousin and learn more about Vasto and the Smargiassi family.
Noi Vastesi = roughly, We people of Vasto.