Every man that turned the corner, I studied for Smargiassi traits. A certain height, a certain shape of the face, a curve of the spine or a walk. As each pedestrian approached, I prepared to say hello, scanning their face for a trace of recognition, but they all passed without a word.
Standing on the corner outside my hotel in the historic quarter of Vasto on a Sunday morning, I was waiting for a distant cousin. I knew only his name, Maurizio, and that we had agreed to meet in this location at this time. He was now 15 minutes late, 20 minutes late. I had traveled over 4,000 miles from New York to this village in the Abruzzo, where my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were born and raised, and had their first child. Now, several generations on — with the help of my new husband as trusty translator — I was eager to learn about the village that gave my family its foundation of culture, traditions, and cooking.
I knew it was him, when he first came into sight over 200 feet away. The resemblance to my grandfather was striking — the same slope of the shoulders, the same curve of the back of the head, even his mannerisms felt familiar. He brought his sister, Anna, and his daughter Chiara along for the day. We exchanged hellos and kisses, along with lots of smiles, stepping in for the mutual feeling of wishing we could communicate with ease. They dug deep for English vocabulary, and I listened intently as they spoke slow Italian to try and catch the gist of sentences. When this failed, a quick Google translate on a phone got the point across, and we all laughed in mutual delayed understanding.
Maurizio is an architect, and a fascinating man with a rich knowledge of his hometown. We began walking, and before long, crossed a road and turned down a small street called Via Buci. He pointed out a modest three-story house, the former home of my great-grandmother Philomena. I only knew her as a lovely white-haired lady, kneading dough for homemade bread in a kitchen in New Jersey, but tried to picture her, around my age, living in this house, preparing for the long journey of moving to the US with an infant in tow.
We moved on, exploring the highlights of Vasto. The edge of town juts up against a ravine, and Maurizio told us of landslides, where part of the edge of town had fallen victim to the slide (Google translate success: landslide). We gazed at the ruins of Roman baths, intricate mosaic tile work covered by canopies to protect this ancient art from the wind and rain. I wondered if this place had meant something to Grandma Philomena, if maybe she had gone for a date with my great-grandfather and strolled past the baths, admiring the mosaics.
Next we wandered through Palazzo d’Avalos, home to an archeological museum and an art collection. Hanging on the wall in a gilded frame was a simple painting of Vasto, from the brush of Gabriele Smargiassi, another distant relative. Many of Vasto’s landmarks are clearly recognizable in the image, but the Vasto of this painting is smaller, with a wide horsetrack that leads up to the town and a man on horseback in the foreground. Given my choice of careers, it was nice to learn that deep in my family’s past, there was some creativity in our blood.
As we moved through Vasto, Maurizio graciously answered my questions. I asked if there were many Smargiassis still in Vasto. He laughed and replied: “Troppi Smargiassi!” (too many Smargiassis). I also learned about our family name, and implications of its meaning in Italian. The word “smargiasso” means a boaster or a bully in Italian. This, too, was a Google translate success we all had a good giggle about over lunch.
Lunch, is an understatement. High above the sea, we sat on a shady patio, for the kind of perfect meal that goes on all day. The appetizers alone — an octopus salad, stuffed mussels, anchovies, and more — were substantial enough for a hearty lunch. Next came the pasta, called calamarata for resembling calamari in shape, with more mussels and clams in a simple sauce of olive oil, garlic, and parsley. At this point in the meal, I actually excused myself for a stretch and short stroll.
Back at the table, another pasta course was served, this one of handmade cavatelli in a rich tomato sauce. I mentioned that cavatelli was a favorite in my childhood, that my mother and grandmother both cooked it for me. When you are speaking through someone else — i.e. my husband translating — there is always an extended moment of waiting, where you have to wait to see how your comment will be received. Of everything I mentioned that afternoon, the fact that cavatelli had traveled to New Jersey got the most earnest nod of approval from my Italian relatives.
When I thought it was impossible for another morsel to pass my lips, it was time for dessert. Before lunch, we stopped into a local bakery, Pasticceria Smargiassi. The pastries, called aragosta for their resemblance to lobster tails, were filled with lemon cream. Pastries are not usually my soft spot, but these were irresistible, barely sweet from a final dusting of powdered sugar. When Maurizio suggested coffee, I declined, saying that I think I would prefer a nap. Yet a round of espresso was delivered to the table anyway, and he was right, the coffee helped to settle my stomach and perk me up for the remainder of the afternoon.
The rest of the afternoon — a drive, a lighthouse stroll, seeing a hidden local beach — was further proof that Smargiassis on both sides of the pond don’t take hospitality lightly. I was floored at the generosity of Maurizio, dedicating his whole day to giving us a complete picture of Vasto. In the end, it was us that lost steam first, retreating back to the hotel for an early evening nap. I had the feeling that Maurizio, in talking about the pleasures of Vasto, was only getting started.
For more details on our road trip through Italy, check out my story for AFAR on How to Take an Italian Road Trip.