Keeping up with the Italian American Gardener

I can barely catch my breath, seriously. Keeping up with the Italian American gardener is always a challenge, but never more so than at this time of year. Just when the gardening season is winding down for most of us and the tomatoes have been canned and stored, my gardening friends are still planting, harvesting, and preserving. Their gardens are as green and productive as most of us wish ours were in July.  Some are still producing Roma beans from a second or third planting.  Escarole, endive, Swiss chard, rapini, cabbage, bulb fennel and peppers are still going strong. In the past week I’ve seen trees heavy with ripening figs, pears, persimmons and chestnuts and the grape arbors are fragrant with the sweet scent of luscious grapes.  And as if there isn’t enough in their own gardens, many are traveling to nearby farms to load up on bushels of vegetables to preserve in giardiniera (pickled) or salatura (in salt) or one of several other methods I’m still learning about.



Last Saturday morning Tommasina and I headed to a large produce warehouse in the historic market section of Pittsburgh known as the Strip District. This trip has become a yearly ritual when we buy fresh olives to cure…



…and wine grapes to cook into an Italian dessert syrup called mosto cotto.



The last Saturday in September is their busiest day all year. It’s the peak of winemaking season and wine grapes are arriving daily from California. It was easy to get caught up in the festive atmosphere with lively accordion music and trays of hot sausage and fresh rolls for sandwiches, compliments of the house. Groups of friends and relatives mingle around, tasting the many varieties of grapes. I always inch closer if I hear them speaking Italian, which I miss from my childhood days with my grandparents. It’s music to my ears.



I ran into several of my gardening buddies who updated me on this season’s successes and challenges and advised which grapes looked best for this year’s winemaking. Pietro DiPietro and his son Sal were there and so was Vincenzo whose garden I had just visited the day before (standing on the left in the second photo).



Vincenzo’s garden is still lush and green and producing abundantly. He picked these beautiful heads of tender escarole for me as well as crisp green peppers and a magnificent bouquet of fresh parsley.



After my morning adventure in the Strip District, I stopped at the Macchione’s. Marietta had left a voicemail the evening before saying that she had figs and chestnuts she wanted to give me. Her thoughtfulness and generosity, like that of so many of the gardeners I know, never ceases to amaze me. I found Giovanni Macchione and his brother-in-law Giuseppe working together in the garden, pulling up the bamboo supports for the climbing beans and removing all remaining dry and semi-dry bean pods.



Marietta and her sister Iole (pronounced Yo lay) were sitting on the back porch shelling and sorting a bowlful of previously picked beans. I eagerly joined in and, of course, was rewarded with a cup of espresso…



…and lots of chestnuts and figs.



When I was visiting Tommasina earlier in the week to plan our Saturday outing, her brother-in-law Mariano stopped by. He had just been to a farm about an hour away in Ohio to pick a bushel of eggplants, a bushel of sweet peppers and a basket of hot peppers. When I asked what he planned to do with all those vegetables, he said that he would grill, peel and freeze them. Tommasina offered to help, and I asked if I could too, so we spent several hours the next morning sitting around his picnic table, peeling the perfectly grilled veggies, drinking (more) espresso and thoroughly enjoying ourselves.



No week would be complete without checking in with Michele. I found him in the process of pressing his freshly crushed wine grapes, cranking the press tighter. He does this periodically for more than 24 hours to remove every bit of juice from the skins and pulp. While he worked, he lamented that this year’s sheepshead mushroom hunting was not going very well. Maybe for the first time in years he would have do without, especially since he will be leaving for Italy soon to visit his mother.  I was shocked but thrilled when he revealed two of his prize foraging spots so that I could check them for him while he was away. I never thought I’d see the day…



As I write this, the mosto cotto is simmering on the stove and the olives which Tommasina and I cured this morning are soaking on the countertop  I may never be able to keep up with the Italian American gardener, but no doubt I’ll have fun trying.






Barbara DeRiso


The sheepshead mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) came out very early this year – 6 or 8 weeks ago they were plentiful. I don’t know if they will have a second “bloom” when the temperatures drop or the rains come. But it’s nice to walk in the woods anyway. Happy hunting.

Barbara DeRiso

Mary Menniti

Thanks for letting us know, Barbara. Even if I come up empty-handed, I’ll enjoy spending time in the woods looking. I’ll keep you posted.


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