On the Road: California

Italian Americans reside in all parts of the US and where you find Italian Americans you’ll find gardens. The Italian Garden Project™ has spent the past several summers traveling the country seeking out classic Italian American vegetable gardens.  This summer we hit the road at the end of June to document gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, visiting eight fantastic gardens in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

Our visits were coordinated by Sonia Picone of Redwood City. Sonia is an amazing woman with infinite energy and immense generosity. Her intense love of her Italian heritage and gardening was inherited from her parents, Maska and Mario Pelligrini who emigrated from Italy as children, Maska from Tolmezzo, Province of Udine, Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and Mario from Altopascio, Province of Lucca, Tuscany region.

It took only one email letting Sonia know that I would like to visit gardens in her area and before I knew it she had notified friends and family, far and near. Within a week not only had she coordinated eight garden visits for me, but planned a wonderful brunch upon my arrival, inviting the gardeners whose gardens we would visit in the Redwood City area. Sonia also connected me with her cousin, Margie Chiechi of San Jose, who coordinated garden visits for me there as well.   I feel very grateful to have been welcomed into the homes and gardens of so many warm and gracious people who generously shared their stories and gardening secrets. Below is just a taste of what we saw and learned. Later in the fall and winter when most of us could use a little sunshine, I’ll take you back to California by posting a more detailed look at my visit.


Sonia (left) with her “gardening angel”, Maria Tarczy. When Sonia’s mother passed away in 2005, Sonia decided to keep her memory alive by keeping her garden alive and using it to help others.  With the seeds saved from her mother’s many varieties of tomatoes, Sonia grew seedlings and sold them as a fundraiser for underprivileged youth at her local YMCA. Read more about Sonia here.


old photo

Italians coming to America found work in a variety of industries. In Western Pennsylvania where The Italian Garden Project is based, Italians came primarily from southern Italy to work in the steel industry or in coal mines. California was a completely different story. The first Italians went to California to help build the railroads and later to work in agriculture for which California is known. The San Francisco Bay Area in particular is known for fruit growing, picking and factory work in large canneries such as Del Monte.  Above is one of Sonia’s family photos taken in the early 1900’s during canning season.



Before heading out to the gardens, Sonia gathered us together for food, wine, and friendship.



The table was laden with local fruits and vegetables.



Sonia prepared a 14 egg frittata with porcini mushrooms, onions and elk. Her husband Ray is an avid sportsman and big game hunter.



Mary Ann Gnecco contributed her amazing biscotti to our feast. Her 100 year-old northern Italian recipe is as authentic as it gets.  She was kind enough to share it with us. (See recipe at end of post).


fig plate

The first fig crop of the season coincided with our visit.  Large, ripe figs were everywhere! This first crop is known as ‘ficcazana’ in Calabrian dialect and ‘fioroni’ in Italian, as one of the gardeners taught us. A second crop will ripen at the end of August.


fig carton

Generous Sonia loaded me up with fresh figs and apricots to take home and …



wild harvested porcini mushrooms that her family forages for every year, a tradition passed down from her parents.



Meet one of the Redwood City area gardeners, Alberto Gnecco, born in Chiavari, Province of Genoa, region of Liguria, Italy.



Alberto grows a zucchini that when harvested and dried becomes a loofah sponge! He taught us how to grow these unusual plants and we’ll share what we learned in a future video post.



Above is a photo of Don Delnevo, born in the Province of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region. After a lifetime career in the produce industry he was a fountain of information about fruit and vegetable growing. Especially about…



Carduni, an artichoke-like vegetable. We’ll tell you what Don had to say when we highlight our Bay Area visit later in the fall.


Mary Ann’s Biscotti

Preheat 350 degrees

1 cup sugar

4 eggs

3 cups flour

1/2 cup melted butter

3 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. anise or vanilla extract

1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds

Spray two cookie sheets lightly with Pam. Combine ingredients just until they form a slightly sticky dough. Scoop dough with spoon and form into two logs on each cookie sheet (4 logs total). Bake for 25 minutes, then cool for 5 minutes. Cut logs at 3/4 inch angled slices. Arrange cookies on cookie sheet with cut side down. Bake for 8 minutes on each side.






Anna Zara

So nice to find this article. My nonno and then father kept our family backyard garden going well into this century in San Francisco’s Bayview district. Your article brought back nice memories of hunting for mushrooms on Howell Mountain drying them and of curing olives at home.


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