Nelly Writes — Stories

An Adventure in Genoa

The adventure that changed my life happened right in my hometown. I didn't have to go very far to step into a different world.

At 23 years old, I was working as the secretary of the chief of the foreign department at the headquarters of Piaggio, the Genoese company manufacturer of Vespa scooters. Although I liked my job, I knew my career wasn't likely to go anywhere. Twenty years ago women in Italy were expected to remain secretaries and assistants all their lives.

I used to discuss this with my then significant other. He was only two years older and owned his own store where he made and sold fresh pasta, gnocchi, ravioli, and sauces. His business was very successful and he had organized it in such a way that he was able to make more money and have more free time than any job like mine could ever hope for.

One day we noticed an ad on the paper that said: "Well established torte and farinata shop for sale". The asking price was reasonable. Maybe I could have my own business too. We made arrangements to see the shop the next evening.

It was the beginning of winter. A long line was standing in front of the marble countertop and some people were even waiting outside on the curb.

"What are they waiting for?" I asked.

"Farinata, of course, it's the season now" Gino answered.

Genoese love to wait for and buy this thin, crispy, golden garbanzo bean flour "pancake" when it emerges from the wood burning oven and either eat it on the spot or take it home for dinner with their families. It is their favorite comfort food, much more popular than pizza. It has been around for centuries, some say it dates back to the Romans who used to carry along the flour and cook it over their campfires.

I had eaten farinata before but it wasn't on my family's menu very often because both my parents were not from Genova. The few time we had eaten it, my younger brother had been the one in charge of standing in line at our neighborhood farinata shop.

We squeezed ourselves into the shop and watched the action for a while. The two wide mouthed ovens were roaring with flames. The owner was standing near them pouring a very liquid yellow mixture into a huge shallow copper pan that must have been one meter across. In the pan there was a good amount of olive oil. The man with precise movements would blend the batter with the olive oil, the lift the pan, balance it, and shove it in the oven without spilling one drop. Meantime his wife was serving the hot farinata that had just come out of the oven. With a small round knife she would cut pieces, place them in trays and wrap them. Some people had brought their own serving dishes and farinata would be placed directly on them. Some of the customers were also buying wedges of torta di bietole or carciofi. Others were waiting for baccalĂ  fritters coming out of the deep frier.

Everything was happening at lightning speed. By the time one pan of farinata was ready and coming out of the oven, the other had been served and the pan was empty and ready to go back in. I was impressed how this couple was managing all this at their age. They must have been in their seventies.

"This is not for me," I was thinking, "I will never be able to work this fast." All of a sudden my job at Piaggio didn't seem so bad. It was comfortable, fun and somewhat less blue collar.

The couple invited us to come to the shop the next day early to watch Giuse, the husband make the tortas. They also told us that the shop, although modest in appearance, was doing very well. It was one of the two stores that had belonged to the Boggiano family for generations. Giuse and Lina had married late in life and they had a daughter too young to continue in their footsteps. Now they wanted to retire. I had the feeling that not too many young people were willing to start a career in this old-fashioned kind of business.

The next morning at six a.m. I was at the shop. Giuse started making the flour/water dough that is the container of all the tortas. In no time, by hand, he made a number of perfectly round dough balls. He took from the refrigerator a tub full of thinly shredded Swiss chard and a bucket full of curdled milk which is traditionally used in Genova instead of ricotta. He lifted a round heavy copper pan almost as big as the farinatas on the counter, oiled it, then with deft movements flattened the dough and started stretching it only with his fists, twirling it until it became as big as a sheet and as thin as silk fabric. He lined the pan with it. He proceeded by placing layers of Swiss chard, Parmesan cheese, curdled milk, drizzling everything with olive oil. Again, until three sheets of dough as thin and as big as the first one covered the concoction known as Torta di Bietole. He sealed and cut off the excess dough.

The oven was already glowing with charcoal. He lifted the torta effortlessly and placed it in the oven, closing its door. He turned to me and said: "It will be ready in 40 minutes. Now let's make torta di cipolle." I had been watching him with my jaw dropped and a look of disbelief. "It isn't as hard as it looks. I'll help you to stretch the dough." He had read my mind.

Timidly I lifted the dough and started imitating his movements. It was working, my dough was getting thinner and thinner and thinner.... Suddenly a huge hole appeared in my sheet. He quickly caught it and mended it, then placed it in the oiled pan. "See, no problem, if it breaks, you can fix it." I tried again with various degrees of luck. By the end of the morning we had made several tortas and focaccias. The counter and windows were overflowing with golden crisp tortas. The smells were intoxicating. I was exhausted. . . . . . .

This is how it all started. Gino and I worked in the shop several mornings and evenings. Giuse promised that he would teach us all the tricks of the trade. Two facts really convinced us that buying the shop was a good idea. We liked the food and the tradition behind it and the fact that I would be able to make more money and become financially independent from my parents and have more free time.

Farinata was a wintery food, so the shop was normally closed in the months of July and August. The remaining ten months more than made up for the two months of vacation.

We decided to buy the shop. I left my job at Piaggio, which was considered by most as secure as a government job (wrongly, because a few years later all the employees had to choose either to be transferred to another city or loose their job.)

Gino and I went into a partnership. I would go early in the morning to make tortas. He would come later to make farinatas. I was in charge of the sales and soon I was facing the fact of serving a very traditional clientele. This was an old neighborhood and people were used to see their beloved comfort food being made and handled by their own people. My problem was that I didn't speak the Genoese dialect. Although I understood most of it, I had the good sense of not trying to speak it. It would have been worse if I had tried, since I didn't have the right accent. Luckily Gino did and sometimes he explained to me the technical words. Most customers were nice to me especially at the beginning when, trying to cut a steaming hot farinata (maybe not perfectly made, I have to say). Pretty soon it would look like it had been hit by a bomb. Maybe they appreciated the fact that thanks to us young people they could continue to eat farinata. The shop had been for sale for several months and no buyers had showed up before us. Yet some would make fun of me or use expressions I didn't know.

But I learned fast. Soon my hands started looking like I had been in the war. They sported several cuts and burns. The blackness of the soot from the oven stained them, no matter how much I washed and scrubbed. I got used to my hands. To the smell of farinata that I carried with me wherever I went. And to the fact of being so tired at night. At the end of the first season Gino and I were able to go on a long vacation to see my uncle in Brazil. I had also some savings and I would soon be able to buy a small apartment.

Things were happening fast. Gino found it impossible to run his shop and ours at the same time, so he left the partnership. I hired a tortaio. A man who had his own shop for years, and who was two and a half time my age. That's when my real adventure started. Now I was on my own, in charge of a shop, trying to handle an employee much more experienced than I was. I had to learn how to stand my ground and be respected. One thing I wasn't willing to give up was the quality of my products. No shortcuts, no recycling, only olive oil. After two days leftovers belong to the garbage.

"You are going to have to close this shop if you waste so much stuff," he was constantly
telling me. But he was wrong, my business was growing, the word of mouth was spreading. "Tortas at Antica Sciamadda are good even under the new management!"

Certainly the constant struggle of demonstrating who was in charge was exhausting. Besides the business part, I was learning really fast to behave like a man but without exaggerating. It wasn't easy for a sixty year old man to accept orders from a young woman and I couldn't afford to offend him and lose him. There weren't too many people experienced in this trade around. Forget about feeling protected and sheltered, the way I had been taught. "You are a girl, somebody is going to take care of you," was the common unspoken message at that time. I felt I was on the front line everyday, dealing simultaneously with snotty customers (who constantly thought I was my employee's daughter), an authoritarian employee who thought and probably did know more than I did, and my own disbelief and doubts. All seemed wanting to demonstrate that a 24 year old girl - not even Genovese - couldn't make it.

But I did make it. Eventually, I changed several employees. I expanded my business. I got into a new partnership, this time with a woman and with a different deal. We would share the management of the shop and each of us would work five months. We would keep the same employee and have the same standards of quality and customer service.

This agreement seemed out of the world, nobody I knew had ever done it before. But we made it happen, and our partnership lasted 12 years. I didn't become rich, but I had enough money to travel and go back to college. I sold my small apartment and bought a new one with a wonderful view overlooking the port and the hills of Genoa. In 1986 my partner and I bought the other Antica Sciamadda, the one that belonged to Guise's sister, who was going through the same predicament as her brother. After one year of communal management, we agreed to keep one shop each. I opted for the new one, which was located in the center of Genoa, at walking distance from my apartment.

Many more things happened in the following years. Somehow my personal story became linked to farinata, I was identified with the savior of Genovese traditional food. I had continued the activity of two shops that would have most likely been closed or transformed into barber shops. I had many illustrious customers, the Italian President Cossiga was among them. My place was recognized by tourist guides and publications as the place where the best farinata was served.

I often wonder how and why all this happened. I don't consider myself Genovese. I spent most of my life in that city but the first air I breathed wasn't the salty Genovese air and I don't have a single Genovese gene in me. Yet I owe my professional identity to one of the most Genovese foods and businesses. I even carried the name "Antica Sciamadda", which I love, over onto these shores when I moved to California. "It means 'Old Flames,' " I explain to my customers and students when I hand them my business card that reads: Antica Sciamadda Cooking School and Catering. "Not 'Old Flame'. No reference to a former boy friend. 'Old Flames', plural, refers to the flames of my wood burning oven where I used to make farinata ...."

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"I come from a country where food is a central part of life. My passion and mission is to share my love of food and cooking with my students. Also to give them the inspiration and tools to create memorable meals and live meaningful experiences in the kitchen." - Nelly Capra