Finalmente! For many years we’d hoped to coordinate a visit to Villa Viani during harvest time. Collecting grapes or olives are both closely tied to seasons, neither of which are in spring or summer when our previous trips to Italy generally occurred. This year was different and our arrival to the birthplace of my grandfather was ideal in both scheduling and weather. Even better, Alicia was with us to make the work go faster.
Villa Viani is a small community of about 230 people and is located near the Ligurian coast in northwestern Italy. To be more precise, it’s about 8 km. north of the coastal town of Porto Maurizio and is nestled in a quiet valley surrounded by other small villages and hillsides of olive trees that flourish in the sunny marine air. Pontedassio is 3 km. east of town and intersects the road north to Torino and its surroundings where there are fabulous ski areas and home to the almost as fabulous Barbera grape. For international travelers, the nearest airport is Nice, France, and we’ve found it convenient because of the availability of connecting trains.
The grape of choice for our cousin, Piero, is the white Vermentino and he has plenty of ‘em. Probably 2 acres worth, and with 100 kilos of picked grapes producing 70 liters of wine, we snipped enough that day to make hundreds of gallons of wine. Some of these vines are 30+ years old and continue to produce well due to the quality of his soil and his gardening skill. In certain circumstances, Piero has interspersed some red varietals into his vineyard, mostly Barbera that he processes in the cantina beneath his sister Roselina’s house next door. Harvesting grapes is good, sticky fun, and with 6 of us picking and Piero hauling off our booty on his super cool hauler, we finished in a day that included a lovely lunch of minestrone soup that only Vittoria can pull off. The afternoon consisted of Piero and me overseeing the delivery of the harvest to a nearby professional cantina where the grapes will be washed, crushed, and stored in huge stainless steel vats to age.
Villa Viani is near enough to the coastal towns so that those wishing a quieter lifestyle can reside there with a manageable commute. With such a wonderful growing zone, most residents have flourishing gardens. Another reason for gardens is that there are no restaurants and one small store that thankfully stocks coffee, beer, and other staples inadvertently forgotten when shopping at the major supermarket. But that’s not to say Villa Viani lacks excitement because every year there is a 2-day festival that attracts hundreds of visitors from throughout the region, mostly Italians from other small villages nearby. Proceeds from the festa are used in part to maintain the church and, because the pious rely on the it for 1.) their eventual salvation and 2.) the campane della chiesa (church bells) that awakened us daily (on the hour & half hour), the festa is a community-wide affair. Held the last 2 days of July, I photographed and Sooney helped prepare for the 2002 festa and it was truly memorable. This is no makeshift affair by any means; there is a well-equipped community kitchen that opens right onto the piazza and days before the event residents are busy, dressed in white aprons and sanitary hats, preparing the same specialties, year after year.
Each town in the region retains its unique date and menu items so it’s safe to say there’s a party somewhere throughout the province of Imperia nearly every weekend from early spring to late fall. Villa Viani’s Pro Loco Festa features a remarkable multi-course menu of lumache (snails) served in a savory tomato sauce over tagliatelle, fresh pasta, followed by the secondi of skewered ground lamb and pork grilled over coals prepared from olive wood that season the meat just right. Garnishing the meal is torte verdure, a light pastry crust filled with a zucchini, ricotta, and rice mixture, and a second veggie dish of baked stuffed zucchini flowers. Complementing the meal is locally made red wine served in decanters and an evening of dancing to live music under the stars.
One of the benefactors of revenue generated by the annual festa is the local church. Our cousin, Vittoria, often arranges flowers for special occasions and allowed us to photograph during midday light. Nearly every Italian community, regardless of its size, feature a church and most, from the outside, are unremarkable. Villa Viani’s is no different, but upon entering you’re ported to another world of sublime beauty and serenity. The 3 of us spontaneously sang a round or Dona Nobis Pacem from the organ balcony we’d ascended via a shoulder-width circular staircase and it was a truly epic moment as our voices filled the space with the joy of music.
Over dinner one evening with Roselina, we were surprised when her daughter Federica brought out a photo album containing original prints dating back nearly a hundred years. Page after page illustrated events in the lives of our family who’d emigrated to Los Angeles around the turn of the century and sent back photos of their cars, picnics in vast LA fields, and of family groups gathered together for holiday portraits. Few were studio pix, however, but of friends bound together with intertwined arms and smiling happily for family back home. Equally interesting were the notations on the back of the photos with addresses, names, and dates. From a genealogical perspective, this photo album was like hitting the mother lode and it featured images and events of people we’d never seen. Particularly exciting were photos of my father—posing proudly with a car, another in his HS graduation photo, and a solitary goldmine, featuring the entire family together, including my paternal grandmother who I never met.
There were many photos of Pio in the album. I met him during a family visit in ’76 and he was the closest thing i had to a grandpa since Luigi died when I was 6. Pio returned to the peace and tranquility of Villa Viani after having worked in restaurants in LA. My grandfather remained employed and chose to raise his sons in the US although his wife, Giulia Calzia, was severely burned in a cooking accident and returned to Villa Viani where she finished her life comfortably, supported by myriad family members.
A very special photo of Pio, his family, and friends was taken in the late 40’s on a nearby hill where there’s a small chapel. They posed in front of a beautifully fabricated steel cross with the church and scads of other people in the background. We learned that the nearest Sunday to Sept. 8 is celebrated and residents from local villages (weather permitting) hike to the hill for a small picnic. There’s a local saying, “Gli Italiani non solo mangiare,” that loosely translates to “All they do is eat!” It’s safe to say that that picnic was characteristic of the wonderful time we had visiting Italy and, more important, eating well.