There are love affairs that begin with a sudden jolt, epitomizing the phrase “falling in love,” because the connection is like being at a place one second, and somewhere entirely different the next. Other affairs of the heart grow slowly, even reluctantly, with both parties revealing themselves over time until the attraction is undeniable. It is the latter that most closely describes the origin of my love affair with olive oil.
Halfway through my junior year of college, I moved to Italy to take part in a study abroad program. I had been taking language classes for about a year, so when I landed in Siena, smack in the heart of Tuscany, for a month-long language immersion class, I was a step ahead of many of the program’s participants.
At twenty-five, I was a bit older than my fellow schoolmates, somewhat more mature and, by far, less homesick than anyone on the trip. This led to my placement in Florence, after our month in Siena ended, with a single, divorced woman who worked full-time and enjoyed her independence. In her mid-forties, Ruzi was Czechoslovakian by birth, but had lived in Italy since the age of five. Enormous brown eyes, made up heavily (à la Sophia Loren), emblazoned her wide, high-cheekboned face. Her naturally wavy, bleached blonde hair that never looked the same from one day to the next added to her allure. Ruzi worked out regularly and her petite, athletic frame contrasted with the more softly rounded frames of most Italian women her age. She spoke no English, another reason for my placement with her. If I wanted to communicate with Ruzi, it was going to be in Italian.
One thing I did have in common with the other American students, at least at the beginning of the journey, involved a distaste for what we all saw as the shocking amount of olive oil that Italians used on their food. We noticed this at our first meal together at a restaurant in Siena. Not only was olive oil everywhere, snaking all over our food in green trails, but the signora serving us kept offering the bottle, as if there was any chance that a pool of oil at the bottom of our insalata mista was not enough.
Having grown up in an Italian-American family, I had a strong familiarity with olive oil as a cooking aid, or even condiment. In every household of my extended family, there sat a dark colored bottle that had originally housed wine, with a spigot on the top. What I considered a liberal dose would be zig-zagged across nearly everything, from freshly cooked fava beans to homemade minnestrone. What I came to learn within one week of living in Italy was that there seemed to be no direct translation of the word “drizzle” in Italian. In fact, the closest word to it seemed to be “drench.”
Our first night together in Florence, Ruzi made ravioli nudi or “naked ravioli”, so named because unlike traditional ravioli which has a pasta pillow case stuffed with some kind of filling, ravioli nudi were made without the pasta and resembled a dumpling. A ball of filling, in this case finely chopped spinach, ground pork, onion, garlic, beaten eggs and freshly grated parmesan, were dropped into boiling water, cooked for few minutes and then drained and placed on a plate. When Ruzi plopped four or five on my plate and pulled out of the cupboard a small, opaque decanter, I thought nothing of it, knowing it had to be olive oil. Then, she poured…and poured…and poured. My mouth opened in preparation of saying something, but I didn’t yet know the Italian word for “whoa.” Then, Ruzi stopped, still holding the decanter over my plate, and said, “Basta?” (Is that enough?) Was she kidding? It was enough for five meals! “Si, si!” I answered, already plotting my strategy for getting out of eating the shirtless ravioli. There they sat, literally in a pool of the darkest olive oil I had ever seen. Technically, the rich oil was serving as a sauce, having passed condiment status before Ruzi had finished even half her pour.
I sliced carefully through the first ravioli, creating two halves that immediately flopped over into the green lake on my plate. The flavors of the fresh filling, almost identical to what my mother and grandmother made back home, were overwhelming – but so was the effect of all that oil, in a way I wasn’t at all used to. However, since it was Italy, where the worst thing a person can do is show even a morsel of discontent with someone’s cooking, I ate every last bite and said yes to more. It was a long meal.
At some point during that first dinner, I decided that since it would be impossible to show my lack of enthusiasm for the amount of oil with which Ruzi anointed my food, I’d find out what I could about the deep green liquid. It was unlike any color I had ever seen come out of the bottles back home.
“Ruzi, the olive oil is so…dark…and beautiful. It is so different than anything I see in the United States” I said in Italian, trying to avoid any verb constructions outside of the present tense.
“Siiiiiii,” Ruzi purred, as her eyes opened wide and then closed to slits as she continued in Italian – Italian I have long since forgotten – to explain further the origin of the oil.
With her answer, I was now privy to far more than I had expected: The oil, it seemed, was one of the many benefits bestowed upon Ruzi by her very rich, very generous, married lover, Massimo, and such a delicious oil was unlike anything one might find in a store. It came from Massimo’s estate, where he grew the olives, which were hand-picked and pressed at the local mill.
“Ahhhhh,” I replied, Italian for, “I have no idea how to respond to that, so I will stretch out this one syllable and pray for divine intervention.” It worked.
“`E buono, no?”
“Si. Molto buono.”
At that moment, with five months left in my stay, I knew I would need to learn how to co-habitate with the only love child Ruzi and Massimo shared: olive oil.
Slowly, over the course of the next few months, I found myself growing not only fond of the olive oil, but needing more and more of it. This was all due to my ability to go out on a limb and find the courage to say, “Basta” about a week after our first dinner together. Long before the oil spread out over the entire plate, I said it. Ruzi smiled coyly, surprised at my request, I am sure, due to the fact that for the last week she had been pouring with a heavy hand and I had not said a word. I could tell that she could tell I was up to something, and sure enough, I was. This marked the beginning of my own love affair with Massimo’s olive oil.
Once I tasted just a bit of it, I noticed and quickly grew to appreciate the subtleties of the oil: the pepperiness of the aftertaste in the back of my throat and the slight earthiness as it hit the top of my tongue. The end of each month’s jug was different, with tiny bits and slivers of olive slithering out as the last drops of the decanter emptied onto our plates of fresh, roasted beets, sausage and peppers, or sardines baked in bread crumbs and balsamic vinegar. Before long, I didn’t just look forward to the olive oil, I needed it. I had become a desperate olive oil junkie.
My afterschool ritual at least three days a week included picking up a ball of fresh, buffalo mozzarella and a couple of plum tomatoes at a small market in Ruzi’s neighborhood. The shopkeeper, Fabio, a stunning man with piercing blue eyes and shoulder length, wavy black hair would package the cheese, then pick two tomatoes from the mound in the center of the tiny store and gently place them in a small paper bag. The salt and pepper stubble on his face told me he had to be in his late thirties, while the icy glare coming from the woman who took my money told me he was married. Nevertheless, I stopped in regularly to pick up my snack, knowing Fabio was just out of reach, but my favorite snack of Pomodoro Caprese was not.
Back in Ruzi’s apartment, I would slice the tomato, layering it with thick slices of the moist, snow white cheese. Next came torn up pieces of fresh basil and then, the oil. I would take the decanter from the shelf next to Ruzi’s stove and pour. I cracked black pepper and sprinkled sea salt across the red, white and dark green meal and enjoyed it to the last bite, wiping up as much of the oil as I possibly could.
As time passed, more of Massimo’s perks kept coming, for both of us. When I fell sick with a horrifying version of the Italian flu, fainting if I stood up too quickly, Ruzi didn’t call a doctor. She called Massimo, and he called a doctor, who then showed up at our door an hour later. When Ruzi’s car broke down, a new one appeared on the street in front of her modest apartment building.
Toward the end of my time in Italy, I finally met Massimo. One day, out of nowhere, she said that we would be going to Massimo’s home outside of Florence for dinner. I wondered how that would work, but decided against asking for details concerning his wife. There was still a certain formality between us, which seemed to be a cultural thing that did not need to be disturbed.
Twelve of us, including Massimo and his wife, Marcella, dined al fresco, at a hand-hewn farm table that stretched across an ancient patio overlooking an olive tree grove. I watched carefully, but not too carefully, for signs that Marcella knew about the relationship. From what I had learned during my stay in Italy, the wife usually knows, but typically never reveals that fact – to anyone. Marcella was somewhat reserved, yet extremely gracious to everyone, including Ruzi.
For the most part, I concentrated on the meal. I savored every bite, from the homemade gnocchi to the veal cutlets, lightly browned in (what else) olive oil and slivered garlic. Toward the end, it finally dawned on me that the decanters of olive oil that Marcella had placed at each end of the table were cut crystal and clear – not opaque and therefore protective of the oil from light. Not wanting to offend la donna della casa, I decided to ask Ruzi about it. She sat across from me, so I leaned in and said quietly, “Why are the decanters clear?” Ruzi, her face framed by the late spring Tuscan sun setting behind her, whispered back to me in her perfect Italian, “For a dinner like this, it is too beautiful to keep hidden.”
Until the end of my stay with Ruzi, like a good Italian wife, I asked no questions and looked the other way, knowing that as long as I did, Massimo’s lovely oil would continue to appear.