CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Because I am able to trace half of my ancestry back to southern Italy, I am prone to wax poetically from time to time about the tasteful treats emanating from that remarkable boot-shaped peninsula bisecting the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas.
And while it would be a gross oversight to disregard Italy's contributions to art, culture and, indeed, Western civilization, my interest in the country has always been squarely focused on food and wine, along with the warm and talented people who produce those exceptional products.
My maternal grandparents landed at Ellis Island in the late 19th century, following others from their home state of Calabria to north-central West Virginia. After more than 15 years working in the mines, my grandfather built a bakery in the North View section of Clarksburg that, to this day, my cousins continue to operate.
Sunday family dinners at my grandparents' home, replete with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, are happily and indelibly seared in my memory. Those Calabria-inspired feasts, washed down with jugs of homemade red wine, would begin shortly after noon and proceed until early evening.
Once the multicourse meal was completed, the adults would insist that we children provide the postprandial entertainment. As our elders sat sipping vino or grappa, we would sing, recite poetry and/or perform little skits to our always appreciative audience.
One of my occasional duties on those Sundays decades ago was to descend into the earthen-walled, dark, dank and spooky basement to fetch a jug of wine from one of the oak barrels in my grandpa's cellar.
I would rush down the steps, open the door to wine cellar, and pull the string on the single hanging light bulb to illuminate the room. Then I would turn the spigot on the barrel, quickly fill the jug and hurry back upstairs, hoping to avoid any contact with creepy crawlers or poltergeists.
Once, in my haste to complete the task, I inadvertently filled the jug from the wrong barrel -- one containing vinegar. My grandpa, anxious to toast that day's meal, poured himself a glass, uttered "Salute," and took a big sip of the vinegar.