My Early Life with Nonna
~ Neoma Rochioli (Nonna) ~
As a child growing up outside of Healdsburg on the ranch known then as Fenton Acres, now the Rochioli Estate, there are certain things that I remember even though it was 40 years ago. They are still etched in my mind. The thought of these experiences, to this day, warms my heart and soul. I can remember the sounds of birds, the wind blowing through the bamboo, the cows in the pastures, the sounds of the tractors and workers in the grape fields, and the Russian River flowing below.
The men and women would work the fields: the Baldi, Boatman, Franceschi, Howard, Mori, Rochioli, and Sodini families all worked right alongside the other workers. It was a time when you worked hard, played hard, and family was everything.
Right smack in the middle of all this was the barn and the little office. They were there in 1938 and are still there today. Next to it, in the main ranch house, lived my grandparents, Joe Rochioli, Sr. and Neoma Rochioli. It was the nucleus of the ranch and family gatherings.
Nonna was the center of everything. She was the one to maintain the house and prepare the meals for everyone. She made breakfast, lunch and dinner. In her time off, she worked in the garden and the yard. The yard was absolutely breathtaking with a wide variety of flowers. The garden was fertile and produced a huge bounty of vegetables. Where the Rochioli Winery is now, there was an orchard with walnuts, prunes, apples, figs, peaches, persimmons, cherries and pomegranates.
Now we say it is “green” and “eco-friendly,” but she always made sure everything was used and nothing ever went to waste. She would dry fruits, nuts and mushrooms on big screens in the sun in front of the kitchen. She dried, canned and jarred all the vegetables, fruits and even olives. To this day, we cure our own olives. Uncle Joe has passed this family tradition on to my cousin, Becky, and me. Every fall, we go through the two-week curing process for green olives. My other cousin, Tom, has worked very hard at sustainably growing many varieties of tomatoes and peppers. It would seem that a good bit of Nonna inspiration was left in all of us.
The results of all of her hard work showed up in her cooking. If you were lucky enough to have eaten her food, you realize it was something truly exceptional. Not until I was much older did I come to realize just how amazing she was and to fully appreciate just how special her cooking was. Just getting a whiff of the aromas as you walked into Nonna’s kitchen, set your senses reeling and you knew that only love was created there. The sad part is that there is not a recipe to be found of any of her foods and it’s a real tragedy to me.
Today, I’m fortunate, and honored, to be living in that very same little ranch house. Things have changed quite a bit in 40 years. My cousin Tom has turned grapes and wine into utopia. My uncle, Joe Jr. and my aunt Vivienne keep the traditions alive and I can only hope that I will be able to honor them by carrying on as well. And it is my Nonna’s love for family and food and wine that inspires me to this day.
~ Sundays ~
Every Sunday, Nonno and Nonna would pull it all together for a large family dinner for about 30 of us. Everyone in the family fondly remembers the dinners on the back patios and down in the cellar.
In the winters, there was a big rotisserie on the back porch with a glass window. You could see this big chunk of beef going round and round while watching the juices of the meat, the garlic and the rosemary caramelize into a sticky delight. Nonna would also make the pasta, while other family members brought appetizers, side dishes and desserts. As we all crammed into the small kitchen, the food and wine was plentiful, the laughter and love loud. It was the very best of times. After dinner, the kids went out on the front lawn and played in the fading light. The adults would play a little poker. After an hour or two, Nonna and Joe Sr. (and after he passed, it fell to Joe Jr.,) would bring out the grappa. There was a special tray with special glasses and a special spoon that measured sugar perfectly to the glass. A fresh pot of coffee was brewed and a Meyer lemon was cut for the rind. Joe would line up the glasses and Coffee Royals were made and served with the dessert. These days, if folks are up for them, those duties been taken over by Joe Jr.
~ Lunch at Nonna’s ~
Lunches were special in their own way, and varied by what was available in that season, but a typical lunch was:
Roasted potatoes with whole roasted garlic
Freshly baked sourdough bread
Home-cured prosciutto and salami
A couple of her handmade cheeses or cheeses from Mettuchi’s Market
Homemade green olives
One glass of red wine
And a typical lunch:
Included all of the family members that were present and working on the ranch.
Was Nonna filling your plate and telling you to eat!
Was always followed by “Ma, I’ve eaten enough. You’re making me fat!”
And, well, no one ever missed the typical lunch!
~ Mushrooms ~
When I was 10 years old, I remember going to the big pantry closet. I loved the smell of all the hanging, wild, dried mushrooms my Nonna had gone out and foraged. One day, my sisters and I were on the other side of the vineyards playing on a hillside and we found a bunch of big white mushrooms. We were taught to NEVER touch mushrooms. Mom got on the phone and Nonna was there in minutes. She was wearing her “hunting outfit,” a special weathered jacket and her mushroom basket with her hair pulled back under a scarf. She went right up to them and said, “Oh yes, great find,” commending us for not touching them. She spent the next hour finding many kinds of wild mushrooms all over the Allen property among the oak trees.
~ Cheeses ~
Nonna always had about five wheels of cheeses around, all in different stages of aging. I remember trimming off the moldy crust to get into the tangy fresh part. She had a couple of big screened-in boxes that were used for the cheeses, home-cured prosciutto and salami. My uncle Joe recalled to me that he would slide the daybed over a bit, lay there with a knife and shave off chunks of prosciutto to eat. He called it heaven and it was.
~ Summers and Tents ~
In the summer, it was zucchini. Zucchini frittatas, zucchini pancakes and roasted zucchini with garlic and olive oil. For us kids, this was a real delicacy that had us scampering to the table. You would think we hadn’t eaten for a week! We called them “tents” - male zucchini blossoms stuffed with a silky veal mixture and baked off in the oven. She arranged them so the stem was at the top giving them a bell shape; hence “tents.” They were so incredible, and we were so terrible, that Nonna had to limit them to two per kid. Now that was tough love!
~ Porpettas ~
Food never went to waste… ever. Nonna would literally take bread that was four or five days old, soak it in milk, mix it with any leftover food that crowded the refrigerator, along with a handful of fresh herbs and would make Porpettas. I remember watching her fragile, arthritic fingers pushing all the ingredients through the hand-grinder. Then, she formed the patties into rounds, about 2 - 3 inches in diameter, and roasted them in the oven. She would hide them in a cabinet on a plate and we would storm the house begging for them. Because of our excitement, she’d always laugh at us, hand us two and tell us to be good kids. We’d run out to the front lawn, lie down and eat them… savoring every bite!
~ The Sauce ~
I will never forget the day my Nonna and her sister, Jenny Sodini, were going to teach me how to make spaghetti sauce. “The Sauce” was always Nonna’s gauge as to how the entire meal was. Nonna was her very-own worst critic! I only heard her say a handful of times that the sauce was good, but it was her constant energy and love that went into the sauce that made it so extraordinary.
On this day, I sat back with a pen and paper and watched these two sisters argue over the quantities of each ingredient. These ladies were in their mid-70’s and even as I write this today, it puts a smile on my face. It was the funniest, cutest thing you’ve ever seen. It was also on this day that I learned the importance of fresh herbs.
We had all the ingredients in the pot. Nonna pulled me outside and told me, “All of that is unimportant. What makes a great sauce is this.” She went to the rosemary bush and cut some off. Then she went around and collected parsley, sage and thyme from the herb garden. She washed it, tied it up with string and tossed the whole thing into the pot.
Every time I make the sauce, I think of Nonna and Jenny and their spirits fill my soul.