Some love affairs begin with a jolt, epitomizing the phrase “falling in love.” Others emerge slowly, even reluctantly, with both parties revealing themselves over time until the attraction takes hold. It is the latter that most closely describes 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 landed in Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, for a month-long language immersion class that would make up the first leg of my Italian experience.
At 25, I had three or four years on most of the other students, which, in part, led to my placement in Florence, the second leg of the program, after our month in Siena ended. I was paired with a divorced woman who worked full-time and enjoyed—no, reveled—in her independence. In her mid-forties, Ruzi was Czechoslovakian by birth, but had lived in Italy since the age of five; she spoke perfect Italian. Her one and only marriage had ended 20 years prior, when the only child she would ever bear was just a baby.
Enormous brown eyes, made up heavily (à la Sophia Loren), emblazoned Ruzi’s wide, high-cheekboned face. Her bleached-blond hair hung just above her shoulders. It was naturally wavy and never looked the same from one day to the next. 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, which was another reason for my placement with her. My goal of becoming fluent in Italian before returning to the U.S. meant that I couldn’t waste any time. So, if I wanted to communicate with Ruzi, it would be in Italian. With a full year of Italian completed at my university back home, and the immersion class, I had somewhat of a head start.
One thing I did have in common with the other American students, at least at the beginning of the journey, was a distaste for the shocking amount of olive oil that Italians used on their food. This reality was revealed to us at our first meal together at our hotel in Siena. Not only did green trails snake across the food on our plates, but the signora della casa kept offering the bottle, as if there was any chance that the pool of oil at the bottom of our insalata mista was deficient.
Having grown up in an Italian-American family, my familiarity with olive oil was strong—as an ingredient, but also a condiment. In most of the households of my extended family, a dark colored bottle that had originally housed wine, with a spigot on the top, sat on the counter next to the stove. We drizzled it on almost any savory soup or side dish, Italian or not, including vegetables, beans, and minestrone. But 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 whatever the Italian word is for “drench.”
Our first night together in Firenze, Ruzi made ravioli nudi, so named because unlike traditional ravioli, which offer a pasta pillowcase stuffed with some type of filling, ravioli nudi were made without the pasta and therefore, naked. They resembled a dumpling. A ball of filling, in this case finely chopped spinach, ground pork, onion, garlic, beaten eggs, and freshly grated parmesan, was dropped into boiling water, cooked for few minutes, and then drained. When Ruzi plopped four or five on my plate and pulled a small, opaque decanter out of the cupboard, 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 nothing came to me. Then, Ruzi stopped pouring, still holding the decanter over my plate, and I learned the word.
Of course! I had heard the word many times! Was she kidding? It was enough for five meals!
“Si, si, basta!” I answered, already plotting my strategy for getting out of eating the shirtless ravioli. There they sat, in a pool of the darkest olive oil I had ever seen. Technically speaking, the rich oil served 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 family made back home, were overwhelming—but so was the effect of all that oil—it almost made my stomach turn. However, since it was Italy, where the worst thing a person can do is show even a morsel of discontent with another person’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 Ruzi’s generous anointing of my food, I’d find out what I could about the deep green liquid. I’d find a way to weave olive oil into the conversation with the goal of pivoting to the amount of oil left pooled on my plate.
“Ruzi, the olive oil is so…dark…and beautiful. It is so different than 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—and explained the origin of the oil.
With her answer, I became an accomplice: The oil, it seemed, was one of the many benefits bestowed upon Ruzi by her molto ricco (very rich), molto generoso (very generous), and very married lover, Massimo, and such a delicious oil was unlike anything one might find in a store in the United States. It came from Massimo’s estate, where the olives were grown, hand-picked, pressed and bottled.
“Ahhhhh,” I replied, which in some cases is 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. Ruzi spoke next, possibly sensing the cultural divide that had suddenly presented itself for the first time.
“`E buono, no?”
“Si. Molto buono.”
At that moment, with a little more than four months left in my stay, I knew I would need to learn to cohabitate with the only love child Ruzi and Massimo would ever share: olive oil.
Next: Massimo’s Oil, Part 2: Dinner at Massimo’s