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In 2000, I traveled to Italy with my husband and daughter. It had been 26 years since Bob and I had visited the family there and I wanted Amanda to meet my relatives and see the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, where her grandfather was raised.
We arrived in Naples by train from Florence, grabbed a taxi and were immediately launched into a harrowing ride through the streets and piazzas of the port city. Amanda was terrified. She had heard the stories, but this was her first experience with the notorious cabbies. Despite our doubts, we arrived safely at the harbor, purchased our tickets, and boarded the hovercraft, which glided lightly atop the waves for the 40-minute trip.
From the moment I stepped from the gangplank in the small town of Forio, our earlier visit came rushing back. Everything was familiar. Almost unconsciously, we walked from the dock to the first street, turned right and right again at the next. There it was, Via S. Francesco #9, virtually unchanged.
The three of us were given the apartment above the main house, overlooking the garden. Early the next morning, Uncle Michele, a short man with a gruff voice, called up the stairs: "Marjorie! Mangia!" It was time for breakfast. He had prepared coffee and eggs, served with coronets, a sweet croissant-like pastry - a breakfast ritual during our stay.
It was a wonderful visit. To show our appreciation, I offered to prepare an afternoon meal. Linguine with clam sauce and a second course of mussels was agreed upon. "Andiamo," said my uncle, and we were off to the local marketplace, the one Ischia's thousands of summer tourists never see. The large building was lined on both sides with stalls selling pastas, vegetables, fruit, clothing, household items and fabulous fish and seafood. As we shopped, my uncle was peppered with salutations from residents of his tiny village: "Buon giorno, avocato" Good day, (attorney). We also ran into my cousin, Mirella, who was buying provisions for Casa Lora, the pensione she ran with my Aunt Lora.
When we returned home, it was already close to noon. The afternoon meal was served promptly at 1 p.m. and I knew we'd never serve in time. Luciana, my cousin Barti's wife, and I worked as fast as we could, scrubbing clams and mussels. I sent Amanda into the garden to pick parsley and lemons, and select an onion from the bag hanging on the tree, where they are left to dry.
I began pressing garlic, slicing onion (a substitute for the shallots I use at home) and tossing ingredients in the pot with lots of white wine. As usual I was operating on instinct, no measuring. When the sauce began to simmer, the familiar aroma told me it was just right. It's been four years since that afternoon but it feels more real to me than yesterday. That meal gave me such a strong sense of connection to my heritage; it felt like Dad was still watching, smiling and saying: "Not bad--fifty-fifty."WHITE CLAM SAUCE
Active Work & Total Prep Time 1 hour, 15 minutes
Serves 4 to 5
25 fresh littleneck or cherrystone clams (about 2 inches in diameter)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
7 large garlic cloves, crushed or thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Dash to 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 round lemon slices, 1/8-inch thick
16 ounces clam juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 pound dried linguine
1. Under cold running water, scrub the clams with a stiff brush, especially along the hinge of the shell. Cover the clams with wet paper towel and refrigerate until ready to use. Do not use plastic wrap as it will suffocate the live clams.
2. Spray a large sauce pan with a nonstick coating. Heat the oil over medium high heat until hot. Add the shallots and saute for 1 minute. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Add the salt, black pepper, red pepper, parsley and lemon slices. Saute for about 1 minute, stirring continuously to avoid burning.
3. Add the clam juice (Shake the bottle to mix the sediment.) and white wine.
4. Add the clams. Cover and steam over medium high heat until clams open, about 6 minutes. Stir the clams after 3 minutes to gauge steaming time and to make sure any unopened clams are in the liquid.
5. In a large pot, bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt. Cover and allow the water to return to a boil. Add the linguine and stir. Cover and bring the pasta to a boil. Remove the cover and continue cooking. Stir often to avoid sticking. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or until desired tenderness.
6. Drain the linguine and add it the sauce pan. Turn the linguine in the sauce and simmer uncovered over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Transfer to bowl or platter and serve.
Canned clams may be substituted for fresh. Use the chopped variety. Minced are too small and whole baby clams always taste bitter to me, perhaps because there’s less meat and more waste in this smaller specimen. Use a 2-quart saucepan. Follow Step 2 and 3. Cover and simmer over medium heat 1 minute. Add 18 ounces of chopped canned clams with the liquid. Cover and simmer over low heat 2 minutes. Follow Step 5 and 6.
Cockles may be substituted for clams. Use about 50 fresh cockles. The recipe remains the same, but since cockles are smaller than clams, cut the steaming time by about half.