There’s a reason why Italian cooking is one of the world’s great cuisines, and it doesn’t have much to do with four-star chefs, innovative cooking techniques, or secret ingredients. The reason can be summed up in a common Italian saying: Dalla terra alla tavola, “From the earth to the table.” Freshness is all. Italian food is usually homegrown and hand-picked just hours before it is eaten.
This simple fact makes San Diego an ideal place for Italians to practice the ways of the old country and keep their traditions alive. San Diego is a gardener’s haven — a bit more rain would make that haven “heaven” — and over 200 edible crops are grown here. I set out to find some Italian gardeners who kept their gardens primarily for the purpose of supplying fruits and vegetables for their daily meals, or for the daily meals of others.
In America, we’re used to making tomato sauce from canned tomatoes, serving an antipasto of red and yellow peppers dug out of a Trader Joe’s jar, and getting our herbs in small plastic bags from Ralphs. In a real Italian kitchen, these items, as well as the eggplant that is the main ingredient in melanzane parmigiano, the basil and oregano that marry their flavors with the tomato sauce, the beans that make up a white bean salad, the rosemary that lends the olive oil a sweeter edge for dipping, and the arugula that gives any salad a superior lift, would be found in the back yard.
Certainly they can be found in Santino Giametta’s back yard in Burlingame, where he and his wife have lived for the past half century. Giametta was born on October 25, 1912, in a small fishing village on the southwest tip of Sicily called Mazara del Vallo. He lived on a farm where the family grew wheat and grapes, primarily to provide bread and wine — the basic sustenance of Sicilian life — for the table. At mid-century, Sicily was going through difficult economic times, and Giametta, along with many of his countrymen, left for a better life in New York City. Since the climate and surroundings in New York were not suitable for farming, he took a number of odd jobs, working in the garment district and in construction — anything he could get to feed his family, a wife and four daughters he had brought with him from Sicily.
The family lived in New York from 1949 through 1954, in cramped quarters on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn. Giametta became intrigued by the letters his wife Antonina was getting from her sister Katie, who lived in San Diego with her husband Antonio, a tuna fisherman. Katie waxed eloquent about the weather, the ocean, and the thriving Italian neighborhood around India Street and its environs. In 1954, Giametta packed the family onto a train at New York’s Penn Station and set out for San Diego. They joined the Italian-American community in Little Italy and for four years lived in an apartment house on the corner of Union and Laurel.
One of the attractions of San Diego was the climate — a lot closer to that of southwestern Sicily than that of New York City. Here Giametta could do what he loved best: till the earth and bring forth its bounty. He could garden virtually all year round. He established a gardening business, tending gardens for fashionable homes in Point Loma, Mission Hills, and Kensington. In 1958, the family moved to a modest single-family house in Burlingame. A son, Salvatore, was born in 1960.
I sat with Giametta, a small, slim man, wearing a baseball cap that said “God Bless America” on it, at his dining room table. His son Salvatore, now 42, beaming with pride, sat with us, translating the Sicilian dialect his father still speaks. Santino said he found the transition from Sicilian farmer to San Diego gardener relatively easy. And as soon as they moved to the Burlingame house, he could keep his own garden and grow more things than he could in Sicily.
In 1974 he suffered a mild heart attack, after which he continued to do a few odd gardening jobs until he retired from “professional” gardening in 1977 and devoted himself fully to growing his own plants and vegetables. Salvatore says that doctors have attributed his longevity — especially his relatively good health after his heart attack — both to the fact that he is so active in the garden and works at something he loves and to his diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, pasta, and olive oil, along with some fish and fowl.
It’s clear when you talk to Santino that gardening is his first love. We got up from the table to tour the garden, and as we strolled around his property, he pointed out fruits, vegetables, and herbs growing everywhere. Though I visited him in late January, many perennials and other plants were still in bloom. The primary vegetable garden is a plot of tilled land about 30' x 30' in the back yard. I was surprised to see it so green and thriving at this time of year.
“That’s the pleasure of being in San Diego,” said Salvatore, who is the vice president of community relations for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, “you get ‘fresh’ produce all year round.” In fact, perhaps taking his cue from his father’s garden, Sal enthusiastically talked up a promotion touting San Diego as a great dining destination because chefs can get newly picked ingredients here anytime. The Food Network recently aired a special about San Diego facilitated by the visitors’ bureau and emphasizing “The Art of the Fresh,” as the camera follows four well-known San Diego chefs on their quests for high-quality ingredients from local farms and farmer’s markets. And so Santino Giametta’s garden may end up having more influence on our community than he would have ever imagined.
Santino makes a sweeping gesture, taking in the green sea of growing vegetables. “In the summer,” he says in broken English, “all this is tomato.” Right now it is primarily covered with a spinach-like green the Sicilians call burani, as well as another green called gyrie. Here and there are arugula-like plants called gardela. All of these will find their way to some member of the family’s table. At various times of the year you can discover fava beans, green onions, eggplant, peppers, garlic, onions, and, one of Santino’s favorites, zucchini, which the Giamettas refer to by its Sicilian name, cucuzza. Some of these zucchini grow taller than a person. Sal points to a metal tomato stake nailed to a tall pole. “That’s to hold the cucuzza,” he says.