I asked Santino what kinds of tomatoes he grows, expecting him to reel off a variety of types. “Roma,” he says, “only Roma.” Roma is, of course, the familiar pear-shaped tomato that is excellent for Italian sauces. Since Santino likes to can large quantities of these for use during the winter, it makes sense that he limits his crop to Roma tomatoes. The whole family is well supplied throughout the year.
Unlike many San Diego gardeners who stagger their plantings, enabling them to have several harvests one after another, Santino likes his tomatoes to come in all at once so he can do the canning just once a year. He plants 10 to 15 seeds evenly spaced in five-gallon pots during the first week of March. It is important that the soil in the pots be kept moist. If the soil dries up, the seedlings are history. After about six weeks, he removes the small tomato plants from the pots and transplants them in the garden. If done carefully, few plants will be lost. Santino uses steer manure for fertilizer and stakes the individual plants with traditional round-wire tomato stakes. Most of the tomatoes will be ready for picking in late July and early August. Each year he harvests enough for about 50 large Ball jars; the jars are packed back into their cartons and stored on shelves in the garage.
The Giametta family has many special recipes that come from the bounty of its garden. Before I left, I asked Santino for one of them and he generously obliged. With Salvatore translating, we managed to put on paper a wonderful and distinctive recipe. It has all the qualities of a great Italian dish: it’s fresh, it’s simple to prepare, it’s nutritious, and it’s satisfying. As soon as I got home, I used the jar of home-canned tomatoes he gave me to make it, and I pass Santino Giametta’s gift on to you. (See recipe on page 31.) You can get it from the earth (or at least your fridge and cupboard) to your table in a half hour, and you’ll not only enjoy the food but the smile on everyone’s face.
I met Enzo Condina at Arrivederci in Hillcrest, one of the many Italian restaurants in San Diego that he supplies with fresh produce — especially the signature “spring mix” of lettuces, greens, and herbs grown on his 26-acre farm in Escondido. We were supposed to meet for lunch at 1:00 p.m., but Condina did not show up until nearly 2:00, and I had just about finished a dish of pasta with arugula grown on his farm. Antonino Mastellone, the owner of Arrivederci, had arranged the meeting. Condina apologized profusely for being so late and said he could not stay long. He is a diminutive man in his 50s who seems constantly in motion. His cell phone rang several times while we talked, and we spent most of our brief time together that afternoon trying to arrange another meeting the next day in Escondido.
Condina’s farm is tucked into a grove of eucalyptus and oak trees. When I arrived, I was struck by the conjunction of the beautiful natural landscape and the discarded refuse of contemporary civilization. The place is strewn with automobile parts, rusting lawn mowers, plastic chairs, pipes of all sizes, piles of rubber tubing, discarded furniture, old refrigerators, and other junk, all dramatically lit by the sunlight filtering through the dense oak and eucalyptus branches. Condina greeted me wearing a plaid flannel shirt and baseball cap and apologized for the mess the place was in. “I’ve got to clean all this up,” he said, sweeping his arm to take in the littered landscape. He pointed me in the direction of a makeshift shed where a trio of workers sorted and washed piles of lettuce on a table frame covered with black netting. Speaking to one of the workers in an engaging mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, Condina told him to show me around and that he would be back in ten minutes.
I took a quick tour of the front garden, a plot about 50 yards square where row after row of spring greens flourished. (Again, it was January, so “spring greens” may be a misnomer.) Condina did return shortly, and we sat down at a nearby table and talked about his thriving produce business and how he got into it.
He was born in S. Eufémia d’Aspromonte, a little town in the very toe of the Italian boot, close to Reggio di Calabria. Like Salvatore Giametta, he originally arrived in New York but was drawn to California because of the climate. “Southern Italians,” he told me, “don’t like the cold. In 1971, I started a restaurant business, and I was in the restaurant business for nearly 20 years, but I got tired of it. All the time I was running restaurants, I always kept a garden and grew my own produce. One of the reasons I decided to get out of the restaurant business is to work outdoors. From practically the beginning, I knew I liked gardening more than being inside all day. It started off just as a hobby — more for relaxing than anything else — but soon I discovered that I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed taking care of restaurants. I love seeing things grow. So I started to plant more seeds, to grow a little bit more. Expanded. And you know, I have no experience in the beginning. But I know because my family in Italy had a farm. I was a kid then. I grew up on a farm. I remember so many things. When I was a kid I worked on the farm too. So I take the knowledge, and I remember from my father and my grandfather, my relatives over there.”
As Condina shifts the conversation from operating restaurants to planting gardens, I notice a change in his demeanor. His face gets rosier; his manner becomes more animated. All the gardeners I spoke to talk of planting and growing vegetables in an almost mystical way. They seem in touch with age-old rituals connected to the cycles of nature. It is this connection that has been severed for so many of us who buy our food in supermarkets, and this is what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” It’s cruel because as nature blooms it reminds us how out of touch we are with the regenerative powers of the natural world.