“It’s an instinct,” Condina says. “I use the common sense and the knowledge I got from growing up on a farm. Sometimes I call my uncle or my aunt over in Italy and say, ‘How do you do this?’ and they give me tips. But most of the time it was just instinct. So when I started growing these things, it was just for myself, for the restaurants. I have lots of friends in the restaurant business. We would be talking and I would say come and see the farm. And they liked what they saw, and I began selling to a lot of Italian restaurants in the area: La Strada, Panevino, Portobello, Greystone, Bella Luna, Arrivederci, all these restaurants. For nearly two years now, they get all their salad greens and herbs from me.
“It’s a very small operation. Sometimes I sell larger amounts to distributors, but I prefer to sell to restaurants because the other is too much pressure. When you sell to distributors you need to produce big quantities, and I don’t want that pressure. For me, watching these things grow is a pleasure, not work. When you need to meet deadlines and produce huge amounts, that’s work.”
Originally, Condina grew all sorts of vegetables, but he learned that to succeed in a small business, it’s best to specialize. As nearly all restaurants serve salad, he set about to “design” a salad that would have a distinctive flavor and could be a refreshing accompaniment to virtually any meal. “When you have a restaurant you always look for something new, so I tested a lot of salad combinations. I wanted something special, something different. Mizuna and totsoy give it some taste, make it a little spicy. Arugula is a little bitter. And the radicchio gives color. So we try to put together a combination of a lettuce with different taste to give it a nice crispy texture as well.” Condina spoke disparagingly of some of the supermarket salads called mesclun: “They put a few items together just to look good with the color. We want it to look good, but we pick our salad to really put a whole range of favors in one dish; they have to go together, they have to blend. Each one tastes a little different. People are tired of Caesar salad and tasteless iceberg lettuce, so we have to make something more distinctive.”
He settled on a mix of 13 to 14 greens and lettuces: lollo rosso, red oak, red romaine, green romaine, and tango; to that he adds friseé, some arugula, radicchio, and three items that are essentially oriental greens: mizuna, totsoy, and red mustard. Various other lettuces and greens are added depending on what flourishes in a particular season. As Condina described this, he made it sound like a formula for a fine Italian wine.
Condina walked me around the farm showing me the varieties and explaining how each was grown. Each large plot of tilled land consists of long three-foot-wide mounds. In each mound there are three rows of different greens. Two long rubber hoses or metal pipes run between the rows. This is the irrigation drip system that provides a steady supply of water, keeping the soil always moist.
“The first thing we do is to prepare the soil by mixing some steer manure in it and tilling it by machine. Then we dig channels about three feet apart, so we create small mounds of very fertile soil. After that we sow the seeds, making three long rows in each mound. The greens start growing right away. When the weather is normal, the arugula, mizuna, and totsoy start coming up after three or four days. Unlike tomato plants, which are usually started in containers, lettuce can be started right in the ground.
“Generally, from when you seed, to get to the first cut takes 35 to 40 days. Some kinds of lettuce will grow quicker than others. Lollo rosso, spinach, and Italian parsley take more time to grow than some other greens. But the arugula and the Japanese greens grow very fast when the weather is right. Of course, we grow the herbs in the greenhouse: rosemary, chives, dill, basil, oregano, mint, thyme, and marjoram.”
The lettuce is cut every morning. Each plant survives about three cuts. The day’s cut is brought to the shed and sorted on the table frame covered with black netting. Workers pick through the leaves to remove dead and inorganic matter. They are washed in a machine with a drum that spins out the water, packed in large plastic bags, and boxed. Condina then loads them in a van and delivers them personally to his restaurant friends in San Diego. He is the Italian greengrocer connection.
I asked him if he missed the restaurant business. “No, not at all. With the farm I get to spend time with my family.” Condina has 14-year-old twin girls and a daughter of 18. He and his wife Marisol, a Mexican woman he met on a vacation in Mexico, own a lovely home in Rancho Bernardo, not far from the Escondido farm. His is a busy but fulfilling life, lived close to the land, in touch with the cycle of the seasons, even in the eternal summer of Southern California. “How about a recipe for some of these greens?” I asked. “Ask Antonino,” he said, “he’s a much better cook than I am.” So I did. You can find this dish, Fettuccini with Arugula and Goat Cheese, on the menu at Antonino Mastellone’s Arrivederci Restaurant in Hillcrest, where you can have it with the arugula grown with love at Enzo Condina’s farm in Escondido. Or you can make it yourself at home with the recipe on page 37.
Tony Di Bona is a San Diego native, born in the heart of Little Italy.
He reminds one of a character out of Lorenzo Madalena’s Confetti for Gino, the Italian-American novel serialized in the Reader a couple of years ago. His family came originally from Castellamare del Golfo in Sicily, just near Palermo, and they were mostly mariners. Di Bona’s father, Mario, became a tuna fisherman, and his family worked in the tuna-fishing industry in San Diego for many years.