Grow. Cook. Drink.: The Italian Garden Project
Mary Menniti aims to preserve the legacy of immigrant gardeners.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Peek into the backyards on the flats between Beaver Street and the Ohio River in Sewickley and you’ll find traces of southern Italy. Mary Menniti knows, however, that this slice of Old-World-meets-new is on the precipice of fading into history.
Take the yard of Maria and Giovanni Macchione. For years, there were scores of tomato plants growing, beans climbing up trellises and sweet grapes weaving through an arbor. The couple’s energy faded over the last few years, though, and this winter the pair left the cultivated landscape for a smaller house. Traces of the Macchiones’ labor — fig and persimmon trees — will bear fruit for years, but the stories behind them could have easily faded away without Menniti’s intervention.
Menniti founded The Italian Garden Project to ensure that the legacy of immigrants such as the Macchiones and her grandfather Antonio Martone won’t be lost.
“I assumed someone else was preserving this heritage, but the more I looked, the less I saw was documented,” she says. The project, which began as a part-time hobby, has ballooned into tours, classes and documentation in the Archives of American Gardens for the Smithsonian Institute.
Menniti is preserving the heritage of Italian American families in the United States. “For them, food is not something to be taken for granted. It’s not just about gardening. It’s about how they live lightly on the Earth,” she says.
Her work took on new weight after the past winter, when devastating frosts killed nearly all the fig trees that hadn’t been buried underground for protection from the elements.
“I saw how close we came to losing my grandfather’s tree. What a terrible loss it would be if this living heirloom was gone,” she says.
Happily, the tree — as well as the chamomile and garlic descended from seeds planted decades ago by Antonio Martone — lived on. Still, Menniti decided that her work should move beyond simple preservation into something more tangible. Cuttings from The Italian Garden Project participants’ fig trees now grow in new yards.
“I don’t want to lose this knowledge,” she says. Thanks to her efforts, the stories of these immigrant gardeners will bear fruit for years.
Mary Menniti says this dish reminds her of her paternal grandmother, Merceda “Mary” Serafino-Martone.
- 1 large onion, sliced thin
- 10 tomatoes, diced
- 2 red or green bell peppers, sliced thin
- 2 small eggplants, diced
- 4 leaves fresh basil
- 2–3 eggs
- 2–3 tablespoons olive oil
1. Add oil to a deep sauté pan, and cook onions until softened; remove onions.
2. Add peppers to the pan and sauté until soft; remove peppers.
3. Dice eggplants and add to the pan and sauté until soft; remove.
4. Add diced tomatoes to pan and stew for about 20 minutes.
5. Return the cooked onions, peppers and eggplants to the pan; add salt and basil and stew for another 15 minutes.
6. Break eggs over the tomatoes and peppers, cover and poach.
7. Serve immediately with lots of good bread.