All photos/art by Heath Robbins
Slide Show: Day of the Pomodorata
When Leon de Magistris speaks, the accent of his Italian homeland cleaves to his words. As much as he and his sons are American, their heritage and its traditions are never far from their everyday life.
Leon has made his name in the hair-care industry, working with fashion designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Valentino Garavani, and in his own salon, Leon and Co., in Belmont, Massachusetts. His sons–Dante, Filippo, and Damian–make their living feeding people at their two restaurants: Dante (in Cambridge) and Il Casale (in Belmont).
Each brother has a particular talent, and the triumvirate has been recognized with local and national awards: Dante is the chef; Damian and Filippo keep the trains running on time. Whenever they can take a break, they head north, to a small parcel of land near Woodstock, Vermont. Unwinding, for this group, means loads of cooking, and if they can cook outside, all the better.
Leon, his wife Grace, and the boys took what was originally a small ski house with a “sort of” garage and created a welcoming home with a two-level, open floor plan, rich in wood and stone, and a kitchen designed to chef Dante’s specs. A wall of windows looks out to their kitchen garden (burgeoning with eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs) and rolling hills.
“I remember driving through New Hampshire and Vermont with my grandfather,” Dante recalls. “He came from Italy for extended visits and always needed to get out of the city. He was amazed by the woods and forests of New England. Vermont is important to all of us for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it reminds us of Italy.” Their Italy is the small hilltown of Candida, near Avellino in the southern region of Campania, where people make their way by working the land. Dante has vivid memories of his visits to Candida, where life centered around the table. “I still have images of the men making the wine in the autumn,” says Dante. “And the women did the canning,” his father adds.
For many years, before the family renovated the Vermont property, they “put up” tomatoes at home in Massachusetts, using the recipes of Leon’s mother, Giuseppa, and his sisters, Nina and Nonina. Grace (who passed away in June of last year) rounded up the family to do the canning out on the deck of the Belmont home in which the boys had grown up. Soon the gathering moved to the large patio of Restaurant Dante, which overlooks the Charles River from the Cambridge side. These days the de Magistris clan takes advantage of proffered help from family and friends and makes an entire day out of canning tomatoes.
Last year, the family purchased 1,500 pounds of organic Vermont tomatoes to process into more than 600 32-ounce jars, which would keep both restaurants in red sauce through the winter. “We’d like to grow all the tomatoes ourselves,” Leon says. “Maybe someday, but to take care of so many plants is a full-time job.” Each year, they clean the equipment the day before, and then the tomatoes and basil arrive–you can’t make the sauce without the basil. This family pomodorata (tomato festival) begins early and ends with a weary team. But a shower or a jump into the 50-degree stream on the property revives everyone to begin dinner preparation.
Dante marinates the meat in advance, makes the pasta, and saves some raw tomatoes for salad, so that he can enjoy the day that he and his brothers have created. His Cuban cigar glowing, Leon gets the grill going and tends to the lamb skewers and grilled vegetables outdoors, while Dante assembles the balance of the simple, traditional meal inside. Filippo and his wife, Marjunette, have their hands in all the tasks, while chasing their young daughter, Giovanna. “It’s important that she’s here,” Filippo notes. “It codifies what’s already in her DNA.”
Meanwhile, Damian decants a bottle of Barolo. “My father and I found this in Italy a couple of years back. It has some smoky notes that go well with the wood-grilled lamb,” he says. “But we love to start with a bottle of Falanghina, a true expression of where our family is from–Campania.”
Soon the bocce balls come out, and an impromptu lawn-bowling challenge begins. But pasta waits for no one, so once the handmade noodles are tossed in the red sauce, the small clan is seated and ready to toast their hard work–and a way of life they won’t let themselves forget.
For details on processing preserved foods, visit: uga.edu/nchfp