Giovanni Cucullo in his Garden


Every year, my father and I plant a beautiful herb and vegetable garden, and every summer, it is quite exciting to watch an empty back yard erupt into a plentiful harvest.

Anyone who visits is quickly transported to Italy. Whether they are wandering among a hundred tomato plants, sitting under a canopy of 30-year-old grape vines or just kicking back with a glass of red, they have that spiritual sense that they are being allowed to take part in a tradition that I consider timeless, priceless and very personal.

 

Tomatoes are always the dominant plant, and in many sizes and varieties; but we also grow, cucuzza (Italian squash), green beans, Anaheim chiles, Tabasco peppers, eggplant, rosemary and basil, and in August, the three fig trees and one peach tree must be picked each day before the squirrels find out how tasty they are.

    

Each new season brings for me a new level of appreciation for gardening and fresh produce, but more importantly, every flower that blossoms and every fruit which ripens by my hand reminds me of everything my parents have ever taught me and every tradition I plan to carry forth.

      

Jack, Jill and a Pail Full of Memories

 

Every year on the East Coast, summer comes to an end and everyone breaks out their soft blanket of sadness in preparation for colder weather. It’s a strange numbing feeling that I can never get used to, and by early September summer feels like a distant cousin we tearfully escorted to the airport, perhaps to never see again. 

There is one thing though, that I love about those last days in August…
Jack and Jill’s End of Summer Pool Party. 

Jack and Jill live on a hill (yes, they really do), not far from Bill and Hillary, (yes, that Bill and Hillary), and every summer they invite a dozen of their closest friends to their home to share in a relaxed afternoon of food and wine. 

Jack and Jill (like the Murphy’s) are another couple who understand the importance of a shared experience, and very few people can throw it down with the palpable passion and generosity as they do.  

  

Our first half of the day always begins with Jack shuttling guests from the train station to his home while Jill does some finishing touches around the house. The swimming pool is just the right temperature and as guests arrive, the white Burgundies and German Rieslings begin to make their way poolside. The usual hugs, kisses and smiles are punctuated by the anticipation of the wonderful food and extraordinary wines we expect to taste and imbibe. 

  

     

It’s no coincidence that I have many male friends who easily navigate their way through a kitchen, and Jack is no exception. His great taste is evident in his home, but also with regards to fine wine and culinary exploration. Once everyone settles in, Jack appears poolside with platters of shellfish and house-made dips and salsa which pair perfectly with the white wines. The whole lobsters with truffle mayo were a huge hit and never had a chance with this decadent crowd. 

Everyone made their way in and out of the pool while discussing the years past events as my camera snapped away, but it’s always the children who seem to capture so much. 

 

After a refreshing few hours by the pool we make our way up the hill to the house, leaving our pails of water poolside; excited about the rib eye steaks we traditionally eat each year. The second half of the day is underway. 

Despite my many years of culinary experience, each year I am merely a sous-chef to Jack. This is his show, and knowing all-too-well the amount of effort which goes into hosting such an event, I gladly try to make his day a little smoother by helping him make farm-fresh salads, cutting vegetables and by helping Jill set the table, allowing Jack time to focus on grilling to perfection the gargantuan rib-eye steaks which his butcher double cut just for him.  

The wine aficionados begin to gather around the wine table to survey the prizes of the evening. The showing of wines each year is always astonishing; four decades of classic wines, predominantly Bordeaux. I’m certain I caught a few of the “geeks” grunting and banging their chests in approval. 

  

The salads are made, the corn has been steamed and the steaks have rested their allotted time. Nothing left to do but enjoy the fruits of Jack and Jill’s labor. 

 

      

We cap off the day by polishing off any remaining wine with some artisanal cheese and fresh picked figs. After tasting a few wines from the 197o’s, Jack decides to sneak down to his wine cellar and surprise us by pulling a bottle of 1970 d’Yquem from his collection. Wow! 

  

 

I always talk about the importance of sharing the experience, but every year, somehow, Jack and Jill manage to teach me how to fill that pail with cherished memories. 

Grazie Mille!

Heirloom Caprese Salad

Caprese Salad is always a crowd pleaser, especially in August when basil flourishes and tomatoes are at their peak, juicy, super-ripe and sweet. Always use a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and generously salt the tomatoes.

In this salad I have used heirloom tomatoes purchased at a local farmers market and combined them with some just-picked tomatoes from my garden; the addition of Burrata cheese puts this classic summer salad over the top.
Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from cow’s milk. The outer shell of the cheese is made from mozzarella but the inner part of the cheese is filled with buttery strings of curd and cream.

Enjoy!

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