2000s Archive

Under the Volcano

continued (page 3 of 3)

Afterward, he drove me up the volcano. Vesuvius is just over 4,000 feet high, nearly a third as tall as Etna, on Sicily. It has erupted more than 30 times since A.D. 79, most recently in 1944. The pines grew thicker as we wound higher on the volcano. Gramaglia was looking for a farmer. After 45 minutes, he spotted a man by the roadside.

"We are looking for the best tomatoes," he said.

The man didn't move. "I have the best tomatoes."

Antonio Sorrentino showed us around his small farm with Lacrima Christi grapes growing overhead, mixed with apricot, plum, and loquat trees. His ground was covered with short, spindly tomato plants, bobbing with reddening fruits the size of a baby's palm. These tomatoes are grown in soil that is two-thirds volcanic ash, which provides such intense nutrients that he never waters his tomatoes. The resulting fruits are small but incredibly sweet.

Still, isn't he scared to live on an active volcano? He shrugged. "Vesuvius talks with Etna. If Etna laughs, Vesuvius stays quiet. If Etna stays quiet, Vesuvius will make a problem. Now, Etna is in trouble, so we are good."

Living in this region has other consequences. As we drove back down the volcano, Gramaglia told me his bitter history. He opened his first restaurant at the foot of Vesuvius 28 years ago. For three years, the business thrived. "My name was a star," he said. Until one day a gentleman telephoned and instructed him to leave town immediately or face consequences. He was taking business away from another restaurant. Gramaglia went into his restaurant at two in the morning, left the keys on a table, and moved his family to Belgium that very day.

I didn't understand, so I had him repeat the story.

"It's the Mafia," he said.

For years he traveled in exile, then moved to Sicily, and finally returned to nearby Terzigno, where he bought another restaurant. Once more, he thrived. "For seven years, my restaurant was number one." And then it happened again. Angry that they weren't getting protection money, local thugs turned up one night with guns, asking for cash. Gramaglia handed them his keys instead and walked out the door. Food was in the kitchen, linen on the tables, customers in their seats.

I was so stunned by the story that I hadn't noticed where we were driving. Suddenly he came to a stop in front of an abandoned building on the outskirts of Terzigno. A sign over the door said, "Taverna del Buongustaio." This was the restaurant Gramaglia had left behind. He hadn't seen it for eight years. The shutters were still closed. One window was broken. The building looked haunted, as if no one had touched it in the intervening time. We stared for a few minutes, until he started to cry. "I am very sad," he said.

"Do you want to look?" I said.

"I want to leave."

As we drove back to the city, I asked Gramaglia what he would like to eat if he had only one meal left. Spanked spaghetti and fish sauce, he said, with boiled tomatoes cut with a finger, not a knife. A fresh fish, and fruit. As he talked, a smile crept back into his face. Suddenly, I understood this place a bit better. That moment when the fall is first tinged with cold, that mix of beauty and pain. That is the moment of Pompeii. It seems only fitting that Italy, so bathed in the perpetual glow of travel brochures and best-selling dross, should still be this today. Still be not the paradise received, but the paradise created. "I love my family, I love my family," Gramaglia had said so many times. Now I understood why. He gave up everything for them.

And yet he came back—to Pompeii, where to enjoy life is a noble pursuit. Because death hovers just overhead.

Earthwatch Institute (800-776-0188), one of the largest sponsors of volunteer vacations, is offering Food and Drink in Ancient Pompeii (earthwatch.org/) next year from June 22 to July 5 and again from July 6 to July 19. The tax-deductible cost of $2,995 per person covers accommodations, meals, and ground transportation but not airfare. Volunteer vacations offer a lot more than excavations, of course. The possibilities include everything from surveying butterflies in Vietnam to tracking elephants in Kenya, from working with women's textile cooperatives in Bombay to interviewing salmon fishermen in the state of Washington. Habitat for Humanity (800-422-4828) is another large organizer of volunteer vacations, placing about 5,000 people each year. Global Volunteers (800-487-1074) is smaller but has programs in eight states and 17 foreign countries. For a complete listing of organizations, pick up a copy of Volunteer Vacations by Bill McMillon (Chicago Review Press), a great aid to finding the trip that's right for you.

Subscribe to Gourmet