My friend Davia Nelson, one of public radio’s “Kitchen Sisters,” likes to connect people. So one day, when my husband and I are visiting San Francisco and staying with her, I’m not surprised when, out of nowhere, she says, “You have to meet my friend Angelo!”
Next thing I know, she hands me her cellphone. “Hello, this is Angelo,” the voice says in an Italian accent. “So you are in town? I hear you’re a food writer.”
The only thing Davia has told me is that Angelo is “brilliant” and has started a company that makes organic seasoned sea salts. I should have connected the dots, but I didn’t.
I ask Angelo where he is from. “A small town in Sicily, called Siracusa,” he says.
Siracusa! Now I’m getting excited. I spent two weeks last fall in Sicily. I tell him Siracusa might be the most beautiful town I visited. “Let me be in touch soon,” he says.
A few days later he texts me: “Why don’t you come to my forge for lunch?” Your forge? Well, family obligations or not, I’m not going to turn down an offer this intriguing.
We arrange to meet at noon a few days later. I walk down a narrow alley in the Soma neighborhood and discover a pale terra-cotta building with two wrought-iron balconies that look straight out of a Sicilian village.
I knock. No answer. I check my watch. I wander down the street, wondering if I have the wrong day. I knock again and a beautiful young Italian woman, Veronica Ronchi, Angelo’s creative director, greets me. “Angelo went to get seafood,” she says. “He will be right back. Come, come!”
We enter a dark, cavernous space. From floor to ceiling there are tools and iron sculptural pieces, paintings and shelf upon shelf of ephemera. It is dusty and ancient-looking. We walk through the next “room,” an outdoor space that connects the forge to a kitchen with 12-foot ceilings and a skylight. Persimmons and peppers hang from beams to dry, and wooden shelves are loaded with spices, pasta and grains, more iron tools, a huge pasta machine, an espresso machine and paintings. A large, milky-white, elaborate glass chandelier crowns the room. It’s as if the lobby of a five-star hotel merged with an artist’s cluttered studio.
Angelo appears minutes later, carrying baskets overflowing with local greens, tomatoes, lemons and seafood. “Sorry, sorry,” he says, shaking my hand as he unloads. “Let me make you a cappuccino,” he offers. It’s the best cup I’ve had in weeks.
“We can make the pasta and then sit down and talk. Good?” he asks without really asking. He cracks open a 50-pound bag of organic semolina and one of white flour. Everything in the kitchen appears to be, like so much of California, organic.
“I found this mixture years ago, and it makes a lighter pasta,” he says. “You’re going to like it. This is very good pasta.”
He scoops equal measures of the two flours into an industrial-looking pasta extruder (a reject from a nearby restaurant). As the noisy machine mixes, he adds just a touch of water, and suddenly long strips of fresh pasta begin to emerge. Angelo cuts off foot-long pieces. At one point the machine clogs, so Angelo disappears into his workshop and, using a hammer and anvil, makes a thin metal tool, perfect for removing the stuck dough. It’s good to have an anvil when you really need it.
As the pasta dries, Angelo moves around the kitchen in quick, efficient, fluid movements. He is at the stove peeling prawns, sauteing baby octopus, squid, tomatoes and fresh basil. Then he’s at the sink washing baby greens from the farmers market, narrating all the while.
He peels the prawns and places the shells in a small pot of water, creating an instant stock. He lightly steams the octopus and the squid in a strainer set on top of the prawn shells so the juices create a richer broth. Nothing is wasted. When peeling Italian plum tomatoes, he scores the bottom and drops them into boiling water for just a few seconds. When he removes the tomatoes, the peel magically comes off — no need to blanch them in ice water.
So much of what Angelo knows in the kitchen comes from his grandmother back in Sicily. “She taught me to pickle, to cure olives,” he says. “She insisted that all us kids, all the cousins, come to her house and help her cook. This is something of beauty,” he tells me looking off into the distance. “She passed her knowledge on and it is still here. But in modern-day life, there is no more going to Grandma and making pickles or anchovies.”
For Angelo, foraging for wild fennel in the California hills or fishing for and then pickling sardines in nearby Sausalito or stalking wild boar in Sonoma County is a way of bringing back the past. “I do all this in part because it’s nostalgic, but at the same time it makes me so happy to share this with younger generations and my friends,” he says.
Angelo, 68, is a professional blacksmith, but making and sharing food is his passion. Everywhere in his studio are photographs of long tables of food inside kitchens, in open fields, by the ocean, with friends young and old. Everyone appears to be sharing bottles of wine (he makes his own) and jugs of green olive oil (he presses his own), and enjoying big slabs of roasted meat ( he hunts his own) coming off spits and wood-burning fires.
I look closely at the photos. Is that Alice Waters? Isn’t that guy a movie star? And is that the German film director Werner Herzog? Just who is Angelo? I should’ve had a clue, but I didn’t.
The pasta sauce is coming together. He sautes shallots and garlic, fresh basil and the peeled tomatoes. The squid, prawns and octopus go into the skillet, and the room smells like a seaside Italian restaurant.
He tosses tender young local greens with his own olive oil and wine vinegar. He arranges ripe California cheeses and locally made crusty bread on a worn wooden board.
He drops the pasta into a pot of boiling salted water. Minutes later it is done, drained and tossed with the seafood sauce. He pours wine, and we sit at a wooden table in the forge, surrounded by all the tools.
“When I was living in Switzerland and going to art school and then studying with a master blacksmith, I missed Sicilian food so much,” he says, gesticulating dramatically. “I was always calling my mother and grandmother and saying, ‘Remind me, how do you make that special pasta sauce? How do you cook the octopus?’ I realized you made a lot of friends quickly when you knew how to cook.”
For years, he says, he seasoned all his food with a blend of salt his mother and grandmother made that includes wild fennel, peppers and spices. “ Everyone went nuts for it,” he says, “so I decided to try to start a company.”
He shows me a package of his product, Omnivore Salt. “Why omnivore?” I ask. “You know, Michael Pollan?” he says. “His book? Yeah!”
And that’s all he says. Well, I should have recognized him as the man featured in Pollan’s bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” who hunts wild boar and forages wild fennel. But I don’t put it all together until later.
He tells me about deciding to crowdfund his company on Kickstarter — and, yes, getting Werner Herzog to film the video. Turns out Angelo Garro is a deeply connected guy. When he needed quotes for the back of the salt package, he asked his good friends Waters and Pollan to write them.
We talk and eat and drink wine for close to three hours. When it’s time to say goodbye, Angelo insists on sending me off with a few bottles of his wine and some salt. And he promises to get me the recipe for the seafood sauce.
When I hit the street and remember that I’m just a few blocks from downtown San Francisco, I am so disoriented, it’s like jet lag. Maybe I’m a little tipsy, but mostly I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve just spent the day with an extraordinary man in a village in Sicily.
Gunst, who lives in South Berwick, Maine, is the author of 14 cookbooks, including “Notes From a Maine Kitchen” (Down East, 2011), and is the resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.” She will join Wednesday’s Free Range Chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
For more information on Omnivore Salt and Omnivore Sicilia (sauce), go to www.omnivoresalt.com.