It’s that time of year. Drumroll: basil arrives in the garden. After last year’s basil had gone to seed, I had placed the stalks in a paper bag in the shed and, six months later, scattered the dried seeds about the garden. It’s hit and miss. You never know where seedlings will come up. But when they do they are bulletproof. Neither heat wave nor snail can stop a rampaging basil plant.
It’s a retail relic; an artefact of days gone by. It should be listed in Carter’s guide to 1950s collectables. What is it? It’s the deli section at Piedimonte’s. It cannot last, of course. Piedimonte’s deli hangs on grimly to its customer base of elderly Italian and Greek immigrants who still refuse to shop where their children now do; at the thousands of Coles and Woolworths hypermarkets spreading across the country like an army of freeze-dried mediocrity. Piedimonte’s cannot compete with Coles and Woolworth’s, but its deli makes the Coles and Woolworths equivalents look like pig troughs of bulk party food with their truckloads of cocktail frankfurts and greasy factory-produced potato salad and generic Vietnamese fish fillets and chicken drumsticks dipped in vats of soy.
I am not in the Fitzroy Piedimonte’s, but its distant satellite in the outer suburb of Pascoe Vale South. Well, it was then. It opened when the second wave of immigrants started buying into Coburg when Fitzroy and Carlton were full. Today, the supermarket sits on Bell Street, where you can’t park; and its clientele who don’t waddle in on walking frames park their aging Coronas and VH Commodores on the handkerchief of land at the back. There’s no other place. A couple of years ago Moreland Council wanted to annex the car park for a block of ‘apartments’ (meaning flats designed by architects) and there was almost a bloody revolution. Think elderly Italians bearing rolling pins and heavy frypans. And they call it the People’s Republic of Moreland.
Inside Piedimonte’s there is not, of course, enough room to stock the endless house-brand and no-name products you find in the two major chains, but Piedimonte’s makes up for that by defiantly stocking a far greater range of pasta than you’ll find anywhere else; while next to the deli, a dairy cooler is laden with cheeses pre-cut from the round and shrink-wrapped – kefalograviera, kasseri, provolone dolce and piccante, treccia, pecorino plain and with peppers, among others - if you don’t want to wait for the Italian signora behind the counter. The Italian signora wears a white coat and a smile, and on her head she has hair-pinned one of those reverse peak hats fringed with red and white checks, like a 1950s soda fountain attendant who forgot it was the 21st century. She wraps your smallgoods in patterned wax-backed paper so they stay cooler; at Coles they throw it in plastic and it cooks on the way home. The Italian signora also cuts off an extra two or three slices of salami or mortadella with olives for the boys so they don’t have to wait until they get home to eat.
I bought two very red and very ripe tress tomatoes, a packet of La Triestina spinach fettucine and a wedge of fresh ricotta cut from the round by the Italian signora. I drove out of the handkerchief car park and home, parked in the drive and picked three sprigs of basil from the garden bed under the front window.
Fettucine with ricotta and fresh tomatoes.
The simplest, most delicious summer dish of all. The queen of the table.
Cook fettucine until al dente or however you like it. Drain and arrange on serving plates. Halve tomatoes and slice thinly into half-moons. Place on pasta. Add ricotta and top with chopped basil and freshly cracked pepper.
Accompany with crusty bread dipped in olive oil into which you have added more finely chopped basil. Cold white wine. Sundown.