Friday 1 April 2011

Viva l'Italia

• From the Wall Street Journal MARCH 31, 2011

Italian Mammas Put Meals on Wheels, Say 'Mangia!' to Faraway Offspring
Mr. Martino Helps Them Spoil Adult Kids; Trucking Ravioli From Calabria to Rome


On a recent Sunday in Rome, Daniela Varano and some friends lunched on eggplant parmesan whipped up by the 33-year-old publicist's mother.

Mom, meanwhile, was 500 miles away in Bovalino, a small town in southern Italy. Despite the distance, she does what it takes to spoil her grown daughter with home-cooked fare.
Lina Varano lives in Bovalino. Her daughter lives 500 miles away in Rome. But that doesn't keep Mrs. Varano from cooking for her. WSJ's Stacy Meichtry reports.

"The umbilical cord was never cut," says Ms. Varano's 61-year-old mother, Lina.
Like thousands of other mammas across the southern Italian region of Calabria, she relies on Domenico Martino, a 39-year-old truck driver who has made a career of ferrying lasagnas, raviolis and other traditional dishes over long distances.

Every Saturday afternoon, Mr. Martino picks up hundreds of meals from kitchens across Calabria, drives them overnight to the bustling capital of Rome, and delivers them to children's doorsteps in time for Sunday lunch.
Whenever she gets a package, Ms. Varano calls up her friends for an impromptu feast. "Everyone postpones their plans just to have the lunch," she says. "Although it seems weird, I'm maintaining an emotional link with my family."

Michela Natale, with her daughter, unwraps her mother's latest dishes.
Mr. Martino's is one of a dozen such services thriving on Calabrian mothers' steely determination: to cater, literally, to their far-flung adult children. While Mr. Martino only serves Rome, a wave of other trucks depart each week from Calabria to cities across the rest of Italy.

"They don't want their children doing anything. Even getting up and going to the market is overdoing it," says Mr. Martino, hoisting a crate of oranges into his truck on a recent Saturday afternoon. "And that's good for me."
For generations, Calabrian women have poured their maternal love into Sunday lunch. They labor to produce sumptuous meals of fresh pasta, long-stewed meats and homegrown greens to lure their grown children back to the nest every week. It was easy when the children lived nearby or—as was often the case—in upstairs apartments built or bought by their parents. But today, the Sunday lunch tradition has fallen on hard times.


Jobs for young Italians are scarce—particularly in Italy's poorer south—forcing people to migrate north to big cities, leaving their mothers behind. In Calabria, on the toe of Italy's boot, 52% of Italians between the ages of 15 to 64 were "inactive," or not working or studying during most of 2010, according to Italy's official statistics agency ISTAT. Authorities say Calabria is also home to the 'ndrangheta mob, a drug trafficking syndicate that maintains a stranglehold on the region's economy, starving the area of jobs.

Mr. Martino's career got rolling in the late 1990s when he delivered chocolate and pasta to supermarkets around the region. He launched his current enterprise a decade ago, after a handful of mammas asked him to help them make a gastronomic connection to their faraway kids. As more family members scattered across Italy, Mr. Martino's business boomed.

Eventually, some 3,000 mothers came calling, each with a set of special requests, Mr. Martino recalls. Many wanted a discount on what traditional couriers charged; others wanted meals to arrive in time for lunch. Some have asked him to linger at the delivery site to gather intelligence on their children's new lives. Others demanded his cellphone number.

"I needed someone who would take it seriously," says Annamaria Careri, a silver-haired 69-year-old, as she welcomed Mr. Martino into her home on a recent Saturday afternoon and handed him 165 pounds of food she had prepared for her three grown children in Rome. Like other customers, she doesn't bristle at the price, which is relatively low compared to other courier services. Mr. Martino charges €15, or about $21, for a 55-pound package.
Timely delivery is crucial, added Lina Varano, as she waited for Mr. Martino to call on her. Mrs. Varano puts days of preparation into her packages, combing her garden for fava beans, citrus fruit and scarlet-colored tomatoes that she presses into tomato sauce for freshly made ravioli.

On this occasion, she had prepared lightly breaded artichokes, pork cutlets and stuffed eggplants one night with the help of her 90-year-old mother-in-law. A tube of salami, from a recently slaughtered pig, was wrapped into tin foil for its journey to Rome.

"I have to give it my all. Everything, everything, everything!" said Mrs. Varano.

Mr. Martino and a small crew of associates spend the whole morning navigating Calabria's streets to collect packages. It's not easy. Many lack signs; others are pocked with potholes or give way to dirt roads that wind through olive groves and cacti. On his way, he fields calls from mothers seeking updates or speedier deliveries.
"There is raw meat in there, and I don't want it to spoil," said one mother, pressing for an early delivery to her child.

"Signora, all the packages are created equal," Mr. Martino replied.

The cargo is then brought to a warehouse in Calabria and packed into a semi-truck that Mr. Martino drives to Rome. Arriving in the capital at midnight, he sleeps in the truck and rises at the crack of dawn on Sunday to make the deliveries before lunch.
Anna Bianchi, 68, says Mr. Martino's marathon goes a long way in easing the stress her daughter faces as an architect working in Rome. "She's absolutely suffocated by work," Mrs. Bianchi said after entrusting a casserole of baked fish and a freshly made meatballs to Mr. Martino.
Antonio Natale, Ms. Careri's 37-year-old son, padded up to the door in sneakers and a blue track suit to collect the latest haul: slabs of vacuum-packed chicken meat, jars of olives, homemade almond-paste cookies, fish stock. "You see, the separation has been traumatic for her," he said.

A high-school teacher, Mr. Natale has been receiving Sunday deliveries for eight years. He deeply misses his mother, he said, but "there is no going back."

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