We’re in San Pedro and going to visit my mom’s youngest and only surviving sister as well as some of my cousins Aunt Winnie’s invited to her home that afternoon.
It’s the same house she and Uncle Nick have lived in since before I was born. It’s always been yellow and I’ve always come and gone through the kitchen door, never the front.
My cousins look older – they must think the same of me. They all resemble their mothers, my aunts, and they tell me I look just like my mother.
We spend the afternoon together. There are tight hugs and kisses as we depart. We must all be wondering if we’ll see each other again.
I am emotionally drained as we head to the hotel where Rick and I are staying. It’s almost 5 p.m. and I suggest we pick up some take-out and have dinner in our room. Within a block we pass a Subway and a Quiznos and Rick says he’d be happy with either. But I have a better idea.
We drive to a little store that’s been a staple in San Pedro since after the war. I can’t tell you the last time I was in A-1 Imports – probably not since high school – and I’m so relieved to find it where I left it.
It looks mostly the same, but the barrels in front of the deli counter are noticeably absent.
“Do you have Mortadela?” I ask.
“Sure,” the man behind the counter says. “With or without pistachios?”
“Without. A quarter pound, please.”
He slices the ham paper thin, just the way I like it.
“Anything else?” he asks.
“Smoked mozzarella,” I respond. “A quarter pound.”
He grabs a loaf of cheese in a wrapper with a picture of St. Joseph and Italian words. When he puts the slices on the scale, they weigh almost half a pound.
“Too much,” he says under his breath.
He removes half the slices and weighs again. A quarter pound. He prices the cheese then returns the other slices to the pile and wraps them all up and hands me the package.
“Some Ricotta, too, please” I tell him. “A small slice, like this,” I say, holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. The fresh ricotta resembles a cheesecake and he carefully slices off a sliver.
“And olives” I add, eyeing four varieties in plastic bins atop the deli case.
He scoops a few of each into a paper carton- the kind you get Chinese take-out in.
“These used to be in the barrels,” I say. “When I was a kid you had the olives in barrels.”
“They don’t let us put them in barrels anymore,” he said. “Same with the dried anchovies.”
“The health department?” I ask.
“I loved this store,” I gush. “I came here with my grandmother and with my parents. But I don’t live here now. I’m just visiting. We’re staying at a hotel and this is going to be dinner.”
I wanted to tell him that it meant a lot to me that the store was still around, even though my parents weren’t.
“I was born in San Pedro,” I babble on, “in 1950.”
“I was born here in ’51.”
“I’m a Grgas,” I tell him. “Grgas and Mardesich.”
“You related to Vince?”
“He’s my cousin. His father and mine stowed away together to come here.”
“I like Vince,” he smiles.
“You have any bread?” I ask.
“In the back.”
And of course it was just as I expected: the familiar wooden case filled with French rolls. He knew I wasn’t asking for sliced bread.
When I’m ready to check out another clerk is at the cash register.
“Do you happen to have a plastic fork,” I ask, wondering how we’ll eat the ricotta. “We’re going to eat this in our hotel room.”
“Sure,” he says, then shares his story about the time his car broke down near Indio and he had to eat all his meals at a 7-11 while he waited several days for his car to be repaired.
“You want a tomato?” he asks. “I can slice it for you.”
“OK.” I really don’t care about the tomato but I know it makes him happy to offer it.
He slices a ripe tomato and wraps it up adding a container of salt, two forks and a handful of napkins to the bag. Rick asks how much we owe for the tomato. I know the tomato is free. It’s added value just like the forks, napkins, salt, extra cheese and a good feeling like we’ve all been friends our entire lives.
The picnic in our room was perfect. The mozzarella was creamy like butter. The salty dried black olives were my favorite. The ricotta tasted like dessert. Then I pinched some salt and sprinkled it over the best tomato I’ve ever had.
Reach Michele Thomas, the Del Norte Triplicate’s publisher, at email@example.com, 464-2141 or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.