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Italian Garden Project

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In 1910 at the age of 16, my grandfather immigrated to America from a Sicilian village outside of Palermo. By the 1920’s, he started a wholesale produce business with his father and brothers in the part of town my family always called “the produce yards” or simply “the yards,” better known as the Strip District. While my grandfather made his living selling fresh fruits and vegetables, it wasn’t until he retired that he had the free time to grow in his backyard many of the things he once sold.

Some of my best memories of my grandfather are of the times spent with him tending to his tomato plants, peppers, basil, swiss chard and the many other vegetables he grew in his backyard. I would get lost in the maze of plants tied to sticks with torn rags. And I would stare in wonder at the wooden trellis he built to grow the most unusual squash I’d ever seen called cucuzza that would grow two or three feet in length and sway in the breeze as they hung like baseball bats from the trellis. He’d give me advice that I’ve since forgotten on how to grow the different plants, and he’d tell me about life in the “old country.”

My grandfather died years ago and I can’t relive those moments in his garden with him, but I can keep alive the Italian-American tradition that he started in my family with the help of one Pittsburgher, Mary Menniti.

Also the grandchild of an Italian immigrant, Mary started the Italian Garden Project in an effort to document the knowledge of maintaining an Italian garden and to help preserve the tradition. The mission of The Italian Garden Project is to “celebrate the joy and wisdom inherent in the traditional Italian American vegetable garden, preserving this heritage and demonstrating its relevance for reconnecting to our food, our families, and the earth.”

When Mary moved to Sewickley in 2004, she found herself spending a lot of time in her neighbors’ Italian gardens. The gardens brought back memories of working in her grandfather’s Italian garden as a child, and she found herself wanting to share these gardens with friends. “Lost and precious works of art” as she describes them.

She and her sister-in-law began to host a Sewickley Italian Garden tour in 2009 and soon found themselves conducting several tours each year. These tours became so popular that Mary began to explore other Pittsburgh communities, and an Italian Garden tour was held this past July in Morningside. (Read about the Morningside tour here.)

Mary Menniti also conducts talks on Italian gardens and related topics from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the last Saturday of the month at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District. Upcoming talks include Traditional Wine Making on September 24, and Salsiccia and Sopresatta on October 29 covering the tradition of making homemade fresh and dried sausages.

You can find more information and a schedule of Mary’s talks at the Pittsburgh Public Market at theitaliangardenproject.com.

And just for fun…

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