Garden, cellar, kitchen

Pelle’s wine cellar brings him equal joy. It is a modest place, in a modest house. The cellar takes up only part of the basement, commodious enough to hold what Pelle wants to put there and equipped only as necessary. 

There are two 60-gallon barrels. one 30-gallon barrel. and five six-gallon glass jars, all filled with aging wine. (The fermenting is done in 80-gallon whiskey barrels that Pelle has been using for 45 years.) There is a good corking machine that someone gave to Pelle. And there are racks containing hundreds of bottles of wine, most of it red and most of it Pelle’s own. The cellar, Pelle said, is prepared to hold about a thousand new bottles yearly and “a couple of thousand others.”

Pelle has been making wine on his own since 1934. For years he used any grapes he could obtain. Then, through research for Americans by Choice and later through wine-judging and writing, he became acquainted with the great pioneer winemakers of California. “Friends down in the Napa Valley,” as he describes them, now send him about a ton of fine grapes annually.

He makes only cabemet sauvignon wines now. They are unfiltered because, Pelle says, “filtering is a commercial expedient. Filtering guts wine, stripping it of the organisms that bring it to its full potential.” Unfiltered, Pelle’s wines are richly colored, deeply aromatic, and full-bodied, almost chewy. A magnum of ’73 that he brought to a dinner party recently was as good as any wine I have ever tasted—the essence of grape, with a velvety texture.

I won’t say anything further about that wine. Though he is proud of his wines and immensely pleased when others enjoy them, Pelle winces when someone gushes about wine—or food. What Pelle preaches is “the good life-the arts of living.” Food and wine have a place in the good life, but they are not by themselves the good life—nor are they to be valued more highly than people.

Making good wine, he says, is not difficult. Making wine, he says, “is just the fermenting of the grape properly. That is as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.” As a check to people who go overboard in praising him for his wine—and perhaps as a check to his own pride—Pelle will quote Louis Martini, who once, when he and Pelle were enjoying an exceptional wine, pointed to the vineyard near the kitchen and said, “The wine is made out there.”

The Pellegrinis’ kitchen astonishes visitors who come expecting vast counter space, huge chopping blocks, an array of utensils and appliances and racks of gleaming copper pots. The kitchen is modest. As everywhere in their life, it reflects their avoidance of anything fancy, pretentious, or unnecessary. The pots and pans are quite ordinary; they could be from a college senior’s bachelor apartment. Pelle’s great knife is 50 years old. The cutting board is perhaps as old and of modest size.

What makes the kitchen distinctive, other than what comes out of it, are the mottoes Virginia has painted in script.

Above the stove: “Buon appetito! L’appetito vien mangiando,” (Good appetite! The appetite comes with eating.)

Above the sink: “In vino laetitia. In pane vita.” (In wine, gaiety. In bread, life.)

Their garden is the foundation of the Pellegrinis’ kitchen. Pelle’s approach to cooking is simple, and his first commandment is that one should use fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. By “fresh,” he means not just recently arrived from the garden but at the absolute peak of development.

He also believes that Americans unnecessarily restrict their selection of foods. As he wrote in Palate “When is the American going to learn that there are vegetable salads other than sliced tomatoes and quartered head lettuce? Endive, escarole, dandelion and chicory shoots, with a dressing of olive oil, wine vinegar, and whatever else suits one’s taste, yield superb salads as counterpoints to roasted, broiled, and fried meat.”

And he argues that American’s abhorrence of animal innards is wasteful and a deprivation. Sweetbreads, tripe, even chicken guts (in an omelet) are found on the Pellegrinis’ table-and consumed with gusto by guests.

Pelle with author Fred Brack     © Bob Peterson

Pelle with author Fred Brack © Bob Peterson

Pelle teaches cooking as he taught literature: Understanding is the key, not rote learning. The idea of recipes is somewhat repugnant to Pelle. One must acquire a knowledge’ of herbs and other ingredients, what their characters are and how they fit together, and then combine them to enhance the whole. Inventiveness is essential—Pelle is constantly experimenting—but this is possible only when basic knowledge—easily acquired—has been absorbed.

The proof of good cooking, Pelle believes, is in the eating. No dish can be redeemed by a fancy name or a pretentious display. The joy and purpose of cooking, according to Dr. Angelo M. Pellegrini, my admired friend, is to prepare such a meal that one may sit down—with friends and family—and begin by repeating with passion the Italian peasant toast:

o Pancia mia! Fatti capanna!

(Oh belly of mine! Make of yourself a warehouse!)