Franco's is an Italian restaurant which my husband and I frequent here on the island because the atmosphere is pleasant and the food is good. No; actually, it's great. Homemade yeast rolls are served hot from the oven alongside a dish of fragrant Italian spices and olive oil. The dishes of homemade manicotti and ravioli arrive at the table with the hot cheeses still bubbling. Every meal is served by friendly, smiling wait-staff, some of whom are members of Franco's family. And Franco? He is in the kitchen, always, a serious man making from scratch seriously delicious Italian dishes.
Here it is in Franco's own words: "Café Franco's is a traditional Italian restaurant inspired by the uncomplicated and laid-back lifestyle of the Italian people – good food and a good meal are essential to the human spirit…."
It does seem like that, on days when we head there with our hunger, putting aside for a moment our busy schedules and allowing ourselves to sink together into a booth, the little café lights shining softly overhead, and the smells of rustic tomato sauce drifting out from the kitchen. Good food and a good meal DO seem essential to the human spirit on days like that. And Franco's does both exceptionally well.
I could go on raving about the food but the thing that I notice most today is a tall post stuck in a potted plant near the front windows. On it are five hand-painted lavender planks of wood with the names of cities – all but one of them in Italy – and the mileage to each from Franco's :
Venice 4671 miles
Rome 4757 miles
Florence 4684 miles
Ocracoke 84 miles
Palermo 4819 miles
The closest city to us is Ocracoke, and it's really more a small village than it is a city. It's also the only American city. Ocracoke is one of the small islands that make up the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's south of here – farther south even than Hatteras Island – and a place only accessible by ferry. The thing I know about Ocracoke is that it houses a remnant of the Banker horses: horses protected and cared for now by the National Park Service. Seventeen ponies remain today of the herd of small, sturdy horses that arrived sometime in the 16th century with Spanish explorers, seventeen descendents of a herd of unusual horses who are physically-distinct from other wild ponies on the Outer Banks: the ponies bear a different number of vertebrae and ribs and a distinct shape, posture, color, size and weight that sets them apart from other ponies.
Those Banker ponies? They are my connection to Ocracoke. What Franco's particular connection to Ocracoke is, I cannot say. Maybe it is as tenuous a connection as that frail acknowledgment which exists between immigrants, between those who have left the countries of their births and find themselves in a new country.
All the other cities named on the sign-planks are somewhere in Italy.
Palermo, though, has the distinction of being Franco's hometown. What I know of Palermo could fit into a thimble: it is situated on the island of Sicily - a large island at the toe of the boot that we identify on maps as "Italy." I remember something about a general named Garibaldi and his troops known as "The Thousands" who entered the city and took it back from the Bourbons in the 1800s. I remember that's about the time Palermo became a part of the new Kingdom of Italy. And I know that the Mafia had a big part in the modernization of Palermo. Or was it that the Mafia was modernized by Palermo? I'm probably getting some of this wrong. But I do remember that the city's patron saint is Santa Rosalia, who is said to have freed the city of the Black Death (Black Plague) sometime in the early 1600s and that she is celebrated with a festival every year on July 14th. That kind of historical information sticks with me: throw in something about a plague or some dirty criminal activity, and I'll remember that part!
But Franco? Franco knows where he is, always, in relation to his hometown. He is as tied to that city and its history as he is tied to making good food. He is the center of his own known world, always, but he hasn't forgotten who his people are and from where he has come. I think it might be important to him – and maybe to his customers – to know how many miles he has traveled to get here. And how many miles it would take to travel back to Palermo, should the need arise. I like that he has journeyed over 4,800 miles from Palermo, Italy, to arrive here, and that he has brought with him the seasonings and the sensibilities of his hometown. There is a reason his good food is so "essential to the human spirit." My spirit is surely feeling it today.
I hope I always carry with me a sense of who I am and where I have come from - also from whom I have come - so no matter how far I am from my own birthplace, no matter what histories are attached to me, they all contribute to who I am and who I am becoming. After all, being from the deep south means I have a complicated relationship to almost everything from fried chicken to old hymns to sea-songs to quilts. I recognize, first-hand, the face of poverty when I see it, and the face of a new mother's exhaustion, and I know what it is to labor under a hot sun, trying to eke something out of hard-scrabble land. I know what it is to be from the South with its histories of slave-trading and racism and rum-running and carpet-bagging. I also know what it is to be from honest people who work at being just and merciful, people who fear God and pray daily and are thankful for even the smallest blessings. I'm from people who lived their lives and disappeared again into eternity and whose names are now only listed in old census or employment records. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
As the wanderer and prodigal that I have been most of my adult life, I haven't stayed anyplace long enough to erect a signpost to anywhere that has been important to me. But on days like this, I feel it there, that signpost erecting itself deep in my heart of hearts, a rough-planked, hand-painted signpost at some crossroads that points the way back, to home, wherever home has been.