by Sanford D'Amato
I was in the third row of the Riverside Theatre in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, watching a 30-foot Elizabeth Taylor, as Cleopatra, sensually skim a juicy broken cherry over her voluptuous lips. From that day, at the tender age of 13, cherries were cemented in my psyche's "happy place."
I was not the only smitten one, as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony were ready to give it all up for one taste. Was it coincidence that many varieties of cherry trees started to populate Rome, then Italy, during Caesar's time? Hmmm.
While growing up and working at my dad's grocery store, cherries were a true harbinger of the season. By the time they arrived in Wisconsin, no matter how cold the spring had been, there was no doubt that summer was here. The store was where I became a pie guy with my first tastes of the individual cherry pies that we sold. They were certainly tasty enough to satisfy me, but right around the time of that movie I walked into a diner near our house. Behind the counter was a deeply burnished, almost sugar-enameled cherry number that caught my gaze. My fork splintered the fragile lattice and I was enveloped in a heady aroma of caramelized butter and sweet-tart cherries. As I took the first bite my eyes glazed over and my arms unconsciously cradled the dish. It was then I realized that all the previous pies were pretenders. This was my first pie.
That primal lust for all things cherry continues to this day. As a fairly new transplant to the Pioneer Valley, living on Main Street in Hatfield, I was thrilled to be at an early summer dinner when a mounded bowl of first-of-the-season local tart cherries floated in, attached to the ample arms of Ben Clark. They were from his Montmorency trees that were flourishing in the Deerfield hills. Last year we went for a day of late July picking in Ben's orchard, Clarkdale, and returned with bulging baskets of blushing Balaton cherries.
What I love about tart cherries – and similarly rhubarb, cranberries and Italian plums – is that I have control over the sweetness level of the final product. Some of the batch we picked are still taking a long soak in a bourbon- and herb-infused bath – proper adornments for Perfect Manhattans at the D'Amato's. But the majority were reduced for an intense cherry preserve that I have been using to fill a semolina crostata, or free-form tart, that was inspired by my wife, Angie's, and my last trip to Rome.
We were at Gino, a small trattoria in the shadows of the Parliament. Upon entering, we ran into an initial façade of Roman arrogance, but it seamlessly transformed into a motherly blanket of comfort when the server realized how much we were enjoying the wares and traditions of the restaurant. By the end of dinner, he was literally spoon-feeding the cherry crostata to Angie, who had miraculously become fluent in Italian. Angie asked why I was smiling but I heard nothing. All I could see were those cherry-stained lips. •
Sanford D'Amato is a James Beard Award–winning chef who teaches cooking classes at Good Stock Farm, his home in Hatfield. He is the former chef/ owner of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of GOOD STOCK: Life on a Low Simmer, his memoir with recipes. Learn more at GoodStockFarm.com.