By Kerri Conan
Umpteen years ago my girlfriends and I ran with a bunch of guys in San Francisco we called “The O’s.” Nando. Carlo. Enzo. Veniero. Claudio. Paulo. Antonio. You get the drift.
The O’s weren’t Italian-Americans; they were fellows who visited from Italy and stayed for a while. We met them while waiting tables, and we shared the common language of food and fun. On our days off we rode up to Napa on their motorcycles to taste wine or eat oysters at Tomales Bay. We’d pack a picnic and rent boats at San Pablo reservoir to swim and sunbathe. On foggy days we gathered at one of their flats and they would cook for us. The O’s turned me on to proscuitto and melon.
A few of these guys lived together in a big place without much furniture. In the living room was a big wooden picnic table and benches that easily seated 10 people. Most meals there lasted for hours, as one or another O would get up from the table to prepare the next course. In the summer, we’d always start with proscuitto and melon or tomato and mozzarella (or sometimes both). Next came the pasta—usually perfectly cooked spaghetti or risotto with little more than Parmesan, butter, and herbs. Followed by roast pork or chicken and vegetables. Then the salad. And finally pastries and ice cream from nearby North Beach. In between dishes we’d play cards, dance, leaf through fashion magazines, smoke ciggies, and drink wine, feeling very cosmopolitan indeed.
My mom—raised in a Sicilian household in New Orleans—served dinner like that in courses, especially when my grandparents visited or she entertained my Dad’s clients. But she never wrapped proscuitto around melon. Mom had a big garden and always grew cantaloupes, which we ate with cottage cheese for breakfast, as most Californians did in the 60s. Seeing the juicy wedges draped with thin slices of cured pork (and eating them with knife and fork together in one bite so that the sweetness, fattiness, saltiness, and chewy-ness all combined in your mouth at the same time) seemed somewhat dangerous and downright risqué. A lot like hanging with the O’s.
Proscuitto and melon became a symbolic dish that represented time, place, and attitude. I would never order it in restaurants, nor did I make it for myself or offer it to guests. It’s not like the dish carried too much gravitas, I just never thought of it—or the O’s—very often. Until of course I saw P and M on a menu.
Now that my husband Sean and I grow our own cantaloupes—and the incredibly creamy swan lake melons photographed here—proscuitto and melon is once again irresistible, for totally different (dare I say more mature?) reasons. Eating P&M still feels a little naughty, but that has more to do with cholesterol than riding around on the back of a motorcycle.