The frittata that bought us a house

No matter how many times I brought it up, Epiphania always gave the same sad answer in her cadenced, Italian accent: “No, you can’t buy it! The house is not on the market!”

I knew the instant we walked into the Connecticut farmhouse that this was the place for us. Initially, we were there looking for a place to rent because my husband, Bob, had been offered the directorship of a museum nearby. Our plan was to get to know the area and eventually buy a place. This would mean a long commute for me back to the Hudson Valley, but this was a terrific new opportunity for him. Even though we were only there to consider renting the place, in those first few moments in the grandma kitchen, with its tiny-apple wallpaper and vintage wood stove, I had an uncanny feeling that this was where we belonged.

A few weeks later, at the lease-signing around the dining room table, after all the real estate agents had left, Epi, as she is called, offered us a slice of pear cake, made with fruit from a tree woven into a pergola over the back deck. Taking a bite, and recognizing the taste, I asked her if it was Marcella Hazan’s famous recipe, to which she replied: “No.” Then, quickly, “YES! Yes, it is . . . I’ll have to tell her!” Having spent weekends and summers here for more than 30 years, Epi had been renting out the house for a few years now and lived in New York City, where she had met and become acquainted with her. I had made Hazan’s cake many times myself. It seemed like another sign that we were in the right place.

In short order, it was very apparent Bob’s new job was a terrific fit, so we put our Hudson Valley home on the market. Sensing that this was how things were developing, every time I spoke with Epi, I mentioned how much we loved the house, and asked if she would consider selling, but her answer never varied.

“No, it’s not on the market. It’s not for sale!”

Even as she repeated this, deep down, I knew something that she did not yet understand: we belonged in this house. The past year of living there only deepened my sense that this was the house for us.

Having tasted the sweet ether of equity with our first house, we were eager to stop paying rent and get back to owning something. Once we got an offer on our Hudson Valley house, we started looking in earnest for a place in Connecticut. We saw many houses, a few of them OK, but none compared to Epi’s farmhouse. If you stand at the sink in the farmhouse and look out the window you can see that pear tree in the pergola, a deep yard with a variety of trees and shrubs, an old stone barn foundation, a meadow, and finally, distant hills. None of the views from any of the other houses could offer even half of this happy distraction.

As our house-hunting went on, I kept Epi informed of our constant search hoping this could somehow persuade her to change her mind but it never worked.

The closing date was set for our old house and we needed to renew our rental lease. Epi said she could meet us to discuss the details on a weekend in November when she was visiting her daughter, who lives nearby. We settled on a Sunday afternoon, and in the hopes of softening her resolve, I offered to prepare a simple lunch.

Whenever hosting a meal, I always try to figure out what can be made ahead of time, and for a light lunch I decided frittata would be perfect. Growing up, frittata was one of the dishes my mother relied on to stretch the budget to feed our family of six. Once I had my own kitchen, it was one of the dishes I could count on to feed a crowd on the cheap. Now, its frequent appearance at the table is more a matter of just how much I like it.

My favorite combination is the one I chose to make for Epi: a mix of bitter greens, sautéed potato, and sharp cheese. This time around, though, it felt like the stakes were very high. This woman knows Marcella Hazan! She’d certainly know if my lunch wasn’t up to snuff.

I never took more care with the completion of a frittata. I squeezed every drop of moisture out of that spinach. I babied those potatoes so they would not brown. I diced the fontina so it was the perfect size to melt into sharp and salty surprises. I cooked the whole thing over the gentlest heat, flipping it over halfway so it would be evenly cooked. I carefully slid it onto a cooling rack so no moisture would dampen the bottom. I pulled out my best frittata-sized platter and set the table.

Epi arrived on time for our noon showdown. Unfortunately, Bob had to work that morning and was delayed, so we were forced to make small talk around the kitchen table. Although we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on the house, it was clear we were fond of each other. I suggested we go ahead and eat, but she insisted she didn’t want anything. It seemed her only desire was to finish negotiations and be on her way. But we sat so long waiting for Bob — the aromas of the frittata wafting up from the platter on the table — that once he arrived, she finally agreed to have a slice. By then, it was the perfect temperature. Although you can enjoy a frittata hot, warm, or cold, I think it is truly best when just barely warm. All the flavors come through and are at their most harmonious.

I watched her take her first bite. She seemed surprised, then pleased. Then she finished the slice I gave her. And she allowed me to give her a little more.

After we agreed on the lease terms, I made one last pitch for buying the house. Once more, she wouldn’t budge. I was sad that our house-hunting would have to continue.

The next day, though, I received an email from her summarizing our discussion, and much to my surprise, at the end of it she wrote that we could revisit the discussion of a possible sale in March. It was the first time she seemed remotely open to the idea.

My opening salvo to sweeten the deal was to offer to store her belongings in the adjacent barn for a year to give her more time to make plans. Eventually, after much complicated back-and-forth, we came to an agreement. We could scarcely believe it when we signed the contract that made the farmhouse ours. Bob always joked that it was my frittata that sealed the deal, but I always laughed it off — until she came to retrieve her furniture.

Epi returned a year later, with a rented truck and some hired hands to help her. I mostly left them on their own as they emptied the barn. I couldn’t wait to turn it into a summer kitchen.

At the end of the day, as the truck was pulling off, she knocked on the kitchen door to say goodbye. I walked her to her car, where we were alone for a few moments.

She looked over at the new picket fence we’d installed along the road between the grand maples. “Are those roses?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “We hope they will eventually climb along the fence.”

She nodded approvingly.

Adjacent to the driveway, there is a door to the basement and two narrow, eight-pane windows that are from the original construction in 1785. They had been painted a very drab grey. Since they are the first details you see when you arrive at the house, we painted them a pale blue-green, which contrasts nicely with the stone lintels that surround them.

“I like this color here,” she said.

Then she turned to me, “You know I had no intention of selling you this house. But I knew you loved it . . . and you made me that frittata . . .” she said, wagging a finger in my direction.

She took one final spin around, taking in everything, and just before she headed to her car, she looked me in the eye and said, “I found the right people for this house.”

Recipe: Spinach, Potato and Cheese Frittata


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