/ story and photography by Jason Oliver Nixon and John Loecke
John Loeke and I are mad for Italian produce. Simply potty. And we don’t mean radicchio from Publix or arugula from Harris Teeter, but rather Italian fruit and veggie crafted of beautifully hued and detailed ceramics. “Er,” you may ask, “like a bunch of Sardinian grapes, but ceramic?” Well, yes.
Step inside our High Point home, the House of Bedlam, and you will find dozens of pieces of Italian produce upon coffee tables, sitting atop bookshelves and taking center stage on a console in the dining room; a whole menagerie of crafted vegetables– from leeks and asparagus to celeriac and melon– perched upon the buffet in the kitchen like a farmer’s stall suddenly come to life… but in china. There’s broccoli on the mantel, and a cabbage in the loo.
Notes John, “We love the whimsy and fun. The vegetables are amazingly crafted and yet sort of weird. And each piece has a great back story.”
The aforementioned kitchen cornucopia hails from the shop of a little lady in Venice just around the corner from the La Fenice Opera House. The gracious, beautifully dressed Venetian matron speaks not a word of English but remembers us on our past tri-annual visits. “Ragazzi, ragazzi,” she trills. “Benvenuti, bentornati!”
La signora always offers us a glass of Prosecco and slips a few ceramic onions or maybe a hank of celery into the box that we mail home overflowing with our stash. John and I love the lusty, earthy ceramic veggies found in the Italian south just as much as the more refined, cosseted creations that hail from the north.
We have miniature Sicilian ceramic lemons sitting on a skirted table in the sunroom as well as bowls full of pomegranates and oranges plucked from that island’s ceramics center, the charming village of Caltagirone. By the by, Caltagirone has been renowned for its pottery since well before the Middle Ages due to the perfect combination of superlative clays and the region’s abundant firewood. The town is most famous for its Moorish head vases, a nod to Sicily’s 200 years under Arabic rule.
“Do you have any radishes?” we asked a Caltagirone shop owner on our last Sicilian romp, and she returned from behind a curtain hands overflowing with an assortment. We bought a dozen.
Back stateside, John and I often find this type of Italian ceramics at antiques malls and consignment shops, and not going for a lot of money. We recently unearthed a glorious, overglazed cantaloupe at The Rock House Antiques and trundled the little lady home.
Nota bene: watch for “Made in Italy” to be written on the plump backsides of these ceramics. But John says, “Even if it isn’t stamped Made in Italy, so what? If you like the carrot, bring that stick on home. This isn’t about ‘importance’ or ‘history,’ it’s really about capturing a certain playfulness and joy that only a shocking green ceramic artichoke can deliver.”
My mother, however, doesn’t understand the attraction. “Dear sweet Jesus,” Mom is known to mutter when she visits. She is a devoted minimalist. “Who dusts these damn things,” she questions, picking up a persimmon and ogling a kumquat. Happily, our crackerjack housekeeper is a master of the damp cloth. Regardless, we’re ready for a return visit to Italy and la dolce vita, once the world returns to normal. We crave some tangerines and maybe a ripe tomato.