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The 'Mangia' Garden

To Bustleton's Domenico Scicchitano it's all quite simple: Plant. Harvest. Eat. He tends it all, 40 by 180 feet. He is 90.

Domenico Scicchitano has no need for famous foodie Michael Pollan, "slow food," or any other trend that celebrates the way people long ago cooked and ate.

That's because he's 90. He's Italian. And he's never done it any other way.

Scicchitano (pronounced shick-i-TAN-o), a retired carpenter who came to Philadelphia in 1956 from Isca, in southern Italy's Calabria region, still tends a huge vegetable garden behind his Bustleton home. For decades, he's made his own red wine and cooked up 100 jars of "gravy" from his annual tomato harvest, giving most of it away and enjoying the rest with friends and family.

If Scicchitano, called "Papa" by virtually everyone, weren't so old-fashioned, he'd be a trend-setter. He personifies the famed Mediterranean diet and the thoughtful way of eating and living that modern omnivores like Pollan espouse.

"Drink," Papa tells a visitor, as he pours a half-glass of his special red wine.

"Eat," he commands, offering slices of a homemade pizza brought over that very afternoon by his friend Maria Affatato, 75.

Scicchitano isn't an easy English-speaker, but guess what? He's not much given to verbal flourish in Italian, either.

Asked how he makes "gravy," he shrugs. Asked how he's made it to 90, he shakes his head. Asked what gardening advice he has for younger folks, he looks puzzled. "They don't like. Always go to school," he says.

But you get the feeling Scicchitano would tend the garden himself regardless, which is no small matter. It's 40 feet wide and 180 feet long.

The man has 100 tomato plants alone.

He also grows fava beans, green beans, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini, Swiss chard, and all sorts of peppers. Plus peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, Concord grapes and two sizable beds of celery, cucumbers, Italian parsley, and basil.

"I cook everything," Scicchitano says, and what he doesn't cook or eat, he gives away.

"Free. No money," he explains.

You'd think he'd be crippled from bending and kneeling, but he stands pretty straight. You'd think he'd roll his eyes and fake-complain about so much work for such an old man, but he looks genuinely bewildered when you ask, "Do all this yourself?"

"What're you gonna do?" he says with a shrug.

You'd also think he'd need a boatload of tools and helpful gizmos, the likes of which call out to gardeners from spiffy catalogs and spill out of our garages and storage bins.

But no. Scicchitano opens the door of his toolshed to reveal . . . not much. No gloves, no pruners or loppers, shovels or rakes, rotary tillers or trellises.

He uses only one kind of implement - a zappa, or hoe. He has two. The blades he bought in Italy; the wooden handles he crafted himself.

"In Italy, they use this. Very good, very good," he says.

For soil nutrients, Scicchitano spreads plain old chicken manure or store-bought fertilizer. He has no sprinklers or drip hoses, no digitally timed irrigation systems that other gardeners must have.

He uses a plastic watering can and a hose attached to the house, which he unrolls across the backyard and down into the garden.

There are eight huge beds, no mulch. Plants are tied to wooden stakes with strips of cloth. He rotates crops so the soil stays fresh.

An early riser who takes medicine for his heart, blood pressure and cholesterol, Scicchitano gardens from 6 to 9 a.m. The rest of the time, he watches Italian TV or takes the bus to South Philly to visit his baby brother - Alfredo is only 86 - and stock up on locatelli cheese at the Italian Market.

He likes it grated, on top of his spaghetti. He does not call it "pasta."

He cooks. He naps. He drives. He chats with daughter Gina Ammaturo, 61, son Vito, 57, and friends like Affatato and Dorinda Maiale, 77, who's also visiting today.

How does "Papa" do it?

Affatato has her theories: "He only drinks a little wine. He doesn't like meat. He eats a lot of vegetables. And he likes company."

Maiale has ideas, too: "He wants everybody to come over. And he keeps moving."

And Ammaturo: "The garden is something to look forward to."

A widower, Scicchitano has a new great-grandson and four grandchildren. He proudly points out their photos on the wall - the grandson who's a doctor, the granddaughter who's very tall.

And wouldn't you know. Nobody gardens. They don't have to; Papa does it all, winning first place several times in the large-vegetable-garden category of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's City Gardens contest.

Last summer, the first-prize certificate cited his garden's "distinctive ambience . . . gorgeous vegetables and well-maintained plants.

"No weed would dare rear its head," the citation says.

As Scicchitano listens appreciatively, the ladies are talking food. Escarole with white beans and garlic. Eggplant parmigiana. Vegetable stew. Pizza. Gravy.

Suddenly, Affatato turns to a visitor. "How do you make gravy?" she asks.

Gulp. It's getting late . . . time to go. Ciao! Ciao! Scicchitano gets up to shake hands. "You come back in July for tomatoes," he says warmly. "Free. No money."