At the time, Caruso’s response was nothing more than a mere chuckle.
Little did she know, she’d later pen a novel which is very much inspired by the migration experience of her nonni and the stories of her parents.
The author’s father, Rocco, was born in Australia to parents from the Calabrian village of Sinopoli, while her mother, Carmela, migrated to Adelaide from the nearby town of Acquaro with her family at the age of four.
Caruso’s latest novel, The Right Place, is set in Adelaide, where her family settled and started a new life, and where she was born and raised.
Having hit the shelves of Australian bookstores last month, the novel follows a young woman who inherits her late nonna’s market garden on Adelaide’s Marion Road – just like where Caruso’s father grew up.
The heroine, fashionista Nella Martini, has been living in Melbourne and the market garden is the last place she wants to be.
Her plan is to clean up the place, sell it fast, and head back over the border.
But when she finds her nonna’s handwritten cookbook and starts testing out the recipes – in between some run-ins with the handsome farmer next door – things start to change.
The place, with its endless tomato plants and gallons of olive oil in storage, begins to seep into her soul.
The charming novel also features flashbacks to the 1950s through the eyes of Nella’s nonna, Esta, when she first landed in Australia and was faced with foreign surroundings and a “strange” new culture.
Woven with traditional Italian recipes, The Right Place is the heartfelt story of two women’s journeys, as they discover how the right place to call home can be where you make it.
Caruso explains that the character of Esta is inspired by her maternal grandmother, Maria.
“When I was editing the novel, I came across an old school essay in which I’d interviewed my nonni on my mum’s side,” she says.
“It felt like magic finding it at the time; from it, I was able to include some of nonna’s actual words in the story, including her description of the ‘glory box’ items she brought over in her suitcase, plus her heartbreak over her two stillborn sons in Australia.”
The recipes peppered throughout the novel were passed on to Caruso from her mother, and the author admits it was a hard task compiling them given that the dishes are usually cooked “by feel”.
“It was great to get some of my mum’s ‘secret’ recipes out of her, like stuffed capsicums and tomato fritters, and realise that they’re not that hard to make,” she adds.
“My parents have always had a huge vegetable patch at home, and eating healthy, plant-based meals is nothing new to them.”
The novel opens with the Calabrian proverb “Munti ccu munti ‘un se juncianu mai, ma cristiani ccu cristiani se juncianu sempre” (The mountains may never meet other mountains, but people will always meet again).
The novel’s message follows this philosophy, along with that of “It’s the people that make a place”.
“When I was a newlywed, I lived in Sydney for three years, and I really missed having my parents and two sisters nearby,” Caruso explains.
“Now that I’m back in Adelaide, we live within minutes of one another and we’re always messaging, dropping off parcels between our houses and catching up for celebrations... I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Though Caruso says she felt a “subtle pressure” to write about non-ethnic characters with common names and set her novels in major cities like Sydney at the beginning of her career as an author, The Right Place was a turning point for her in which she felt free to honour her Italian heritage and the city she has lived in most of her life.
“In women’s fiction recently, there’s been a big trend in ‘rural romance’, featuring covers with blonde Akubra-wearing farm girls,” she says.
“I feel proud to now be telling the ‘other’ story, honouring the migrants’ impact on our food and agriculture.
“I think my books will always have an Italian thread from now on.”
Caruso is already brainstorming her next novel, which she says will feature a group of female Italo-Australian cousins, a love triangle and a whole lot of glamour.
And all of this while raising five-year-old twin sons – hats off to Carla Caruso!