Food — its preparation, serving and ingesting — was the primary activity and the main topic of conversation in my household growing up. My mother insists that she was capable of little more than boiling water when she married my father. If this is true, she has more than made up for this shortcoming over the past half century. I can honestly say that on the four-burner electric stove she used throughout my childhood and on the gas hob that replaced it many years later, she has never cooked a bad meal. Not once. The focus of her cooking is Italian, primarily recipes from her family or my father’s family. (However, she was never afraid to branch out into the cuisine of Northern Italy. Her risotto Milanese is still one of the best I have ever tasted.)
Over the years, she also perfected a few dishes from other countries, which became staples of her repertoire. One year paella appeared, cooked and served in an elegant orange and white Dansk casserole dish. Brimming with clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken and lobster tails (at the time, lobster was somewhat affordable), it became a special treat for years to come. Crepes made their way onto our table at some point in the early 1970s, no doubt inspired by Julia Child. Light and airy, they were stuffed with chicken in a béchamel sauce and greedily devoured by us all. Rich, thick chili con carne appeared every now and again, speckled with green and red peppers, its meat made unctuous by rich red tomatoes and olive oil. This dish was often specifically made for some neighbor’s annual Super Bowl party. We never threw any such fete, as no one in the house was in any way a football fan.
It should be obvious by now that when I was young, my mother spent most of her waking time in the kitchen, and she still does to this day. Cooking for her is at once a creative outlet and a way of feeding her family well. Her cooking, like that of any great cook or chef, is proof that culinary creativity may be the most perfect art form. It allows for free personal expression like painting, writing or musical composition and yet fulfills a most practical need: the need to eat. Edible art — what could be better?
Because of my mother’s culinary prowess, eating at neighbors’ houses as a kid was always a bit of a struggle. The meals were bland or just plain not good. However, my friends were more than happy to spend time at our table. They knew the food at our house was something quite special. The ingredients had been carefully chosen or grown according to the season; each dish had a cultural history and was lovingly made.
It was not only the food itself in which they delighted but the passion with which it was made and presented, as well as the joy our family took in its consumption. The moans of satisfaction that the meal elicited from us were enough to convince one to enjoy the meal even if one wasn’t already. Between moans, there was the usual discussion of how and why it was all so delicious. “The best you’ve ever made, Joan,” my father would say about one dish or another every night. My two sisters and I would agree as my mother would mutter something about there not being enough salt or something needing more cooking time, or saying, “It’s a little dry, don’t you think?” and so on.
This discourse was followed by stories of previous meals, imagined ones or desired preferences for those to come, and before one knew it, the meal had ended and little else had been discussed other than food. Politics, luckily, were quite low on the list. No matter what one ate, even if it was just cold cuts and olives from a delicatessen, it was elevated to a new level of flavor in my parents’ home. A college friend once said to me when eating prosciutto, bread and cheese in my first apartment in New York City, “Stan, how come even though I buy the same stuff from the same store, it tastes better when I’m at your house?”
“You should visit my parents,” was my reply.
In Italian families, nothing is discussed, ruminated on or joked about as much as food (except death, but I’ll save that subject for another time), and hence there are quite a few food-related expressions that have been passed down through my family over many generations that I continue to use to this day myself.
My father is a voracious eater, and during dinner, while savoring his food (in truth he would be eating it very quickly, as savoring is something neither he nor I practice, although I suppose we are experts in the postprandial savor), my father would inevitably utter the rhetorical question, “My God, what does the rest of the world eat?!”
To me, given the quality of the food, it was a more than fair question. When he was told that dinner was soon to be served, he would take a sip of his Scotch, slam the glass on the butcher-block counter and loudly pronounce, “Buono! Perche io ho une fame che parla con Dio!”
This translates as, “Good! Because I have a hunger that speaks with God!” God has paid little attention, it seems, to truly sating him, as my father’s biblically proportioned hunger returns every evening.
When he was young, my father would, as all children do, ask the question, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” His very sweet mother (sweet by all accounts, for I didn’t know her well as I was only seven when she died) would respond with “Cazzi e patate.”
This translates directly as “Dicks and potatoes.” In other words, “Leave me alone” or “Bugger off,” as the Brits might say. In today’s PC climate, a social worker might be brought into a household to oversee parents who spoke to their children this way. One could only hope for a social worker with Italian roots.
When we were young, whenever my sisters or I complained about a certain meal my mother had lovingly made, she would suggest rather tersely that we go see what the neighbors were cooking. And that, as they say, put an end to that. The reason being, as I said, having eaten at many of our neighbors’ homes, we had no desire to revisit their tables.
In our home each day of the week, a delicious and well-balanced meal appeared from the kitchen, and no matter how much we might gripe about our personal aversions to broccoli, fish, salad or pork chops, we knew how lucky we were. Yet for all of her posturing about insisting we go skulking about the neighborhood to sniff out a better meal when we complained about hers, my mother was very well aware of our individual likes and dislikes, and she did her best to make, if not a main dish, then a couple of side dishes every night that satisfied everyone.
A typical meal might consist of a bowl of pasta with broccoli, breaded veal cutlets with sautéed zucchine on the side, and a green salad. Within that array of dishes there was something for all of us. My sister Christine loved meat, Gina preferred pasta and vegetables, and I ate basically everything that wasn’t nailed down. The next night’s fare might be chicken alla cacciatore with a side of rice, sautéed escarole and cabbage salad, and so on and so on. How my mother turned out these amazing, diverse, healthy meals night after night while having a full-time job is beyond me.
By the time Friday rolled around, the household budget had been stretched to its limit, relegating end-of-the-week meals to simple, inexpensive fare. However, given the innate Italian facility to create something substantial out of practically nothing, we hardly suffered. Fridays were often also the only night when my father would cook, in order to give my mother a much-needed rest. She in turn became the sous-chef, facilitating as necessary. A usual Friday night dinner would be one of a handful of dishes that my father was most comfortable preparing. The simplest and most often prepared was pasta con aglio e olio (pasta with garlic and olive oil).
My father’s second go-to Friday night dish was uova fra diavolo. For egg-obsessed people like my father and me, nothing could be as desirous as this rich, visually stunning meal. Imagine a deep frying pan of delicate red-orange marinara sauce (made with more onions than usual for extra sweetness), in which six to eight eggs are poached. The result, as its name implies, is positively sinful. This was accompanied by lightly toasted Italian bread and followed by a green salad.
The third Friday favorite was fried meatballs. This was a meal my parents would make together, my mother preparing the meatball mixture and rolling them and my father frying them slowly in olive oil. Many meatballs were cooked on a Friday evening, as half were to be eaten that night and the other half were to be used for the Sunday ragù. Those eaten on Friday night were served nude, or in other words, without any sauce at all. They were accompanied by a fresh green salad and Italian bread. It was only when this meal was served that butter made a rare appearance on our table. When spread on Italian bread, it was a sweet and soft complement to the crusty meatballs.
I remember those Friday night meals with great fondness, as there was a more relaxed feeling throughout the house. The work and school week had ended, and a weekend spent with friends and the inevitable Friday or Saturday night sleepover lay ahead for me and my sisters, while my parents looked forward to dinner parties at home or away. We knew that Sunday morning’s painfully portentous Catholic mass loomed, but we were well comforted by the thought that the remaining meatballs cooked on Friday evening would be given a new and delicious life in my mother’s ragù that afternoon.
Pasta con Aglio e Olio
Makes 4 servings
3 garlic cloves, cut into thirds
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound spaghetti
freshly ground black pepper
1. Sauté garlic in oil until lightly browned.
2. Boil spaghetti until al dente.
3. Drain spaghetti and toss with the garlic and oil mixture.
4. Add salt, pepper and paprika to taste.
5. Cheese is not allowed.
Uova Fra Diavolo (Eggs with Tomato)
Makes 2 servings
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium to large onion, thinly sliced
1 cup canned whole plum tomatoes
4 large eggs
freshly ground black pepper
1. Warm oil in a medium nonstick frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add onion and cook until soft, about 3 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes, crushing with your hand or the back of a slotted spoon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have sweetened, about 20 minutes.
4. Gently break eggs into pan and cover. Decrease heat to medium-low and cook until whites are opaque and yolks are moderately firm, about 5 minutes.
5. Serve immediately, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
From TASTE: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. Copyright © 2021 by Stanley Tucci. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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