Friday, December 28

Christmas Dinner

I spent Christmas Day with my family at my parents' house. My mom has her table all decked out with the Christmas tablecloth, her Christmas china and her silver plus her fancy Christmas coffee mugs. She even has special Christmas plates for the grandchildren.
My dad made his twice-a-year antipasto. He makes it with lettuce, tomato wedges, provolone cheese, Genoa salami, roasted peppers, mainated artichoke hearts, mushrooms, olives and tuna. he liked anchovies but nobody else does so he put some in a dish for himself. We put oil and vinegar on it after we pick out the parts we like- which ticks my dad off every year. He thinks we should eat whatever ends up on the serving spoon but my sister and I never do- mainly because we don't want mushrooms on our plates. YUK.

My mom made manicotti and served them with meatballs, Italian sausage and braciole. For dessert we had the typical tray of homemade Italian cookies, plus pies, nuts, coffee and cordials (Limoncello, Sambuca, Grand Marnier).

It was two hours of eating. We forgot the finocchio this year (that's fennel) and we eat it after the main course to aid in digestion.

Friday, December 21

More Mangled Words

In the course of a day I mangle at least one perfectly good Italian word. By mangle I mean I anglicize it. I don't do this much in Spanish but I think that is because although I know way more Spanish than I do Italian, and I have been speaking Spanish for over 20 years, it is nonetheless my second language. That means that for every word I know in Spanish, I know the English equivalent. Since I grew up with certain Italian words in my famnily vernacular, I never realized as a kid that everyone didn't know them.

Italian I don't speak very well. I try, really I do. But I don't have anyone to practice with anynmore. However, because in my house growing up there were words that existed only in Italian, we end up Anglicizing it- you know, put the "ing" on it or making a past participle out of it.

For example:
Sporco- (sporko) meaning: dirty pig, messy.
Years ago my parents paid me a surprise visit in my apartment while I was working on a grad course paper. I was working on the floor and had books and papers spread everywhere. I looked through the peephole, panicked and ran around the living room shoving papers and books in the closet. Clearly everything was slightly askew. When I let my parents in, my dad looked around and said "Were you "sporking?"
("Were you being a slob?")

Cafone- (cavone)- meaning: a rude person or someone who has no class.
This is used so frequently (and properly) in my family that I use it even with my non-Italian friends because it just sounds so much better than saying "that classless person" or "that rude person." We mangle it and add a "y" to it, for example: "She ruined Christmas when she showed up with her cafoney friends."

chiaccarone-strong> (Kyack-ya-roan) meaning: talkative person.
My oldest daughter was a pretty timid child when she first started pre-school. This was a serious pre-school- a Montessori school- and she really enjoyed it. At the end of her second year I had my spring conference with her teacher, an Italian-American man, who also happened to be the director of the school. He told me about her progress and then said "It seems that your daughter really enjoys, how do I put this, "Chiaccaroning," now. I couldn't stop laughing.

Come si chiama (goomaeeigeeam)meaning: what's it called (lit. what's its/your name) My parents and grandparents used this word a lot, especially for body parts that weren't supposed to be on display. "Look at that girl in the short skirt with her goomaseegeeam showing!" Or, "Can you get the goomaseegeeam and bring it over to me?" I was quite embarrassed in my first Italian class at 19 when the professor's first lesson started with "Come si chiama?" It wasn't clear at first what it was, and I sat there listening, thinking, "that sounds a lot like the whaddyacallit" word. DUH.

This, amici, has been your bundle of butchered and mangled Italian words for the day.

Thursday, December 13

The Dreaded Christmas Eve Tradition

There are fewer rituals that my family performs that I dread more than Christmas Eve dinner. It should be re-named "Torture Claudia Night." No, it's not the Christmas carols that my kids and I sing to far away family and friends in operatic voices over the phone- I like that part. It's not the anticipation of seeing the kids wake up and see what "Santa" brought them the next day. It's not even the exhaustion I feel every December 24th at about 1:00 in the morning, having wrapped all the gifts when the kids finally have fallen asleep. Nope. It's CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER. What could be so dreadful about a Christmas Eve dinner? Well, my medagon friends, a typical Italian dinner on December 24th involves a long-standing and for me, unappealling traditional meal- SEAFOOD. It's the one night a year when I, myself, wear the title of "Medagon," given to me by my parents. I don't eat seafood. Non mi piace. It never has appealed to me, with the exception of fish- tilapia, haddock, tile fish, tuna, and my favorite: flounder. So, the meal to which I was subjected for every year of my life until I was 33 and moved far away enough from my family to not go back on Christmas Eve, just Christmas Day, is an array of "Seven Fish(es)." I used to reef to this as the Parade of Fishes as a kid, for the way they just kept coming out of the kitchen. To qualify for the "Feast," It does not have to be actual fish- any seafood will do. The offending fare can include (but is not limited to) the following: -flounder or another kind of fish (in my family it was breaded flounder, the only kind I would eat as a kid, to make me feel included and loved) -crabmeat -shrimp -mussels -clams -lobster -calamari (I think this appeared on the table once or twice at my grandparents house where we would spend Christmas Eve until 1986 when they moved to Florida) -tuna (in the marinara sauce) and the one dish that my mom opted out of making and left it to my dad and grandmother: bacala (as in dried codfish, not "Bobby."). It gets soaked a long time before preparation to remove the heavy salt taste and is served with a red sauce. You'd have to rip out my tastebuds to get it to taste good to me. The seafood was always served with linguini (I prefer capellini, but I took what I could get) with the tuna or crab sauce and I would get a "medagon special," a dish of linguini with melted butter and Locatelli cheese. Nope, I wouldn't even eat the sauce if it had fish in it. Now some people ask why the number seven? It's debatable- the number of days to create the universe, some say, others say the number is 13- one for each apostle plus Jesus (keep me out of THOSE houses) and my mom's version- any odd number under seven. So when I got was on my own, I made that number become ONE. The next few years I started a new tradition of flying in the face of tradition and, allegedly, Canon Law (this proved untrue- I could find nothing that says you cannot eat meat on Christmas Eve) and going out to an Italian restaurant on Christmas Eve and ordering anything but fish. For me, that means veal. On the way home from dinner the kids and I would sing to anyone who would answer the phone while we drove, and then swear to them that we were not drunk and neither were the children. The kids sang in celebration of Christmas. I sang in celebration of not having to eat fish. So, go ahead, take away my Italian membership card, but before you do that, you should know that this Italian-American did not drink wine, either, until the age of 45 (sweet, please). Good God, a 7 fish dinner with only dry wine to drink- what a terrible thought. blechhhh

Friday, November 16


Yes. My name is Claudia and I talk with my hands- all the time. I admit it, I cannot talk well without my hands. I'm not alone, of course- I don't know any Italians who do not talk with their hands. I remember once we dared my mom to talk without her hands- she sat on them and actually couldn't get her thoughts out!

We need our hands to punctuate and give what we are saying that little extra meaning that our simple words cannot. I put my cell phone on speaker a lot since my hand surgery because my hand cramps up. It is very handy (ha, ha) because I can gesticulate with both hands while I am on the phone, even though the effect is lost on the listener who cannot enjoy my gestures. And trust me, people say I talk fast, but I can move my hands just as quickly. And when I get angry, my hands and arms actually flail around.

Of course, being an Italian has its dangers when it comes to gesticulation. I once put my hand through a picture frame hanging on the wall in college when I was dramatically (of course) illustrating a point to a sorority sister. The glass went flying everywhere. My sorority sister ducked and I somehow managed to not slice my hand. Thank God- how would I have spoken? One can also get injured standing too close to an Italian speaking animatedly- a scratch or a poke in the face, for example.

Standing front of teenagers all day long means that I find out things about myself that I wasn't really aware of. Once a student asked me why I stood in third (ballet) position, which I did not realize I did when I taught. More than once, and in fact, several times a year, some student who is not paying attention to my lesson asks me why I use my hands when I talk. My answer is simple: "I'm Italian." They dared me to try to teach without using my hands, just like my sister and I did to my mom. Impossible. I made it through about 5 words and then gave up.

I think Italians have to use their hands because the volume when we are all together gets to such high levels that sometimes the person across from us needs some help to understand because he can't actually HEAR.

Don't confuse what I am saying with actual meaningful gestures that Italians use to convey such phrases as the brusque wave of the hand under the chin for "Me ne frego." (I don't give a damn) or the clasped hands, look to the heavens "Ayudame" (help me) gesture which I do frequently in class. (Note: "Ayudame" was the first Italian "word" I ever said when I was a little kid- I got stuck in the toilet and called for help. But that's another story)

Once when friends from Italy came over we all went out to dinner. I was a teenager at the time and Paolo, one of our friend's sons, was about 18. Everyone ordered wine at dinner and so did he. My dad told him he couldn't. He did not understand because they drink wine all the time in Italy, even at his age. He launched into a little description of when he and his friends go out to the club:
"But in Italy, we go to the club (points), we eat a little (pretends to put food in his mouth), we dance a little (does a little dance), we drink a little (takes an imaginary drink), we don't have these rules (frustrated gestures). My family and I recall this fondly usually whenever someone says "eat a little" and we still imitate Paolo twenty-something years later.

My gestures aren't really sign language, per se. They are just disconnected movements that sometimes relate to what I am saying and involve a lot of waving, pointing and jabbing. Think of a maestro on crack.

No other culture has earned the hand-speak reputation quite like Italians. Sure, some other countries gesticulate, but the constant and sometimes wild gesticulations of an Italian trying to make a point are pretty much incomparable. We don't get a prize or anything but it's fun to watch us.

Sunday, November 11

"MADONNA" (MADON), explained.

No, not the singer. The exclamation. "MADONNA!" or "MADONNA MIA." When butchered properly, they sound like "MADON!" and "MADONAMI" and sometimes "MARON." The "d" sound formed when your tongue hits the back of your front teeth is different from the "d" sound in English where your tongue hits further back in the roof of your mouth. And then of course, being Italian-Americans, we chop off the end of the word.

So why do we feel the need to call upon the blessed virgin mother so much? Gosh, you got me. I do it about 20 times a day, even to myself. Examples:

Now that it's cold in the morning, I step outside and say out loud: "MADON it's cold!" Do I actually need intervention from Mary? Naw, I'm just giving her a shout out to let her know I'm not so happy about the impending winter.

My husband came home one day and said "I put in a transfer to Florida." I said "MADON! Are you nuts?" Here I was calling on Mary to alert her to a possible manslaughter charge that could be brought against me, asking her to look out for me. And my husband.

We have Christmas dinner at my parents' house every year. My mom makes enough food for 20 people and we are only 9. She heaps the food on my plate and I say "MADON! Not so much!" Here I am actually thanking Mary and God for the good food and for my mom's ability to cook it in abundance.

I get up every morning at 5:45 to get ready for work. I am not, nor have I ever been, a morning person. This is a problem since I am very much a night owl. So every morning when that alarm goes off, since my mouth is not working yet, I say to myself without fail: "MADON! It's early!" or "MADON! Is nighttime over already?" What I really mean to say is "Madonna, please tell God I am thankful for waking up this morning and grateful to have a job to go to."

Doing laundry is my kryptonite. I'd rather clean the bathrooms. In college, I used to pay my sister to do it for me. I despise it. I hide from it. I pretend I don't see it. But it is there and it accumulates. When my husband takes pity on me at the end of the week and hauls my baskets downstairs to the laundry room and I see them, of course I say: "MADON!" That's usually all I can muster when I see giant piles of laundry staring at me. In this instance I am actually desperately pleading with the BVM to make a few phone calls and cause some seismic event in my laundry room and have the dirty clothes just get swallowed up. I find that she does not hear me.

Yesterday I was at the gym and it was my first day back to lifting weights since my carpal tunnel surgery. Actually, it was the lat pulldown machine so I was pulling, not lifting since I don't have enough strength in my hand to lift over 1 pound yet, nor can I grip very well. So, after 6 weeks of no upper body weight-training, I slide the 30 pound pin in, which is where I was pre-surgery, and I pull. Unprepared to not be able to pull down the bars nor to experience the pain through my upper back, I yelled without thinking: "MADON!" The guy next to me laughed. (He must have heard it on the Sopranos.) I was unabashedly calling upon Mary to make me come to my senses and to make the pain stop.

So there you have the various insightful ways this particular person uses the word "MADON!"

This has been your butchered Italian word for the day.

Thursday, November 1

Birthday CANOOLS!

Today after I taught my first two classes I went to the faculty room where I go to correct my papers when I am not in class. At the place where I usually sit was a bakery box, addressed to ME. I saw Pec's writing on it and I was very it was a box of cannoli (aka canool.) It was! Then I was sure that her husband Joe ova der made them just for me, as today I turned 23. (On each leg.) However, Joe did not make those himself. (Though the other night he had a craving for sausage at around 9:00 and ground the meat and brought out the casing and made homemade sausage. What a guy!) I broke out the canools and shared them with Pec and the medagons. Even though Joe ova der didn't make them they were still very good. Anyway, Pec, you are so sweet and thank you so much for remembering my birthday! I'll be thanking you for that extra mile I need to do on the treadmill tonight, too :-\

Friday, October 26

Chi Mangia Bene Sta Molto Vicino A Dio

(Those who eat well are close to God.)

A non-Italian friend of mine visited my blog recently. I asked him what he thought of it and he said “it’s all about food.” That’s not entirely true, of course, but I do have a number of posts dealing with food because, well, that’s what Italians do. We cook. And we eat. (I have a gym membership to prove it!) And we talk about food. Other cultures do that, too, obviously, but we do it a certain way. It defines us- our parties center in the kitchen, lots of bodies packed, standing around eating and talking. For most Italian Americans I know, the kitchen is the most popular room in the house, even if it's not time to eat. It reminds us of family, holds memories, and is the center of activity. Our dinners are complete- an entrée, two sides and lots of animated conversation. My mom never just served us pizza when I was a kid- always a salad and soup with it. Even our barbecues are big productions. They are almost just like a regular party except the food is different and it's more work because we have to haul everything in and out.

A typical Italian-American barbecue at the homes of any I know consists of the following menu, typically: plates of appetizers, home-made hamburger patties- big, thick, seasoned ones, grilled sausage and peppers, pasta salad (not macaroni salad, although that could be there along with the pasta salad), bakery-style rolls, marinated & grilled chicken, sides of sweet peppers, hot peppers and onions, a salad of some sort, grilled eggplant, corn on the cob, insalata caprese (mozzarella, basil leaves and tomato slices in olive oil), at least 4 desserts- a cake, a pie, a jello mold with lots of other ingredients in it, a tray of cookies… the list goes on. You’ll find the soda and beer plus pitchers of fresh iced tea, lemonade and a mixed drink. No store-bought frozen hamburger patties and bagged rolls in my family. You also won't find store-bought potato salad. If it happens to be there with the other stuff, someone made it at home.

We break out the bocce set or the horseshoes, the soccer ball or kick ball and like non-Italian families, if there is a game on tv, the men will try to get away with watching it if we don’t make a big fuss- which we generally do.

People tend to speak more loudly when they are outside and in Italian families we all try to talk over each other. But nobody just “talks.” Our hands are always involved- it’s no secret that Italians are incapable of communicating without their hands. And we laugh and talk LOUDLY. I used to complain about our “off the boat” neighbors from Italy when they had parties outside, which was frequently, because I could hear their conversations (which I never understood since it was in dialect) and their raucous laughter. Then one day a non-Italian friend said to me “Your family is just as bad and twice as loud!” It’s true. We’re a loud bunch.

After everyone is stuffed and has given up on activities, the women take a few things each into the house to help the hostess, then we say goodbye for 15 minutes, for one person cannot just say goodbye and leave. As we say goodbye, we must have a litany of last minute comments on when we’ll see each other again, which is the best road to take home, warnings to be careful, instructions to call when they get home all while we are kissing the same people goodbye more than once because it takes so long to get out we forget who we started with. Of course, someone always lingers for a cordial (Sambucca, Anisette, Tuaca). When the barbecue is over, and all clean-up is done and the supplies and leftover food that has not been sent home with guests are wrapped up and taken inside, the hostess usually plops on a chair and swears that is the last outside party she’ll have. Until the next one!

Saturday, October 20


Last night at a party, my comah, "Pec," and her husband, Joe over der, were talking about hosting this year's Christmas Party. Pec is a lucky woman whose husband doesn't just cook-- he COOKS. And he's Italian. When she gets home from work, dinner is all ready. I've been wanting to have a dueling "degos" dinner with him but I think I will be roundly trounced. Anyway, I asked what he would be making. He asked what I wanted. I suggested:

gavadeel with madinahd
monagut with smooth rigut and only lucatel on top
some soprasat
a little brooschet
and some canools for dessert.

Since my husband wasn't there, only the 3 of us knew what we were talking about, we being the only Italians. The poor medagons who would also be at the Christmas party looked a litle worried as they did not recognize any of these foods. Which made us laugh even harder than our pronunciations.

Here's the translation:
cavatelli in marinara sauce
Scaramuzza mozarella
manicotti,smooth ricotta with Locatelli cheese (see earlier post)

Pec and Joe over der are New York Italians, transplanted to the boonies as I am from Sofilly. However, it cracks me up to know that butchering words is not limited to Philly Italians. Marone! It was funny!

Wednesday, October 10

How Skeevy!

If you are an Italian or you have friends who are, you have undoubtedly heard the word "skeeve" or "skeevey." As in, "Ew, that glass has lipstick on it- that's skeevey!" Or "Her house has cat hair all over it- that skeeves me out." Or, "I won't eat in her house, I skeeve her utensils, they're always crusty." So, you can skieve something or you can be skieved "out" by something. The adjectival form is "skeevoose," as in "I had to use Marie's bathroom while I was there- SKEEVOOSE!"

The actual spelling in Italian is "schifoso," and as far as I know, it's an adjective, not a verb, although it has evolved into such among Italian-Americans. As we tend to butcher the language, however, it comes out "skeevoose." It literally means disgusting or repulsive. I remember after taking my first semester of Italian when I learned the proper spelling and told my great-aunt at Christmas dinner. Nobody could believe the true spelling of the word, after all, the only one present who had been schooled in Italian was my grandmother.

This, amici, has been your butchered Italian word for the day.

Saturday, September 22

A cheese by any other name... doesn't touch my food!

I had dinner guests at my house tonight and I served manicotti. I also made meatballs. Now, please know that what makes my meatballs so good is the enormous amount of pecorino romano (aka "parmesan,") cheese that I add to them. So, the topic of conversation turned to... cheese, and my one friend asked if it were Lo-ca-tel-li cheese. As if there were any other kind?? Her husband, for whom she does not make Italian food, since although she is Italian, he is not, had never heard of this cheese. I showed him the little bag of almost one pound of the finely grated cheese. He saw the price and said "NINE DOLLARS FOR THAT?" His wife and I looked at each other and just said "yeah." Like, duh, of course, IT'S LO-CA-TELL. You can buy it in a big wedge and grate it yourself or buy it already grated. I have carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand so I can't grate it anymore, but it tastes just as good if it is already grated.

I was raised on this cheese. I never knew it by "pecorino romano", or "parmesan," or "grated" cheese. It was just "Lo-ca-tel." as we tend to omit the end of words in Italian.) No other brand ever made it into the house. In fact, before I wrote this, I asked my friend, "When you were a kid, what did you put on top of the gravy on macaroni night?" No hesitation: "Lo-ca-tel." My dad would buy it in South Philly at the corner cheese store or the Italian deli, and in fact, still drives there to get it for my mom. When I lived in Lancaster County, PA, for college, the Pennsylvania Dutch-owned stores and even the bigger supermarkets did not carry such cheese. It's usually in the deli section. So, my first time shopping on my own at 19, I had no choice but to buy Kraft grated cheese in a can. The can was green and I can still remember the taste of the "cheese." I believe it was actually made of plastic. I can't quite describe the taste, but if evil had a flavor, it would be that Kraft grated "cheese." I threw out the pasta I had made because once the cheese touched it, it ruined the entire meal for me.

I called my mom and she "tsk'ed tsk'ed" me for buying it but there was not a lot to choose from. Since I have lived in five different counties in the state, I have tried a lot of grated cheeses when lo-ca-tel was not available and each time I opted to eat my macaroni without cheese after having tasted it. Now to an Italian, at least, in my family, macaroni, or "pasta," is never served without grated cheese. However, because it is so expensive, my mom frowns on using a lot. I have inherited that trait and have been asked if I'm giving out Communion when I put cheese on everyone's food so they won't use a giant pile. Then some smart cavone grabs it and dumps about $2.75 worth onto his capellini.

Thursday, September 20

Die-Hard Philly Fan

Ok, so I love Philly sports. We don't get very far but we're used to it. It doesn't hurt any less, but most of us are numb by now. The Flyers last took the cup in 1975. I was in first grade and the school cancelled afternoon classes so when we went home for lunch we just walked to Broad Street with our parents (also home from work) and watched the victory parade. I didn't know why I was cheering for these huge guys on a float but I was darned happy to be out of school. I'm lucky I have savored that memory because it may not be repeated in my lifetime.

By the time the Phillies won the World Series in 1980 I was a major baseball fan. I tried to stay up that night to watch until the end but it was a school night and I couldn't keep my eyes open. Until, of course, the horns in my neighborhood started honking. I woke up and caught the big victory pile-on, then I ran around the house screaming. My parents weren't home, though, they were at a World Series party and my grandmother wasn't so into it.

When the Sixers won, I was away at college and didn't care. I hate basketball. But GO SIXERS anyway, it had been six years since any team in Philly had the word CHAMPS after it.

The Eagles, however, are a different, if you'll pardon the pun, ball game. Eagles fans are hard-core, loyal, defensive and well, a little violent. An Eagles game is not a place for children. When my dad took me to my first game I was a teenager and my uncle chastised him- "You're going to expose her to all the cursing and fighting?" My dad assured him it would be fine. And it was- I only saw one guy get harrassed. He was rooting for the other team. Seriously, what was he doing there anyway?

But when you mention Dallas to an Eagles fan, the hairs on our neck stand up. I have seen some fans' eyes roll back in their heads. Some people even foam at the mouth. And if you bring a Dallas fan into a room of Eagles fans, they inevitably start talking trash to us about their five rings and their Tony Romo and how the ball he fumbled the snap in the last game last year was "waxed," yadda, yadda, yadda. (Yeah, well in light of the Pats' spying, we'd like our Superbowl rings, please!) Yes, Eagles fans hate Dallas. Since the days of Roger Staubach, Eagles fans have been groomed to despise the Cowboys from when they are little. It may even be encoded in Philadelphians' DNA. And, we are not shy about it. Remember the Dallas game when Santa walked onto the field? The Eagles fans threw snowballs and booed him. It wasn't the poor, drunk, Santa's fault. He just happened to be caught up in some literal "playah hatin'" is all.

And it's true, give 'em credit, Dallas does have a good record. But the beef with Eagles fans is that all the "forgeses," the turn coats, the Benedict Cowboys, who are from cities not even close to Dallas, consider the Cowboys, "their team." This is what ticks off Philly fans the most. Their home teams don't win so they bail on them and go to a more successful team, usually Dallas. We actually respect the 5 Superbowl wins though we won't admit it, but WE HATE DALLAS and the non-Texas residing fans who are so obnoxious. Right, we have not won a Superbowl but we have something Dallas fans will not ever have, at least those not in Dallas:


I have seen grown men cry when the Eagles lost the Superbowl, and even hed a tear when they made it there. People may think "Invincible" is a silly movie, but if you watch it, you'll understand what it is to be an Eagles (and a football) fan. We stick with the Eagles no matter what. Whether they win or lose, we still root for them. When they lose we don't switch teams to find a better team. We have a name for them in Philly, forgeses. Oh the suffering of having a team that hasn't a single Superbowl ring... the shame and the embarrassment we endure...That's ok, we're still waiting and hoping and when we get that damn ring it will feel better than all 5 of those Dallas rings together. Of course we want our hometown team to win- but if they don't, we love them anyway. And I'm no big McNabb fan, and I curse at the tv like everyone else when he throws to an imaginary receiver, but the Eagles are still MY TEAM.

As for Dallas, I would like to thank you for taking TO off of our hands. It was the one day I can remember when I cheered Dallas on.

Wednesday, September 19

Da "Sauce" and Da Shame

I just made a pot of "mahdanad" (that's marinara for you medagons) and I started thinking about how hard it was for me to master this very important staple to the Italian-American diet.

I couldn't cook a thing until I lived on my own in college. I poured a mean bowl of cereal but my mom was a stay at home mom until I was a senior in high school and we always had our lunches packed and our dinners cooked. Why would I have needed to know how to cook?

So, once in an apartment at 18, I committed the gravest of sins- the worst thing an Italian-American daughter could do- I bought pasta "sauce" in a jar (Classico, NOT Ragu, although in my family, one is no better than the other). However, I learned how to make stromboli (after all, at my college, kids basically lived off of take-out stromboli), I stuffed (pasta) shells myself, cooked chicken 4 different ways and made tuna salad in a way that the fish taste was disguised (secret ingredient- RELISH). Not bad a for a novice kid. At 20 I somehow made a four course meal for my future in-laws, no pasta.

Once I moved in with my friend Sharon, I was 21 and the family stigma of using jarred sauce was getting to me. So, I bought a little crock pot and, carefully following my mom's instructions... I burned the sauce. Badly. It was only in the crock pot for 1 hour. Sharon has not let me forget this and it's almost 20 years later. I maintain that the crockpot was faulty. I gave up after various attempts for the next few months and spitting out the conoction. I was branded a failure, an inept gravy-maker in a long line of masters of delicious gravy- my mom, my aunt and both of my grandmothers' gravies all tasted the same. Shamed, I continued using the Classico until I was about 24, when I discovered a restaurant that had takeout marinara sauce. I started passing it off as my own until the place closed and I was revealed for the fraud that I was. Even my father would comment how, by that time in my life, I could cook any entree but still turn out a lousy batch of gravy. It was my culinary failure to bear, no matter how many more times I tried to duplicate my mom's recipe.

It was only about 10 years ago that I mastered the impossible. I deviated from my mom's complicated recipe and made up my own. It was much like a science experiment, with many batches of foul-tasting gravy being sent down the sink. This past Easter I cooked for my family and my inlaws. Among several other items, I served 6 dozen stuffed shells (homemade filling) with, of course, "gravy" (that is, marinara with meat-ground veal, pork and beef), sausage, bracciole and my renowned, yes RENOWNED, meatballs. Since I had never made a pasta dish for any of them it surprised me that I got compliments because it didn't occur to me that they had never had my version. My mom, in particular, who is hard to please, said it was good. That's the stamp of approval in my family.

The way I make it is easy but specific:
1 can of TUTTOROSSA crushed tomatoes (I can't be held responsible for what happens if you use another brand)
3 tablespoons of garlic POWDER
3 teaspoons of parsley flakes
1 teaspoon of basil
1 dash of pepper (I like white)
1 dash of salt

Stir. Cook for 1 hour on medium-low.
If you want to make a meat sauce (or GRAVY):
brown 1/2 pound of ground veal-pork-beef combo with 1 clove of fresh garlic in vegetable oil.
add to sauce and cook sauce

Sunday, August 19

Yo! What's for dinner?

It's Sunday and if I were still living with my parents we'd have our usual big Sunday meal, around 3:00 or 4:00. Why so early? I don't know. Maybe so that my dad could watch the Eagles before or after? We always ordered a pizza around 8:00 while we watched tv. My grandmother would have a small glass of beer with her pizza. It was her big treat.

Our usual Sunday fare would be a roast something- pork, veal, chicken. Hardly ever "macaroni," because my mom would make a very American type of meal and Italianize it- she'd marinate it with Italian seasonings- basil, oregano, parsley; and the potatoes were never like the potatoes in my friends' houses. They'd be marinated, too! We always had a vegetable at every meal and a salad and Italian rolls on Sundays. No rolls during the week. I never asked why but that does seem mean, now that I think about it.

In my house I don't cook strictly Italian. My mom gave me an amazing, big hardcover, Cuban cookbook "Memories From My Cuban Kitchen," in 1992 and I have about 6 favorites from there, a handful of Mexican recipes (no, not tacos and enchiladas!) and then my standard repertoire of Italian favorites. Eating Italian every night bores me and American food... well, I save that for when we have non-Italian friends over for dinner.

Tonight I am planning veal saltimbocca. Saltimbocca means "jump in your mouth," as in, the veal is so good, it jumps in your mouth. It has cheese and proscuitto in it so I haven't eaten all day so I can eat tonight. This is my "big, involved" Sunday meal this week. Last week we had pasta fagioli (fahzool.) I don't do roasts. Ever. I ate enough roasts for 24 years to last me 50. I don't follow culinary rules based on what day of the week it is. During football season we eat wings and sandwiches during the game. My mom will be outraged when she reads this- I always blow off the "what are you making" question on game days. Sorry, Ma.

Saturday, August 18

Hey, Sigi!

I get so much slack about reading and writing about Cuba and "forgetting" that I am Italian, that I thought I should give my own heritage some acknowledgment. Granted, I don't have to prove my roots to anyone, sono che sono, but by scrapbooking and working on my family tree, I sometimes get so immersed in my culture that I want to share stories and words, etc., with other Italian-Americans who grew up like I did. I guess all the quirky little ethnic points don't mean much until you're older. For example, I grew up in a home:

  • that was a row-home (called "townhomes" nowadays but let's not kid ourselves) in an Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia (until we 'moved on up' to Delaware County)

  • that had with plastic-covered furniture

  • where every Wednesday was "macaroni" night (we never said "pasta" and we always put "gravy," not sauce, on our macaroni.) Usually we would name the macaroni: "We're having mostaccioli tonight." Every kid in my family could name that "pasta."

  • where you'd hear "Madonna!" (pronounced, "Marone") or "Madonna Mia" ("Maroneami!") My parents were big into invoking the Blessed Virgin Mother's name.

  • where someone stupid was called a "dididoof," a showy, ostentatious Italian was a "spacone" and a person who had no upbringing was a "cafone" (cavone)

  • where if we lost something the first thing we'd do was pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost items.

  • where we couldn't put new shoes on a bed or a new hat on the table.

  • where we had to exit through the same door we entered

  • where Sambuca was served after dinner parties with 3, exactly 3, coffee beans

  • where a "comadre" or "copadre" meant a good friend of the family OR a mistress (comadre) and was pronounced "comar" and "compah" or bastardized into "goombah"

My father's side is from Central Italy (Abruzzi) and Calabria (at the very tip of the boot that is almost touching Sicily). My paternal grandfather was from a little town called Riccia and its patron saint (like many other towns) was San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), which was also my grandfather's name. So, on the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19) it would be a non-stop food fest in his South Philly neighborhood, with people going from house to house to visit, celebrate and eat. He was one of 12 kids so there were a lot of houses to visit. In my house we always celebrated this Feast day because of my grandfather- it was "his" day. My dad always brought a special dessert that we only ever ate on that day, which was, what else? St. Joseph's cakes. In Italian they are actually called zeppole, and although I have seen a few different versions, the ones we always had were similiar to creme puffs- light dough filled with creme, topped with powdered sugar and a maraschino cherry.

My mom's side is Sicilian. That's a dangerous bloodline. Not because of the Mafia, but because Sigis are known for their determination to get revenge when wronged. We also have all kinds of "hexes" or curses, if you will, that I have to admit, I give credence to. In fact, whenever I am ticked off and I tell my sister I want to do such and such to someone, she always says something like "you sigi, you." And sadly, my mom is the same way. When someone asks my mom if she is Italian, she corrects them and says "Sicilian," as if to say "watch out."

While I appreciate my Italian-ness more, it's the "Sigi-ness" that seems to be dominant. My particular favorite "curse" is when someone is bothering you, you place a photo of them face down in the freezer. I am not sure, but I believe the person doing the freezing has to be Sicilian. In other words, an Irishman would only come out with a very cold photo. I have done this several times, and for each person, I never heard from or was bothered by them again. I now keep a separate freezer. ;)

In college, many people mistook me for Latina. People came up to me and spoke to me in Spanish (without knowing I spoke Spanish) and other latinos were always assuming I was from ____ (insert one of 20 countries here). One day I walked into my first Spanish class with a professor who had lived in Spain for many years. He called my name out loud and looked at me and said "That is the most Italian face I have ever seen." I hoped he wasn't referring to my nose! When I started taking Italian classes the professor, from central Italy, said to me after class "Sei siciliana?" (Are you Sicilian?) I said Sí, and asked him how he knew. He said an Italian can spot a Sicilian instantly. For the record, Sicilians are generally darker-skinned and darker-haired. We're called the "black Italians" by Europeans and others. Sicily was occupied by the Moors, so there is an African element to it, and I traced my grandmother's family (her last name was Saiia, [sigh-eeh-ah]) to Mallorca, Spain, of Arabic origins. (Immigration, no surprise, spelled my grandmother's name "Saia" (Say-ya) In fact, the word "mafia" has its origins in Arabic.

Em beh, sono Siciliana e non posso fare niente per cambiare.