Notes On Growing Up Italian In Brooklyn (And Keeping Yesterday’s Traditions Alive)

My life began in a little place called Brooklyn, New York, as the daughter to a Sicilian father and a Neopolitan mother. When I entered the world my mother was 38 and my Father was 50, but it didn’t take me long to learn that age is only a number. Until I was 15, we lived in cold water flat railroad rooms — so called because there were no doors and the trains ran right outside. After that, we moved to Flatbush.

My traditions come from a poor, but colorful family. When we moved, the traditions moved. That’s been true ever since; those traditions have stayed with me for a lifetime.

For those of Italian heritage, food is a special way of life. That’s particularly true for people with roots in Sicily. A simple immigrant from Palermo, my father brought his own celebration of life with him to America. When he married my mother, she was his dance and together they were the festival their lives would become. His love for life was best exemplified by the meals he prepared. My father loved to cook, from traditional pizza to Sicilian delights to his family-famous pasta and sauce. His loving attitude was perfected through the delights he served at our table.

The tempting smell from the kitchen would awaken anyone from a sound sleep, especially in those tiny door-less bedrooms. My sister and I shared the room right off the kitchen. Aromas of freshly squeezed tomatoes, chopped basil, garlic and meatballs frying in the pan would make their way through the halls. While getting ready for church, I would sneak a small meatball, topping it with a spoonful of sauce. In those days you fasted for three hours before receiving Communion, so we did not eat breakfast. The thought of admitting to my act of contrition always crossing my mind, but my stomach always won the battle.

Following mass, my family would stop at the local bakery and buy a large, round loaf of Italian bread with a crust so hard chewing it would make your mouth sore. Ah, but it was such a nice soreness! Once home, my father sliced the loaf in half, keeping one for dinner and using the other for breakfast. Then, he would thinly slice the bread again and cut out a piece of the middle with a round glass, placing the bread in a pan with a little oil and butter. As the bread and pan heated, an egg would be cracked into the empty middle, tossed once over and served for breakfast. The bread-egg combination not only offered our palates a mouth-watering taste, it kept us full until family and guests joined us later for the main meal.

On Sundays, our late meal was the largest of the day. Both the food and the conversation seemed to go on forever. There were olives, pastas, meats, sauces, salads, cheeses, fruits and wines that would flow into the glasses of the adults. Some Sundays, desert was fruit and cheese, on others my mother would make special sweets. A cup of black espresso helped everyone digest. I carried that taste of Sunday on my lips and in my heart all week, a day of God, family and an amazing feast for which I’m still grateful years later.

sunday gravy

The author’s parents Rosario and Yolanda Mazzara, in America know as Sal and Viola

These culinary traditions gave my family the strength often needed to endure life’s ups and downs. Since the days of my father’s generation, our lives have changed. Through wars, family crises, illness and distant jobs that take us away, it’s now a struggle to keep these traditions alive. Today’s world of fast cars, fast tech and fast food make it hard to slow down and enjoy the good food and interaction that was such an integral part of yesteryear.

I still recall my father’s sauce simmering on the stove for three-to-four hours, and how I couldn’t wait to dip a piece of that hard crusted bread in it for a taste.

Even though life marches on and takes each of us on our own individual journeys, it is still important to recognize that setting the table to partake in a family feast continues to offer the same support for one another as it always did. Although we live in an age of less personal face time – no, no the kind on your iPhone — and more Skype, the miles we are apart should not detract from the spirit conveyed by home-made cuisine and a love for life.

My parents called it gravy when it contained meat and called it sauce when it had no meat, just tomatoes. Here’s how my father made his homemade Sunday gravy.

sunday gravy

Lasagna. Photo courtesy of Rosalyn Larrabee.

Recipe: Pasta/Lasagna With Meatballs & Sunday Gravy

Sunday Gravy

3-4 cans tomato paste; 2 large cans tomatoes (or 10 large, fresh tomatoes steamed skin off)

3 cloves garlic (two minced, one add as whole)

1 tablespoon red wine

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons oregano

3 teaspoons basis (fresh or dry)

2 teaspoons parsley

1 small chopped onion, 1 small onion whole (peeled)

1 cup water

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons parmesan cheese (grated) (and a pinch more) (later I will tell you about the Italian pinch)

The Meat:

3 beef short ribs

5 pieces pork sausage (link with casing)

Meatballs (1 – 11/2 pounds of lean chopped meat should make 8-12 meatballs/the bigger the meatball the more tender the meatball)

Making The Meatballs:

Place the chopped meat in a bowl with 1 teaspoon each of onion, garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, oregano, and pignoli (pine nuts)

Add one large or two small eggs

2-3 tablespoons flavored bread crumbs (or make your own or add a slice of dampened bread)

Mix it all in a bowl

Take small scoops and roll with your hands into a ball

Directions:

In a large pot (8-10 quarts), add the olive oil, then the garlic and the chopped onion. Brown slightly.

When light brown, remove from the heat to add your ribs and sausage. Return the pot to medium heat to brown.

Brown the meatballs in a separate pan, adding a little olive oil and garlic

Brown lightly on each side, drain any extra fat, and place in the pot.

Once the meat is in the pot (you can add the meatballs straight to the pot after you add the ingredients if you so choose), brown slightly. Slowly add the tomatoes, paste, the seasonings, the whole onion, and meatballs. Stir and simmer for three (3) hours. Stir occasionally.

Pasta:

Your choice…spaghetti, ziti, lasagna

And here’s how to make the lasagna:

First, you’ll need a pan (13 X 9 is good), preferably glass sprayed with cooking oil

1 egg slightly beaten

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 large container ricotta

4 cups mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons parsley

1 large box lasagna noodles (or be adventurous and make your own)

In a mixing bowl, add your ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, parsley, egg, 1 cup of your homemade sauce/gravy (if sauce/gravy is thick add a teaspoon or 2 of water). Mix together.

Layer the pan. On the bottom, place 4 noodles and add several dollops of the cheese mix.

Spread slowly, sprinkle some mozzarella, add another layer of noodles and repeat the process until you reach the top of the pan

At the top, add just mozzarella and some sauce/gravy (3/4 – 1 cup)

Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes

If you like the top crispy, broil on low for five minutes monitoring progress to insure it doesn’t burn

Remove from the oven and let stand 10 minutes

Slice and serve with your meats, extra sauce, bread, and salad on the side

“Godere!” “Gustare!” “Enjoy!”

About The Author

Rosalyn Larrabee has had a long, successful career in the field of public relations and marketing. She has had a number of articles and essays published in newspapers, magazines, and professional journals. Growing up in a dichotomous environment, where at home she was raised with old traditions and away from home saw more of the modern world, she’s tried to impart a balanced combination of old and new to her sons. Her sons have always told her that the best of her traditions were those they tasted at the dinner table. For her, it’s time to convey those tastes to the world.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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