Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sicilian Chicken Dishes

During the last weeks of my mother's life, her good friend Tannina came down from New York to stay with us and to be with Mom here in North Carolina. I cannot begin to tell you the comfort, and ease that she managed to bring into our house, or the debt of gratitude that I feel toward her. While she was with us she introduced us to two wonderful Sicilian dishes, and whenever we make them, we think of her.
The first we call Taninna's chicken, but the second one is chicken, artichoke and olive, which in Americanized Italiano is Chicken Carcofi-e-olive which sounds like Chicken Kar choe fee ah leave ay. and i would submit is just as catchy as Chicken Cacciatorri. Here is the recipe:

Chicken Carciofi e Olive

Saute an onion (choped into large chunks) in olive oil,
Add chicken cubes, continuing to saute till chicken is tender
add black olives,
add either frozen or a couple jars of artichoke hearts
add a can of chicken broth and simmer until artichokes are tender.


Monday, November 1, 2010

The DeVitos come to America

Unfortunately I know very little about my paternal Grandfather's side of the family. I have learned that on Dec 19,1920, Antonio De Vito, a Barber from Ruvo Di Puglia, Puglia, Italy brought his dress-maker Daughter, 22-year- old Aurelia, and his 14 year old son, Felice, to the United States. Once there the family stayed at Number 69 Brookfield St. White Plains, NY; at the home of Antonio's brother-in-law, Rocco Cotaldo Cioce. Rocco was the brother of Antonio's wife Carmella.

A few months later, on May 9, 1921 his wife Carmella, and Antonio and Carmella's older son Michele, joined the rest of the family in the US. Antonio and Carmella and the two boys moved from White Plains to Brooklyn, NY. Once there Antonio opened a barber shop, where both Michele and Felice worked.

Michele went by the name Michael, and remained a bachelor his whole life, and Felice, my grandfather, married my grandmother, Madelina Santora. Aurelia may have gone by the name Laura. She married into the Tedone family, and her husband owned a car dealership on Long Island either in Brooklyn or Queens. One of her sons was an arranger for Les Brown, and his "Band of Renown".

Rocco Cioce, the brother-in-law settled in White Plains where he became a stone mason, and his handiwork may still be seen in the area. His son became a stone carver, mostly creating headstones and monuments. He and members of his family are buried in White Plains, where I have visited their grave site. I have also been in touch with their decedents, cousins I would never have known about if it weren't for the manifests available from the Ellis Island website.

Friday, October 1, 2010

An Offer I Could Refuse

I just received my renewal for my Sons-of-Italy membership, and along with the regular paperwork was a plea for donations. The substance of this letter was rather odd. It stated that historically Italian-Americans were treated poorly, second only to African Americans, but thanks to the efforts of the Sons of Italy they weren't lynching Italians anymore, which I suppose is a good thing, though I really wasn't living in fear of, nor had I even considered taking precautions against that possibility. According to this letter we Italian-Americans owe our lynch-free existence to the efforts of the Sons of Italy and their on-going efforts to eliminate the association of Italian Americans with the Mafia, Cosa Nostra, and or organized crime, and quelling this association is something we Italian-Americans should be passionate about. It was an ill-conceived letter that trivialized the actual historical significance of the Sons of Italy.

I have to say that my passions are infinitely more stirred at the thought of revisionism and the dilution of historical facts in the name of political-correctness, than they are by the fear that someone might incorrectly identify me as the descendant of a mobster. As far as I know, most of my family was not involved in organized crime, but I feel pretty certain that organized mafia-like activity had a great deal to do with my family's entrance into the United States in that they had the help of a godfather-like figure known as a padrone who secured my Great-Grandfather a position with a bakery, and provided him with information so that he could book passage and enter the United States.

A padrone, though not necessarily connected with a particular family or "syndicate" was a man who helped laborers or tradesmen and their entire families to come to the United States. The padrone would act as banker, loan office, travel agent, interpreter, and legal counselor for these immigrants. Often dishonest, he rented out the immigrant's services to line his pockets, and paid the immigrant a mere pittance. The padrone might also take advantage of the ignorance of his immigrants by selling them groceries at grossly inflated prices. If an immigrant had a skill, other than a laborer, or was of an entrepreneurial-bent the padrone might help the immigrant land a position or start a business with the expectation of an on-going percentage of the profits.

The Sicilian Mafia certainly was a large part of the Italian-American lifestyle in all of the major cities, along with similar organizations like the Neapolitan Camorra gangs, the thing is, the bulk of the Italian population was made up of victims of these groups, rather than members. Though organized crime may have provided resources to immigrants that otherwise would have been completely unavailable to them, and so-called mobsters put themselves in the position to do favors for otherwise law-abiding Italian businesses that enabled them to thrive in the repressive anti-Italian, anti-immigrant climate of the time, the kickbacks and protection money placed a crippling burden upon them. Those Italian-American businesses that succeeded did so in spite of, rather than because of these organizations. Fortunately legitimate institutions such as the Sons of Italy also began to spring up around the turn of the last century to work to better the life of the early Italian immigrants by providing them with articulate leadership, responsible representation in civic matters.

The Order of the Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) was founded in 1905 by Dr. Vincent Sellaro, its principal organizer; Giuseppe Carlino, a sculptor; Pietro Viscardi and Roberto Merlo, two barbers; Ludovico Ferrari, a pharmacist; and Antonio Marzullo, an attorney at law. Their aim was to create a support system for all Italian immigrants that would assist them with becoming U.S. citizens, provide health/death benefits and educational opportunities and offer assistance with assimilation in America. They established free schools to teach immigrants English and centers to help them become U.S. citizens. They established orphanages and homes for the elderly, life insurance and mortuary funds, credit unions, welfare societies and scholarship funds to aid members in need. During World Wars I and II, OSIA members bought war bonds and war stamps to support the war effort, and lodges competed with each other to contribute the most money to the Red Cross. In World War II, the OSIA Supreme Council (national officers) issued a resolution urging members to donate one day's salary to the national defense, and to date, OSIA members have given more than $93 million to educational programs, disaster relief, cultural advancement and medical research.

There are certainly many reasons to give generously to the OSIA, but I don't think that anti-defamation efforts against mafia-stereotypes and boycotting "The Soprano's" have kept my neck out of the noose. And though it is true that very few Italian-Americans have any connection at all to the Mafia or Organized crime, it is still part of our heritage, and I embrace it, after all, it's Italian.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding relatives on the Ellis Island Website

The Ellis Island Website provides a wonderful resource for finding one's ancestors and filling in gaps about one's family history, and it was the basis for the two preceding posts, and for a future post:
The De Vitos come to America. Note the space between the "De" and "Vito". Apparently I have been spelling my name wrong all my life, and it made it darned hard to find members of my family in the copious manifests available on the Ellis Island Website.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Ellis Island in New York was the port of entry for thousands upon thousands of immigrants to the United States. Today the Ellis Island - Statue of Liberty Foundation maintains a fantastic database of ship manifests - passenger list forms that were completed by the steamship companies, and presented to government officials upon arrival at Ellis Island. The digital images of the actual manifests are stored along with painstakingly transcribed data points such as the passenger's first and last name, age, date-of-arrival, place-of-origin (sort of), and the name-of-the-ship. Further information may be gleaned from the digitized image of the manifest, such things as the passenger's occupation, who sponsored them, where they were headed within the United States, and who they were traveling with. But one must beware. Transcription errors exist, some introduced by the modern transcribers because most of the records were entered by hand, and some of that handwriting is very hard to read. Some of the errors exist in miss-communication between the ship record keeper and the passenger, sometimes due to language barriers, mistrust on the part of the passenger for the authority figure, or sloppiness and or tiredness of the recorder. Here are some tips for finding your immigrant ancestors.

1. If you can find out from anyone the approximate date that your ancestors arrived, or the birth year of the immigrant, it will help narrow your search, as will the maiden names of any of the female immigrants, approximate dates of arrival, or the name of the ship they arrived on.

2. Start with the immigrant with the strangest first name, and search on that person's first and last name. If the individual with the unusual first name is a woman, try searching under their maiden name first, especially if they are from Italy, France, Portugal, or Spain. If you do not find that person's listing try to broaden the Field with alternate spellings of the last name. The immigrant's name may not be included correctly in the Ellis Island database due to typos, illegible handwriting and other errors. Start with common misspellings. If that doesn't work, then try reversing a few letters, such as "Devtio" for "Devito."

3. Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese may "genderize" or pluralize the last name by changing trailing vowels. For example Devito - Devita. Names formed by using smaller words (as in "de vita" which means "of life" may be joined or separated at the word breaks. Also names formed with leading "De" "Di" "Da" may all be interchangeable, and consonants that are now double in the name may once have been a single consonant, and vice versa (e.g. Devitta/ De Vito). Names that end in a long "e" sound now may have had a "y" appended, or have once ended in an "i" "i-a" blends pronounced "ya" may become simplified to a single vowel. There is a phonetic search available on the Ellis Island Website.

4. Certain letters may also may have been confused when transcribing from the original script. Some letters in old handwriting are often difficult to recognize or are commonly confused because of curls and flourishes, plus the differences in old style writing and modern day writing style. In old Italian script, for instance, the upper-case "S" looks like an "F".

Commonly Confused Upper Case Letters
F - H
J - I
K - R
S - L, F
O - Q
P - R
U - V
W - M, UU

Commonly Confused Lower Case Letters
b - f
c - e
d - el, cl
e - c, i
i - e, l
j - i
k - t
s - l
t - c
ss - fs, ps
w - vv
y - g

5. If you are still not finding the individual with the unusual name, try the first initial and various spellings of the last name, or no initial and various spellings of the last name, but limit the search by the approximate birth year of the individual.

6. Search for other individuals they may have traveled with.

7. If all else fails, try reversing the first and last name.

8. Immigrants may have "Americanized" their name. (e.g.: Nicola became Nicholas, Grazia became Grace, my Uncle Andy thought Anthony sounded too Italian, my Grandfather Felice Ettore DeVito went by Eddie, and my aunt Agness was actually named Assunta).

9. If you know the name of the ship and approximate date of arrival, you can search by ship.

10. Try the the Ellis Island One-Step Search Tool developed by Stephen P. Morse. This is an amazing resource that allows you to specify surname, boat name, year and/or age of arrival, port, ethnicity, etc. in just one step.

Well, I hope you find this useful, just be persistent - stubborn even. As traits go, it's Italian.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Italian Christmas Eve in August

In my family Christmas Eves were spent at my Uncle Andy's and Aunt Agnes' house, and included several courses of fish. I've been told that some Italians say there needs to be seven different types of fish prepared (or 11, or 12, or 13) but I honestly don't remember this ever being discussed, I mean every meal at my aunt and uncle's house consisted of multiple courses, but on days like Christmas Eve the courses were not supposed to contain meat, so instead we had fish. My dad agrees that he never knew of a set number of fish-dishes, and if there was, he knows of no reason or significance in that number.

The reason I bring this up in August is that my wife Karen has had a craving for one of these dishes for the past few weeks. Well tonight I decided to indulge. Truly, it seems the perfect dish for a hot summer day: a fish salad prepared with a olive oil and lemon dressing, and featuring black olives, slices of celery and chopped Italian parsley served chilled.

The fish featured in those long-ago Christmas eve dinners was usually Baccala. The long slender salted Baccala could usually be found in Italian delicatessens like "DaBilla Bros." the shop around the corner from our apartment on 13th street in Manhattan, NY when I was between the ages of 6 and 12. I can almost smell the way that deli smelled, with its huge cheeses hanging from the ceiling, boxes of panatone (a northern Italian Christmas cake) stacked on the shelves and nougat candy by the cash register. The Baccala was whole salt-dessicated fish, and they stood heads-up in a barrel in much the same way umbrellas stood in an umbrella stand.

Baccala is a pain to prepare, and I have a deepening respect for the trouble Aunt Agnes and Nana would go through to prepare our holiday feasts! The Baccala must be rinsed and soaked and have its water changed several times for about a day before you can cook it - a bit too high maintenance for Karen and me and our hectic lifestyle, so for Karen's supper I picked Whiting, an alternative which often made it to my Aunt and Uncles table on a Christmas eve. Here is my take on the recipe; it tasted a lot like I remembered it, with plenty of garlic because (wait for it...) it's Italian:

1 lb Whiting (or Baccala, soaked and drained*)
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped into large pieces**
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
1 can whole cured black olives
3 celery stalk, diced
1 bunch of parsley chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

Place fish in a medium saucepan.
Add enough water to cover fish by 1 inch.
Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes or until the fish flakes easily. Do not overcook.
Remove the fish and drain well.
In a bowl mix the garlic, olives, celery, and black pepper, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil.
Break the fish apart in medium pieces and add to the bowl.
Toss the fish with the garlic-olive mixture.
Refrigerate and let sit for at least one half hour before serving.
Serve salad cold.
* If using Baccala (salt cured cod), rinse it and soak it in cold water for 24 hours in the refrigerator, changing the water 2-3 times a day, then rinse, and remove the bones and skin.

** My aunt never minced garlic, she left the pieces large so the diner could remove them if so desired.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Santoras come to America - Part 2

Back in Avellino Grace waited to join Nicholas in America. She was pregnant and caring for her two-year-old daughter, Olga. She gave birth to her son in August, and named the boy Nicola after his father.

On November 2 of 1902, a few days shy of a year after her husband had left for the United States, Grace took her daughter Olga, her two-and-a-half-month-old son Nicola, and her Sister Assunta to the port of Naples where they boarded "The Sicilian Prince" I know the dates from the manifest, as for my great-grand-aunt Assunta, she is crossed out in the manifest, and appears in the manifest of the Sicilian Prince again in December of 1902, again crossed out, and she appears yet again and finally appears to have been a passenger aboard the Sicilian Prince in May of 1903. All of her entries list 60 Mulberry Street as her destination, the first and last list "my brother-in-law, Nicola Santoro" as her sponsor, but the December listing notes "my sister Gracia Cascetta" Grace, Olga, and baby Nicola's records also state 60 Mulberry Street, and at this writing, I believe it is the actual address of a forgotten apartment that they lived in before moving to Brooklyn.

Now for some mysteries. When I discovered Grace had a sister Assunta, only one of the Santora children was still alive, My Grand-Aunt Lucy, and she did not remember ever hearing about the Mulberry Street Apartment or an Aunt Assunta. Aunt Lucy's sister, Agness was actually named "Assunta" so we can only surmise that she was named after this missing Assunta Cascetta. Also, the discovery of the 2 month old Nicola didn't quite agree with my memory of my Grand-Aunt Olga's story of a child that was born and died on the trip. Unfortunately Aunt Olga was no longer with us, so I couldn't ask her. Now it is possible that I remembered the story incorrectly, or that my Aunt Olga had only her memories from when she was two-years-old to base her story on. I imagine it was not a subject that was discussed at any length when she was older. What is certain is that if baby Nicola survived the trip, he did not live very much longer, and in light of Aunt Olga's story, we suspect he died at sea, though an obit dated December 21, 1903 lists a 2 year old Nicola Santoro of 67 James Street, Manhattan.

Well, I hate to end the story on such a sad note, family lore says that Great-Grandpa worked for the Ferarra bakery, and eventually tried to open his own confectionery store in Brooklyn, but the protection-rackets ate up all the profits and his children ate up all the candy. It sounds very probable, as stories go. True or not, it's Italian.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Santoras come to America - part 1

My Great-Grandfather was Nicholas (Nicola)Santora. He was born in 1861 in the Campania region of Italy and grew up in a town named Piedimonte d'Alife in the Matise mountains east of Naples (the town has since been renamed Piedimonte Matise). He at least studied to become a Catholic Priest, though family history is unclear as to whether he left the priesthood, or changed his mind before-hand, either way his father was unhappy with his decision, and it caused a rift between Nicholas and his family. What is certain is that he met my Great-Grandmother Grazia (Grace) Cassetta in town named Summonte, in the province of Avillino, also in the Campania region about 120km (75 Miles) south of where he grew up.

Nicola found work as a confectioner, but times were difficult. He and Grace were married around 1899 and had a daughter, Olga (one of my favorite Grand-Aunts) in 1900. Olga is an unusual name for an Italian (which turned out to be a blessing because it made finding my families immigration records easier, though I would love to know why that name was picked). It certainly flew in the face of Italian tradition where first-born girls were named after their paternal grandmother and first-born boys were named after their paternal Grandfather (second born children were named after their mother's parents, and children born after that were named after the father and mother's siblings respectively).

Early in the fall of 1901 financial problems worsened and Nicola and Grace decided that they would start a new life in the United States. One of Nicholas' friends had immigrated to New York and had sent back wonderful stories of life in New York, and had secured work, or the possibility of work for Nicholas at a bakery as a candy-maker. Grace and Olga would move back to the nearby city of Avellino with Grace's parents, and Nicholas would establish a place for them in America. Their parting was bittersweet, a new life in a new country lay ahead of them, and they looked ahead with hope and fear, but a year of separation lay between them. A few days before Nicholas was to depart, Grace conceived their second child. Nicholas traveled with Grace and Olga to Avellino, and the following morning he made the journey north to the bay of Naples.

In Naples Nicola boarded the ocean liner "SS Fürst Bismarck", A huge steamship of the Hamburg America Line, with three large funnels billowing steam. Nicholas was listed in the ship manifest as "Nicola Santoro, Male, 40 yrs old, married, calling or occupation: confectioner, of Summonte, Italy", and his sponsor was listed as Br in law Vin. Silvestri of 82 Mulberry St. Three lines down a passenger named "Vincenzo Silvestri" is listed and it indicates he is an American Citizen. I also note that 82 Mulberry Street is listed for the two people between Nicholas and Vincenzo Silvestri, including someone bound for Philadelphia, and that the passenger immediately preceding Vincenzo lists a "brother Emilio". Perhaps this indicates that these four were traveling together, but the acquaintance might very well have been new, and fairly casual. I can imagine the recorder not understanding my ancestor, and holding up the line, and this Vincent Silvestri saying "I will vouch for him, I'm an American citizen" to speed things along. Further investigation turns up a Vincenzo Silvestri who owned a Fruit Stand that lists the address as 82 Mulberry(PROCEEDINGS Board of Aldermen THE MUNICIPAL ASSEMBLY The City of New York, January 8 to March 26, 1901). Nicholas would have traveled in the lowest of 5 decks, in a large compartment housing single men. On the afternoon of the 5th day, November 19, 1901, the SS Fürst Bismarck pulled into Manhattan Bay, Nicholas and the other passengers stood on deck where they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, that had finally been assembled just five years earlier. The New York Skyline stretched before them - a much more horizontal skyline than today - with the tallest building being Trinity Church, as ground breaking had only just begun for New York's first skyscraper, the Flat Iron Building. Upon reaching Ellis Island, the ship was unloaded. The process, was a slow one. There was such a large crowd inside that Nicholas had to wait to enter the building. Soon enough, however, a doctor inspected him, and gave him a clean bill of health, his paperwork was inspected and Nicholas was released from Ellis Island and transferred to the lower end of Manhattan Island in a riverboat.

If Nicholas proceeded to the address on his papers, 82 Mulberry Street, or to the Ferrara bakery a few blocks away, he would have arrived in a section of the city that is known as "Little Italy". He would have made his way from the pier to Broadway, and then Canal Street. Of the people he passed many would have been Irish, Chinese, Jewish, and a few black people, and he would have seen more diversity of backgrounds in a day than he was likely to have seen in a year at home, but when he got to Mulberry street he would have felt quite at home surround almost entirely by Italian immigrants, and once he reached Mulberry he would have been surrounded by Neapolitans and Calabrians. There he would have passed an Italian Cigar Store at 34 Mulberry Street, an Italian Café at 36 Mulberry Street, an Italian Barber shop at 40 Mulberry Street, A well kept Wine Store and Italian Café at 42 and 44 Mulberry Street. He probably would have quickly noticed that the houses on his side of the street were numbered with even numbers, and across the street the house numbers were odd. In the street there would have been hand carts with potatoes, and horse drawn carts with boxes of vegetables, and people everywhere, standing in the doorways, walking on the sidewalks, walking in the streets, and even hanging out on the fire escapes above him. The fire escapes would have been mostly covered with wooden slats so that people could put out chairs and the legs wouldn't fall through the grating. Many of the storefronts would have had bright colored canvas awnings. Two blocks further along he would have reached number 87 Mulberry street, if this was indeed his destination, if he even made this trip. Indeed there is no longer any way of knowing where he went, or what he did upon first arriving in the United States. Family tradition says he worked at the Ferrara bakery, so likely he would have settled fairly near to its 195 Grand Street address, about two blocks from the 87 Mulberry Street address on his papers, so perhaps he did end up in front of 87 Mulberry Street that evening, in a new country, with a strange new future awaiting him, thinking to himself "So this is home."

Though in it's intimate particulars it is a story unique to Nicholas and Grace, it is a history shared by most Americans starting with a dream of a new life, making the great voyage to build a future in a new country, and in many of it's details, for thousands upon thousands of immigrants who poured through Ellis island at the turn of the century, it's Italian.

Next week - Part two.

Notes: 82 Mulberry Street, which seems to have been owned by Vincenzo Silvestri in 1901, has a few highlights in its history. It was the address of Patrick Moony one of the rioters from the 1857 Five Points riots recently depicted in the film "The Gangs of New York". On August 17, 1868 JAMES E. DOHERTY, aged 8 years, fell from an awning in front of his residence, No. 82 Mulberry-street, and sustained severe injuries. 82 Mulberry Street was the site of a fatal stabbing on April 24, 1869 when one Patrick McCormack received a stab wound in the abdomen at the hands of William Nicholson. A few years later, on the twelfth of May, 1885, Maria Sullivan was driven by fire to the windows of the third story of no. 82 Mulberry Street, and her plight was so desperate that she got out on one of them and hung by the sill. She was nearly exhausted when New York Fireman Gustav Furhman climbed up the front of the building, by projections, until he ws able to support the woman, who was eventually taken down by a ladder. Sometime after this event the Irish neighborhood became an Italian neighborhood. September 25, 1891, On the evidence of Cammilla Deline, an eleven-year-old girl, who declared that she saw Joseph Preroto and his sister-in-law, Louisa Preroto, stab Antonio Rossa, the woman was taken into custody by the police yesterday. The child asserts that as she was leaving a candy store at 82 Mulberry Street she saw Joseph and Louisa Preroto steal up behind Rossa and stab him with their knives. On July 28, 1901 Francisco Pilotti ran afoul of the law for blowing a bugle to attract customers to his knife-sharpening business. On August 27 of 1903 a nine year old boy, Frank Pellgei, of 82 Mulberry was caught trying to steal from a milk booth.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Don't be a Fazool, Pasta is cool!

Hey, I'm not cursing, by "fazool" I mean "bean" as in pasta-and-beans (pasta fazool). If you are of Italian decent, you are already thinking "This guy can't spell! It's pasta fagioli." Rest assured, dear reader, that I understand this, but I choose to spell it my way for four good reasons:
1. I am forcing the pronunciation (fagioli can be pronounced fah-joe-lee or fe-sho-le)
2. It starts with F and ends in ool and is much nicer than calling someone a fool.
3. "fazool" rhymes with a really nasty Italian curse word and it is really fun to say "ah fazool!" or "pasta fazool!" when cursing is inappropriate (and cursing is nearly always inappropriate).
4. I am trying to remain accessible to my non-Italian readers.

Speaking of non-Italian readers, I wish I had a real good word for non-Italians, the equivalent of "Gentile" to a Jew, and something far less weighted than "infidel"! I submit "Nuntalio" for your consideration, an anglicized contraction of non Italiano. I mean no offense by this term, Having been raised entirely outside of Italy and mostly outside of urban Italian neighborhoods I myself lead a largely "nuntalio" lifestyle.

But I digress, the topic is all things pasta, and I suppose that the best place to start is with the word itself. In American English pasta has come to mean Italian spaghetti and macaroni and the like. This is not exactly so in Italy, and I'll tell you how I discovered this. My Father's maternal grandfather was a pastry chef. When he came to America he worked for the the famous Ferrara Bakery in New York's Little Italy. My cousin Grace inherited his notebook of recipes, and let me scan them. The notebook is beginning to decay, and the beautiful Italian script is fading, so I am pleased to have been able to preserve them, but they are entirely in Italian, and they are very hard to read, and many of them use the term pasta in them.

Why would anyone use noodles in a pastry? Unless they were making a decidedly "nuntalio" desert like Kugel (Noodle Pudding). That's when I discovered that in Italy Pasta means paste, and includes all things paste like, including dough. Stuff made from dough like pastries are often called pasta, and what I described above as the American English definition of Pasta is made from dough, so it too is called pasta, but it is only a subset of Italian pasta, for instance pasta di pomodoro means tomato paste, and pasta di mandorle (another item from my great granfather's hand-written recipes) means almond paste. Still, it is noteworthy that it is so very common to call spaghettis and macaronis "pasta" in Italy, that tomato paste is shortened to "di pomodoro" to be less confusing, and that anti-pasta means the serving before the spaghetti or macaroni dish (literally before-pasta) so for our purposes we can use pasta as we always have, but while we are playing with words, other Italian words related to pasta include pasticca (pill), pasticcio (a pie, pastry, patty, or jam - and similarly to being in a jam: a sticky situation, a mess), and pastiche (musical, theatrical or artistic composition that has been pasted together from stylistically, nationalistically, linguistically, or otherwise disparate sources). Pastiche is a perfect cognate, by the way, meaning the very same in English. The only other English words related to pasta that I will mention in this entry are pastry and pasty (as in a dumpling, not the burlesque - for lack of a better term - costume) and patty in that they are linguistically related to paste, and are made of dough (though a patty may be so named for the action of patting used to create it).

I wish that I was made of dough, as in a slang for money, but I can find no reference for "pasta" being used as a slang for money in Italian. "Scarol" is about all I can think of as an Italian slang for money - it translates literally as escarole the leafy green vegatable in Italian wedding soup, served with the pasta Orzo and little chicken and beef meatballs (presumably at weddings to bring the couple money because of the "scarole" in it - I wonder if the orzo is behind where throwing rice came from?)

Now back to pasta itself, there are literally hundreds of kinds of pasta: long thin rods like spaghetti, vermicelli, and Capellini (angel hair); tubes, like macaroni, zitti, penne; ribbed-tubes like penne-rigatta, and riggatoni, shapes like shells(conchiglie and the smaller conchigliette ) ears(Orecchiette) bow-ties (fiochetti and farfalle - farfalle actually translates to butterfly) stuffed pastas (raviolli and tortalini - tortalini translates as little torte - i.e. pie) cork screw shapes (fusilli and fusilli Corti); and flattened rods and straight thin ribbons (fettucinni and linguinni) . Pasta runs the gamut from tiny pasta like Acini di peppe (literally: pepper seed, a small noodle for soups)to sheets of lasagna, and big canoloni or manicotti tubes (I say yuck to the tubes, these are best prepared as crepes).

So one thing I remember about pasta, is that growing up, my dad would sometimes tell my mom to pick up "number tens", I guess this is because she couldn't remember Vermicelli. Ronzoni brand pasta at least, had numbers on the boxes, at least of the long thin rod type pasta, and the higher the number, the thicker the pasta - at least that is how I remember it, alas the numbers are gone, perhaps I will post a chart with the actual gauge of the spaghetti-type pasta (what I've been calling the long thin rod type pasta).

So anyway, as a general rule of thumb: thick pasta - thick meaty sauce, thin pasta -thinner, lighter sauces, thin, flat pasta - creamy or oily sauces. tiny pastas - soups, ribbed pastas- heavy cheeses, twisty pastas and penne, chunky vegetables or meats in thinner sauces. As for cooking pasta... big rolling pot of water with a couple of dashes of salt, throw the pasta while the pot is boiling, and cook it until it is tender, but firm - and if you test it by throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks, well, that's Italian.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Two Easter Pies and a lot of confusion

Felice Pesach ai miei amici ebrei!

My Nana used to make the best Easter Pie in the entire universe. This is an indisputable fact. It was made with diced cold cuts, and had a cheesy, eggy filling to bind the whole thing together that was reminiscent of a heavy quiche. A slice of this pie looked like something from a biology poster, for it revealed cross sections of hard boiled eggs that looked like cells and their nucleus as well as the chunks of Italian dry sausage, Sopressata, Salami, Pepperoni, and ham and/or prosciutto, and cheese. The funny thing is, I never knew what to call it. Our nuclear family called it "Easter Pie" and when Dad tried to remember the Italian name one time, he said Pizza Grana, and then quickly corrected himself and said pizza "Gaina". Being a know-it-all tenager at the time, I tried to convince him he was confusing the name with Pizza Grana (or Grain Pie), another Easter pie made with ricotta and wheat berries. I'm pretty sure he remained unconvinced, but he let the matter drop, and we all went back to calling it Easter pie.

Many years after my Nana died, I happened to be in the Aurora Bakery in Poughkeepsie NY, picking up some pasteries for Easter, and to my surprise, they had Easter pie! They called it Pizza Rustica which is what I called it for the nearly twenty years, and Dad was silently complicitous in this eggregious error, until one day we happen to mention Pizza Rustica and Pizza Grana in the same conversation, and he says "Pizza Gaina, pizza Grana, eat Pizza Gaina, and you gain a lot of weight." I remembered my uncle Andy used to say the same thing when ever the topic of Easter Pie came up, and I had also recently talked to another person of Neapolitan decent who called the meat-and-cheese pie Pizza Gaina, so I Googled it, as any self -respecting word-geek would, and here is what I found:

Pizza Gaina (Full Pie - Americanized spelling based on pronunciation)
Pizza Chiena (Full Pie - 'correct' Neapolitan-Italian spelling )
Pizza Chena (Full Pie - 'alternate' Italian spelling )
Pizza Cena (Dinner Pie - Alternate Italian name based on similar spelling)
Pizza Rustica (Rustic Pie - Alternate Italian name and spelling)
Pizza Ripiena (Full Pie - Similar Pie from Northern Italy)
Pizza Pieno (Full Pie - Alternate name in Italian)
Pizza Grana (Grain Pie) - Another "Easter Pie"
There is also a festival of Pizza Chene at Torre Nocelle in October every year.

I never actually ever got my Nana's recipe for Easter pie, Each of her sisters made it differently. My Aunt Lucy said the recipe was simple, you just throw your old cold cuts in a pie crust with ricotta and eggs. I've tried several recipes now, and you know, Aunt Lucy was right, that pretty much IS how you make Pizza Rustica, I mean Gaina, er-um Chiena, ah what the heck... Easter Pie.

This is the recipe my daughter and I used this year (with pictures!):

Filling for two pies:

12 eggs Raw
9 eggs boiled
1 basket Cheese (or fresh cheese - Fromaggio Fresca) to dice like the meat - That's me on the left: the basket-case draining the basket cheese.
3 lbs Ricotta cheese
1 lb Ricotta Salata in chunk to dice like the meat
1 lb boiled ham
2 sticks of dry sausage-sopressata (remove casing)
1 stick of pepperoni (remove casing)

Dice all meat and hard cheeses, put aside.

In a large bowl, mix the Ricotta, and eggs.

Add diced meats, hard cheeses.
Peel and Cut eight of the hard-boiled eggs in half short-ways

arrange 7 halves in each crust distributed evenly

Pour into Two 9 inch deep crust.
Add the top-crust, trim edges and pinch closed, and vent

bake at 325° for an hour and a half or until filling is set – very, very light golden color on top – do not burn.

Happy Easter! Enjoy your pie, after all: it's Italian!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Don't let that chicken catch me!

The setting for most of my recollections of my Italian family is my Aunt Agnes and Uncle Andy’s house. I spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years, and Easter there until I was 12 and at least Christmas or Easter there until I was grown.

My Uncle Andy was about five-foot-eight, bald, and looked vaguely like Danny DeVito, with shorter hair and a darker complexion. My Aunt Agnes was tiny. She was my Nana's younger sister, she stood about four foot one, and had thick coke-bottle glasses that made her eyes look HUGE, and she punctuated most of what she said with "oh Madonna.. I am so clumsy..."

I’m torn between telling you the background information surrounding their house or introducing you to it through my childhood impressions. For instance, as a young child I didn’t realize that they owned the apartment building where we would visit them or even that we would visit them in their basement. We entered through a little fenced in garden replete with a white statue of what I used to think was a little curly headed Italian boy, but eventually became aware was a lawn-jockey painted white. We went DOWN the stairs and entered into a big finished room that had big leather club chair in one corner beside the door, a TV in the next closest corner. The room was very long, and there were columns down the middle, lally-columns with a faux marble finish. The floor was covered in one-foot square red and white vinyl tiles. A kitchenette was in the far corner from the chair, and most of the room was taken up by a huge table. In my memory the space is huge, I now know it to be a little over half of the basement of the apartment building, and that the ceilings were low at 7 and a half feet. Although I know for a fact that I have actually been upstairs in my aunt and uncle’s apartment, I have no memory of it whatsoever. During nearly all of our visits we spent the entire time in their basement.

Beyond the Kitchenette area of the great room was a clean but unfinished space that housed a second stove, and industrial wall-mounted manual can opener, and maybe a freezer, a little deeper into this space there was a pool table (normally covered) stairs to the rest of the building, pantry shelves full of cans and jars of tomatoes, and peppers, and olive oil and all sorts of other food. In the middle section there was a furnace that made creepy noises, and at the opposite end of the dark, scary, unfinished area was the one bathroom that I didn't like to use for obvious reasons. opposite this bathroom was a storeroom (that in my teens I learned to love because it housed bottles of Manhattan Special Expresso Soda) and between the bathroom and storeroom was a set of concrete steps up to a Bilco Basement Door which opened into the “back yard” actually a gated and fenced-in paved alleyway and driveway.

My Aunt and Uncle always suggested I play out there, but I never wanted to because it was the home of “THE MONSTER”. Up against the house in the only unpaved patch of soil, stood a ten-foot anguished-looking splayed-limbed entity, cloaked in sinister black plastic plastic bags and silver duct-tape. I am not sure when I first became aware of this silent and menacing guardian of the "back yard" or how many years its identity remained a mystery to me.

You have to understand that to little kids, adult conversation is pretty much the way adults talk in the Charlie Brown specials... "wahwa WAH wah WAH wah WAH..." and at the age when most kids were beginning to understand adultspeak I was realizing that my aunts and uncles spoke it differently. I don't know if I asked them about the black-shrouded thing out back, but if I did, I darn sure wouldn't have understood the answer. To me, my conversations with my aunt sounded like this to me: "Whawa wa SO big! wahWa like some meatballs, wahwahwahwah OH MADDONNA wahwah left the water boiling." And my conversations with my uncle sounded like this: "Wah wah wah wa Rockefellah, did you leave the lights on when you went to the bathroom? Wahwah flush the toilet? wah wah seat wet?" In fact my uncle had a very playful spirit that I couldn't understand back then, and he was a big tease, but because I was afraid of the dark, I hated using his bathroom, and when I did, I had waited too long, and turned all the lights on on the way too the bathroom, on my pee-and-run assault. I typically dribbled on the seat, washed my hands and ran back to the warmth and bustle of the front room without flushing, or turning a single light out behind me, igniting in my Uncle, a keen interest in my bathroom habits.

My inability to understand the heavily accented Itanglish of my Aunt and Uncle led to two amusing incidents in my childhood.

The first incident occurred because of a nickname. It happened when I was about four. My Uncle Andy called me "pesce liscie" which apparently means "smooth fish" but sounded to me like "peeshee leaky" and combined with my uncle's acute concern with my bathroom activities as described above, along with his teasing nature, made me think he was talking about a portion of my anatomy that was leaking, thus I grew to believe that my "pee shooter" was actually called a peeshee, and that is exactly what I called it until I was nearly 10.

The second incident happened one Christmas eve when I was five-and-a-half years old. I overheard my Aunt and Grandmother discussing the menu for the following day. This is something that I was interested in, because my Aunt Agnes made wonderful meatballs, in fact for years no matter what she was preparing, if she knew I would be there she would be sure to prepare meatballs for me. I'll try to describe these meatballs later, because as it turns out, they did not enter the conversation, but a very sinister comment was made by my aunt that caused me to burst into tears. My mother finally calmed me down enough for me to speak. Then, between sobs, I sputtered out words that have followed me from that day to this: "DON'T...LET...THAT...CHICKEN...CATCH...ME!!!" If you don't understand, look at my name and say the words "Chicken Cacciatori" out loud, and you will understand the sense of betrayal a five-year-old felt at the hands of his beloved meat-ball-cooking aunt.

Now for those meatballs, they were firm but soft, they were moist, they were heavenly, and I have never tasted any like them, and my own attempts only approximate my aunt's wonderful creation. Here is my version of the recipe:

1 1/3 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound day old bread Italian bread with a firm crumb
1 cup milk
A bunch of parsley
1 egg
1/4 pound Regiano Parmigiano, freshly grated
Salt and pepper
1 Tblspn of butter
2 or 3 garlic cloves, sliced into as many pieces as meatbals
1/4 pound raisins
1/4 pound pignoli (pine nuts)
1 1/8 pounds blanched, peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup olive oil
A piece of an onion finely minced
Olive oil for frying

Soak the bread in milk for 10 minutes. Remove it, squeeze it dry, and combine it with the meat and the parsley. Work it together with your hands adding the egg, grated cheese, salt and pepper, butter, and mix well. Using your hands, make meatballs that are about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Insert a raisin. a pine nut, and a slice of garlic in each one. Fry them a few at a time in the oil, removing them when they are golden brown, drain them well, and keep them hot.

While you're frying the meatballs, cook up a quick sauce with the tomatoes, onion, and olive oil. Heat the meatballs though in the sauce for a few minutes and serve.

I did eventually learn the identity of the "monster" in the back yard, apparently it was a winterized fig-tree. As for keeping fig trees and elaborately winterizing them, that's right, it's Italian.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Three degrees of separation from Beyonce

My earliest recollections of my Italian family are of my Grandmother. She was my Nana. My father's mother. She was a handsome, thin little woman with a warm smile and, in these memories, silver hair that she kept in a neat short hairstyle. I now realize she wore a wig. She had beautiful skin, and a slight tic that would occasionally cause her to raise her eyebrows, or wink or blink twice or three times in rapid succession. It didn’t happen often - maybe once or twice a day. When she was tired or stressed it did become noticeable, even to a small boy of five or six. When I was much older I overheard her confide in my mother that these episodes embarrassed her when they happened on the train, because she didn’t want men to think she was flirting with them.

Back then she lived in an apartment in the Marcy projects, a public housing project off of Marcy Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. If you have heard of the Marcy projects and you are not from Brooklyn, it is probably because Shawn Corey Carter, the rap artist better known as Jay-Z, grew up there. If you haven't heard of Jay-Z you have almost certainly heard of his wife, Beyonce Knowles.

This was not the Italian Neighborhood my Dad grew up in, but was not far from it. Even back then it was a rough neighborhood, though Bed-Stuy had yet to earn its terrible reputation. My memories of the place are sketchy. There was the playground with a great jungle gym and some concrete tubes that looked like they would be fun to play in, but always smelled of wine and urine because substance-abusing homeless people often slept in them. I also remember laying on my back and looking up at trees in the middle of about 20 or more tall buildings, and that all the other kids there were black, and most of them older, and since I also didn’t live there, I seldom found anyone who would play with me. I am certain that Jay-Z was not one of these kids, since this was two or three years before he was born.

I remember that we had to take the elevator up to Nana’s floor, and the elevator stunk of metal and of pine scented cleaner that did not quite mask something even less-wholesome underneath. But what I remember most clearly is opening the door to Nana’s apartment into light, and warmth, and the wonderful smell of Italian cooking wafting out at me. Nana would meet us at the door in a housecoat she would hug me, the housecoat left her arms bare, and her hands always felt cold, primarily from having just washed them. You see, we typically arrived just as she was either dredging potato croquettes in egg and breadcrumb, or hand-rolling tiny meatballs for her lasagna. I also remember staying over at that apartment one Christmas. My parents took the subway back to Manhattan, and Nana and I went to midnight mass. When we returned home, before going to bed, she lit a candle on a little shrine she had set up with a couple statues of saints. That is really all the memories I have of that apartment. In 1967 or so, when I was about six, she moved out into a smaller less-expensive apartment in a quieter neighborhood.

Potato Croquettes
3 pounds potatoes
6 eggs
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
freshly ground black pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes, cook and cool them.
Mash the potatoes in a large bowl. incorporate the cheese and 4 of the eggs into the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.
Pour flour onto a large plate and the breadcrumbs onto another large plate. Beat the remaining 2 eggs with the milk and pour this mixture into another large plate.
Starting with a ball of potato mixture about the size of an egg, form your croquettes using your hands (it helps to coat your hands in flour). The croquettes should look like fat tubes about 2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Dredge the croquette in flour, then the egg mixture, and finally, the breadcrumbs. Continue until all potato mixture is finished.

Carefully place 5 or six croquettes in hot oil and fry until they turn a deep golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the croquettes are fried. You can serve them right away.

We'll that's enough for this post, we'll revisit my Nana in other neighborhoods she lived in a few posts from now. She was an amazing woman who raised two boys pretty much on her own, working in the textile industry in the 1940s and 50s, but next post we meet more of the family, and find out about the Monster in my Uncle Andy and Aunt Agnes' back yard, how I got a fish confused with part of my anatomy, and why I was afraid of a chicken.What can I say, it's Italian!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Camera Piano or How "It's Italian" came to be

I'm listening to the radio, or watching TV, or walking through the grocery store with my wife, and I see or hear something and turn to my wife and say one of the following things:
- "Did you know that in Italian piano means slowly"
- "Did you know that Chestnuts mostly come from Italy?"
- "Can you believe an Italian restaurant would have a commercial with such bad Italian pronunciation?"

So one day she just laughs at me and says "You sound like the father from MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, only not GREEK". The next day she puts her thumb and fingers together and gesticulates wildly and says"It's Italian!" but lately she just says "Gee you're full of trivia, too bad you can't make money at it..."

That's when it hits me, maybe someone is interested in my font of seemingly-useless Italian trivia, maybe I can monetize a blog about it, and become a millionaire... Yeah right, but then again a blog would spare my family and friends from listening to me spout useless trivia. Though of course, I do expect them to read my blog, along with an unsuspecting public.

So what I will set out to blog about will be Italian food, stuff I am learning as I attempt to teach myself Italian, and the genealogy and history of my Italian family. Perhaps in the course of this blog I will actually travel to Italy and record my impressions here.

Still with me? Moto benne! Lets start the journey with a couple of words that have slipped into the English language, not as Latin, but directly from the Italian.

Did you know the words "piano" and "camera" are Italian? Oddly enough both of these words mean something completely different in Italian than one whose first language is English might think. Try it yourself, go to Google translate, set the translation from Italian to English, and type in "camera", and hit the translate button. Your result will be "room". Type in "Piano" and your result will be "Floor". Seems odd, no? Now switch to translating from English to Italian and type "Go slow." Hit the translate button and the result will be "Andare piano."

Why is this? I'll give you a clue: leave the translation on English to Italian, type in camera and your result will be "fotocamera" and type in "piano" and your result will be "pianoforte". Still confused? OK, I'll tell you a couple of stories and maybe clear up the strange etymology of these odd cognates.

When I was 16 I worked for my father, who was the caretaker of a summer camp in Cold Spring, New York. One day, after checking out a pump in a small utility shack, I turned out the light before opening the door. The shack had no windows in it whatsoever, and the door sealed very well, with no light leaks other than a nail hole where a no-trespassing sign had once been nailed to the door. I happened to look down on my chest and noticed an amazing thing, the image of children playing near the lake was somehow projected upside-down on my t-shirt. I backed up, and the image became larger and clearer. I moved out of the way, and discovered it projected onto the back wall in fine detail. The whole room was acting like a pin-hole camera, the small nail hole in the door creating a lens, and the darkened room acting like the chamber. Excitedly I completed my rounds that day, and told my father what I had seen as soon as we were together again. He told me that this was a phenomenon that was first discovered by the Italians, and that they had mini theaters called "camera obscura" - literally "darkened rooms" where they would sit and view scenes projected in this way (By the way, the English word "Chamber" has the same Latin root as "Camera"). Now you know where the camera came from.

As for the piano, The English word is a shortened form of the Italian pianoforte, which itself is shortened from the original Italian name for the instrument: "clavicembalo col piano e forte" (literally clavichord with soft and loud). See, in Italian the word "Piano" means low, gentle, soft, or slow as in level, or it can stand for levels of gradation, as in which level (floor) are we on. So "clavicembalo col piano e forte" refers to how very responsiveness the instrument is to pressure on the keyboard, allowing a pianist to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the speed with which the hammers hit the strings.

It's enough to make your head spin, so for now I'll just take the elevator to the second piano and hang out in my camera. What can I say, it's Italian!