Live a Great Life – Old School Style

More proof the simple life is the good life - Autumn in New York.
More proof the simple life is the good life – Autumn in New York.

Not so long ago, my wife and I would take the short trip to my Aunt Nicolina’s house to visit with her, and have an absolutely fantastic mid-day lunch. My Aunt, one of a wonderful group of old Sicilians, was a genius in the kitchen.

I’ve mentioned before that the kitchen in the two family house where she lived was small, probably the size of a walk in closet in your neighbor’s McMansion – with several appliances that were just as diminutive.

No matter the size of the kitchen she was working in, she always seemed to prepare a mouth watering dish – an omelette made with fresh eggs and a side salad, or a stuffed meat loaf with Italian ham and oozing provolone, or perhaps a simple soup or pasta dish, topped with sauce that had been on the stove for hours.

The dishes would usually be accompanied by tumbler glasses full of a dry, red wine.

When we would talk about the food in front of us, and the wife and I would compliment her on it, my Aunt would always refer to everything as “Italian style.”

In other conversations, whether we would talk of food, wine, clothing, vacations, or even just one’s attitude, she’d always bring up that one phrase, as if it mattered to enhance the point of what she was saying.

Now, years later, I hear her phrasing of “Italian style” to mean one thing – having the ability to enjoy the simple life, living as you please, surrounded by friends and family.

Aunt Nicky said “Italian style.” Now, my ears ring with the phrase “old school.”

She was teaching lessons that she knew needed to be reinforced. And I do my best to never forget.

It was my good fortune to have my aunt, and grandparents, show me on a daily basis that your time on this earth does not have to seem complicated or confusing. You can make things easier on yourself, and in the process, make life easier for others.

They knew how to do things right. Little did I know, they were training me bit by bit to do things exactly the same way.

Number one, food that was simple food was the way to go. These girls knew the importance of a mostly vegetarian diet before it ever became popular. Complete vegetarians? Not really.

They loved a nice slab of beef as much as any carnivore, and made more meatballs than anyone I’ll ever know. But, more times than not spinach, escarole, broccoli, and green beans were staples of the stove top.

They ate healthy (most of the time), and made sure their family ate healthy to boot.

Secondly, they were humble, and their days were centered around hard work, and timeless values when it came to family. There was no excessive self absorbed behavior in their world, and they knew that the cohesiveness of the family was a team effort. The team wins, you win.

Isn’t that the way it should be? Although this is an attitude that seems to be in short supply these days, my wife and I worked, scrimped, and sacrificed material indulgences, doing what it took to focus on the one task – doing the work to keep our team together and thrive.

The family came first, well ahead of self interest.

To provide for family and keep focused on the work, I think my Aunt meant “Italian style” to be an emphasis on the basic and uncomplicated. To know what to take, and know what to leave alone. To maybe dabble in luxury, but not make it a daily requirement.

If they dabbled in it, I have to admit these days I embarrass myself with excessive forays into luxury. This year, my family took the regular summer vacation on the beach at Cape Cod, where I upgraded once again to a fancy, and totally unnecessary, ocean front room.

After spending many of the remaining summer weekends on the lake boating in the blazing sunshine, in September we took yet another trip to the Cape that was even more ridiculous – we rented a house just steps from what looks like a Northeast version of the Caribbean (see below).

Cape Cod

But, when necessary, I can slap myself back to reality by remembering Nicky and Rosina and their fabulously spartan, old school lifestyles. They would not think much of the level of luxury above, scoffing at the deemed “necessities” of modern America.

iPhone? Scoff.

Starbucks? Double scoff. They made their own coffee.

Take out lunches? Let’s be serious, folks. These ladies were demons in the kitchen. They were always capable of ASSEMBLING A SANDWICH.

Have I partaken of this type of ridiculous consumption myself? Absolutely! The difference is I know you can forego any of these things/activities without losing one ounce of happiness or satisfaction with life. And I know that from old school reminders ingrained and entrenched, by smart people from long ago.

That type of attitude is what you might call freedom. Freedom from current, “new school” thinking – the key to living your great life.

Stop Trying to Make It Easy

hard work ethic
My hard working, never say stop Grandmother with one of her favorite tools – the meat slicer

Back in the summer months of 2014, I decided to break one of my financial commandments – no spending money on a gym membership. I started to be bored working out at home, in the very sparse and dungeon-like confines of the basement, where I keep my heavy bag, jump rope, and a variety of weights. No longer inspired to exercise by myself, I needed a change of scenery.

Although it was hard to commit to the monthly payment at first (my frugal grandmother would have thought this a very frivolous expense), I jumped in and was quickly happy with the decision. My gym is clean, the staff is friendly, and there is more than enough variety of equipment to get in any type of workout that you choose. And the fact that it is extremely close to my house makes it all the more appealing.

On the surface, total win.

The only issue so far? The months of January and February. After the New Years cocktails are a fleeting memory to most people, stampeding crowds of fitness wannabees descend on gyms and fitness centers, with dreams of getting in better shape, taking every parking spot in the lot and leaving not a treadmill open.

It’s enough to make me look forward to the “dungeon” again.

The sad part, or perhaps not so sad, is that by mid March at the latest, the massive crowds will have fizzled out. Hopes and dreams for the quick fix will have been dashed. The monthly payments will be still taken from their bank accounts, even if they never show up again.

In time, I’ll be able to park anywhere I want, and every dumbbell and elliptical will be there for the taking.

New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned, and there will be clear sailing for the rest of us until next January.

Quitting is the easiest option when you realize the quick fix and the short cut will not work. They will never work. Leaves me wondering why everybody wants it so easy.

Stop trying to make it easy.

The image for this post is a favorite of mine. I have plenty of pictures of my grandparents that remind me of how they got where they needed to be. By working their asses off. By continually grinding.

Once they had their minds set on becoming responsible, productive American citizens who would eventually employ fellow citizens, they became unstoppable.

They never looked for the easy way to do anything. With my grandparents, the very thought of “the easy way out” or less than maximum effort would have been laughable.

I don’t even need to bring to detail their early years, the years of the factory jobs and building their own businesses from practically nothing. I can just use an example of when they were in their 70s and 80s, working every day. Rosina, in a restaurant kitchen for half of her day, then in her private kitchen for the other half. Twelve hours. Without consideration of “making things easy.”

I had prime role models growing up.

With their help and guidance, it’s now easy for me to get through the months of January and February at the gym, sailing right through the spring. It’s easy to feel privileged and blessed with abundance when money is tight for some, because of the way they taught me to spend and save.

In car crazy America, I have no problem driving less because they never drove at all. I’m inspired to keep my small mortgage instead of “moving up”, as they never needed a bank to give them one in the first place.

My route to the gym passes on the road to the cemetery where my grandparents are now. Done purposefully or not, I don’t know. I do know I can’t pass by without a signal that the hard work is about to commence.

As I drive by, I remind myself to try and embody the lifestyle that they embraced. Go hard. Be fast. Don’t stop.

And for Heaven’s sake, stop trying to make it easy.

Five Years Gone

The lights from the wing flashed bright in a steady rhythm. As my eyes opened and closed slowly, they were almost hypnotic. I may have fallen asleep if not for the loud noises in my ears, courtesy of an old, scratched iPod Nano – the playlist including Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, James Taylor, and my daughter’s favorite Coldplay songs. The music pulsed in time with the lights, and the jet began to descend.

I was coming home.

NonnaAs the plane turned to ready for touchdown, the calendar date stayed with me. It wasn’t just the end of another business trip, but also the fifth anniversary of the day my grandmother passed away. It’s as easy to remember the day of someone’s death as easily as their birth, in terms of importance. Earlier, I had been grateful to be flying above the clouds, and able to view a setting sun on the horizon. Her attitude of gratitude had been passed down, to be made good use of by the family she left behind.

As time passes, you might think you’d start to forget, or to begin to experience a more limited influence from a person who was here for so many years, but has now been gone for some time. From my experience, I can tell you that the opposite is true. There were many lessons, most basic and easily executed, on the meaning of your life and how to best live it. And apparently there was enough time to ensure they were fully entrenched.

Her mottos were life is precious and don’t worry, be happy. As with the mottos, the life and the work that inspired them were simple, unpretentious. She loved to cook more than anything. She would listen to the Yankees on radio or television. Her yard was a sanctuary, where she could look at rose bushes or tend to fruit trees and grape vines. Coffee, perked in a steel stove top pot, was a mainstay. And unlike her high flying grandson, I don’t believe she ever set foot on an airplane.

She never had to go on a “business trip.” Her business was to make sure everyone was well fed, whether family, friends, or customers. I talk and write about the Old School. She, and her husband, were the models that inspire the words.

As the plane touched down, I had the same feeling I always have. I was happy the flight was safe and uneventful, and I’d be driving my car from the airport parking garage to go home to my family. No matter what this modern life promises towards my “fulfillment” (dream house? luxury car? iPhone 6?), I know that true fulfillment lies sleeping behind the doors of an old house, just a few miles away.

That’s why, five years later, there is no forgetting. The influence, instead of being limited, is wide spread. No matter how much I look forward to the future, the old school is everywhere. Every day is influenced by what I’ve learned from that great generation. Echoes of Yankee broadcasts continue to fill summer nights. The coffee is still perked. The yard remains a sanctuary. Even with five years gone.

How To Stay Hungry While Riding In The Lap of Luxury

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” (Feel free as you sing along to insert the visual of falling snowflakes, gray skies, and biting winds if that will help you ‘get in the spirit’.)

I’m not even going to rant (yet) about the Black Friday ads polluting the media. What I will comment about is the sudden shift in the weather, to bitter cold temps that have signified the change of seasons.

Hi Dad - any food getting dropped on the floor?
Hi Dad – any food getting dropped on the floor?

Cooper, my crazy canine companion, and I typically take long morning walks through the neighborhood so he can get his business done. Even that will soon be coming to a close.

He doesn’t like being banished to the back yard, but he’ll manage. Even Cooper is not fond of temperatures in the 20s, and colder wind chills.

For man and beast, the northeast winter is not easy to bear. To warm myself up, I like to reflect on the summer just passed, and how for the majority of the year my family and I take our seats in what is commonly referred to as “the lap of luxury.”

The main component of this luxury for us are the multiple times spent on Lake George during the summer, passengers in my in-laws boat traveling to our favorite bays on the lake. The boat, a 24 foot Cobalt, is the perfect hang out spot as we sun ourselves, indulge in cocktails, have lunch, and frolic about in a variety of water activities.

When we tire of the hours spent on the Lake, we get back to the marina and take a two minute drive to the house where we spend many summer weekends. Recently updated, the house sits in the middle of a nice wooded area, just a minute or so walk from town.

When we’re not staying at the “summer place”, the other component of our luxury filled summer is usually a trip to Cape Cod. This year the family upgraded to an oceanfront room, with the beach just a few steps down from our door. The trip is filled with dinners out, ice cream, mini golf, and lazy walks across private beaches, admiring the Atlantic.

To get to the Cape, we pile the kids and our travel bags into my wife’s 2008 VW Jetta. You may think such a pedestrian vehicle is anything but luxury, but with it’s leather seating and Bose sound system, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.

After packing the car, we’ll pull out of our driveway and away from our house, with it’s 1200 square feet of living space and location in an older city neighborhood.

“Finally,” I can hear you say. “Now we have something a little modest here.”


Although I’m sure 1200 square feet sounds to the modern American like we’re living on top of each other, for three of the year’s four seasons that is far from true. Our house features a spacious front porch, large deck out back, and behind that is a yard expansive enough to serve as a baseball diamond or soccer pitch.

tomatoesWithin the house, we do our cooking in a newer, luxurious kitchen. We use high end items like San Marzano tomatoes, letting them bubble and simmer away on a stainless steel stovetop. I prefer our meals to have the companionship of a deep red wine from the Central Coast of California.

Make no mistake. Despite the “middle class” designation, and the location of our house in a working class neighborhood, this family moves in style. Yes, you may call it the lap of luxury.

Here’s the amusing part. Although you still hear rumblings of hard times, high gas prices, and the cost of living being harder to manage, it still looks to me like most people live this way. But they call it necessity instead of calling it by it’s true name – luxury.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican. Whether you were happy with the latest election results, or dissatisfied. Whether you’re waiting in a line for the latest iGadget, trampling through stores for a Black Friday flatscreen, or using said flatscreen to receive the siren call of endless Madison Avenue advertisement – like me, you live in the lap of luxury.

But I’m not entirely comfortable lingering in luxury. If I do it too long, I may start to think that I’m entitled to it. That would be a problem for me – joining the ranks of those whose sense of entitlement runs rampant in their attitudes.

As you may expect, I believe I am entitled to nothing. While I may occasionally bask in the sunlight and sip the champagne of American privilege, I still hear the echoes of common sense barreling down the hallways of memory. I’ve got the spirit of more than a couple of Italian immigrants telling me to tighten things up when I’m ready to go too “soft.”

That spirit is a sense of chasing the dream without being concerned about the trappings of luxury. When the truth is told, most of us have more than enough access to the luxury lifestyle. The previous generation that survived the war years, and paved your way, really didn’t.

Nonna-PopIIMy grandparents, and their immediate family and friends, appreciated the lifestyle they had, rarely complained about what they didn’t have, and lived by a different standard.

In the words of Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), they were humble. They stayed hungry. And they were always the hardest worker in the room.

Whether I’m lounging on the lake or in a beach front room, you can be very sure I always remember the old Italians, and the example they showed me throughout their inspiring, and often difficult, lives. Many of us win the lottery of life just by being born into families that love us.

They paved the way for us to enjoy what we have, and we should recognize that here, in the month of gratitude.

Humble and hungry. The definition of true luxury.


The Meatball As Center Of The Universe

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

Rolling over bleary eyed in the bed that I slept in at my Nonna’s house, those would be the words that I would first hear, early on a Saturday morning. The source of the noise would be my Aunt Maria, shouting my grandmother’s name as she burst through the front door.

It was her Saturday greeting, and it would always wake me up.

As I cleared my head, the smell would hit me, the reason my Aunt came over in the first place. The combination of frying meat, onion, and garlic.

I’d jump out of bed and quickly descend the stairs to the beat of the sizzling frying pan. Still in my pajamas, I would stand patiently in the kitchen, waiting for Nonna to make the offering: my early breakfast treat of a freshly made meatball, straight out of the pan.

This image remains prevalent in my mind some forty years later, as I cook meatballs in my own kitchen.

Freshly formed, before cooking.
Freshly formed, before cooking.

Over time, my involvement with the meatball went from taking the sample in my pajamas, to preparation and cooking stages. As I grew, Nonna would allow me to mix the meat with my hands, form the balls, and taste the first ones before we continued.

Every once in a while, she would let me cook one. To get the feel for the hot spots in the pan, and to know when to roll them as one side began to form a crust.

As she grew older, cooking 90 to 100 meatballs at a time began to fatigue her, and she eventually just had to sit and supervise. It was then I took control of the pan. The torch had been passed.

Now that she is no longer with us, it’s my responsibility to ensure the meatball remains a staple of my family’s diet. Like her, I was a traditionalist with meatballs, pairing them with pasta, simmering them in tomato sauce along side braciole and pork.

Finished product!
Finished product!

I learned from my Nonna’s sister the joys of meatball experimentation, serving them as their own course, and using a different sauce than the ubiquitous tomato variety. Her sauce was a savory mixture of bacon, onion, and white wine, and is now my favorite way to eat a meatball. It’s a simple recipe, easy to simmer in a crock pot and a big hit at dinner parties as well. Enjoy!

Meatballs alla Nicolina ( “white” meatballs )

For The Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground beef, top or bottom round, ground twice
  • 1 cup fine dried breadcrumbs (home made only!)
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large egg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • cup vegetable oil

For The Sauce

  • 2 strips bacon
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup sherry wine


Crumble the beef into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley and garlic over the meat. Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper in a small bowl until blended, then pour over the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with clean hands just until evenly blended, and shape the meat mixture into 1 ½-inch balls.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Put as many meatballs into the skillet as will fit without crowding. Fry, turning as necessary, until golden brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Adjust the heat as the meatballs cook to prevent them from burning. Remove the meatballs and repeat.

Cut the bacon strips into small pieces, about 1/4 inch. Cook in the pan for 3 minutes or until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan. Slice the onion and cook in the bacon grease until onion is soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the bacon back and the wine, put your finished meatballs in the pan, and let simmer for 15 minutes, making sure to spoon some liquid over the meatballs to keep them moist. Serve with a crusty loaf of bread and a hearty red wine.

You will love it!

It’s A Mad World: Old-School Edition

I’d like time to stand still. I’d like to believe that the summer season moves as slowly now as it did when I was young, but it won’t. It starts, and before you know it, it’s over.

School bells ring again. Seasons change, and we brace ourselves for our frigid and blustery north eastern punishment.

Time standing still is a ridiculous notion, and this year it’s taken a hard hit. The high school girl has morphed into a college student, and the boy once contained in the confines of a back yard is about to start his high school adventure.

Time has done everything but stand still.

Ticking Clocks

Clocks keep ticking, and the gray (hairs) keep coming. Is it a downhill slope? Or a future getting brighter?

The world goes mad, but you have to tell yourself that things will be OK, that the future is so bright that the shades should be worn at all times. I’ve spent the summer ducking and dodging stories of planes being shot out of the sky, fury fueled riots a la Rodney King, movie stars taking their own lives, and increasing gun violence in our local cities.

But such news is often hard to avoid. Everyone is consumed with it. We all love dirty laundry.

Most times, I manage to avoid the murder, mayhem, and disaster that make up the news bylines of our society, practicing what’s called The Low Information Diet. I usually don’t see any news stories other than weather, and when I do, I look at it with a jaded eye.

It’s all about stopping the noise.

The bad news keeps coming, but I’ll just look to my past for the good. No one, myself included, wants to live in the past, but I keep thinking what a great idea to make regular visits there. We sit around my cousin’s house on Sunday morning and reminisce over our coffee and toast, and draw the conclusion that some of the “good ‘ol days” were, in fact, just damn good.

Am I the father of a high school graduate? It doesn’t seem plausible, really. I was just playing ball the other day, with my friends, in my grandmother’s yard. School was out. Summer was full on. I was sliding into home. Catching fly balls past the fruit trees.

It had to be just the other day. Not decades ago. That’s how I remember it.

Goodnight-MoonIn what seems just a few days later, my kids were in their pajamas, falling asleep in their beds. I was reading them bedtime stories. Goodnight, Moon. Remember?

High school? College? Purely a figment of my imagination. Time can’t pass that quickly.

Cinderella Story

On a road trip with my wife’s brother into the heart of the Adirondacks, it felt like we were on a rocket ship back into the 1980’s, listening to one “hair band” after another. A bright, blue sky drive up the Northway, making a stab at the anthems of our youth.

I’m sure we heard Cinderella. “You don’t know what you’ve got, ’till it’s gone”. Loud and sonic, ripping down the highway.

Man, in that moment, I felt like a kid again.

It’s a lyric about love, but it could easily be a lyric about everything.

You don’t know what you’ve got. Does anybody?

I know what I’ve got. A college student. A kid heading to the 9th grade. A twenty-one year marriage.

I also know what else I have. An increasing disbelief that it all passes by so quickly. That the breakneck pace of life can’t just slow a bit, to briefly take in the glory of another summer.

Today was a gorgeous day, with a little time spent on the back deck. My wife had selected a Pandora station that played Tears For Fear’s “Mad World”. As I listened, sitting in my Adirondack chair in a bath of sunlight, the song sounded as fresh today as it did in 1983.

It was a mad world then. You could still call it a mad world. How else to explain the passage of time, making up your life, that rolls through in a blink of an eye?

Enjoy yourself, my friends. As my Nonna used to say, with a gleam in her eye – “It’s later than you think.”