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.
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.
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.
In the life of the middle aged Italian American, there may be no more important Sundays than those on the calendar now. Palm Sunday, which was last week, is a major league event as Mass includes the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a reading that details the crucifixion of Jesus, and is a prelude to the Mother of all Sundays, coming up this week – Easter Sunday.
While the religious connections remain important to those of us with “traditional” mindsets, the connection that may be accepted universally is the significance of the food at these important weekend holidays.
If you paid attention to the last post, you read details on how to build the perfect Sunday dinner – Italian style, with a traditional bent or modern flair. If one detail may have stood out, it was this – these meals are high in volume, calories, and activity.
Don’t kid yourself. Eating in this manner, notably at holiday time, is not unlike participating in your own athletic event.
I can use myself as an example. There were Sundays in my past where I could put away a plate of spaghetti, a riceball, a couple of meatballs, salad, and perhaps a chicken cutlet or two. Satisfied with the notion that I had done my best in the eating category, I could still get a puzzled look on my Grandmother’s face that said one thing:
“That’s it?? You can’t be finished already!”
Taking It To A Different Level
Eating at this stage isn’t just about providing sustenance. It’s also about impressing your family and making the people that prepared the meal as happy as possible. The biggest compliment I could ever give my Gram was to eat as much as I could without passing out. To do that, you need to approach the meal with a different mindset. You need to prepare yourself mentally as well as physically. You may even need to play an inspirational song or two.
You are an athlete. To take down more than your share of an Easter lasagna (as an opening course, no less!) is an extreme physical event. It could compare to what Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt do to win the gold.
The difference between you and them, however, is they do little else on event day. Just concentrate on the monumental task at hand. And that’s something we could all learn to do.
Luckily for you, I already have helpful tips on spending your Sundays thinking about eating, preparing to eat, and finally, the actual act of eating – and cutting out the rest. I hope they help you enjoy a relaxing and calorie filled meal with family and/or friends, holiday or not.
Focus And Concentration – Pathway To Success
Ironically enough, to prepare for holiday eating, no other athletic events are allowed. No flag football games. No tennis. The 5K should be shelved. No rounds of golf with the boys. These are physical in nature, and will strip vital energy that needs to be conserved for the eating process. Participation in any of these should be limited.
However, it is a Sunday tradition to watch athletic events. In fact, it may be mandatory to watch the football game before catching a well earned nap. Always feel free to indulge in this activity.
In the same category, you should probably consider limiting physical exercise. No going to the gym, heavy lifting, running, pick up basketball, or chasing your dog. There’s time enough for this stuff during the week. As has been said, Sunday should be a day of rest.
I will, on occasion, break this rule to play catch with my son. But that’s it.
There should be no recreational shopping on Sunday. For men or women. Walking through the malls and flipping through the racks at Macy’s saps strength and stamina necessary to repeatedly lift your fork and knife. Refrain from this activity. You’ll save money, to boot.
Lastly, there should be no working around the house on Sunday. No pounding nails, no driving screws, no cleaning your car. Put the paint brush down. No brooms, hoses, power washers, power saws – nothing. And no mowing the lawn.
Going into your backyard is OK – if you want to walk around a little, look at the trees, pick up a couple of branches off the ground. Even picking some basil or parsley out of your garden. Very acceptable. Just no breaking a massive sweat pushing a mower around ahead of Sunday dinner. Your will to put away “maximum macaroni” will be compromised.
As you can see from the above, sweating and exertion is not recommended. If you can avoid this, you’ll be fresh as a daisy when you sit at the dining room or kitchen table, ready to tackle a big meal with people you love on the most relaxing day of the week.
As far as traditions go, it’s right on top of my list. How about yours?
Take an informal poll of people that you know, and ask them what their favorite day of the week is, the answer would almost always be Friday. The start of the weekend, you get to abandon your unfulfilling job for at least two days, and the opportunity is there to hang with your friends.
In an Italian American household, however, you may be surprised to hear a different answer. Our favorite day of the week is rarely Friday. The chosen day for many families around the country is Sunday.
These days, my Sunday routine revolves around going to an early Mass at St. Anthony’s Church with my Dad, and then making a quick trip to my cousin’s apartment to attend what we commonly refer to as “The Breakfast Bunch”.
Weekly attendance includes mainly cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family, and it’s an informal gathering where we’ll have toast, coffee, baked goods, and shoot the breeze. Sometimes there will be an egg casserole or two.
It’s one of the best parts of my week not only because of the social aspect, but also for the memories it triggers of days gone by – of the fantastic Sundays of my youth.
The Flames of Tradition
My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. As they were both in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the flames of Sunday dinner traditions burning.
I still make a pot of Sunday Sauce at least every couple of weeks, and I’ll have a dinner with my wife and kids featuring the same food I had as a child. It’s just minus the massive crowds, and the jostling around the 14th Street dining room table that we used to gather around.
When I was young, I was at my Grandparent’s house for the entire weekend. Sunday was the fantastic finish. I would be there long before the aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up. Not only would I get a sneak peek at what was going to be served, I might also get a freshly pan fried meatball, or a piece of Italian bread dunked into the tomato sauce that was simmering all day.
More or less, it was the same menu every Sunday with a twist here and there. If it was Easter Sunday – well, that was the day the gigantic pan of homemade lasagna was broken out. If manicotti was made at my family’s restaurant that week (and didn’t sell out), that may have spilled into Sunday as well.
Regardless of what was featured on the table, it was always delicious, and there was always plenty to go around. My little Sicilians were expert cooks, and their Sunday Sauce was second to none.
The preparation of dinner was a process as well. Timing needed to be considered, as we usually sat at table in the early afternoon. Prepping was done as early as the day before, and Nonna would be in the kitchen for hours on Sunday.
Sunday’s Menu of Decadence
There’s a right way to do Sunday, and each menu item has the proper order in which it’s served. My grandparents’ end of the week dinners were always old-school, but just for kicks we like to take things to a modern level on certain Sundays.
Both ways are eminently enjoyable, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. But as far as the old-school way is concerned, there was nothing better. In my house, we’re pretty good cooks – but those Sundays from twenty or even thirty years ago provide a boatload of cherished memories.
Want to try it yourself? Here’s the balanced approach, whether you like it modern or old-school style:
Old School: Appetizers? Really? With the tonnage of food that hit the table for dinner when I was a kid, appetizers were not required. We would have more than enough, believe me. But I was always an expert at sneaking the aforementioned meatball before dinner, so that could count as an app. Score.
Modern Take: We can get really fancy here – we’ve done calamari, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino, mussels in broth. I’ll stop right there. Getting hungry just typing it. No pun intended, but the world is your oyster when it comes to appetizers.
Old School: In my world, the pasta course is ubiquitous. My Grandmother’s choice was almost always a spaghetti or ziti, dressed with a tomato sauce that had been cooking for hours. Special occasions brought out the 10,000 calorie baked pasta dishes. Unbelievable.
Modern Take: We’ll still take it old school style here, but we often change the shape – ravioli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, among others. The sauces can change, too, although the Sunday variety is still my favorite. Oil and garlic, bolognese, and a variety of light cream sauces are new traditions that have hit our table.
Old School: In those days, the meat was meatballs front and center, and sausage or braciole. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all we needed.
Modern Take: We’re not doing quail or Cornish game hen here (that’s really fancy), but in my house we like chicken cutlets, braised short ribs, and my wife loves to roast a whole chicken on any given Sunday. Osso Bucco is something on my radar to try soon, as well.
Old School: The salad was always eaten last at the table on 14th Street, used as a palate cleanser. It was iceberg lettuce, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Very simple, and although it may not sound good to you, I thought it was excellent.
Modern Take: Like the apps, you can go many different ways here, and we have – Caesar salad, salads with walnuts and cranberries, avocado, with chick peas and beans, with balsamic glaze and other fancy dressings. And we rarely use iceberg for anything – it’s romaine, spinach, or mixed greens. Again, unnecessarily fancy. But so very good.
Desserts and Beverages
Old School: With the calorie meter obliterated already, dessert was still on the way, but here’s where the Sicilians threw their twist in and decided now we should eat healthy – by giving us nuts and fruit. My Grandmother would roast chestnuts or crack walnuts, and my Grandfather would peel and eat multiple pears, his favorite. I also remember Italian cookies, and the ladies were fond of sponge cake. Drinks included water, soda, and a simple red table wine. Espresso at the end.
Modern Take: I’m already thinking about grabbing tiramisu from the local bakery for the next Sunday dinner. My wife will bake cakes and make other desserts (we call one of our favorites “chocolate crack” for its addictive qualities), and her mother is a great pie maker. Drinks have run the gamut- mixed cocktails, sparkling water, red wine, white, craft beers. Very fancy.
Find Your Way Back
As my Grandmother’s age crept into her 90’s, she couldn’t host the big dinners anymore, on Sunday or any other night. I took over the meatball making chores for her on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays a smaller group of our family would show up for a little brunch.
Nothing too over the top. Scrambled eggs, some meatballs with sauce, Italian bread. Strong, stove brewed coffee. Sponge cake. Seated in the kitchen instead of the vast dining room table.
Those Sundays were special, too. My kids grew up around that kitchen table, having their first servings of spaghetti in their high chairs, in the house on the street that I grew up on.
Those days are sorely missed. And with our “Breakfast Bunch” gatherings now, we try to recreate that special feeling of family ties that were their strongest, so many years ago.
When Sunday was, without question, the favorite day of the week.
What’s your story? Have a favorite day? Or tradition that you’d like to share? Leave your comment below.
Welcome to the holiday shopping season. Where the same thing happens every year.
The same damn thing.
While the crazed and wild eyed stampede into the late night/early morning hours to acquire their iPads, TVs, handbags and other assorted crap no one needs for a successful and happy life, I was doing the same thing I always do this time of year.
Namely, drooling on my pillow. Watching the back of my eyelids.
The previous night at my in-laws was another Thanksgiving success, breaking bread with family and overindulging a bit on the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables and appetizers.
And don’t get me started on the pumpkin pie.
Whether it was the food, or perhaps that one extra cocktail, the morning came slowly. As I opened my eyes, the digital clock across the room read 9:30.
9:30?? WTF?? I have to get the dog his breakfast, and then outside to do his business. It’s late!
One problem. The dog was still sleeping as well. Thanksgiving can be tiring to our canine counterparts, too.
When Black Friday Comes
And so begins the biggest shopping day of the year in our house. In typically tardy fashion. I’m not sure if you’d call what we do traditions, but my family spends the post-Thanksgiving day pretty much the same way every year. For example:
After rolling bleary-eyed out of bed, it’s coffee time. After Cooper is taken care of, we’re ready for our morning ritual. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know we rarely go out for coffee. Not with our full size steel espresso pot on the stove top, standing at the ready.
Strong, creamy, and just like my Nonna used to make. We enjoy this every day, but today, it’s a special cup.
After some chatting in the kitchen, and a couple of phone calls to relatives, my son decides he wants to start a new Black Friday tradition. A little game of hoop in the driveway, on this sub thirty degree day.
It’s a new tradition because we just got the basketball set-up this summer, found on Craig’s List for a fraction of its original cost. Thank you, nice neighbor.
Researching new portable basketball hoops with full size backboards, the prices ranged from $300 to $800 to start. We got our slightly used one for under $120.
Boom! How’s that for savings? And I didn’t even have to wait in a line. Take that, Black Friday!
Relaxation And Entertainment
After a half hour of exercise, I decide to come back in the house and burn a little time on-line by entertaining myself with tales of Black Friday stupidity.
Did you know that fifteen thousand people waited in line for Macy’s flagship store in New York City to open its doors?
Horrified by what I was reading, I shut the laptop down to go to another Black Friday tradition, house hold chores. Since I’m still a little groggy from my overload of turkey, I’m not going to do much, just vacuum the hall stairs that need cleaning. That one task wears me out.
Physically, I’m not worth much today. A perfect opportunity to write a blog post. And here we are.
Winding It Down
As I write this, my wife is watching a quality show on PBS, which is commercial free. Good thing, because the Black Friday ads on other channels attempt to make all of us look like total jackasses who are concerned with nothing but shopping, over consumption, and greed.
Since we’re not contributing to traffic jams on roads and in stores, there obviously won’t be an over indulgent trip to a restaurant, either. We’ll be eating at home, with a mouth watering rendition of homemade macaroni and cheese, made with rigatoni, cheddar, swiss, and parmigiano reggiano.
Decadent. And again, a fraction of the cost of the Olive Garden meals that shoppers will consume today after their exhausting marathon. After all of their “savings” goals have been met.
After dinner, we’ll probably relax again after the dishes are done. I may take my son to my Dad’s house for a visit, or we could just wind down with an old movie. Hopefully, with as little advertisement as possible. I’m mentally scarred from the limited ads I’ve seen already.
Another year, another Black Friday passed. We’ve lost out again. No big deals, no rude shoppers, no shoulder to shoulder jostling for the latest designer labels. No stress. No generous savings from inflated retail prices.
Unless you are of the mindset that saving 100% is absolutely the best deal you can get.
For many years, I would walk into my Nonna’s kitchen and be greeted by the aroma of what I thought was the perfect tomato sauce.
In most Italian American households, the ritual of the “Sunday Sauce” was a standard way to celebrate the weekend. But in my family, tomato sauce wasn’t just relegated to Sunday. It could show up any day of the week.
My grandmother’s sauce was so good because of the painstaking work that went into it. When in season, she would clean, cook, and jar bushels and bushels of ripe Roma tomatoes from a local farmer. Those tomatoes would be the base of her sauce.
She would make enough for a year’s supply. The work that went into was so physically grueling that most family members that she called on for help would not be able to keep up with her.
Now that she’s been gone for awhile, and that fabulous sauce is no more, I’ve been trying my hand in the kitchen with my sauce pot, trying to recreate that magic. And you know what? Trying to be as good as my Nonna in the kitchen is a concept met with failure.
Failure because I’ve been chasing that perfect tomato sauce from my youth, but it just won’t happen. Because there is no perfect. There is only good, or great (Photo: a recent pot of my creation).
The perfect is the enemy of the good
While chasing perfection, I’ve learned that excellence is attainable with some work, a little practice, and experimentation. My first foray into the art of sauce making, as I remember, wasn’t very good. A little bland, too much acidity, not at all like the flavor I was trying to duplicate.
But I kept trying. Taking different approaches. Instead of just cooking with olive oil, using a little butter as well. Peperoncino added to salt and black pepper. Then maybe some red wine in the next pot. A little sugar. With pork as a base, and without pork.
You probably get the drift. I was trying to find my sweet spot.
The key is the tomato. While I haven’t tackled my Nonna’s work of turning farm fresh tomatoes into shelves of goodness filled jars in my cellar, I use the best tomatoes I can find. I’ve tried many brands along the road to find what I like, and the San Marzano tomato is superior to all others. The Cento brand is the best.
Yes, they are twice the price of your standard canned tomato, but that’s OK. This is one area where I refuse to skimp. And it’s worth it. While I can’t duplicate the aroma and taste of the sauce that used to simmer on my Nonna’s stove, I come damn close.
Note to my kids
Life is a lot like my tomato sauce . It will never be perfect. The more you search for perfection, the less likely you are to find it. This will make you unhappy. There will always be something bigger, better, faster, more expensive, and maybe…tastier…than what you have.
This doesn’t matter. Don’t even pay it attention. Forget about being perfect.
Try to be really good, even excellent, in what you like to do.
Give it your best shot. Keep trying.
If your “sauce” isn’t good the first time – try it again.
Keep “cooking”…with just your effort, that sauce eventually becomes tasty.
Life is good with small, everyday things that you love…like tomato sauce.
Nonna always said “Life is precious”. Take that to heart. Don’t waste it chasing “perfect”.
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The “New Year’s Resolution” is more popular than ever. I myself tend to not put a lot of faith into them, however. They always begin with the best of intentions, but soon crash, burn, and flame out quickly.
You see the same type of resolution, year in and year out. Many people pledge to lose weight, get back in shape, organize their lives.
A couple of months later, that treadmill serves as the prettiest and priciest clothes hanger you’ve ever owned.
(Disclaimer: Because of some feedback from my doctor, 2012 is the year Joey pays far more attention to his health and general fitness. But I don’t own a treadmill.)
My resolution would be to strengthen a habit I already have: keep traditions, the ones I was fortunate enough to experience growing up, alive and kicking.
Ideally, I would be doing this just for my children, so they could get a taste of the very good life, but if I’m honest with myself…I’m doing it for my own benefit, as well. I never want to forget where I came from.
My old Italian ladies aren’t around anymore. The rituals and methods they practiced survive only if we keep them breathing by our active participation. That guardian of the old school traditions that I want to be? Playing at full strength here in 2012.
Everyone has cultural traditions that bring them closer to their roots, and to that warm, fuzzy feeling you had when you were a kid. I recommend they be part of your list of “resolutions”. Here’s just several ways I’m going to carry them out in the coming year:
In The Kitchen My wife and I are no slouches in this area, but for Christmas we received some beautiful cookbooks from some very thoughtful people (including my wife’s brother and his girlfriend, my “Outlaw” :)) that are going to allow us to ratchet up our knowledge of traditional Italian peasant dishes. Many of these recipes are what I ate growing up, and are still a staple of our diet now.
At Table Eating together as a family has always been a high priority after the kids came along, just like I did when I was young. The table is also where I shared great coffee with my immigrant grandparents in past years, and my wife and I still make espresso in a stainless steel pot every morning to continue the ritual. It’s the best.
In The Vineyard The house where my grandparents used to live has two ample grape arbors that yield the best grape jelly you will ever taste. Making the jelly from those grapes is hard work, but we love to do it to this day. We still have access to the grape vines, so we’re hoping 2012 brings another sweet batch.
At The Holidays On Christmas Eve years ago, my family would always serve very traditional fish and seafood dishes to celebrate the holiday. It’s a tradition we’ve let slip recently. I felt insane jealousy (and hunger) when Vince posted pictures of a seafood feast at his house this past Christmas Eve. My wife Suzanne and I have pledged to bring this back home in 2012, and host a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner with our relatives.
In My Mind With today’s need for instant updates and instant gratification and instant everything, it’s little wonder your mind races through the day. My girls (meaning my grandmother and my godmother) had a simple way to quiet their minds—they said prayers. And I think they were on to something, so I’m doing this more lately. Whether it’s prayers, meditation, or just five minutes in the day to sit and be quiet without interruption, the result is clear: it’s definitely good for body, mind, and soul.
Yes, I’m going to exercise more (Had a great workout before writing this) and eat my vegetables, but if I can keep a candle of tradition flickering within my family, 2012 will be a prosperous and very happy New Year.
Photographs of 14th Street courtesy of Gabrielle DeGiorgio
What are your resolutions this year? Is tradition a part of it? Start a discussion in the comment section, and feel free to tweet and/or share. You know someone that needs a little kick in the “traditions”!