Life is Precious, Summer Redux

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

It’s how one of my most popular posts starts – with a greeting to my Nonna,  from my Aunt Maria, as she barreled her frame through the front door of the house where I spent most of my childhood time.

(Exciting update: The above mentioned post made even more popular recently by being featured on the website for the Italian Sons & Daughters of America )

That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, not knowing or intending to disturb the slumber of a growing boy. Not that I should have slept through the sunshine streaming through the windows to begin with.

If the loud greetings or sunlight couldn’t wake me up, there was no doubt that the smell of the pan fried meatballs that were soon to follow would do the job.

Once downstairs from the bedroom, I would stand in the kitchen (in super hero pajamas, no doubt) and dutifully wait until the offering was made to indulge in a before breakfast snack. A great way to start a Saturday.

The decades have passed. But the memories linger. The song remains the same.

There are certain aspects of summer life from my past that I miss more than others. My grandmother and her sisters used to have picnics in the backyard of her house, both well planned and impromptu, under the shade of grape vines and large trees in that expansive yard.

If you’ve been anywhere near an Italian American family, you know that everyone was there – aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, select friends, maybe a familiar straggler from down the street – to eat and celebrate.

The generous inventory of food spilled over plates and serving bowls. Homemade wine flowed. The combination of broken English and regional Italian dialects echoed through the street and the alleyway, as the parties rolled on.picnic

I rarely hear the language anymore. The echoes have fallen silent.

There were reserved moments, as well. My grandfather and I, as a rule during the summer, would sip espresso on the patio, listening to Yankee games on an old transistor radio, propped into the screen of the kitchen window for easy listening.

The evening sunset would fade into night, with us still sitting there.

My grandfather was a quiet guy. Not too many words were exchanged. We just understood the importance of ritual, as it played out. I wish I knew, looking back, how rare and important those moments were.

My wife and I try our best to replicate what we can. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the impromptu party or gathering. And the majority of our coffee will be had on our back deck – even at times when the weather might be deemed miserably cold.

Our little way of keeping good things going.IMG_4293

After my grandmother passed away several years ago, we drove down the hill through the old neighborhood, on the way to her church services. We were stopped at a red light just across the street from the old brick two family where my grandparents once lived, where my father was a teenager.

As we sat at the traffic light, the Italian language version of the song Volare pumped through the car speakers. I turned to my wife, just as she was forming an expression on her face that said – “Are you kidding me??”

If you’re unfamiliar with the nuance of commercial radio, la versione italiana is not the popular rendition of that song. Not even close. English speaking Dean Martin had a hit record that was more preferred for the airwaves.

I believed then, and believe today, that it was Nonna’s little way of saying:

“Yes, I’m gone. But don’t you forget about me.”

“Life is precious” was one of her many sayings, and perhaps her most common. As if trying to impart the wisdom that each second that passed was one you were never getting back, and that the clock of your life kept ticking.

She would often group that one saying with nuggets like “It’s later than you think” and “Life is a-worth living.” She had a subtle way of keeping her theme consistent.

I would like to think I take her words to heart on a daily basis. Our time here, this one ticket that we have punched, is indeed limited and precious. So much of it gets wasted on what I’ve heard called “the 99% that doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is included in a small circle. Family, friends, and the labor and activities that make you feel alive.

Although dipping my toe into the ocean of tradition has been kind of my thing, there is always room for more: more impromptu gatherings with family and friends, more additional star lit nights on the deck with a coffee.

As Nonna said, life is precious. If I do my best to remember, maybe I won’t waste another minute.

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In Praise of the Table Setters

As a guy at the age of 54, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the boundless, almost frenetic energy of my seventeen year old son. I use it to try to recapture a little youthful exuberance for myself, but there are limits.

YoungPopI see my son’s face etched into the decades old photographs of my grandfather, and I wonder how similar they are. I wonder what they share, and how they are different.

One thing’s for sure – their journeys at this age are radical in that difference. While my son readies for senior year and acting as captain of his golf team, his great grandfather was getting ready for, or taking, a trip that would change his life.

And ours.

Did he have that same youthful exuberance so many years ago, or was he the stoic and silent man I knew when I was growing up?

Why did his family leave their native southern Italy? Was it poverty? Crime? The remnants of a “unification” that was more aggression than unifying act?

Was he a scared teenager? Or did he share his family’s fire to seek a better life?

Did he have any lira in his pocket? Or was he poorer than poor? Was his dress tattered? Did he have warm clothes?

Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?

When the Statue of Liberty finally came into view, what was the emotion in his heart? Fear – or hope?

How much English could he speak? If any at all?

My father told me, years later, when he was young and driving my grandfather to pick up other relatives coming to America, he could guide my Dad down New York City side streets like he lived there forever – but he never drove a car.

How could he do that?

For me, it’s just not my curiosity – but an appreciation of the struggles and hardships of being a young immigrant to a country that was not exactly accepting.

You may not have heard about it before – but what an amazing life.

When you look at success, or how it’s defined now – such as our family’s success, that ranges between moderate and luxurious depending on the situation – you must give the credit where the credit is due.

To the table setters.

There is no such thing as a “self made man,” and we do not live in a vacuum. Our lives, and what we decide to make of them, were made possible by a table set so long ago. We are the sum of the struggles and the power of our recent past.

He had help from our entire extended family – but my grandfather’s relentless nature proved to be a godsend for all of us.

On a day that’s good for me – when I’m feeling healthy, have money in my pocket, with a future looking bright enough to don the sunglasses – I silently thank the table setters.

On an even better day, I’ll take a ride and stop by St. Mary’s cemetery. To say “thank you” in person. To those who made it all possible. Table setters.

I dabble in my family’s history. On my wife’s side, her aunt Connie Burkart was the expert family historian. If you needed to know something, you asked Connie. I will miss her praise, and words of love and encouragement whenever I posted here. This one’s for you, Connie.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Who were your table setters? Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

 

More Than a 3-Day Weekend – Remembering a Soldier’s Story

In upstate New York, our summer season is greatly anticipated – if only to erase the meteorological memories of bitter winters and wet, cool springs. Traditionally, our official kick off is Memorial Day.

This year, our family will follow a familiar route – driving up I-87, also known as the Northway, into the heart of the scenic Adirondack park. Specifically Bolton Landing in the Lake George region.

0A01C300-B963-432A-91F3-B26D2175D0E7Although it looks as if this rainy spring will hang on at least one more weekend, with uncooperative showers and chilly winds, the party will go on for all of us. In the past, we’ve consumed enough clams to warrant renaming the weekend Clam-a-palooza.

Everyone will have their fun, including our small group in this small town. But we call it Memorial Day for a reason. It’s more than a three day weekend – the meaning can run much, much deeper.

Years ago, a friend of mine put it succinctly in a social media post:

“Happy Memorial Day”. That statement doesn’t make sense to me at all. Today is a day of reflection for selfless sacrifice both past and present. I am not celebrating. I am remembering.

We have a special soldier in my immediate family – PFC, and former member of the 105th Infantry, Dominick DeGiorgio.  He was my grandfather’s brother. After surviving the brutal fire fights in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, he was later killed in action in Germany in World War II, still a young man. As far as I know, he is my family’s only recipient of the Purple Heart.

Another brother, my great uncle Mariano, fought for the Italian Army during European campaigns. It seems incomprehensible now, but there was true potential in that war for brother v. brother, each fighting, shedding blood, for their country.

Even though Dominick was killed well before I was born, I felt I knew him through countless stories from my grandmother. While my grandfather Sebastian was a man of few words, his brother had a huge personality despite his small stature.

IMG_4397A good looking guy who was always laughing and in good humor, he was, as my Nonna would state, very popular with the ladies. So much so that he would draw big crowds of them at the ice cream shop where he worked before going off to war.

I still wonder what it would have been like to have him here, and the impact he could have had on our lives. His bright and cheerful persona as counterpoint to my own grandfather, the “strong, silent” type. What fun we could have had with that.

The great war ensured we would never know. As for many other families, the battle for freedoms takes away as it gives, and erases what could have been.

He gave it all, fighting for the next generations of Americans with, as my friend said, “selfless sacrifice.” I’m sure there were plenty of disappointed girls at the ice cream window at Manory’s store.

The battles are faded history. Many have forgotten.IMG_3581

I’m happy I’ll have the opportunity to sit on a porch on  what may be a stormy May afternoon, to reflect and wonder about a man whose brief  life and unending potential were taken away far too soon.

Dominick DeGiorgio took part in the D-Day invasion of France, and earned a bronze arrowhead for his campaign ribbon. He also participated in Operation Market Garden, where he was KIA on September 17th, 1944. For his service on the continent of Europe, he earned the following decorations:

Combat infantryman badge, bronze star medal, Purple Heart medal, European – African – Middle Eastern campaign medal with bronze arrowhead and two bronze service stars, WWII Victory Medal, New York State Conspicuous Service Cross (and Star).

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

Process

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!

Any Given Sunday – The Guide To Meal Time Focus

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.

The Sunday staple - stove top sauce pot
The Sunday staple – stove top sauce pot

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. bolt

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?

Now, pass me the grated cheese. Please.