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.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Leave a comment if you enjoyed this post.

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22 Post Holiday Weight Loss Tips From a Former Fat Kid You Can Use in 2018

There are many reasons to want to lose weight, get healthier, and change our physical appearance. I remember one of mine like it was yesterday – it went something like this:

“Man, look at you. You need a bra.”

The above is one of the many comments and observations endured while I made my way through elementary, middle, and eventually high school. Several of my tormentors attended the military academy where I spent my school years, but it seemed the words could come from anywhere. Or out of nowhere.

I was a well fed Italian American boy, who showed no signs of stopping the culinary carnage as I ate my way through the kitchens of my mother, grandmother, and assorted relatives.

There was always a plentiful bounty of food – especially on a Sunday. Unending pasta choices, sauced with my grandmother’s jarred tomatoes, complemented by stacks of braciole (beef roll ups) and meatballs. Chicken cutlets, glistening with oil straight from the oven. The Sicilian street food arancine, a family favorite.

I was always instructed to eat more, to stave off the impending malnourishment that would be encountered once I ventured into the outside world. Of course, there would never be any of that.

To say I packed away a little extra weight would have been putting it nicely.

Eventually, the school yard taunting fueled a fire to get better, and – with the help of one Sly Stallone and the movie icon that would bring him fame and unstoppable fortune – I managed to shed the majority of the excess to resemble a fit, healthy teenager.

I ran laps around the suburban neighborhood of my younger years like my life depended on it – because in truth, it did.

Supplemented with grueling abdominal work and the release of my teen rage upon a canvas heavy bag, the damage to each and every one of my fat cells was unmistakable.

The fat dude in the school boy uniform, with pale blue shirt and dress grays, was gone. In all, 40 to 50 pounds just melted away. More than likely for good.

And more than 35 years later, I’ve managed to keep the weight off. To be transparent, I’ve had other issues to address – higher than normal blood pressure, ever increasing glucose levels, a self imposed lower back problem (all of these on the mend) – but even with that, the bathroom scales have never been tipped again in favor of a sneaky path to obesity.

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills

The secret to taking off weight and keeping it off is simple, but it’s never easy. This time of year, it’s a focus and a question mark for many. There’s plenty of misinformation, and ideas that may have worked for someone else – but might not be your cup of tea.

I am not writing this post as a health and wellness expert  – but if there is one thing I can lay claim to being expert at, it’s moving through struggles with weight and trying to focus on a better way within this balancing act called life.

There’s a plethora of information out there, especially as January 1 approaches – but the most “back to basics” tips you can use will, in the long run, be the most helpful. Here’s a few of my favorites:

  • Remember that the word “diet” should not be part of your vocabulary – what you’re shooting for is lifestyle change. Albeit one small step at a time.
  • Eat healthy foods that you actually enjoy eating. For me, this includes fruits like apples and bananas, eggs, chicken breast, turkey, and green veggies cooked with garlic and olive oil.
  • Go for natural foods every time, not stuff in a box. Just because the box has words like “lean” and “healthy” on it doesn’t make it so. In other words, be wary of food marketing. Educate yourself.
  • Eat only pastas that end in the letter “i” – just my humorous way of saying it’s not necessary to give up foods you love. Not even close. Just use common sense, smaller portions, and leave the gluttony behind. I still enjoy my pasta – but I eat the portion size now that you might see in an Italian trattoria, not an American restaurant.
  • Exercise. Your first move: push the plate away.
  • And please don’t use the “got no time or money” excuse concerning exercise – you can do it all with 15 minutes of calisthenics, right in your living room, basement, or garage. Everybody’s got time for that.
  • Avoid drive-through windows like the poison center they are. If you must do the drive-through, get the salad.
  • Salads don’t mean boring eating, either. You can add to them with lean proteins, nuts,  and berries to make them filling and tasty. Just limit your intake of fatty dressings.
  • Track your meals for a week. You might be surprised what you put in your body.
  • If you decide to go the route of a stricter eating plan, pick a “cheat day.” Mine is Sunday. On that day, have yourself some pizza and ice cream. Just don’t eat a whole pizza and a gallon of ice cream.
  • Use the stairs. Please. Leave the elevators for the elderly and the handicapped.
  • Exercise. Try walking. You have all the equipment you need. My wife is going with me to the gym, and she started out just walking on a treadmill. Then she started walking fast. Then walking fast up inclines. Then she started lifting. See? Baby steps.
  • Eat sweet potatoes instead of white.
  • By the way, have I mentioned fruits and veggies?
  • Sugar has been just about eliminated from my diet. There are some things I will not give up – I need sugar and cream in my delicious, home brewed coffee. But that’s about it. You can reduce it too.
  • That means limited, or no, soft drinks. Total sugar bombs. You’d be surprised at the caloric content here.
  • Ask yourself: Would a caveman have eaten this? Cavemen ate meat they killed and plants that grew on trees or in the ground. They didn’t have Pringles and Doritos back then.
  • Consume alcohol moderately, or not at all. Red wine is a good choice if you must.
  • Exercise. You should, without question, pay attention to what you put into your mouth. Intense, frequent exercise can cover a multitude of sins if you fall off the wagon of the particular eating plan that you’ve put into place.
  • Having said that, I remember a quote that sticks with me: “90% of the fitness battle is fought – and won – in the kitchen.”
  • I like this one as well – “It’s not what you eat between Christmas Day and New Years. It’s what you eat between New Years and Christmas Day that counts.”

Bonus Tip: Exercise some more. Make it fun! Outside of the gym, I’ve walked, jogged, sprinted with my dog, played touch football with my son and his friend, did jumping jacks, and calisthenics. I jumped rope recently for the first time in years. Wanna sweat? Try jumping rope for 15 or 20 minutes.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Are you a 2018 “resolutionist?” Would these tips help you? Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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.”

Wrong!!

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

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!

A Craving For More Tradition, Sunday Style

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.

sauce
Centerpiece of the day – Sunday Sauce

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:

Appetizers

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.

Pasta

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.

Meat

Meatballs on my stove - like Nonna used to make
Meatballs on my stove – like Nonna used to make

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.

Salad

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.