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 a break from your job for at least two days, with the opportunity to hang with family or 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.

Keeping Tradition Alive

My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. Both being in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the fire 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, meat and cheese antipasto platter. 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.

Old School Takes a Hit: Look Who Has a Smartphone

The view from my New York City hotel room - taken with my new iPhone The view from my New York City hotel room – taken with my new iPhone

It’s finally happened. I have been dragged kicking and screaming into a new era. I have done what I once said I would never do.

I have joined the majority of the world, and upgraded to a smart phone for the first time.

And although I love the technology, the old schooler in me has taken a hit.

I have brought something into my life that has the potential to complicate it, provide unnecessary convenience, and make things a little too easy. Definitely not the old school way. But I love great tools that I know I’ll use. And right now I’m excited about this one.

Why? Benefit number one recently: I’m traveling, alone in a New York City hotel room. Despite the insanely comfortable bed, I can’t sleep. It’s 4AM. And I’m writing this post – on my iPhone. Talk about a game changer.

I can write from anywhere, at anytime. If there’s a post idea floating around in my head, I can put it down right then and there. I now have the technology. And it, to me, is crazy.

I also need it for business. In the past, I missed important emails from prospects and customers because I couldn’t get them on the fly. A smartphone changes all that.

I have softened from all of my bluster from before. I do appreciate the fact that I can now listen to any music, watch any video, and search any site of my choosing. With this, I have to be careful not to be one of the many mobile phone addicts and abusers that I see around me.

The number of times that a preoccupied screen watcher (or scroller) has almost walked right into me are starting to add up. The number of drivers on the opposite side of the road, all looking down at their phones? It’s scary to me. These days, defensive driving is a requirement.

As you might guess, buying this phone was stepping way out of my comfort zone. Regular readers will know that I’m firmly stuck in the old school, trying to keep things simple and inexpensive. Treading the path that my grandparents paved.

I will give you my word. I promise not to be “obnoxious cell phone guy”. You know that guy.

I will give you my undivided attention when I am with you. I will always keep the ability to put the phone down, and stay in the real world. The smart phone will not become a substitute for the relationship.

The old school has taken a hit. I have joined yet another club where the comfortable and overly convenient reside. I get more “modern” with each passing day.

Old school has a new tool. And I can use it to spread the message even further.

How about it? Are you a smart phone addict? Or is it just another useful part of your life? Let us know in the comment section below.

Reason To Believe

In the land of 24/7 media coverage and real time responses from faceless Internet critics, no one would blame you if you questioned every belief you’ve ever had. Prowl on-line long enough, and you can unearth a shadow of a doubt on any subject.

Be it video, text, or photo, there’s always a source for you to question your beliefs.

I have a strong faith that there is a God, an eternal being who created us and watches over us now. This belief was instilled within at a young age, by a family full of immigrants whose Roman Catholic faith was unshakeable.

If I wanted to, I can read articles every day that could make me ponder the question, “What if there is no God?” It may have to do with getting older, being in the second half of your life. Wanting to be sure that there is, in fact, something more that we can look forward to.

I have a strong belief in family. That blood is thicker than water, and that the ties that bind the family are the most powerful you’ll have anywhere. That family comes first.

You can have your doubts here, as well. Friends can become enemies, family become strangers. How well do you really know your loved ones, anyway?

I have a strong belief in country, and I know many will share that view. Whether Democrat or Republican, your main wish should be that our country succeed, no matter what. For the most top of the line belief in country, watch movies like Lone Survivor. Discover the individuals that will go to any lengths for love of country.

There is nothing wrong with questions about God, other people, the environment, conservatism, your country, your government. Questions about truth, lies, sex, videotape, and whether 80s music was as good as it seemed (looking back, I’m having my doubts here).

It’s fair to question your beliefs about any aspect of life happening around you.  Except one.

Your belief in yourself.

Now, I’m not here to tell you that my self belief, or confidence, is unwavering. Just the opposite, in fact. I’ve been the recipient of mega self-doubt, not knowing what to do, where to go or how to think, depending on the situation.

Nowadays, the self doubt usually creeps in the subjects of career, financial, home improvement (you’d understand why if you’ve ever seen me use a power drill). But, there’s a difference between “the now” and even just a few years ago.

If the self doubt does make an appearance, it’s short lived. Lasting hours, or even minutes, rather than days or weeks.

And there’s a reason for that. I know who I am. I know what I stand for. Things can change, my opinions can vary, but the core “me” remains what it always has been. That attitude is the very essence of old-school.

People experience self doubt because they compare themselves to others and, more importantly, they don’t do anything that they really enjoy for work or play.

Do you sarcastically say “Just another day in paradise” when asked “How are you?” Is life joyless, devoid of thinking with the curiosity of a kid, intent instead on collecting “things” that add nothing to your identity?

Think about it. About what you liked to do before age eighteen, before life was ruled by higher education, relationships, unsatisfying jobs, mortgages, kids, responsibilities, and the subsequent questions that may create doubt.

Are you doing them now?

Anything? Why not?

When I was younger, it was easier to be plagued by doubting myself. But I had people that believed in me. Like my grandmother. My godmother. I’ll throw my grandfather in there, although it was hard to tell back then. He was an Italian immigrant who was very selective in using his words. His actions did the talking.

Now, I have distinct reasons to believe. There are two kids who will look to what I do, rather than what I say, for examples of how to live. That’s part of being a parent. At ages of 18 and 14, it’s a critical time, and for me, there is no room for prolonged self doubt. They need to know that when doubt is removed, the world can be your oyster.

My immigrant grandparents and their family could have been the champions of self inflicted doubt. Instead, they brought a fire to their duties, putting together their American story and creating future generations of entrepreneurs, doctors, musicians, recording artists, writers, and keepers of the traditions they developed through their years.

The concept of tradition is sinking into a wasteland of trends and media obliteration and saturation. It’s hard to see what’s real anymore, if you don’t look closely. But what’s real is this – my son will play baseball again, launching rockets into sun drenched skies. This summer, my daughter will walk across a stage to shake with one hand and receive a high school diploma with the other.

Cape CodWhen she’s done, we’ll carry on our tradition of wandering Cape Cod beaches, exploring, collecting rocks and shells, watching the waves crash and swell. Modern world, and its incarnations of belief killing, be damned.

No room for self doubt. There are reasons to believe.

Another Auld Lang Syne

Tucked away amid waves of string arrangements and woodwind solos, Frank Sinatra’s vocal in “It Was A Very Good Year” is both melancholy and hopeful. He runs through the lyric chronologically, first at age 17, then age 35, finally seguing into a time when life is “like vintage wine, from fine old kegs”.

As you might expect, this favorite song from my youth has taken on a different meaning a few decades later.

Hitting the age of 50 here in 2013, I can echo the Sinatra sentiment. Yes, it was a very good year.

The non-conformist in me dismissed the thought of writing an article about the subject of gratitude during the Thanksgiving season. As one year passes on and the new one begins, I feel gratitude especially now for what God has blessed me and my family with in the previous twelve months.

Foremost, my wife and I have two kids that are strong and healthy. If there is a greater gift than your own health, it is the health of family.

My wife and I recently celebrated being married twenty years. Staying married in modern times is not an easy task, and it takes more work and effort than most people think. It’s been easier for us because we have similar tastes and interests, and hold important the goal of always stoking the fire of romance that we started with.

2013 reflected good times for my wife’s side of the family, as well. Relatives with medical complications have been given clean bills of health, and there has been a massive baby boom this year. One cousin born recently, another (a little girl) more recently, and my wife’s nephew will be on the way shortly here in 2014.

This year brought challenges, no doubt. But most of what happened could be called “good stuff”.

If you spied the title of this post expecting a declaration of New Year’s Resolutions, I sincerely hope you’re not too disappointed. I have but one, and it’s recurring: upholding the ritual and traditions of the Italian American lifestyle that I experienced growing up. You can read about it here.

Although the ritual of the ‘making of the meatball’ has fallen off recently, I finally (with some prodding from the family) served up a traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, right here in my home. I cheated a little bit, cooking five of them at once in a slowly simmered tomato based stew, but my wife said it still counted.

This is also the opportunity most bloggers take to show you their “best of” lists, where they showcase their finest work published in the previous year. While you can see all of what was “epic” here in 2013 just by scrolling down, I’d actually like to share with you two articles that I wish I’d written.

Although the focus of these particular sites is along the lines of social media and content marketing, the articles here focus on the authors’ grandfathers, and the wonderful lessons that were revealed while just living their lives.

Demian Farnworth – 10 Productivity Tips from a Blue Collar Genius

Mark Schaefer – A Rant: In Praise of The Unremarkable

Read both of these posts, because I think they’re awesome. Then read them again. If you take away some or the majority of the points in both, and apply them to your own lives, you will be in pretty good shape. It is useful Old School thinking at its finest, presented with class by a couple of fine writers.

If you do this, I dare say New Year’s Resolutions will be the last thing you need.

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