Forget About Perfectionism. Pursue Excellence Instead.

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.
  • Don’t quit.
  • 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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My “Resolution?” Keep Tradition Alive and Kicking

The “New Year’s Resolution” is more popular than ever. I tend to not put a lot of faith into them, however. Always begun with the best of intentions, they soon crash, burn, and flame out quickly.14th Street - Tree

You see the same type of resolution, year in and year out. Many people pledge to lose weight, get back in shape, repair relationships, organize their lives, etc.

A couple of months later, that Christmas gift treadmill that was supposed to be your running partner serves as the prettiest and priciest clothes hanger you’ve ever owned.

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 and now.

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 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.

14th Street GrapesIn 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”!

Two Years Later, And The Best Is Yet To Come

I published my first post here two years ago, On Writing, With A Comeback Twist not really knowing what to expect. I thought the internet was a magical thing that, with a wave of a wand, would bring me a flood of readers.

What it did bring, in the words of my friend Marcus Sheridan, was crickets. That sound you hear late at night, when nobody’s around and it doesn’t look like any one is coming.

But that was OK, looking back. I wrote and hit “publish” just because it was something I wanted to do. I wanted a little project outside of my paid “work”. Something that gave life a little more juice.

In other words, I wrote for myself first. If someone found me and wanted to read, awesome. But I was writing for them second.

Things have changed a bit, and I’ve learned how to share my writing, as well as others’ work, through social media. Readership has grown, and I have made some friends and connections from writing here at this site.

I hate to use the word “passion”, as it’s a term that seems so overused these days. But I knew I was on the track to something when I hit publish and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I’ve deviated at times from the subjects that I set out to write about in the beginning. You need a new topic every once in a while to keep things fresh. The original goal is still the same, however.

I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. My biggest influences growing up were Italian immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. My grandmother, grandfather, and my godmother. Old School inspiration.

My Dad with my grandparents, Rose and Sebastian DeGiorgio, circa 1946

It is my very firm opinion that the America of 2011 could learn a lot from the immigrant generations that preceded those of us that were just getting started twenty or thirty years ago.

If you have known me for any length of time, my job here is to remind you of these cornerstones of my life, and make sure you don’t forget them.

If for some reason you are brand new, then let me make the introductions. If I do my job right, they are people you won’t soon forget.

From the last two years, here are some of the best:

The Last Sicilian, And The Gift Of Tradition

Reflections on Memorial Day And A Salute To A Soldier Long Gone

Thoughts On Work Ethic, My Grandfather’s Hands, And Stone Cold Winters

Absolute Requirements of the Italian Kitchen

“Life Is Precious”, Epilogue

Memories Of My Grandfather

I’ve really enjoyed myself posting to this site for the last two years. I think, with the help of Gabrielle the guest poster, we’ll have much more content ready to go in the months to come. Although I began just “writing for myself”, nowadays I appreciate new readers stopping by to check it out. You can help with this by sharing on Facebook, Twitter, etc. to spread the word. Thanks!


The Last Sicilian, and the Gift of Tradition

She worked in a kitchen that was small by modern standards. To see it, you would think it was the size of a walk-in closet in some homes.

She worked her magic on a tiny stove that had very little room to waste. How she managed to squeeze coffee pots, saute’ pans, and giant sauce pots on it without a major catastrophe still remains a mystery.

Old school boxing trainer Angelo Dundee once said that heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali could train his body for a bout in a space the size of a phone booth. My great aunt, Nicolina Carucci, did the comparable with her masterwork in her kitchen.

My “Aunt Nicky,” as most of my family members called her, was my grandmother’s younger sister, and she was my godmother as well. She helped welcome me here by bathing my little infant head in holy water, and it was the start of a beautiful relationship.

She passed away a few years ago, like her sister living well into her 90’s. It’s still strange without either one of them here to boss me around.

I grew up in a world where consistency was the name of the game. The sound of the Italian language, the smells of food always cooking, the ritual of the coffee, and all the holiday and family traditions. Steady as they come. Always present.

That world is nearly gone. For our kids to be reminded of tradition and experience how I grew up, we have to take that ball and run with it. So traditions don’t disappear from view.

If my wife or myself don’t make those wonderful meatballs with onions and bacon that was Nicky’s recipe, or set a pot of simmering sauce on the stove on Sundays, disappear they will.

Aunt Nicky spent her last few months of life in a nursing home, and my father and I would visit on Sundays. We’d wheel her out to the cafeteria, and talk about the swill she was about to eat. I would joke with her, telling her it was time to get out of the chair and go to work on the homemade manicotti so we could all have a good meal.

I hope someday, somewhere, I can find something remotely close to that manicotti again.

I’d also joke with her about how she was “the last in line” or “the last Sicilian.” She was not the last Sicilian of course, but she was the last of a long line of very influential people on my grandmother’s side of the family. Influential to me. The men and women who are now part of my history book, traditions needing to be chronicled before atrophy of the mind takes over.

My wife and I loved going to Aunt Nicky’s house just about every Friday for lunch. At times she would do just a cheese omelet with toast,  or a small pot roast on top of the stove. Or a stuffed meatloaf that she called Italian Style. A very simple meal, but one with great taste. The meal would always be accompanied by a glass of red wine in a tumbler glass. Or two.

She always fascinated my wife and I with stories of her younger days: living in the seaside town of Terracina in Italy, making it sound like the perfect vacation spot.  Of surviving bombing raids that were a little too close for comfort during World War II; and ducking German soldiers looking to loot through the properties that they had just destroyed.

Life wasn’t easy here in America, either. She did a lifetime of very physical work while she lived here, and she had more than her share of troubles and heartache. But like the rest of her family, she was a fighter that always moved forward and did what she could to live her best life possible.

My wife had thanked me on more than a couple of occasions for giving her the gift of a relationship with my godmother. I understand how she feels. She was a gift to me too.

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