I kicked off the new year a few weeks ago with my parents and grandparents, and to celebrate we played bowling, ping pong, and sword dueling on the Wii. (To join the rockin’ party, visit the “New Year’s Eve 2011” photo album.) We have to turn my rug around to make an alley for my father to get a running start. He has to bowl as though he actually has the ball in his hands, as opposed to the Wii remote, and he took a major spill on my hard wood floors the first time he played on Christmas. The traction from the rug helps, but he jumps so hard at the end of each run that the house shakes. Still, he usually wins. But on New Year’s Eve, Grandma was the big winner of the night. She was pretty great at bowling strikes and popping the ping pong ball to win points. I, however, earned the title of sword dueling champion. I credit all my pent-up anger for those wins. I just pretend the avatar I’m facing is one of the many enemies I collected like bottle tops in 2010. (Shut up, you all know who you are!) All those enemies sunk into the virtual ocean, baby, and it felt oh so good. Although we were all sore the next day, we had so much fun that I’ve been continuing to Wii with my husband Antonio. I can be a sore loser, however, so I sometimes get a time out. Still, a good time is generally had by all, and my time is better when I win.
A merry Christmas managed to sneak up on me in 2010. (For photos, visit the “Christmas 2010” photo album.) After one of the worst years of my life, I had zero expectations for enjoying the holiday. But it was definitely one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. The party in Florida was a joy – especially now that we can spoil my niece Maria – and then I visited with some of the most important people in my life and feasted on fish with my cousins Big John, Miesha, and their family, some friends, and my parents on Christmas Eve. Our Babbo Natale made yet another memorable appearance for Big John’s kids, Nina and Marissa. On Christmas Day, my parents came over, and the three of us chowed down on pretzel bread, potato leek soup, and cornish hens, all of which I made with my own two hands. Delish! Following the meal, my parents napped while I cleaned and then we watched some Real Housewives of New Jersey, my favorite guilty pleasure, and played dueling and bowling on the Wii. Papa was the big winner in bowling. We capped off the night with tomato salad atop pretzel bread. Sounds like perfection, no?
There was no way my parents, Zio Antonio, and I (Zia Francesca) would miss 8-month-old Maria’s first Christmas. Although we can’t be with her on Dec. 25, we threw a Christmas bash like no other six days ahead of schedule at Zia Rosaria’s pad in Florida. Zio Antonio and I spent the week having Maria warm up to us – both literally and figuratively — as we forced her and her parents to tour Disney World in the freezing temperatures (I mean even the Disney topiaries were covered in white blankets).
We learned a few things on this trip, among them that Maria looks so cute you could just eat her up whenever she wears any fuzzy outfits that have ears to make her look like a bunny and that she has quite a sense of humor, not to mention a huge appetite. There is also no question that she is related to us. Her belly tells the whole story. The kid can eat, and even when she shouldn’t eat, she does. The other day she ate a chunk of garlic off the floor where her papa’ had been cooking, and she didn’t even wince. But her mother confirms that she was stinky for pretty much the entire day. If she had cleaned the floor with a little bleach after the garlic, she might have smelled like her older zii.
Maria’s role models? Bella and Shilo, the family dogs, which might be why she thinks it’s natural to eat off the floor, sleep on a big cushion or even a tile in the middle of Zia Rosaria’s living room, and she begs for scraps from the table. Although I gest, she does have one helluva time getting into mischief with the dogs. They are her best friends for now, and she is especially cute with Shilo, who lets her pull his tail, jump on him, and chew toys and books with him.
The only way Maria could love them more is if they could feed her. That’s what she likes about all of us, I think. We overindulged her desire to eat more and more tiny morsels of apples, peaches, potatoes, pancakes, chicken, waffles, and yogurt. As a result, the child who never spits up or vomits threw up on us twice. All our fault! I’m actually honored she threw up on me.
Highlights of our time with Maria include Nonno Pasquale demanding that Tigger, who Maria followed all over the room with her eyes while at breakfast at 1900 Park Fare in Disney’s Grand Floridian, come to say hello to us and take a picture immediately, Maria and Donald Duck having matching sombreros in EPCOT’s Mexico pavillion, and the moments she shared with Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), who might have secretly been her Nonno Pasquale, and his reindeer, who might have been Nonna Regina. My personal best memory, however, was Maria curling up under my arm and falling asleep. So sweet!
To enjoy more photos of Nonno Pasquale as Babbo Natale and Maria with all the characters (and some of the rest of us, too), then check out “Maria’s 1st Christmas” photo album. Buon Natale a tutti!
The American Top 40 list features the song “We No Speak Americano” by the Australian duo Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup, which includes a sample and remix of the Italian classic “Tu Vuo Fa’ l’Americano” by Renato Carosone. My husband Antonio, above, still no speak Americano and neither do most of my relatives, who live in the United States. Ok, maybe they speak it, but it’s their own version that is, let’s just say, very Italiano influenced. That’s what drew me to this song.
When I heard about it – thanks to my 12-year-old cousin Antonio and his mom, who are way hipper than I am, I realized that my family is ahead of its time. My nonni and parents were singing this tune – and dancing to the original – way back in the 1950s before they even left Italy. My father has been known to fist pump to this tune while driving. Yeah, he was fist pumping long before Pauly D. Carosone is my family’s Jay Z. He sang the songs that spoke to the paesani and in their language, the Neapolitan dialect. No shidizzle. On “We No Speak Americano,” that’s not real Italian you’re hearing, people. That’s our street speak. And now folks from Australia to the Jersey Shore are joining my people on the dance floor and speaking our language. Who would have thought my papa’ and nonni were so very cool? First Tony Soprano makes their body type sexy and now this!
Listen to Carosone’s “Tu Vuo Fa l’Americano” on YouTube
Listen to Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup’s “We No Speak Americano” on YouTube
The hubby is back in the United States with his green card in hand (almost, because it should be arriving via mail very soon). My parents gave him his very own barbecue grill as a gift in honor of his little piece of Americana. And a little chill in the air isn’t stopping him from grilling like it’s the fourth of July. In fact, just this afternoon he threw tuna steak and swordfish on the grill for lunch.
The very first day he was home, he picked up one of the huge pumpkins on our porch and started cutting it up. It was a major undertaking. I’m still sweeping up pumpkin seeds that fell under the kitchen counter and island, and he worked on this project more than a week ago. We also lost a J.A. Henckels knife in the process. Antonio stuck the knife into the pumpkin and when he pulled it out, he had only half a blade in his hand. The rest was jammed into the meat of the pumpkin. The company guarantees the knives for a lifetime, so we sent it back. We’ll see what happens. Regardless, after grilling the pumpkin Antonio bathed it in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, salt, and hot pepper. Can you say delishooos like an Italian trying to speak English? Well, Antonio can and did and so did I. Happy grilling to all and to all a good night!
Every year, we host a Halloween party for our younger cousins. Some of them are getting too old to dress up, but no one is too old for crafts (not even their parents). So, this year we turned the backyard into a pumpkin patch and painted (and glittered) to our heart’s delight. We were a mess, but it was so much fun no one cared. It didn’t hurt that Zio Pasquale (my papa’) was teaching the kids how to make wine and giving out cups of grape juice (really, it was grape juice and not yet wine). Some of the kids found it too sweet. Others loved it. Combine the juice with the many, many cupcakes in which we indulged and you get one big sugar high. We used all that energy for creating magnificent works of art. You can see all the pumpkins and the artists (and even the wine making) by visiting the “Pumpkin Painting Party” photo album. Happy Halloween!
My cousin Greg married Renee over the weekend, and it was a great excuse for my mom’s side of the family to get together. (Send your well wishes to the newlyweds, see their photo, and check out my blog on how marriage means maturity on the About.com Newlyweds site.) Most of us live in the New York metropolitan area, but we had to travel to Michigan for the wedding. It was quite a journey. Some people, including my eighty-something grandparents and my Godson Nicholas (above at a Grand Rapids, Mich. restaurant with me), were very courageous and traveled all together in an RV. It takes 16 hours to get to Michigan from New York, and they spent all that quality time…together…in a camper. And my grandfather Rocco insisted on bringing broccoli rabe. Imagine the farts that flew in those cramped quarters.
I refused to take that route for the obvious reasons. I opted to travel by plane to Chicago with my mom Regina and sister Rosaria. After a stop in Chicago, where we walked passed the Sears Tower (because it’s not called that anymore) and had to go back and inhaled some good grub, we took to the road. We drove what was supposed to be four hours to Grand Rapids, Mich. A wrong turn and disfunctional GPS had us take six hours. But we laughed all the way. It set the tone for wedding weekend.
While the weekend included smelly feet, a need for an enema, and incessant text messaging (when we were right next to each other), there was also playing peek-a-boo with the babies, kisses for Uncle Gino, and Chicago-style, stuffed, deep-dish pizza. What more could a nice Italian girl want? To see what I’m talking about, visit the “Greg & Renee’s Wedding” and “Portraits – Greg’s Wedding” photo albums.
Back in September my husband surprised me by taking me to sample the tasting menu at Il Mosaico, the restaurant at the five-star Manzi hotel in Ischia, Italy, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my husband and my ancestors. With two Michelin stars, Il Mosaico offers nouvelle cuisine at its best. Chef Nino Di Costanzo is a true artist who makes dishes that are as beautiful to the eye as they are delicious. I loved the food and the experience so much that I’ve gone on a writing frenzy about the chef’s table; I wrote a blog for the About.com Newlyweds site about how couples could splurge on tasting menus for date night or anniversary celebrations and an article that will appear both on the ItaliansRus Web site and in an upcoming issue of the La Voce newspaper, which is dedicated to Italian Americans in Las Vegas. For more Manzi madness, and my own personal photos from the night at Il Mosaico, visit the “Dinner at Manzi” photo album.
Gnocchi, pasta made with potatoes, has always been a friend of mine. Gnocchi, the best of it anyway, melts in your mouth and serves as the perfect carrier of sauce. My favorite sauces are brown butter with sage (which goes nicely with the potatoes in the gnocchi) or tomato sauce with mozzarella, which is also known as “alla Sorrentina.” Gnocchi and I are BFFs who go back a long way, but it wasn’t always a simple relationship.
I was frustrated with gnocchi. It’s hard to make the potato pasta from scratch. The first and last time my mother tried her hand at gnocchi, she seemed to have done a great job. Then, she popped her delicate gnocchi into the pot of boiling water and they would simply disappear. It was magic. Actually, she probably just didn’t use enough flour, which does make the gnocchi heavier. She had good intentions. But the trick is to get a feel for the gnocchi. After lots of practice, you start to realize just how much flour you need to keep the gnocchi light but also keep them in one piece. Ever since my mom’s gnocchi blunder, we always keep a box of pasta nearby in case our gnocchi doesn’t make it.
Making gnocchi is a wonderful distraction and probably even reduces stress (once you get past the practice stage that is). One Sunday morning recently, I set out to make gnocchi. (To view photos, visit the “Gnocchi alla Sorrentina” photo album.) I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years. I use instructions and the recipe from Lidia Bastianich. To make them alla Sorrentina, I used my own recipe. I basically made a marinara sauce (minus the onions), boiled the gnocchi, put the gnocchi in individual baking dishes, smothered it in mozzarella and put it in the oven until the cheese was melted, bubbling, and slightly brown.
My next goal: To try Bastianich’s recipe for butternut squash gnocchi, which appeared in a recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine. My mouth is already watering.
Please share your recipes with my readers at the About.com Newlyweds’ Recipe Exchange. I can’t wait to see them!
Many of you know that I’ve been on a health kick lately, which has me stretching my body for the Wii gods in ways I didn’t think possible and drinking gallons of water and green tea and eating wheat, fruits, and vegetables by the ton. But I can’t give up delicious food (c’mon, you know the wheat tastes like cardboard), and I’ve been experimenting with recipes for special occasions, which is when I’m allowed to cheat a little. When I saw the recipe for this layer cake in the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I knew it would be the perfect birthday cake for Mamma Regina. And I think it won points with the ‘rents.
I have to admit that I didn’t follow the recipe to a T. I was a little bit pressed for time (not to mention, lazy). I used Presto cake flour, which includes the baking powder and salt already. I also made four layers instead of five because five would require baking yet one more cake, and it was already almost 11 p.m. (Way past my bedtime!) In the end, I failed to get whole and evaporated milk, both of which were necessary for the icing. So, I used fudge icing from a can that I purchased. I know that was pretty bad. Sorry. I’ll try and do better next time. Still, I think the cakes were moist and tasty with a hint of vanilla. (You can see the cake and Mamma Regina by visiting the “Mamma’s Birthday 2010” photo album.) Of course, the cake could never be as sweet as my Mamma.