Meatballs comfort me in my darkest hours. It’s not that I like them so much. I wouldn’t call them my favorite food. But their symbolism is powerful. They are round like a warm bear hug. They require a loved one to mold them with their own two hands. Each chef has his own way of making them. Of course, in Italian families they are a Sunday Funday staple.
In our house, Nonno is the meatball maker. My son does not each much – especially related to our Italian cuisine – but he eats meatballs. My nephew eats them so joyfully that I wonder if he will turn into a meatball. And my niece will eat one, along with her sauceless spaghetti, every Sunday. The meatball unites generations. It’s a little ball of love with potent powers. It stops tears. It ends wars – at least in our house. A tray of meatballs is the sign of peace.
Put the ground meat in a big bowl. This is a preference call. Some Italian nonnas insist on making meatballs with a mix of ground veal, pork, and beef. My father either combines the pork and beef or just uses one or the other. The good news is you can make this to suit the tastes of your family. Don’t try arguing with any nonna or nonno about why your preference is the best way to do it. You will lose.
Mix the ground meat with the eggs, oregano, parsley, salt, pepper, and Parmigiano cheese. You might want to use less salt and pepper, depending on your dietary needs and preference.
Roll the meat mixture into balls. I usually use either a cookie or ice cream scoop to start and then finish molding the ball with my hands. Try to keep them all about the same size for more even cooking.
How to Cook
Cook the meatballs. Now, you can put them on baking sheets and cook them in the oven. Or you can fry them (as I did in the photo above). The baked ones are not bad. But you should put some oil on your baking sheet and open one up to make sure they are cooked through before taking them out of the oven. (Whenever I’ve cooked meatballs in the oven, I have cooked them at 400 degrees F.) If you’re frying them, heat about a half-inch of olive oil or canola oil in a pan, then put them in and fry them, making sure to brown all sides. Again, I would hack one open to make sure they are getting cooked through. If the outside layer is getting dark too fast, lower the heat.
The final step is to put the meatballs in sauce. You could cook the meatballs in the sauce or finish cooking them in the sauce. Some people simply add the already cooked meatballs to the warm sauce and serve. My in-laws sometimes like the meatballs with no sauce at all. Mix it up. Surprise me.
The sweet scent of beef and bones sautéing in garlic-laced olive oil and stewing, pureed tomato pulp woke me up every Sunday morning when I was a kid. I would come down the stairs, still wiping the sleep from my eyes, to find my bare chested, hefty bellied papa’ swinging a wooden spoon around the pot. As he melded the flavors – a labor of love that took hours to get right – he would shuffle his feet.
In the background, he would have on MTV, the nascent music cable channel and his absolute favorite. When Cyndi Lauper or Madonna or Michael Jackson would appear on the screen, he would twirl me all around the kitchen with his spoon still in hand. All the while the while we would hear the other music in the room, the bubbling sauce, whose perfume was intoxicating.
It was the most delightful way to start the day, which is why I still relish the making of the sauce as much as the devouring of it. Now, I want to share my father’s precious Sunday sauce recipe, which has been handed down for generations, with all of you:
Beef short ribs or flanken
Half a glass of white wine (you can substitute red wine if you’re without white)
2 Cans of crushed tomatoes
Glass of water
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Then, add chopped garlic. If you’d rather remove the chunks of garlic before serving, keep them large, so they will be visible. Add meat and brown it. Then, add wine. Let the alcohol cook off. Add the crushed tomatoes, water, oregano, and salt. Bring it to a heavy simmer. Then, put the flame on its lowest setting, cover the pot, and allow it to cook for one hour. Stir occasionally. After the first hour, leave the cover half off and let the sauce cook for another hour. Serve over boiled pasta and put the meat from the sauce in a separate serving dish for eating as well. You’ll want some Italian bread for “la scarpetta.”
I have a big secret. My mother and I are not keen on crushed tomatoes. The pieces of tomato skin that end up in your sauce aren’t appealing to us. So, when we make the sauce, we replace the crushed tomatoes with cans of plain tomato sauce or the jars of tomato puree imported from Italy. You can also use the conserva (the tomatoes you crush yourselves and jar for the winter).
Also, my husband likes Bolgnese sauce, which can be heavier and more challenging to make. So, to give him a taste of what he likes without the heavy cream, I use this recipe as a base. Then, I replace the crushed tomatoes with the sauce as I described. But I also replace the bone-in meat with ground beef and finely diced carrots.
I also always include fresh basil if it’s available in our garden.
Finally, another way to enjoy this is to replace the bone-in meat with sausage or a combination of ground beef and sausage. You can also use chicken and turkey, but since they are leaner meats, you won’t have the same flavor.
Now, there are no measurements in this recipe, which I know can be frustrating. But that’s how families often cook. The fun will be in experimenting until you get it right for you and yours. Also, my father wants me to tell you to drink some of the wine while you cook and save the meat to eat “come secondo,” as the second course after your pasta. Buon appetito!
NOTE FROM ITALIAN MAMMA- My paternal Nonno Giovanni Di Meglio – who we referred to in Neapolitan dialect as Unonn – has been dead more than 20 years now. But I can easily imagine the kind of advice he’d give to this year’s graduates (or graduates from any era really). So, I decided to channel him and write the commencement speech I think he would have given after forcing one of his famous noogie farts on me. Remember that this isn’t necessarily a reflection of my opinions but what I think he would say. Granted, he would have said it in Neapolitan dialect, which is decidedly more colorful than standard English (and with a few four-letter words thrown in for good measure.) He also would have had a glass of wine at the ready while giving the speech. Forgive us those sins and read on.
Until now, your life has been sugarcoated. You probably won an award for everything – raising your hand, coming to class every day, wiping yourself properly, breathing. That’s never going to happen again. In my opinion, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I had to climb mountains – literally – on a daily basis as a boy and there was never a certificate or medal. Talking about wiping yourself – I sometimes had to do it with a leaf in the woods. Now that deserved an award, but I never got one. My parents never showered me with praise. You know why? It was my duty to go up that mountain and tend to vegetable gardens and grapevines that we planted, grew, and sold to support ourselves. Actually, sometimes they told me I didn’t climb fast enough. And they definitely would have kicked my ass if I didn’t do it at all.
That’s the problem you’re going to have. That’s why life wasn’t “real” before this moment. No one has kicked your dainty little ass. Out there, beyond these walls and your parent’s loving arms – you’re going to get your ass kicked. It will happen on a regular basis. Your ass will be as red as the tomatoes in my garden in August. It will swell. It will be that simple. Your perpetual standing ovation is over and out. In this real world, you might work 100 hours per week, and increase sales, but if the bottom line doesn’t show better-than-expected results, somebody is going to kick your ass. If you don’t end up getting that bonus that you and your family were counting on, your spouse is going to kick your ass. Your kids – if you decide to have them – won’t necessarily kick your ass, but every time they want or need something – a family vacation, toys, books for school, some medical procedure, clothes, shelter, food – and you can’t afford it, you will feel a punch in the gut. So, ultimately, I guess they kick your ass, too.
Now that you’re bruised and battered and wondering how you can return to the womb that has been your high school or university, man and woman up. I’m about to teach you how to live with the ass whoopings – and perhaps even thrive despite them.
1. Make money and save it. Lots of people probably told you to follow your heart and worry about making money later. That’s bad advice. Ask any immigrant. When is later? You needed to worry about it from birth. If you had good parents, they worried for you. If not, then at least you should have started thinking about it when you started planning for the future of your education and a career. Sure, you might find happiness helping people and doing volunteer work. I guess I can see that. But if you don’t have enough money for food, clothes, and shelter, you’re never going to be happy or at least that’s the case for the majority of us, barring a couple of priests I know. I had 9 children and 7 survived to adulthood. I needed to feed them all, not to mention my wife and me. Sure, maybe, picking grapes for wine making for free would have put a smile on my face, but that wasn’t going to put pasta in their bellies. Capisce? Find something you like, but make sure it’s going to pay the bills. Then, save your money. Don’t waste it on frivolous junk like a chadrool.
2. Eat well and on time. Food is fuel. You’re never going to be able to produce without eating. We southern Italians make our meals a top priority. Our dishes are made with the utmost care, usually by our mammas but even us men get in on the act sometimes. Almost everything is homemade, and most of us grow our own fruits and vegetables. We care for our gardens as though they are our second or third jobs. You can call us the original organics. Eat and drink well – I never had dinner without a glass of homemade wine – and you’ll be setting yourself up for a good life. You need routine and discipline to succeed, so make sure to also eat on time everyday. My family will tell you that I would erupt like Vesuvius whenever they had me wait even a few minutes for Sunday lunch. God be merciful on those who had the antipasto on the table at 1:05 in the afternoon. Since your boss will probably feel the same way about your meetings, get a watch and be on time starting now.
3. Wake up early. The only reasons a person should wake up after 6 a.m. are if they are dying, they worked the night shift, or they are lazy bums. I’m proud to say my children – who are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties now – are already dressed, ready for the day, and calling each other to say good morning by 6 a.m. Sometimes, they even show up at each other’s houses bearing fruits and vegetables from said gardens by then. Why? Because early risers rule the world.
4. Work hard. Those constant kudos and plastic trophies are gone forever. What is going to get you through the world successfully is working hard every day. If you are willing to get your hands dirty and put in the hours, then you just might get ahead. You have to fill your days with work. You have to be so tired at the end of the day that you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. Believe me, hard workers don’t have time to waste on worry. We knew nothing of stress in my day because we were zappatori, the guys who used shovels to grow the land. We sweat until our clothes were as wet as they are in the washing machine. We were in boot camp all day long moving our legs and arms until they felt like rubber. Stress is a problem for the rich and those lazy bums who can navel gaze. Get the job done. Always. Work until you die. A lack of work – sitting around with nothing to do – is the real killer of men. You, be alive!
What makes a life? In the end, we will not be measured by the weight of gold we’ve stashed under the mattress or even our career or lack thereof. Rather, we will be judged by the number of people whose lives we’ve touched, the love we’ve shared, the family we’ve built, and the memories we’ve made.
Few people have achieved as much life success in that way as my grandpa, Rocco Di Costanzo. But it was not without risk or obstacle. When he traveled with me to his native Ischia in 2004 – the last trip he ever made home – we walked the old road to Maronti, which is today the largest and most popular beach on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. Back when Grandpa lived there it was all beaches and mountains, sites for the natives to work the land and keep a simple life and not the tourist trap it is now. So, we walked the old road to Maronti, one of the last vestiges of the island’s past, to honor the fact that Grandpa had made that same journey everyday as a boy when he had to till soil and tend to a family garden. My grandparents were in their 70s at the time, and I was a 20-something just getting over bronchitis and there was rocky terrain, dirt roads, enormous cobblestone staircases, rolling hills, and uphill challenges that I feared would kill us. Although it may have contributed to a massive knee injury one day later (mine, not my grandparents, thank God), I’ve never regretted that walk. Not ever.
All the way, Grandpa remembered his youth out loud – planting tomatoes on their property, sneaking cigarettes, the feel of the sand, running with his brothers on the beach, his parents, and all the rest. Indeed, when you look closely at the pictures of him on that walk with me – in his “I’m an old, Italian man” hat – you can see both the boy and the man.
Grandpa gave me – gave us – so many memories like that one. He bestowed upon us a love of the Yankees and trips to the stadium, an utter devotion to family, and a desire to see both our relatives, many of whom live abroad, and the world. He shared with me: Ischia (twice), Paris, Washington, D.C., and Canada. In fact, my cousin Morgan and I still have the Labatt Bleue can marks stamped on our bottoms (from sitting on cases of the beer) to remember our trip with him to Montreal. If I recall correctly my brother’s seat was a giant piece of unsliced prosciutto.
Grandpa gave us other stuff, too – narrow-angle glaucoma, baldness, our loud mouths and an uncanny ability to insert a foot in them, and a weakness for cigarettes and whiskey. Some or all of these qualities may apply to you. But that was just the well-worth-it price you paid to be Rocco Di Costanzo’s relative.
Ultimately, like any immigrant, Grandpa gave us the greatest gift of all: the opportunity to dream and actually chase it. When he was a young man coming to the United States for the first time, he was making sacrifices few people would make for the children he hadn’t had yet and the grandchildren and great grandchildren he couldn’t yet fathom. Would you marry a stranger to get access to a foreign land? Would you leave your parents and siblings virtually forever? Would you move to a place with a completely different cuisine, history, culture, and language?
My grandparents didn’t even know each other when they wed more than 60 years ago, so Grandpa could legally come to the United States. At 19 and 20, they were mere babies by today’s standards. For Grandpa, it meant leaving behind everything he ever knew. Together, my grandparents raised six kids, five of them boys. Having one boy myself – who looks and acts like my uncles – I marvel at that fact everyday. I can barely handle the one. My grandparents worked hard to feed and shelter these kids. They sent them to school to receive an education my grandfather could never have imagined in his native Ischia.
They did it all, so we could make marks with pens and not shovels in our work, start our own businesses, breed birds, pilot a plane, work for a hockey team, marry our soul mates whom we dated before marrying, serve as leaders and not followers, and be bona-fide Americans, replete with passports and New York (or New Jersey or Michigan) accents. Sure, Grandpa helped build the lunar module as a soldier for Grumman and successfully brought back slave labor when “hiring” his sons to work for him when running a small landscaping business. And he may or may not have caused a few fires and a couple of serious injuries when doing housework that still have us both laughing and crying. Yet, he managed to keep all his fingers. “Miracolo,” as they say in the old country.
Still, his kind heart and unmatched generosity – just ask all his neighbors about his good deeds, such as blowing their leaves for free and bringing over fruits and veggies straight from his garden – are what we’ll miss most. For goodness sake, the man lost his leg nearly a decade ago, and he was still doing yard work, trying to clean up snow, and cooking for Uncle Gino – and anyone else who was around – until very recently. In the last six weeks of his life, Grandpa became someone else, someone he never wanted to be – a dependent, a burden even. When he understood what was happening, he was praying for God to take him. But in his moments of clarity, he sent loud and clear messages to us. On his last truly lucid day in the hospital, I asked him if he knew who I was. “If I didn’t know you, Francesca, I wouldn’t know myself,” he told me. He had to repeat it because we weren’t sure if that was what he said the first time. He wasn’t just talking to me. I was just the one in front of him. He was telling all of us with those words that we’re apart of him. And that can never change.
When I arrived at his house with my mom, his only daughter, and my cousin Morgan on March 28, he was still alive. We could hear him moaning in pain when my uncle and grandmother lifted him, and we waited on the bottom of the stairs for them to change and dress him. We heard him say yes and then no when Uncle Gino asked him to sit up. And then we came up the stairs and we each kissed him and felt his last breaths on our faces. My grandmother held his head and tried to get him to talk to her. Two minutes later – just like that – he left our world for another more beautiful one. He waited for the elder women of the family because we women are the uniters of family, the givers of life. With those last three kisses – one for each of us – and those final breaths he was saying hello and good-bye to us all. It’s my honor and privilege to remind you that he is living on inside each of us, his family – and not just the people in the United States but the nieces, nephews, brother, and in-laws he has around the world in Italy, France, Australia, Argentina, Canada.
There’s no question that his greatest legacy is this family. He would not want us to cry over him. Instead, he would want us to love hard and raise a glass, or shot, in his honor – together – as often as possible. “I’ll drink to that.”
Nonno – otherwise known as my father – loves to give his grandchildren a loaf of Italian bread each. He gets a kick out of how the two boys chew on it like it’s the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread. I know. I know. This is anti-everything healthy. But it’s so very Italian of us to hand our kids Italian bread as a snack. And ain’t nobody stoppin’ Nonno, although I’d love to see one of the moms in the Kale Chip Gestapo try. Now that would be a match for the ages!
Once these little guys are talking in complete sentences, their complaints about belly aches post bread will be very Italian, too. This week’s installment of Our Paesani on ItaliansRus will have you laughing out loud with its assessment of indigestion among Italians. It’s a cultural phenomenon, akin to Topo Gigio, that rarely gets the attention it deserves. So, grab your belly and hang on ’cause it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Blogger’s note: I implore you to read this to the end because it will have you laughing. Did you know “Gangaroo” means “Gatorade”? Or that “Pinoli” means “Pine-Sol”? Well, if you’re from my family, you probably did. Everyone else in the world is in the dark, I know. But when you’re the child of an immigrant, you usually grow up with your own little language. My aunt coined Gangaroo and my uncle Pinoli years ago. And my father, well, he has his own name for just about everything. As you might have guessed by this blog and my endless stories, my family is originally from Italy, specifically the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples.
Before my father moved to the United States – other than the hours he was in school (which he often cut to play soccer) – he spoke the Neapolitan dialect of that era. Since then, he graduated from American high school and has been running his own business in the United States for nearly 50 years. Still, when he’s with his sisters and other relatives today, he speaks his mother tongue. He listens to music in that dialect. And he talks to us in what I can only describe as a mix of Neapolitan dialect and Ital-English. Anyone with a nonno or papa from the second wave of immigration knows what I’m talking about. “In da yahhhd,” which means “In the yard,” which really means, “In the garden,” is a common phrase strewn about, as is “Lock-a la portahhhh,” which means “Lock the door.” I could go on, but I will spare you.
While it’s very funny to watch other people try to understand this bastardized English, I end up rolling on the floor laughing (usually literally) like swine at the bottom of a mud slide whenever my father tries to deal with names, even Italian ones. He can never remember them. His explanations to try and get us to understand who he is talking about are the stuff of family legend.
Recently, we were talking on Skype as we do most mornings. My mom and him were sitting in the kitchen/computer room in their American home, and I was in my husband’s Italian kitchen. My father was recounting something he saw on Entertainment Tonight, “you know the show with the paparazzi who bother all the famous people.” If you knew my father, the fact that he was watching ET would have been enough to have you laughing. “There, he was,” he says, “Peppino di Capri, you know the young, handsome actor.”
“No, no, I don’t know the young, handsome actor Peppino di Capri. I know the 100-year-old singer Peppino, who is from Capri in Italy and who would never ever be on ET,” I reply, already beginning to laugh because I can only imagine who he is talking about.
“You know, the actor. He’s young and famous, wins awards. You know who I’m talking about. He’s like Peppino di Capri,” he replies.
“Do you mean Robert De Niro?” my mother asks. (By the way, De Niro is 70, so young is in the eye of the beholder, apparently.)
And I’m already laughing so hard that I can’t go on. Tears are rolling down my cheeks, and I just barely get out, “It can not be. Who is young and like Peppino di Capri?”
“I know you know who I’m talking about,” my father, starting to get frustrated, shouts. “You know. You know, di Capri!”
I’m now on the floor laughing so hard that I can’t breathe and my Baby Boy is probably thinking that he’s going to have to call Italy’s version of 9-1-1 (which probably would never come anyway) to get help for crazy mommy.
“Ohhhhh, I know who you’re talking about,” my mother says. “Leonardo Di Caprio.”
“Finalmente, you capito,” my father replies.
“Of course, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio is just like Peppino di Capri,” I say. Roll of the eyes and laughter continues. Make a mental note to myself: must call my brother and sister to tell them about this. Who else would appreciate this as much? Oh, maybe anyone who reads my blog.
I long for an Ischia that I never knew. My father, a native of the Neapolitan island in Italy, regaled me with story after story of a paradise filled with loving family and neighbors who tended to one another in the difficult times, made sure no one had to go without during war, and celebrated all of life’s small joys – from saint feast days to Natale (Christmas). He spoke of his youth playing soccer when he should have been at school, working as an altar boy in the local church, and the pretty girls who caught his eye at 13 just before he headed off to America with his parents and two sisters. Reminiscing, he would tell us how he – the youngest child – would play chaperone to his sisters on Sunday afternoons in the piazza. It was his job to kick the shins of the young men who wanted to speak to his sisters for more than five minutes at a time. After all, their reputations were at stake.
The people of Ischia didn’t have much back then, in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, some relatives recall being short on food during World War II. My father has no recollection of this. As the baby of the family and having been born just as the war ended, he missed that. Certainly, however, he can admit that he and his siblings never would have achieved the depths of success in Ischia that they have in America. They can boast having run their own businesses, owning multiple homes, and sending children to college and off to tackle their own accomplishments. These are things many an islander can only dream of, even, and perhaps especially, today.
Still, what Ischia lacked in wealth it made up for in nature and the character of its people. Known as L’Isola Verde (the Green Island), this place has one lush landscape and with the mountains as a backdrop for the sea, one can hardly turn around without bumping into beauty. There’s no question that there are still elements of this sparkle in Ischia’s modern landscape. True, gas guzzling cars, construction, and gruff tourists detract from it once in a while, but the mountains and the sea, the flowers and the plants, the woods and the vegetation are still here. One walk down the street and you can catch glimpses of it.
What I think I’m missing from Ischia of yesteryear are the people. My own Nonna (Grandma) delivered her nine children on her own in her humble home and as a mid-wife, she helped others – even someone who gave birth to triplets – bring life into the world. Nonno (Grandpa) would harvest grapes, make wine, and sell vegetables to keep the family afloat. He was a great saver to boot and instilled a sense of planning for the future in all of us. And no matter how grueling the work under the scorching hot sun in the summer and even fall, Nonno would take it on like a superhero. His wife and kids did, too. They’d also have their fun. No matter how tough times were, La Befana would fill the kids’ stockings with tangerines, walnuts, and No. 2 pencils for school. My Nonno would head to the local bar, play cards with his friends, and participate in the folk troupe as the clarinet player. Nonna would make bread from scratch and chat up the neighbors.
When they had the chance to move to America, even though they were in their 50s, and had created a full life in Ischia, they seized the opportunity without hesitation and without looking back. They did it for me (and my father and aunts and uncles and cousins). But I was part of the equation. They didn’t know me yet for my father was only 13 at the time, but they were thinking about his future and the future of his unborn kids. They knew we could do better if we got off the island.
Unexpectedly, I have returned to their island home. I look all around me and wonder if there are people here today with the same kind of character as my grandparents. I wonder if anyone has the same gumption, the same drive, the same commitment to their family. Who would be willing to give up their three-hour afternoon siesta and nights playing scopa with Gianpiero in the piazza to break their ass working seven days a week in America, so their children and future grandchildren could do better than they did? While I know there are hard workers tucked into every corner of the Earth, I don’t know that anyone is willing to make the same sacrifices that immigrants such as my grandparents did, at least not from this neck of the woods. Truly, I’m not sure such people exist anywhere anymore.
So, I cry and cry at the injustice of it all. I want to know people like my grandparents. I want to support them and break bread with them. I want them to inspire me. I’m nostalgic for the times I could share with these people I don’t know, who may or may not exist. I want a simpler Ischia, an Ischia where everyone knows your name but rather than judge you, they embrace you. Rather than seeking the latest Ralph Lauren shirts, they are seeking a greater good. Rather than defiling the paradise in which they were born, they aim to keep it pristine. Rather than being obsessed with putting on a good show (hello bella figura), they are obsessed with being good people. Those were the days that maybe never were, but to which I’d like to cling if but for a moment.