Italian cooking is a very simple cuisine. What sets it apart from other cuisines is not by technique but by knowledge of the ingredients. Italians know that it’s the authenticity of the ingredients that makes their dishes absolutely delicious! There are not a lot of ingredients in a typical Italian dish but each of the ingredients are of the highest quality and freshness.
We bring this very essence into the making of our 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce. What sets it apart from other marinara sauces on the market is that fact that we make sure that the ingredients of the highest quality. And one thing that we bring to marinara sauce is fresh herbs. So I thought in this post I would like to really delve into fresh and dry herbs and Italian cooking.
Herbs are vital to Italian cooking. Having an herb garden is essential to every Italian cook. Basil goes hand in hand with tomatoes. They belong together. But I have to emphasize to use fresh basil. Dry basil has no flavor. Parsley is also another herb that has no flavor if it’s dry. And there is no excuse to not use fresh basil and fresh parsley in your cooking. They are both readily available in your local supermarket. As far as parsley there are 2 kinds that are available. There is Italian parsley and the curly parsley. The curly parsley has a bland parsley flavor and is used mostly for décor rather than flavor. Italian parsley or the flat leaf parsley is much bolder in flavor and used for cooking. So if a recipe calls for parsley be sure to get Italian flat leafed parsley.
Storage of your fresh herbs vary if they are soft with tender stems or hard with woody stems. Soft herbs are treated like flowers. You cut off the stems and place in a glass of fresh water. They can be stored in the fridge this way covered with a plastic bag. Basil is very sensitive and never store in the ridge but rather on your countertop. If it has a woody stem, those herbs should be wrapped in a damp paper towel and wrapped loosely in plastic wrap in the fridge.
Don’t get me wrong, Italians do use dry herbs but never, NEVER basil or parsley! If a label just lists basil or parsley without the word fresh then its a dry tasteless herb!
I am going to share with you three recipes that are herb intensive. I am going to share a Grilled Shrimp Pesto with 825 MAIN Marinara to dip into on the side, Ciabatta bread with an Italian Salsa Verde, and a Fennel Marinara Sauce using the 825 MAIN Marinara.
I know I promised I was going to write down 50 recipes as my 2015 New Year’s Resolution but it took me longer than I expected to combine cooking, writing, pictures and memories. But no worries Jim and I will continue this fun project into 2016!
For the New Year I would like to share the recipe for Scallops Belvedere. But before I delve right into the recipe I thought I would tell you all about scallops. To cook scallops perfectly one needs to really understand scallops. As I have often say about Italian cooking it not just about the recipe but the quality of the ingredients!
We often see the typical white round scallop behind glass at the fish market. But were you aware that scallops are mollusks that have two beautiful convexly ridged, or scalloped, shells. I am sure you have all come across the scallop shell at one time or other while taking a walk on the beach looking for the perfect shell! The edible portion of the scallop is the white muscle that opens and closes the two shells and is called the “nut.” The reproductive glands known as “coral” are also edible, but not widely consumed here in the US.
In the US we have three kinds of scallops available: Sea scallops, bay scallops and calico scallops. For the Scallops Belvedere recipe, we use sea scallops. Sea scallops are relatively large, often 1½-2 inches in diameter, and are perfect for searing. We don’t recommend bay scallops because they are much smaller and not as good for searing. The Calico scallops are also not recommended because their shells are so tightly closed they must be steamed open before any further preparation. The season for fresh sea scallops and bay scallops runs from October through March, while fresh calico scallops are available from December through May. Of course frozen scallops are available year-round.
You may also come across “diver scallops”. It doesn’t mean anything but the manner in which the scallops were harvested. Divers go down and choose mature scallops by hand, leaving behind immature scallops as well as leaving the ocean floor alone. Since the ocean floor is not disturbed by the divers, diver scallops are usually less gritty than those harvested by bottom trawls. They are also more expensive than the ones harvested by trawling. Trawling is done by scraping the ocean floor and pulling up scallops without regard to maturity or to the damage possibly being done to the ocean floor.
One of the most important facts to look for in scallops is whether they are wet or dry scallops. Dry scallops are the best! Whatever you do not buy the wet scallops! Read on as I explain the differences and you will understand my reasons.
Unfortunately, most scallops that you find from your fish monger or supermarket are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a chemical that, while it is safe to consume, it ruins the ability to get a perfect sear on the scallop. These chemically treated scallops are called wet scallops. STP loosens the structure of scallops making them sponge-like, where they soak up almost 30% of their original weight in water. This is an economical perk for fishmongers who sell scallops based on weight, but not for consumers who end up paying for the added water! What’s worse, the treatment makes scallops nearly impossible to sear because all that excess moisture floods the pan as soon as the scallops start to cook. The scallops end up being small, rubbery and pale with a soapy after-taste. You just can’t get the beautiful caramelization with a wet scallop that we want in a perfectly cooked scallop. Please take notice that if they are wet scallops they are just labeled as scallops.
Dry scallops are untreated and don’t expel as much water as they cook. Although they are pricier and have a much shorter shelf life than wet scallops, dry scallops are superior in quality, flavor, and ease of cooking. Because they aren’t treated, they are certainly fresher when you find them at the fish counter, with a sweeter, brinier flavor.
Now that I have explained that dry scallops are the ones to buy for this recipe, let me explain how to make sure you do get the dry scallops. Either ask the fishmonger or check the label! Fish counters selling dry scallops will most likely be proud of and advertise the fact that they are indeed dry. If it just states scallops most likely they are wet scallops. Second, look at the container the scallops are held in. If there’s milky white liquid in the container they are probably treated with TSP. Finally, take a good look at the scallops themselves. Wet scallops have a ghostly, opaque, pale white or orange-white appearance. Dry scallops will be fleshier and more translucent!
As an added note when purchasing scallops, make sure to buy from a reputable fishmonger and be sure to smell the scallops before purchase. The scallops should smell clean and sweet and like the ocean. If they have a strong fishy smell, do not buy them.
I checked our first 1961 menu to see if we served scallops back in the day. I found two entrees, fried scallops and scallops sautéed with mushrooms. I found it interesting that they were both listed as Cape Cod Scallops. Now that you understand all about scallops please enjoy the following recipe that quickly became a favorite!
To talk about soft shell crabs I am always reminded of my dad. He loved the ocean. My dad taught us everything about the ocean, seafood and how to enjoy them both! Before I go on to discuss soft shell crabs as promised I would like to share my memories of my dad. I will refer him as Papa!
Papa had the biggest smile I had ever seen! In fact everything about Papa was big except in stature. He was only 5’7”. Not only was he always impeccably dressed, he always had a tan. He wore lots of rings and his pinkie ring was a huge diamond! As far as I can remember he always owned a red convertible.
It wasn’t always like this for my Dad. He was born in the little town of Monte di Procida. It has an area of less than 1 ½ square miles. Located on the southern coast of Italy near Naples, this little panoramic town is almost isolated from the rest of the towns. It sits on a perch overlooking the Gulf of Naples, the many towns below it and if you stand at my uncle’s house one can even see Sorrento and Gaeta as your eyes follow the coastline. The islands of Procida and Ischia are so close you can almost reach out to touch them and on a clear day Capri too! Its unique harbor has been utilized in ancient times since the Greeks. Now the harbor is filled with a fleet of fishing boats! My father grew up during WWII. During this time the beautiful town was also a strategic point for the Germans. It was used as a base for torpedo practice. Papa would often tell us some scary stories about that time. It was because of WWII and it’s destruction that my dad was determined to come to America for a better life. America changed my Dad’s life for the better and he became this bigger than life character that we looked up to!
One year when I was 9 years old he took all of us on a transcontinental cruise. Not only did he take his family but he also brought along his red Pontiac convertible. So my dad, along with my mom, my brother, my sister, I and the red Pontiac convertible crossed the Atlantic making several stops including, Portugal, the rock of Gibraltar, Spain, Genoa and finally Naples. I still can picture him and Nonna (his mom) driving with the top down in the little town of Monte di Procida. Nonna with a kerchief on her head to protect her hair from the wind sat so proudly next to her son. The red Pontiac convertible was as big as my dad’s ego! But unfortunately the fancy American car was not made for the narrow ancient streets that St. Paul once crossed on his way to Rome to see Caesar. Without a care in the world my dad squeezed through those streets waving to all the towns’ people, greeting them all by name. By the end of the trip the red Pontiac convertible sides were so dented in that we were barely able to open the doors. But no worries…my dad packed the red Pontiac convertible with us as we travelled back across the Atlantic to New York. When we arrived home he went and bought himself another one!
Traveling though Italy with my dad was such an experience. People were drawn to him. He had such a big personality. So warm and gracious! It was always such excitement when my dad went to visit his hometown. Everyone came over to greet him. Our house was like a café. We were always brewing espresso. It got to be as soon as I saw a car coming I wouldn’t even wait for my Nonna to ask me to make coffee. I immediately took out the moka pot and started the process. I also set out the little crystal aperitif glasses for the vermouth. Espresso, vermouth and limoncello were served! Before they left my dad would always give the guests a big chunk of American milk chocolate as a souvenir from America. My dad loved American milk chocolate so much so that he wanted to share with his family and friends back in Italy. As he does things so big he would order 40 pound slabs of milk chocolate from his favorite Italian bakery, Caffe Aurora, here in Poughkeepsie to bring back to Italy!
It was only one year that he brought over his red convertible I think he learned his lesson with the big American car because after that he would usually rent a FIAT 500! It was funny watching him load up his FIAT with watermelons because one thing about my father if he bought something for himself he always bought for his sisters too. He made everyone smile and laugh when they saw him pull up with his little Fiat and pull out watermelon after watermelon! The big smiles from everyone made my heart melt! And he was so funny teasing the market people. I love listening to his Montese sing song accent. The dad that I loved was the dad I saw in Italy. One summer he brought just my brother and me to visit Nonna in Italy. As a treat he brought my brother and I to Capri. It was so fun! It was such a special trip! But the best part was when we stopped for lunch at this rooftop restaurant overlooking the beautiful views of Capri. The waiter gazing at my dad’s bigger than life personality along with his striking blue eyes (all the more impressive with his dark tan) asked if he was Raff Vallone. As I watched my dad’s already broad smile get bigger, Papa asked the waiter, “tell me more who this Raff Vallone is!” All impressed that he looked like a movie star who was known for his rugged good looks my father just beamed! And my brother and I just sat a little taller thinking how handsome our father really was that other people thought so too!”
Soft Shell Crabs
Soft Shell Crabs are available at your seafood market from April to September. It’s during this time that crabs molt their old exoskeletons. These soft shell crabs are removed from the ocean as soon as they shed their shells to prevent hardening. The famous Maryland blue crabs that we are accustomed to hammering the outer shell and picking it apart to get to the delicious meat are now soft. After removing the mouthparts, the gills and the abdomen, the whole crab is now edible, shell and all! No work is involved in eating soft shell crabs! Soft shell crabs were a much anticipated menu item every spring at “the restaurant”! We had people from all over come for our Soft Shell Crabs. As you read on I will share all the secrets of cooking the soft shell crabs so you can make them just as good at home. Typically Soft Shell Crabs are fried but at “the restaurant” sautéed was the most popular. One of the ways we served them was in a Parisienne Sauce (please read recipe #11 blog post) for the home cook please understands that these crabs only survive a few days out of water. So when picking out your soft shell crabs make sure they are fresh! You can’t tell just by looking at them.
Secret #1 not only do you need to make sure they are plump don’t be embarrassed to give it the smell test too! They should smell clean and astringent!
Secret #2 refuse to have the fish monger clean the crabs for you or the crabs will lose all their liquid. Liquid is important so the crabs are very plump. Wait until you are ready to cook the crabs to clean. It’s easy to clean them!
Secret #3 I have given you step by step process for cleaning the crabs. And showed you how to prepare then with an egg batter. But you can also prepare them with just flour. Putting a floured soft shell crab (no egg batter) in hot oil results in the plumpest crabs ever.
Parisienne Sauce was a very popular sauce in the restaurant. It’s a buttery lemony sauce enhanced with the salty tanginess of capers. Capers are the highlight of this sauce. To understand capers one has to know capers. I thought I would share a little story about my childhood and some facts about the tiny delicate caper that’s packed with a huge flavor punch.
These little pungent Mediteranean capers come from the bud of blossoming bushes. I actually had the pleasure of seeing caper bushes. It was many years ago when my brother and I visited our grandparents at their home town on the island of Ischia, Italy. They took us for a leisurely walk through town and we visited the Castello Aragonese, a medieval castle built on volcanic rock. As we walked up to the castle, clinging to the cracked walls and cliffs were these unusual and attractive ornamental shrubs. They were thriving in the sunny hot dry climate of Ischia. The castle is nestled on volcanic rock in the middle of the sea. So these caper shrubs are evidently salt tolerant as well. My Nonno (grandfather) pointed out the capers on the shrubs. The bushy plant had a thick cluster of thorny branches and fleshy, egg shaped leaves. They were as high as five feet in some places, but most were sprawled out over rocks and soil.
Nonno explained that from April to June, the caper shrub’s tiny buds flower into large, sweet-scented, pink blooms clustered with long, violet stamens. The plants harvested for capers, however, rarely blossom. Workers endure hot sun, sharp thorns and rugged terrain throughout the summer to pick the precious buds as they ripen.
I loved this walk up to the castle listening to Nonno explain all of this in his rich napolitano cadence! The long steep climb winding around the castle with the ocean views were breathe taking. Nonno walked ahead explaining all the sites while my Nonna (grandmother) ambled behind slowly carrying her large purse under her arm. My brother and I found our Italian grandparents amusing. At one point we felt a sprinkling of rain as was common in the afternoons in Ischia, a sun shower. Nonno slowed down and turned to ask my Nonna if she was ok. In his tongue in cheek manner, he just shook his head as he watched Nonna dig into her large white purse and pull out a clear plastic rain bonnet for her head and a sweater for her shoulders. My brother and I were hysterically laughing not just at my Nonna but at Nonno’s reaction. What a special caper memory. I think of them whenever I use capers in my cooking.
Let me explain more about capers. Pickling process enhances the flavor of capers. Capers with their tart and briny flavors enrich sauces. Capers are a staple in the Italian kitchen. The tiny, piquant buds are enjoyed from region to region, from the north to the south. In Sicily capers are served in caponata, a summer side dish in which their salty bite cuts through the smooth buttery taste of slow cooked eggplant. In Ischia they are part of spaghetti alla puttanesca. The sauce consists of capers, tomatoes, olives and anchovies. These delicious little gems are often sprinkled over pizza, pasta, and fish dishes as a flavorful garnish.
Most capers come from wild plants, thoughout Spain and Italy—the two largest producers—they are cultivated. Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina produce the majority of Italy’s capers. The best, though, come from Pantelleria. On this tiny island, halfway to Tunisia, volcanic soil and the heat of an intense Mediterranean sun create ideal growing conditions. The berries are also picked, and both are pickled for use as a seasoning and garnish. The bud, or caper, is pickled in salt and vinegar brine, then sold in vinegar or packed in salt. The berry—the larger, plump, mature fruit of the plant—resembles a green grape with faint, white stripes and, like olives, is served in pastas, salads or even as a garnish in martinis. When choosing capers, look for dark green buds packed tightly in sea salt, because those submerged in vinegar lack the subtle, natural taste of the salted ones. The smaller buds have a more delicate flavor while the larger ones have less taste and could be frauds—sometimes the similar-looking buds of the nasturtium plant are passed off as capers. The French term nonpareil is commonly used to denote the smallest buds; surfines are the next largest. True Italian capers, though, are sorted by millimeter with mechanized screens. They range from 7 millimeters to 16 millimeters. Unfortunately in stores their size is not often marked. Be sure to look for buds not larger than a raisin. If using salted capers, soak them for five to ten minutes and drain to remove excess salt. The large caper berries are eaten “as is” just as you would an olive. You can even serve them in your favorite martini!
“As I dropped the pasta in the pot of boiling water I called out to my friends, “How do you want the pasta cooked?” I was wincing waiting for the answer. They all matter-of-factly answered together, “al dente!” My heart leaped for joy as I realized they have come a long way from when I first met them 50 years ago!
Growing up in Hyde Park so many years ago, I was always taken aback whenever pasta was served. I am not talking the way it was served in the school cafeteria. They did have a lot of children to serve! But I could never bring myself to eat the school cafeteria pasta. Depending on whom the lunch lady was, the spaghetti varied between, large worm- like spaghetti swirling on my plate with runny sauce or it was scooped out with an ice cream scoop.
Even the neighborhood deli always had cooked pasta with sauce in their display case. I often rode my bike to the corner store with my friends to get candy. I would find myself looking on with curiosity when the deli man scooped up cold pasta mixed with sauce into containers. Watching him squish down the pasta to make room for more, I shuddered as the soft pasta flattened into a pudding like consistency. I just couldn’t understand why someone would want to eat that mush!
One day I had an opportunity to watch neighbor-hood mom cook pasta and I began to understand this phenomenon. When we made pasta at home it was always well attended to. Meaning when you dropped the pasta in the boiling water my mom stood by stirring and checking when the pasta was done. Just when my mom thought it was ready she would take it out blow on it and would hand it to me. I had the privilege to tell her when it was “al dente”. “Al dente” was when it was just short of being fully cooked through, firm but not soft. The pasta was then immediately drained and plated into individual plates which was served right away. We actually had an assembly line to the table to speed up the process.
When my neighbor cooked pasta, it was left in the pot boiling while she attended to other cooking. The pasta boiled and boiled. After the water was good and starchy she drained the soft limp pasta. But that wasn’t enough! She then washed the gooey pasta to make sure all the goop was rinsed away. It was then put in a large bowl with sauce. It sat while everyone slowly came to the table. Maybe that’s why cooked pasta was offered at the deli. This mush pasta took all day to make!
Years ago American pasta was not made from durum wheat. It was made from the same flour they used for soft bread. So technically it was hard to make pasta “al dente”. Besides needing a quick technique to serve pasta one also needed imported pasta from Italy made from durum wheat. Italian pasta was so much more expensive back then and not accessible to everyone.
America has come a long way. We have so many more options now and most pasta is made from durum wheat. I have to believe that my Italian family had a large part in the way pasta is served today. Well at least in Hyde Park!”
“My dad was the first of his brothers to leave the apartment life over the restaurant to buy a house in the countryside. The first day in our new home was both exciting and scary. Living only with our immediate family without all of our Italian speaking aunts, uncles and cousins was an entirely new experience for us! I even got my own room!! Mornings were so quiet! No more dishes, pots and pans clinging and clanging! As much as it was strange for us to go from an apartment dwelling with my huge Italian speaking family it was strange for our neighbors to have Italian immigrants that barely spoke English move into their community. =
The first little girl I met was a pretty red haired girl the same age as I was! I was intrigued by her beautiful straight red hair! She was just as awestruck by my long unruly curly hair and olive complexion. My first day of school was a little intimidating. It was hard for me to fit in. My parents were really stuck on making sure I knew my roots and were afraid that I would lose my Italian heritage if I became Americanized. It wasn’t only my Italian heritage; my dad had this old world opinion of what girls should be allowed to do. Because of my parents’ immigrant mentality and old world views they were reluctant to allow me to participate in childhood activities that my friends were accustomed too. But my new friend made things so much easier. She introduced me to her four best friends. But instead of ignoring me my little group of friends accepted me for who I was. On the other hand, it wasn’t as easy with my classmates. I learned early on to hide a part of myself. I was known as the shy quiet girl.
That little red haired girl and her friends were the only ones that got to know the real me. I was myself with them. I couldn’t help but let the loud Italian me out! They understood the struggles that I had with Italian and American culture and they helped me assimilate. The little red haired girl taught me how to feed oatmeal to her baby sheep. My short, cute friend shared her beautiful Ukrainian Easter Eggs! My Hungarian friend shared her family ghost stories! My other friend introduced me to cheese danishes. And then there was my friend who lived on the other side of town; she showed me that Dads came home at 5 o’clock with dinner waiting for them! I learned that I too could fit in the American melting pot!
The bond that I made 50 years ago with those friends was never broken! In fact we still are the best of friends and love hanging out with each other. We are all grown up now with children and grandchildren. As different as we all became, living in different states with a menagerie of careers, we are exactly what the old saying says,”The more things change, the more things stay the same!” We all share that one thing that has kept us together all these years – the willingness to accept each other for who we are.
Some of us met up this summer and spent a few days together. We went to the little red haired girl’s lakeside home and I cooked for them! Please read on as I share the recipe I made for them!!”
Trying to wake up my memory from the 1960’s when the restaurant first began I decided to study the first dinner menu. I counted 183 menu items. In fact there was nothing anyone could want that wasn’t listed on that menu. Not only were there many items but they were really odd entrees. On the cold appetizers category I noticed they had tuna packed in oil. (Did people really go into a restaurant and ask for tuna packed in oil on a plate?) Oh and let me point out that we had a California Fresh Fruit Cup listed on the menu!! (Is California fruit better than Florida fruit? Why not local fruit?) They also served veal kidneys, tripe and chicken livers! There was even a category for omelet’s. Through the years the menu was shortened and thankfully they dropped the word California from fresh fruit cup. We stopped serving pizza and organ foods except for chicken livers. We tried to take chicken livers off the menu but the customers revolted and we apologetically put it back on the menu.
The chicken livers entree on the menu was always a surprise to me. In the latter years these 2 lawyers came to the restaurant that I recall serving when I was a little girl. They had retired to Florida and met up for a lunch date to relive the olden days and they both gleefully ordered the Chicken Livers Marsala. I was thinking to myself “Are you kidding me?” With all the most delicious things on the menu that the restaurant is famous for they ordered Chicken Livers????
As I perused through the whole menu, I noticed that a lot of the menu consisted of Italian-American foods. Most of the entree are not served in Italy. My family is from Naples, Italy. I wanted to find something, anything that came from their hometown. I found that the menu represented a melting pot of items of all the places that my dad and his brothers worked before they opened up their own restaurant. They worked in American pizzerias, French restaurants, American Grilles, and Italian/American restaurants. They also consulted with their uncle Zio Monico who had a restaurant (The New Corner Italian Restaurant) which to this day is still open in Brooklyn from 1936. They used the uncle’s menu for ideas too! Now I know why the restaurant menu had 183 items. Not only did it represent every eatery they worked at but also their uncle’s Brooklyn restaurant.
There were many different pasta and sauces. And lots of parmigiana entrees and even spaghetti parmigiana! But what exactly is parmigiana and did that come from Italy? I remember one year when we all went to Italy on vacation, we went out to eat and an American friend that came with us wanted Chicken ala Parmigiana. We were in Capri at a small local restaurant. You have to understand that in the Naples area when you go into a small restaurant there are no menus. The patriarch, aka my dad, asks what they have. For appetizers, it’s always the staples, some charcuterie and cheese or fresh caught octopus, shellfish etc…. For secondo- it’s always the pasta of the day that they prepare. And then the entrée is just a plain bistecca or some fresh caught fish. Sometimes they may have roasted chicken. I felt bad for my friend when he asked for Chicken Parmigiana. The waiter in his typical Napolitano way, hunched his shoulders, put his cupped hand up in a gesture, and with a look of utter disgust exclaimed in Napolitano “Where do you come from!”
With a little research I found that Parmigiana has nothing to do with cheese or the Parma region! Parmigiana is a southern Italian dish based upon melanzane alla parmigiana, what we call eggplant parmigiana. (My family doesn’t put tomato sauce on eggplant parmagiana, it is individual servings of eggplant where an egg cheese mixture is sandwiched in between eggplant dipped in eggwash, floured and fried.) Adding veal or chicken in place of eggplant is an invention of the Italian immigrant communities in the U.S. The name itself may come from a Sicilian word, parmiciana — for the slats of wood in a shutter, which overlap in the same way as the slices of eggplant in the dish.
Okay! I am beginning to understand the thought process to this menu. But where is our Italian Napolitano roots represented in this menu! There must be something! In my last blog I was surprised that they didn’t even call espresso by it’s name but by demitasse.
And there it was! At a quick glance I thought it was a typo…..but over and over …..like a glowing firefly in the dark. There it was! The very essence of my Napolitano roots!! Finally!!!
I wished they highlighted it or capitalized the letters. Or maybe they should have made the font bold and huge! Wait for it!! Here it comes!!
They spelled mozzarella…. muzzarella!!!
Muzzarella is the Napolitano pronunciation for mozzarella. Muzzarella is like music to my ears. It is home! And there it was on the first menu…… Muzzarella! The only thing Napolitano on that first menu that represented the three immigrant chefs!!
You will never see that word written! But you may hear an Italian/American say that word in it’s shortened version…..Muzz!
“Maybe it’s because I grew up bilingual but I always took a great interest in words. It was always a language challenge to grow up in a bilingual household. The spoken word was not always what it was meant to be. So much so, that I would always double check before something came out of my mouth whether it was English or Italian. But what was even more perplexing was the written word, for example, the restaurant menu. As a little girl I would often hear the wait staff ordering demitasse. Like what the heck is demitasse? I looked on an old 1960’s menu and there it was “Italian Demitasse for two”! Demitasse is the French word for small cup. It also the word used for serving coffee in a small cup. I read somewhere that demitasse is also the name for Turkish coffee. But why would an Italian restaurant run by Italian immigrants refer to espresso as demitasse? As the years went by, demitasse was soon replaced on the restaurant menu as expresso!! What was going on? Was it a typo from the printers? I do remember everyone calling it expresso. Didn’t they know how to pronounce espresso? Was this typo causing customers and wait staff to pronounce it wrong? Even at that young age I accepted that everyone was language challenged! Maybe the reason the wait staff referred to coffee as either brown or black was to avoid mispronouncing espresso!
Through research I found that it was the norm in Italian restaurants to spell espresso with an x until the 70’s when there was a huge revolt. So it wasn’t a typo! Ordering an expresso in the 1970’s was so cringe worthy to baristas that they would wear t-shirts with the “There is no X in espresso!” slogan. So in the 70’s the restaurant menu went through another metamorphosis and listed Italian coffee as espresso. Phew! It took a few years but all is right with the world now!
All this fuss over an espresso. In Italy it is quite simple. They don’t even say espresso! Italians elbow themselves up to a coffee bar utter a greeting followed by “un caffé”. It is served quickly in a very tiny cup filled half way up with rich dark coffee and a layer of foam. The Italian without sitting, downs the espresso and is on his way. Oh wait! Is that why in America it’s referred to as express….o?
Oh! By the way, expresso is served in Spain, Portugal and France. But let it be known that the way espresso is made was invented and perfected in Italy. So it’s settled! Espresso it is!!!”
“In the early years my brother and I conversed only in Italian. In fact all of the cousins that resided in the apartments over the restaurant spoke only in Italian! What is weird is that I remember watching TV and cartoons like Felix the Cat! My favorite! I must have known what they were saying since I remember enjoying it so much. By the time I started kindergarten I still couldn’t speak any English, yet I understood English enough to know that my classmates were making fun of the fact that I couldn’t speak English!
Our parents, Italian immigrants, were only a few years in America when they decided to open up an Italian restaurant. It was very important for them to preserve their Italian heritage. And one way was to make sure their American children spoke fluent Italian. While my dad was here with 2 of his 5 siblings, my mom immigrated here with her parents and 6 siblings. Socializing was only with our huge Italian family. The only English we were privy to was what we watched on television and the rare occasions we were allowed in the restaurant! But once I started kindergarten everything changed. I was the pioneer who brought English into the house and spoke with all of my younger cousins. I was reprimanded many times!! What is very funny is that as I became more fluent in English, I started realizing the words I thought were Italian weren’t really Italian. They were actually English with an Italian twist. I am laughing to myself as I remember all of this. You see as much as we were isolated from English speaking Americans we were also isolated from proper speaking Italians! As our parents worked in the restaurant, English words became part of their vocabulary. Those English words morphed into Italian words either because of their thick accents or because they knew no other way to pronounce them. Unbeknownst to my brother, my cousins and I, those morphed Italian words were not authentic Italian. Thank goodness our parents took us to Italy every summer so we could “tune up” our Italian.
As much as our Italian suffered our English did not! Our parents were astute enough to know that they could never teach their children English. We only spoke Italian at home so we never got confused. We all learned proper English from school. Although I did end up having some remnants of only speaking Italian in the early years. My biggest handicap was trouble with the “TH” sound. It sometimes came out sounding like a T. It was my 4th grade teacher Sister Mary Regis who insisted that I learn to properly pronounce the “TH” sound. My mamma went to school explaining that I had trouble with it because we spoke Italian at home. Sister Mary Regis told my mom that it was not a good excuse and that it was mandatory that I learn to pronounce “TH” sound properly. I soon overcame my problem with “TH”! But every now and then if I have to put thumb and tongue or thong and tong in the same sentence I get all tongue tied. There is one Italianglish word, which has lingered from my years living on top of the restaurant that my own children get hysterical about. It’s the way I say sandwich. I have the worst time pronouncing that word in proper English! I used to think that sanguiccio was the word for sandwich in Italian. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that it was really just sandwich said with an Italian accent. I still catch myself saying sangwich. On second thought I don’t even know I am doing it! It is my children who love to point out to me that I say “sangwich”. My sister reminded me of the word frontaruma, she said it wasn’t until her 20’s when it dawned on her that frontaruma was not Italian but the English word for front room (1960’s word used for living room!!).
Don’t get me wrong I can easily go to Italy and understand most everything and can make myself understood by the Italians. I am very conscious of when I get a blank stare I know that I just used an Italianglish word. But I have noticed that the Italians in Italy also use English words in their everyday vernacular. For example, hamburger is an English loan word in the Italian language. It’s a masculine noun that’s the same in the singular and the plural. It’s pronounced ‘AHM-boor-ghehr’.”
“It wasn’t just my mamma’s voice that my brother and I experienced coming through the window of our apartment. As my brother and I would gaze through the window overlooking the restaurant kitchen skylights, we could almost see a swirl of aromas lifting through the air toward our window. We both stood tall breathing in while our stomachs sucked in and our our chests swelled out. We pulled all those wonderful aromas curling up from the skylight all the way up into our nostrils! “ Yummmmiieee yum yum!!”, we would both exclaim to ourselves! Some mornings we didn’t need alarm clocks to wake us up because the scent of simmering tomato sauce coming from the restaurant kitchen was the perfect wake- up call!
Before you all get jealous on how my brother and I were raised on the restaurant foods let me set the record straight. You know how the old saying goes that the “shoemakers children have no shoes!”, well we children felt like “chefs kids didn’t eat chefs meals”! My mom and her sisters insisted that we were on a regiment of healthy eating. Soft boiled eggs for breakfast while lunch consisted of soups. My one Zia made very brothy bland soups while my other Zia made soups that were so thick that you can eat them with a fork! In the early years mamma didn’t cook at all because she was always working. My brother and I were soon disappointed to find out that mamma cooked much the same way! Dinner was just an unseasoned broiled piece of meat and a plain vegetable. If I think back I don’t think my Zias ever served pasta! Of course dessert was out of the question! I can still picture myself with my cousins sitting at the dinner table staring down at our plates confused. It was so difficult to enjoy our healthy meals surrounded by all those wonderful restaurant food aromas. We all realized early on that the papas were the restaurant chefs who made the most delicious meals while the mammas were the home cooks who made sure the children ate healthy foods! You can bet that we children looked forward to Mondays! It was the day the restaurant was closed. It was a special day. Not only did we get spend time with our papas but we got to experience the chefs’ cooking. We even got dessert! Some Mondays all three families would go to my nonna’s house where we ate good there too! In fact our Nonna was a phenominal cook! Monday was my brother and I’s favorite day of the week! It is funny how to this day I still associate Monday as a day of family, love and good eats!”