My Brilliant Mamma

      Since we are stuck at home, we have been watching the HBO series My Brilliant Friend. The show was created from Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels. The story line is about two girlfriends and the difficulty they experienced as women living in the 1950’s in Naples, Italy. My Brilliant Friend is the name of Elena Ferrante’s first novel. The show is not only spoken in Italian, but also in the Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles. Some of the scenes were even filmed on the island of Ischia located in the Bay of Naples. My sister lives there now and is also the island where my mom and her family grew up. I have read the first of Elena Ferrante novels, and had started reading the second book which I could not bring myself to finish. For some reason I decided to force myself to watch the HBO series during this quarantine. I thought that listening to the Neapolitan dialect would bring me comfort. As I watched the series, I realized why I stopped reading Elena Ferrante’s books. Her books are painfully too familiar.

    My mom was born in 1936 and moved to the US in 1955. My Brilliant Friend series is also set in the 1950’s. Mamma told me so many stories during her upbringing. My mom was the oldest of seven siblings. Her father was away as a medic during the war, and afterwards he went away again in search of a better place for his family to live. The family struggled whenever he was away. As a young child my mom was forced to grow up fast and strong. Her mom desperately relied on her. Mamma had to do a lot of things that would seem way too much for a young child to do. But her mom had no choice while taking care of 6 younger children. I listened to my mom and her stories of all the things she had to do, I just could not fathom the gravity of the situation until I heard the desperation of my grandmother’s words.

     One day as my Nonna (grandmother) stirred sugar into a cup of espresso she, told me of a time when she went to speak to her priest before Nonno (grandfather) went away to Argentina in 1949. My Nonna was the holiest person I have ever known. Her whole life was guided through the Lord and the Holy Spirit. She went to church every day. I knew that faith got her out of the darkest moments of her life. That day over espresso, she recollected a dilemma she experienced in minced words that I could not quite understand. I leaned forward so I can fully comprehend what she was trying to tell me. Her face was cringed in pain and her voice stammered as she tried to reveal her secret. My Nonna did not speak any English and she told me this in the Neapolitan dialect. Although I am basically fluent in Italian, some of the words, she used I never heard of. With my eyes wide, my mouth agape and at full attention, I listened. She proceeded to tell me that during the time before Nonno left for Argentina she went to confession to ask the priest for guidance. But I did not get it! I just nodded to reassure her I was listening. To this day I still wonder what she was trying to tell me. I did not understand the words she used to tell me what the priest had said.  How can I understand? I cannot even imagine what it was like living during that time, in that place, under those circumstances?  All I can tell you is what I saw in front of me as Nonna closed her eyes and lifted her hands as if in reverence and said she found out she was pregnant with her only son, her 7th child as Nonno sailed off to Argentina.  Nonno met his only son 3 years later when he finally came back from Argentina.   

    My Nonna was so burdened with her husband away, a child on the way, and 6 other children to feed, that she had no one else to rely on but my mom. Nonna kept all her other children under close watch. They did not have the freedom that my mom had to freely move throughout the island. My mom’s siblings were not allowed to go anywhere. My grandmother was extremely strict with them. I grew up understanding that Nonna was protective and overbearing. I used to hear whispers that my mom, as a child, was arrogant and spoiled. I often wonder if Mama’s sisters could have been jealous of her. But as I am rethinking about it now, how could they have not felt that way about my mom. They watched my mom have the freedom that they wished they had.

      Because of this responsibility, my mom ended up developing a strong character. My grandmother needed her to be that way. Money was so tight, and the family was starving. The money my grandfather would send from Argentina was not enough for the 8 of them. My grandmother would say to my mom…Here is 2 lire and a shopping list. See what you can do. As challenging as it was, my mom would embrace the task. She became good at bartering with the market people to get as much as she could with the little money that she had. Mamma was proud to go back home with everything on the list and watch intently to see if she could erase the worry off my grandmother’s face. Mamma was industrious too! Mamma proudly told me of the time she had to travel to Forio, (a town on the other side of the island) to learn how to make baskets. Nonna gave her enough money to buy all the material, too! When she got back home, she taught her mom and her sisters to make the baskets too. They all worked hard to make baskets to sell to the tourists. Another time, while my mom was out and about the town, a tourist asked where she could find a laundress. Mamma piped up that her mom is a laundress! Mom’s quick thinking added another monetary opportunity to put food on the table. Mamma told me countless stories of how it was when her father was away.

  That is how my brilliant mamma became who she was. But just as much as my mom had let go of her childhood, my grandmother also had to let go of some of her motherly instincts for the family to survive.

   I think about those times now as we all struggle with this pandemic. How strong my mom and her family had to be to endure all those hardships back then. I am confident that we all can overcome this hardship at this time! After all it is in our genes to overcome!

Grilled Chicken Marinated with Mint Pesto

This dish is a family favorite!  I can remember my grandfather starting the grill.  He didn’t use charcoal just wood in a barbecue pit. The mint pesto was made with his own white wine vinegar which was way stronger than commercial vinegar.  He used it whole chicken or fish. My version is adapted to make it a quick meal on your stove top. Enjoy!

Ingredients

2 Boneless chicken Breast pounded so it the same thickness throughout

½ cup fresh mint leaves

¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup of white wine vinegar

½ tsp of salt

2 cloves of garlic

Procedure

  • Blend the mint leaves, EVOO, vinegar salt and garlic together until just about chopped. Not smooth though. Blend for a few seconds to get all the ingredients in a rough chopped look.
  •  Add the mint pesto to the chicken to marinate for a half hour.
  • Preheat a cast iron pan on high heat on the stove top.
  • Grill chicken in a cast iron pan. With heat set to medium. Flip to cook both sides. The length of time that it takes depends on the thickness of the pounded chicken. It could be anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes.
Grilling the Mint Chicken

Buon Appetito!

Easter Monday – Pasquetta

     Despite having all these limitations set in place, I hope you all were able to enjoy your Easter and Passover celebrations.  Practicing social distancing, I did manage to carefully carry on one Easter tradition. I made several Italian Easter Pies and dropped them off to our children, my sister and my mom.  Today is Easter Monday and it has always been celebrated throughout the world.  Even the White House used to have its own Easter Monday tradition with The Egg Roll on it’s the grounds.  But this year, this epidemic has made us all reminisce about Easter and Passovers and how it used to be.

     Growing up, my mom always referred to the Monday after Easter as Lunedi in Albis (Monday in White).  But as a national holiday throughout Italy, it’s called Pasquetta (Little Easter).  After the somber week of reflecting on Jesus dying for us and rising from the dead the Italians get together informally on the Monday after Easter. They head outdoors to enjoy the spring sunshine and warm breezes with family and friends, packing up the leftovers from the Easter feast into picnic baskets.

      In 1972 my dad wanted us all to experience Easter in Italy. We jetted out from NYC to Naples with a stopover in London on the brand new 747!  The trip wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, though.  Having problems with connection flights we ended up staying 2 overnights in London. Two days of constant running between airline counters trying to get a flight to Naples was exhausting!  Unfortunately, we ended up missing part of Holy Week.  I was 13 years old and besides the memorable flight, there were a couple of other memories that stood out to me during our trip to Italy.  

     One memory was that I noticed how proud all the women were of their Panettones (Easter Bread) or as Napolitano’s call it, casatiello. The process was a huge undertaking because each of the matriarchs of the families baked enough for all their children, the children’s families and even the children’s in-laws.  Each family we visited during Easter week made sure to bring us to a special room where all the panettones were rising.  The women in their kerchiefs and aprons made elaborate gestures of removing the blankets to show off the many pans of bread. This really piqued my curiosity and I asked my mom why all this drama about the rising of this bread. She said they made their own yeast and it took longer to rise.  I remember thinking this bread was almost like Christ rising from the dead in three days. Is this why they all make Easter bread? So, after all the waiting the bread was ready to bake and we got to enjoy it on Easter Sunday and Monday.

     The second most memorable experience was Easter Monday, La Pasquetta.  My brother and I, along with my cousins had a picnic in one of Monte di Procida’s vineyards.  We brought dyed hard-boiled eggs, prosciutto and provolone cheese, bread, the Easter panettone, bottles of water and even a bottle of wine.  I enjoyed it all! Well except for the panettone and the wine.   The pannetone was dry and sweet.  Now that I remember correctly, my brother and my cousins ate the panettone with the wine. Hmmmm? Maybe that’s why my brother was rolling down the hill like an Easter egg.  I wasn’t a wine drinker back then.  I didn’t like it.  Imagine that?   I grew up drinking water with wine mixed in.  Forbidding underage drinking wasn’t a thing in the Italian culture.  Wine on the table was the norm.  Kids drank diluted wine.  I did not acquire a taste for it. When I finally turned eighteen in 1976 (the drinking age back then), it didn’t phase me.  If I wanted a drink, I could have had it long before I was 18.  So possibly the panettone didn’t taste as good to me because I refused to dunk it in wine!  My taste buds changed as I got older. I love panettone now! Especially when it’s dunked in wine!

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    I have attached a recipe for Cornetti (Italian croissants).  I am still daydreaming of sitting at a bar enjoying a cappuccino while dunking a cornetto. The Italian Cornetto and the French Croissant look similar but actually very different.

 1. The cornetto is much sweeter than the French croissant. The Cornetto contains more sugar, while the French version contains more butter, which makes it so much greasier

2. The cornetto is softer compared to the French croissant, which is crispier.

3. Italian cornetti usually have fillings. They are filled either with pastry cream, marmalade, honey, or chocolate (I love the ones filled with pastry cream!), while the ‘cornetto vuoto’ (an empty cornetto) is the pastry without any filling. The French version doesn’t traditionally have fillings.

 I tried a couple of different recipes for cornetti but this is my favorite.  I used brown sugar  because I didn’t have can sugar and it still came out perfect.  The texture is just what a remember about them.  Not greasy at all. I didn’t fill these with pastry cream but next time I will try filling them!

Cornetti (Italian Croissants)

Basic Dough

•             1 cup of water

•             1 tbs of honey

•             ¼ cup of  cane sugar or brown sugar

•             1 egg

•             1/3 cup melted butter

•             Zest of  1 lemon

•             1 cup of flour

•             1 cup of oo flour

•             1 envelope of yeast (preferably brewers yeast)

•             2 tsp of sugar

For the layers

•             ¼  cupof cane sugar or brown  sugar

•             1/8 cup of melted butter

For the finishing

•             1 egg yolk to brush before cooking

•             Warm honey to brush after cooking

Directions

1. In a bowl, add the flours, the envelope of brewers yeast and the two teaspoons of cane sugar that will serve to activate the yeast. Mix all the ingredients.

2. In another bowl pour the warm water and then add and a tablespoon of honey.

3. Into the bowl with warm water and honey, add the brown sugar, the grated lemon peel, the melted butter and the egg.

4.Mixing it all together with a fork, add the flour a little at a time.

5. Continue to work the dough with your hands and add the flour, until we get a dough with an elastic consistency.

6. Put the dough in a bowl, engrave in a cross with a knife and cover with cling wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm place, until the volume doubles, it will take about 2 hours.

7. After it rises lightly work the dough and to form a long log. Divide it into 8 equal loaves of about 4 ounces each.

8. Prepare the pastry by rolling out the loaves to form 8 discs about 2mm thick (very thin!)

9. Spread the loaves one at a time, with the rolling pin and brush the melted butter and sprinkle the cane sugar on the surface. Continue laying out and overlapping all the discs.

10. After fixing the last disc we stretch with a rolling pin to get a round pastry, about half a centimeter thick (less than ¼ inch thick)

12. With a pizza cutter make 8 wedges and a small incision in the center of each wedge. Roll up the wedges to form the croissants and fix them in the baking tray, covered with parched paper. Cover with clingwrap and leave to rise for about 20 minutes.

12. Brush with egg yolk and bake in a 350 degree preheated oven for about 20 minutes.

13. As soon as  you take the cornetti out of the oven , lightly brush them with warm honey!

14.  And don’t forget to dunk it in a cappucino.  Or maybe wine!   hiccup!

Un’Caffe! Please!

In my last blog post I shared how disappointed I was that I couldn’t go visit my sister this spring.  I must tell you as much as I so wanted to see my sister there was one other thing that I was so looking forward to.  I have been dreaming about it!  I am drooling right now as I think about it.  No! It’s not Italian men! 

It’s the coffee!  Some of you know that I went to Italy this past fall. For some reason I became obsessed with the espresso.  Every morning I had a cappuccino.  In the afternoon I had an espresso after lunch.  In the late afternoon I had a macchiato.  By late afternoon I became very fluent with my Italian or so I thought as I hysterically waved and greeted every person I came across. I need to admit to you all that I have a caffeine problem.  For some reason it makes me talk nonstop.  My daughter always knows. When I go into a fast-long-winded story, she scolds me as I am panting out of breath, “You had coffee. Didn’t you?”

  But! OMG!  The coffee that was enjoying every day while I was in Ischia was delicious!  It wasn’t acidic or burnt tasting.  It was so smoooooth and creammmmy!  And I am not talking about the cappuccino. Just plain espresso is thick and creamy.  They only fill those little espresso cups half-way.  That’s why at the coffee bars in Italy there are no seats.

  • People go in.
  • Stand at the bar with no stools.
  • Order un’caffe.
  • Down the espresso.
  • Share a greeting with the barista and fellow coffee drinkers.
  • Out the door they go!

The morning is the only time the cappuccino is enjoyed by Italians.  They won’t drink it after 11.  If you order a cappuccino during the day, they will exclaim, “Pffttt Americano!”.  I was very careful not to order one because I wanted to be inconspicuous ( yeah right, as I hysterically wave and greet)! But I did order a macchiato.  The macchiato was heaven!  There was a little but more in the cup than espresso with a thick foamy caramel colored top. Not like a cappuccino at all.  The cappuccino is served in a large cup with a 3/ 4 filled cup of white foam.  The macchiato is served in an espresso cup with ¼ of the cup filled with a dark caramel colored foam.  Such a thick and creamy espresso drink.  If I had my way I would have asked for a triple.  I don’t think my sister, her husband and the rest of the people in the bar would have been happy with me.

Ever since I got back from Italy, I keep searching for the perfect espresso drink.  I tried all the chains from low end to high end.  I went directly to coffee roasters to try their espresso, restaurants that tout their espresso drinks, and bakeries.  I even bought high end coffee beans and would grind them myself. I just can’t replicate that delicious taste.  I started researching and reading.  Some say it’s the way they roast the coffee bean.  They said that in the US we over roast the coffee bean to get the bean extra dark which is a mistake. Others say it’s the water.

As I sit here with my cup of espresso made with my moka pot, dunking an S shaped Italian cookie into the espresso, I pretend I am gazing at the Mediterranean Sea alongside my sister. I really do miss her so. Maybe it wasn’t the espresso. I think it was my sister’s company!

Italian S Cookies

Ingredients:

2 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

      Egg Wash

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon milk

2 teaspoons demerara sugar for sprinkling on egg wash

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350℉.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the eggs on medium-high speed until nice and frothy (about 3-4 minutes).
  5. Slowly add sugar. Continue to whisk until well combined and slightly thickened (about 2 minutes).
  6. Add the oil, extract, and the zest. Combine well.
  7. Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix with wooden spoon until well combined, dough will be soft.
  8. Scoop dough with medium sized cookie scoop and drop on a lightly floured surface (about 2 tablespoons).
  9. Roll out each piece in a 4-5 inch strand about 1/2 inch in diameter.
  10. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet and form into an S shape.
  11. Brush tops of cookies with egg yolk mixture.
  12. Sprinkle with demerara sugar
  13. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned (this is a pale cookie).
  14. Transfer cookies to wire rack to cool.

Tradition

According to the Cambridge Dictionary the definition of Tradition is a way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a longtime.

      This past year I struggled with finding my path.  As you have noticed I really slacked off with keeping up with my blog and my recipes. I am not sure what has happened.  I think with the marriage of my last child maybe I lost myself.  I lost who I was and started thinking that I needed to slow down.  But I found I am not comfortable with this new me. In my quest to find myself again I realized that maybe I need to go back and reflect on how things used to be.

My Great Grandfather Isidoro Amalfitano with his fishing crew circa 1930s.

      I found a picture of my great grandfather on my mother’s side.  He was a fisherman along with his brothers on the island of Ischia in Italy.  The Amalfitano men made a living as fishermen.  Unlike most other Ischitanos living on the island the Amalfitano brothers stood out by their tall muscular stature. They had a good life until World War 1 and the Spanish Flu of 1918.  The soldiers coming home from the war brought with them the Spanish Flu and it spread to so many Ischitanos!  It was a deadly flu.  It is said that by the spring of 1919, the influenza pandemic had sickened an estimated one-third of the world’s population and may have killed as many as 50 million people. And Ischitanos were part of that statistic.  The townspeople couldn’t keep up with individual grave plots and ended up having to have mass burials.  My great grandmother became one of those casualties leaving behind a husband and four children.  Soon things leveled off and my great grandfather remarried.  He continued his fishing business with his family and life went on.  My grandmother became of age and she married starting her own family.  Soon afterwards WW2 hit, and my grandfather went off to serve as a medic leaving his family behind to struggle.  The island of Ischia entered another sad time as they dealt with food and water shortage.  Families struggled as the heads of household were off to fight in the war.  After World War 2 ended Ischia struggled economically. My grandfather looked to move to another country for a better life for his family.  He tried out Argentina for 3 years hoping to bring his family there, but Argentina’s economy crashed, and my grandfather soon came back to Ischia.  Instead of feeling defeated he continued his dream of making his family’s life better and made plans to move to the United States. In 1955 he moved half of his family to Marlboro, New York. My grandfather along with my mom and two of her sisters worked to make enough money so that they could bring my grandmother and the rest of the siblings to join them in the US.

Even though the family moved to the US, they continued to follow their Italian traditions.   One of the traditions they never forgot was fishing. Even though my grandmother and grandfather settled inland away from the ocean they couldn’t let go of the love for the sea.  I don’t how they found this place in Norwalk, Connecticut but they did! With the little bit of English that they knew they found a place to rent a motorized rowboat and go fishing in the Long Island Sound.  Many of my summer memories included going to Norwalk, CT to go fishing with my grandparents.  My dad grew up on the mainland of Italy, but his town was a small mountain surrounded by water on three sides so he too enjoyed fishing.  It was a huge family excursion with 3-4 boats getting rented.  We brought steak sandwiches and we always included spaghetti pizza. Once I got married and had children my dad also introduced my children to fishing on the Long Island Sound in Norwalk, CT.

My grandfather Giovan Giuseppe Mazzella fishing on the Long Island Sound near the Norwalk, Connecticut Marina circa 1960

Life got busier and we no longer went on fishing excursions. But just a few years ago a restaurant was recommended in Norwalk, Ct and my husband and I and our children went to try it out. When I arrived, I immediately recognized the spot even though the dock, bait shop, and boat rentals were no longer there.  But now a beautiful seafood restaurant took over the spot. 

  So, as the old year is left behind and a new year is started, I rethink my purpose in life. Maybe I need to go back to my roots. To go forward, one must go back first and ponder.      This past week my husband and I took the family out to dinner to the seafood restaurant in Norwalk.  I handed them all pieces of paper from the oldest to the youngest (who happens to be my granddaughter Emma) to write down their dreams for the new year.  I thought what a perfect place to ponder our dreams.  As I looked out to sea, I thought of my grandfather who never gave up his dream to make a better life for his family. He didn’t succeed at first but that didn’t stop him.  I sat and looked around the table and I realized that I really am living my best life surrounded by my family.  The least I can do is to not give up my dreams!  And you know what?  In order to fulfill our dreams, we must never forget where we came from and who we are.   I want to wish you all a Happy New Year!  May all your dreams come true!  Tradition! It’s the fuel to follow your dreams!

My husband, children. spouses and grandchildren eating dinner in Norwalk, CT at the same place my grandparents went fishing ….2019

Spaghetti Pizza

My mom always made spaghetti pizza for our picnic when we went fishing in Norwalk, Connecticut. Here’s our recipe. There are quite a few versions of it. My grandmother would make a sweet variety. While my Zia in Monte di Procida would make a savory one and sprinkle it with a bit of sugar on top. But I thought I would share my mom’s version which my kids also love! One time when my son was three he got all excited when he saw my mom making it and got all excited thinking we were going fishing!

Ingredients:

1 pound of cooked spaghetti al dente

1/2 cup grated cheese

1/2 cup of cubed prosciutto

1/2 cup of cubed fresh mozzarella

1 1/2 cups of shredded dry mozzarella

1/2 pound of cubed Auricchio Provolone

3 eggs

1/4 cup of Grape seed oil or corn oil. I like to use grape seed oil.

Procedure:

1. Mix all the cheeses and the proscuitto

2. Beat eggs and add to pasta to mix.

3. Add the cheese and prosciutto mixture to the pasta

4. Heat 1/4 cup of grape seed oil in a skillet

5. Add pasta mixture to pan and spread out tucking the cheese inside the pasta.

6. Let fry about 10 minutes or more until you can easily slide spatula underneath the spaghetti feeling that it’s crispy.

7. Flip the pizza over and cook 10-15 minutes long until the other side is crispy.

8. Take out of pan and let sit on paper towel to drain some of the oil and then serve!

Buon Appetito!