Being Scots-Irish I didn’t have an Italian grandmother. However I did have an adoptive one lent to me by neighbors; the grandmother of two boys who lived across the alley from the house I grew up in. Given that both of them had sandy blond hair and their last name was Aylesworth, they weren’t your standard eye-talian boys. Though standing in their grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon I thought I was in Sicily.
She was one great lady, and even though I was what you might call a “full-figured” youth, you’d have thought I was a Somalian refugee by the way she foisted food upon me. Various antipasti (which I was always disappointed to find had no actual pasta in them), minestrone (as that which rhymes with telephone — another big surprise), Amaretto cookies and of course her signature vegetable-rich tomato sauce could always be counted on on Sunday afternoons.
Pasta courses were a regular, though in classic Italian style, they were very small, and blew by almost before you knew what was happening. I never understood that as a boy, since like most non-Italians I was used to eating pasta as a main course. But then that’s the kind of luxury we late-generation Americans have always been used to. In our world pasta is cheap and abundant, so why not eat it by the plate-full? Old world pasta was made by hand from fine-ground flours that were both rare and expensive. For that reason it was traditionally meted out in tiny amounts like treasure. Pasta was also so time- and labor-intensive that it was only eaten when grandma had the time to make it: on Sundays.
But then I was just a kid and had no idea what that rituals of Old-World Italy were all about. The first few Sunday dinners I had with my new nonna, I was surprise that her apartment wasn’t decorated with hanging balls of provalone and mortadella sausages. Wasn’t that what being Italian was all about? It’s funny the perception Americans had, and to some extent still have, about Italian food. To us it’s all about abondanza (“abundance”). We very easily forget that for thousands of years the Italian peninsula — with the notable exceptions of wealthy city-states like Florence and Venice — was synonymous with starvation. No wonder then that poor Italian immigrants were so eager to pile their plates high with meat, cheese and pasta when they got to the land of plenty. Nowadays it’s fashionable to scoff at such garish “Italian American” cuisine (I myself have to admit I haven’t been to an Olive Garden in decades), though I have to say my judgment softens when I remember what it springs from.
Just how my borrowed Italin grandma managed to walk the line of Italian-American cooking without tumbling headlong into conspicuous excess I don’t know. Somehow she managed to combine the best of the old with the best of the new. Sure, she would probably never have made a fresh tomato sauce (pictured above) of the kind the wife and I had for our own Sunday dinner yesterday (as a meal no less!). Her specialty was the kind of long-simmered tomato and meat gravy that no upscale Italian eatery would be caught dead serving nowadays. But thinking back on my now very faint memories of her, I have a better understanding of what her cooking meant, and the ways in which it reflected both her heritage and her deep appreciation for all the blessings the New World could bring.