Growing Up Italian

So there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are Italian and those who wish they were. At least that’s what they say…

I mean seriously, like what’s not to love? Good Italian food? Amazing deli meats, “stinky cheeses,” Parma Prosciutto, Locatelli Romano. In later years, good wine… Then there’s Sunday dinner every week with your cousins and family. And all of those happening in New York. (I know, awesome, right?!)

bottle of wine and pasta
Wine and pasta are staples!

Sunday dinner was always always always in courses, and depending on the time of year would determine how many courses. Cold antipasto with olives, anchovies, ricotta salata, Sopressato, Salami, extra sharp provolone, and good crusty Italian Semolina bread.

If it was really cold, there might be fresh homemade soup, maybe not. But there was ALWAYS pasta. Lots of meatballs, sausage, sometimes bracciole. Then there was some kind of roasted something with potatoes. Could be roasted chicken with rosemary, could be roast leg of lamb or roast pork, it was always a surprise. But one thing was for sure, you could always smell it from the front door. And if it was my other grandmother, you could smell her roast pork loin and gravy roasting three flights down at the entrance.

But the greatest part of going to Sunday family dinner as a kid was getting to help cook. I can remember being three or four years old and my grandmother had me helping her make the meatballs and frying them in the cast iron frying pan with olive oil. Hardest part was trying not to eat them before dinner, lol! 

meatballs frying in cast iron skillet
Yum! Italian meatballs frying in cast iron skillet

Then, while those were cooking, I had to make the Kool-Aid for me and my cousins. But there was one catch; My grandfather was diabetic. That meant that all of the pitchers of Kool-Aid that we made had to be sugar free. Remember when you were a kid you would open up the packet of Kool-Aid and try to smell the cherry or grape flavor? Yeah, good luck with that. The unsweetened packets had no smell at all, and you usually started to choke when you tried to inhale it after you opened it. The powder would come wafting out and right up your nose, omg…

But that became the first math lesson! You had to figure out how many saccharin pills you had to put in to the mix to sweeten the pitcher of Kool-Aid. So my grandmother would ask me how much sugar is there supposed to be? Then she’d say okay, so you need this many tablespoons of sugar. How many pills make a tablespoon of sugar? Okay, then how many tablespoons do you need? Then that means you need how many saccharin pills?

All I can remember is that it came out to exactly 44 saccharin pills, I shit you not. I had to stand there and count out 44 saccharin pills out of the little clear bottle. Those were the days way before Sweet N Low even came out.

So then we had three generations of family that we had to get around a table. Huge long folding table, took up the entire living room. You sat on the couch on one side, or on the love seat on the end, and there were folding chairs on the other sides. And that was just the grown-up table. Then there was the card table that all of the kids had to sit at. That would be in the next bedroom over, just close enough where we could be seen and not necessarily heard fighting at the table, lol!

Then after dinner we would clean up the aftermath to get it all three rooms over to the kitchen. Did I fail to mention that I was able to make pots of espresso by the time I was like four? Gram would say, “Okay, dinner’s over, it’s time for Grandpa’s espresso.”

Out came the little espresso pot. Four heaping tablespoons of ground espresso into the canister that you had to flip upside down into the pouring pot side. Then you had to boil water, and then pour the hot water into the top and wait for it to strain through. Yep, that’s how it was done way before all of these automated machines and Keurig and Nespresso and all of that other happy crap. Good old-fashioned manual labor!

So with that many people in the family, there were always birthdays. So, once a month on the first Sunday, whoever had a birthday in that month, all of those names would be on a “Happy Birthday” cake. Or, more specifically, a rum soaked, cannoli cream filled rum cake with whipped cream and buttercream flowers. And of course, all the kids wanted were the buttercream flowers, because we weren’t nuts about the taste of the rum, but damn, we slept good…

But then was the last and final round. Out would come the cigars, the Rock and Rye, and the decks of cards for hours and hours and hours of the grown-ups playing pinochle. Who the hell needed poker? Hours of mindless fun for the grown ups, hours of boredom for us kids. Sunday TV SUCKED back then before cable came into existence…

Rock and rye and a cigar
Rock and rye and a cigar

Let the pinochle games begin! If you were walking into that room from another room, all you saw quite literally was like a thick fog. Between the Lark, Parliament and Chesterfield cigarettes and the stogies, you couldn’t even breathe in that room, and nobody would open the dang windows, OMFG. The Chesterfield smoke was literally brown, and the curtains were quite literally yellowed from everybody smoking in there, it was INSANE. You were literally choking trying to breathe if you were one of the kids.

At that point, we were full, we were tired and all we wanted to do was go home. And all it would take was for one of us to complain, and it would be the very stern, “Go INNNNN siiiiide!!!” (Emphasis on the word “in…”)

FINALLY, 2 or 3 HOURS later, it was time to go. Omg, how could I possibly forget? You are not walking out that door without taking home leftovers. Tupperware? Who the hell needed Tupperware! There were 500 Polly-O ricotta containers to take stuff home in! Nobody wasted money on Tupperware, not in an Italian family. If there were no plastic containers, there was tin foil. There were glass jars with lids ready to rock and roll. Shopping bags full of leftovers. We were lucky if my mom even had to cook for the next three or four nights because there was JUST. SO. MUCH. FOOD. But nothing ever went to waste, and we were happy as hell to eat it. Why?


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