There was no chicken parmigiana or spaghetti & meatballs on my table growing up. For me, the child of Italian immigrants, dinner consisted of lots of vegetables, beans and some form of pasta. My parents are the children of peasant farmers from a small town outside of Naples, Italy, called Cervinara — and the American concept of Italian food did not exist as part of our native diet.
Beyond mere survival
My grandmother Angela was told as a child by her mother when they went visiting relatives to “tell them you ate meat for dinner.” Beef in Italy — around World War II — was a rarity and very expensive. So, naturally, when my grandparents and parents came to the United States in the 1950s, that mentality of food for survival stayed with them — they finally weren’t just living off the farm.
While living in New York City, my parents and grandparents found prosperity and with their prosperity came the melding of their old “peasant dishes” with (literally) the meat and potatoes of America. Peppers that were once only stuffed with breadcrumbs and garlic were now stuffed with meat and fish. In addition, pasta with beans became pasta with beans and potatoes. Still, the emphasis was always on the meat — being able to eat beef was a symbol of wealth to them!
Peasant food made trendy
As the years passed, these “peasant dishes” my grandparents and parents would eat in the privacy of their own homes would eventually – and ironically – become trendy. My grandmother would say beans and broccoli rabe on wet double-baked stale bread with olive oil was what they ate because they had nothing else. When she saw me order Broccoli Rabe on a Friselle (basically a trendy version of my grandma’s rendition) at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, she nearly fell off her chair!
In my home I now try to recreate the dishes of the farm and the dishes of the Italian sections of New York City with my own American twist. I never forget my Italian roots, and I never forget to embrace my own American culture.
Pasta with Anchovies and Prosciutto
My grandfather Giuseppe would make this as a quick meal, but he would leave out the prosciutto and add diced tomatoes instead. He would also add a half a cup of the boiled pasta water to the sauce to make it soupy so he could dip his bread! When my mom and aunts miss my grandfather, we make “Nonno Giuseppe’s pasta.”
1 pound pasta of your choice
1 cup of olive oil
1/2 pound of prosciutto, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cloves minced garlic (more if you like)
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Cook pasta according to package instructions. While pasta is cooking, pour olive oil into a large pan over medium heat. When oil is hot add prosciutto and cook, stirring occasionally, until prosciutto is slightly brown. Add anchovies and mash anchovies with back of wooden spoon until they are a paste. Stir into prosciutto mixture and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes. Add minced garlic and cook, stirring, for a few more minutes or until garlic is golden and fragrant. When pasta is cooked al dente, drain into a colander and then add to sauce. Toss pasta to coat and liberally season with salt and fresh ground back pepper to taste.
My grandmother Angela would make stuffed peppers for me, but she was gone before I was able to get her recipe. She would always mix things with her hands because she said it came out better that way. This past summer, I watched my aunt Virginia make them for me and I wrote each ingredient down – it is truly one of my most treasured recipes!
6 large green or red peppers
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
Half of a large loaf of artisan bread, cut into very small cubes
1 cup crushed walnuts
1 cup green or black olives
A few leaves of fresh basil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 pound cooked Italian sausage, chopped or cooked ground beef, drained well
Cut the tops off of the peppers and remove seeds. In a large pot, heat all but 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add peppers and cook, turning to brown all sides (do this in batches if needed). Remove peppers and set aside, reserving olive oil.
In a large mixing bowl, add bread cubes and enough water so that the bread soaks it up but not too much so that there is a pool. Add in chopped walnuts, olives, basil, Parmesan cheese, parsley, garlic, egg and sausage or ground beef. Use your hands to mix well to make a paste.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and use 2 teaspoons of oil to grease a baking dish large enough to hold peppers. In a small skillet, heat remaining teaspoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the anchovies and use a wooden spoon to crush anchovies so that they disintegrate in the olive oil. Add anchovies to bread mixture and stir in reserved olive oil used to cook the peppers.
Place the peppers in the baking dish and use a large spoon to stuff bread mixture evenly into each pepper. Bake in oven for about 45 to 55 minutes. Serve peppers immediately. You can also cool completely, refrigerate and enjoy them for lunch the next day! Stuffed peppers can be eaten warm or cold.
Extra Sweet Strawberries
This was one of my all time favorite treats as a kid. My Grandmother Amalia would make it for me in the summer and at the time I would just eat the berries out of the jar – nothing tasted better! Now I make the same simple farm recipe and add the whipped cream or pound cake for a modern twist.
3 to 4 cups of strawberries, washed, cut in half or quartered
1/2 cup sugar
Whipped cream (optional)
Pound cake (optional)
Layer strawberries and sugar in wide-mouth mason jars or other jars with lids until all strawberries are used (gently pack strawberries in jars, do not smash). Fill jars with enough water to cover strawberries. Let strawberries sit at least an hour or until berries are softened. When ready to serve, use a slotted spoon to take strawberries out of jars. Serve sweetened strawberries cold in a dessert cup topped with whipped cream or at room temperature on a dessert plate with sliced pound cake.
For more delectable Italian recipes, check out these articles: