Mo, center, with neighbors, having a smoke and Strega Festa
Here’s another little section from ‘The Making of an Italian Cook’, a book of essays I’ve been working on for a few months. I’ve already posted two other short sections. They’re all still a little rough, but I just thought I’d run pieces of this by you to see what you think.
Dinner in Greenvale, Long Island
This was a night when Dick, my father and golf pro supreme, came home late from a poker game in the Grill Room, a private cubby hole at the country club where he worked that was off limits to women, even in 1972, and that for all I know still is. Mo, my mother, was in the kitchen when she heard the Caddy door slam. She was pissed off of course, but not as enraged as she could be on these boys’ nights out. I think she was tired from peddling Izods all day. Running the club’s pro shop meant long days for her, having to smile morning to night, everyone wanting things shorter and tighter when all the members were just getting older and fatter. My good friend Scott was sitting on my bed making sketches of stiletto pumps with weapon toes and ostrich plumes jutting from the heels. My sister Liti was in the den watching Gunsmoke. Dick went straight for the Trini Lopez recording of”La Bamba,” and it mingled nicely with Gunsmoke in our den, formerly our garage, now the wood-paneled all purpose fun and fight (and flight) room that housed my father’s well-stocked bar, a yellowy brown, naugahyde sofa pit, a series of ye olde Scottish golfer prints, men teeing off wearing knickers and knee socks, a humongous painting, done by a neighbor, of a guy trying to chip his way out of what looks like an eighty-foot-deep sand trap (not the greatest sense of perspective). The den was decorated in shades of brown and that particular 1970s burnt orange that was fashioned into a lot of the leather jackets of the time; in the den it expressed itself most dramatically in the form of a stained -glass faux medieval chandelier hanging from thick iron rings. Our four year old baby brother, Richie, was screaming from his high chair. It was June, not too hot, and yet the air-conditioning was turned to what Liti and I knew as the deep freeze. Dick liked it that way, since he spent much of his afternoons teaching golf in the broiling sun and, in the process, creating black moles all over his head that from time to time needed gouging. I wore a navy blue wool cardigan over a black leotard and pink seam-up-the-back stirrup foot tights, having just come back from my Martha Graham class, something I’d been studying for years with not much enthusiasm. It was a good way to burn off energy.
Mo began to fry veal cutlets, one of the most exquisite food smells that ever came out of our kitchen. She usually served them just with lemon. I also liked the parmigiano treatment, but that softened up the crispy, greasy, just lifted from the pan allure that was so enticing. Mo had a certain finesse with food. Her cooking was lighter than Dick’s mother’s, less tomatoes, more lemon, more herbs. That was her style. It was partly a health and diet issue, but that wasn’t the entire story. Mostly she just cooked what I’d call contemporary Southern Italian. Not a lot of steam came out of her kitchen. She didn’t usually have time for Sunday sauce (although on occasion she’d make one and it was great). Lots of grilling went on, raw vegetables with creamy dips lifted from magazines. Flounder fillets with crunchy crumbs and garlic. Linguine with clams and white wine. Roasted local blue fish with capers and olives. She made a lot of salads.
Mo put out a tray of raw celery, fennel, olives, and chunks of a focaccia I’d recently been trying to perfect, this one topped with capers and anchovies (really couldn’t pry myself away from those anchovies). Everyone gathered around our wine-barrel-motif table, whose top could be flipped over to reveal a green felt crap game table. Chianti came out, along with diet raspberry soda, diet cream soda, and regular old Coke. The hot and bubbling fried veal cutlets, crisp and greasy, with lemon wedges and parsley, came out next. Mo now brought out a platter of broccoli rabe sauteed with garlic.
Trini Lopez morphed into Al Martino, and then into some ancient Italian opera’s greatest hits album that was dug into and hissing beyond belief, a sort of winder downer. The music was loud, always. The TV was still on. Nobody watching, nobody bothering to turn it off.
Then Mo brought out a chicory salad that was so bitter that Scott, who decided to stay for dinner (for a change), tried to act as if it didn’t exist. I loved it. I loved Mo’s salads, often with hits of wild arugula thrown in from our neighbor Lou Mastellone’s garden. Her dressings were simple, pure Italian in spirit, just olive oil, salt, and vinegar or sometimes lemon, occasionally with a bit of garlic. I love bitter, so these salads were what I craved.
Lou Mastellone dropped by to talk tomatoes. Of course, Lou also had a backyard garden, and the tomato rivalry, despite Lou and Dick’s close friendship, was strong. Lou’s were higher this June, and it was a cold June. Dick was perplexed. They both grew beefsteaks, plums, cherries. Cigarettes came out. Strega and Sambuca came out. A lot of talk about proper staking and tying and sun angles. It was interesting to me up to a point, and then it just started to seem like work I would never want any part of.
Dick came out with a big tray of very sour, weird Abruzzi Christmas cookies I had made the day before (it wasn’t any where near Christmas, and maybe that’s why they were so awful). They were like mini calzones but filled with dried figs, mashed up chickpeas, chocolate, sweetened with honey (not enough, or maybe too much; hard to say). Probably these things had a reason for being, but at the time I didn’t get the concept. Seemed like something more out of the dreaded New York Times Health food cookbook I now despised, although I believe I got the recipe from the Calabrian lady next door. I now know that those cookies are called cavicinetti, a perfectly respectable classic, and when properly made a delicious baked thingy, but back then they eluded me, although I baked about eighty of them that time.
Mo, my mother was not an Italian-American apron Mamma, like my father’s mother, but a chic New York gal, a former Seventh Avenue showroom model married to a golf pro and living in Nassau County, Long Island. She ran the golf shop at my father’s club, stocking it with Ralph Lauren and cashmere argyle sweaters. She cooked Southern Italian food very well, not making a big deal out of it and not heartbroken when she and Dick decided to go out instead, which was often, but in her cooking and in her personal style there was a sure hand with nuance and detail.