I like reality that tastes like bread.
Enough with the jokes about garlic and overeating. Its time to recognize Italian home cooking, Italian-American cooking, not as coarse overabundance but for its subtle sparking of flavors, its seasonal sensibility, and its generous expression of love.
Paterna takes on the stereotypes of both Italian-Americans and of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn where he grew up. His mother had a 30-year career as a bank teller (reminds me of my grandmother who was sharp with numbers and well-respected at her publishing company office). He points out that the neighborhood is more than mafia stereotypes. Its shopkeepers are skilled artisans using old machines to roll out pasta dough and coal-fired ovens to bake bread, keeping alive generational techniques of food production. And shops that keep a connection to Italian culture with imported groceries and music.
If you can take a field trip, make sure there’s a cooler in the trunk of your car. You won’t want to go home without fresh mozzarella from Lioni Latticini, Faicco’s hot fennel sausage, and Villabate Alba’s hand-painted marzipan.
If it’s a subway visit, pick-up a submarine sandwich assembled a la minute at Papa Pasquale’s or visit Coluccio and Sons for the ingredients to make Paterna’s recipes–Arrancini, Parmigiana di Melanzane, Pomodori Ripieni, or Gamberi Fra Diavolo. The recipes are mostly simple, relying on attention to small details and excellent ingredients.
And Paterna capture the Italian genius for making something out of nothing. Who would guess that stoccofisso, dried, salted cod or squirming eels and octopus could be transformed into dishes that you wait all year to eat. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a symbolic meal served on Christmas Eve, said to represent the seven sacraments or the seven days of creation, but now its own ritual of family.
Like the holiday meal the book is named for, Italian American cooking takes a particular savor from the family and seasonal associations that attend to dishes and ingredients. The food, just like this book, is a labor of love and attention.