My wife and I had only known each other for several weeks when she asked me a serious question: “Do you eat bread with every meal?”
My astonishment foreshadowed the mash-up of backgrounds that our eventual marriage would bring. “Don’t you?” I said.
Deb was raised in Canton, Conn., up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads — a great place to grow up. But the nearest Italian bakery was at least 30 minutes away.
I was raised in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Lord’s Prayer at catechism, “give us this day our daily bread” made perfect sense to me.
Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Papa had his own preferences. Driving home from the Hill to Elmhurst, he sometimes stopped his copper ’75 Olds Cutlass at Amore’s Bakery on Valley Street, or at a neighborhood market, where there might be a loaf of Crugnale’s. And on Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery for bread. As I bounded out the door, I’d hear the familiar refrain: “Don’t eat it all on the way back!”
I’d walk the eight blocks home, fresh loaf tucked under my arm like a football, further proof of Pavlov’s theory. I couldn’t resist tearing off the heel of the bread and biting into its flaky, crunching crust. When I got home, I’d tear another piece off and dip it into my mom’s burbling gravy before she could shoo me away.
“Gravy” was another point of courtship conversation for Deb and me. “You mean sauce, right?” she asked. “No, I mean gravy,” I replied.
My mother was a Pantalone, and on Sundays, she made “the gravy.” All my aunts made gravy, too. But I understood Deb’s puzzlement. As I moved beyond the Providence enclave of my upbringing — teeming with first- and second-generation Italian Americans — my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce had produced similar confusion in others. In college, a friend asked, “You put brown gravy on your pasta?”
A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy, as my mom and aunts knew it, is a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. The term is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeastern United States. And, yes, it is red, with a hint of brown from the meat and a depth of cooked-tomato color that can make store-bought red sauces look like cheap ketchup.
The word “pasta,” which Deb used, revealed another instance where our vocabularies forked. It was always “macaroni” to me — any of the tubes or shells or twisting ribbons that, coated lightly with my mother’s gravy, made up the first course of Sunday dinner or Wednesday supper. I can hear my mom’s voice across the decades: “Have some more ’ronis.”
During our first trips to the market together, Deb laughed when she found me pondering the options in the pasta aisle (by then, pasta had entered my lexicon). I insisted that the different shapes had different tastes or, at the very least, different textures when cooked.
If nothing else, pasta presented a feast of melodic words and delicious etymologies: “farfalle” meant butterflies; “rotelle” translated as little wheels; “mostaccioli” were little mustaches (it is the staple macaroni in our house today); “cavatappi” meant corkscrews; “orecchiette” were little ears (though we called them pope’s hats because they resembled the pontiff’s zucchetto or skullcap).
After college, most of which I spent living on the East Side, I moved back to Federal Hill and rented an apartment near Holy Ghost Church. Next door stood a small bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.
Fast-forward 31 years to last winter, when a sign appeared in the window of a vacant store on Main Street in East Greenwich: “Coming Soon: Palmieri’s Bakery.” I looked closely at the logo: “Federal Hill Tradition. Established 1898.” I couldn’t believe it: the legendary Providence bakery was opening a new location right around the corner from my house.
On the Sunday after Palmieri’s opened, I hustled down to Main Street and bought my first loaf. Walking home, I resisted the urge to tear off a chunk. But that didn’t last long. With the first bite, I was a kid again.
Back in my kitchen, I smiled as my daughter dipped her bread, with a communicant’s care, into my simmering gravy.