federal hill

Childhood Christmas still exists, if only in my dreams

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 21, 2014.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)” was a Top Ten hit for Bing Crosby after its release in the midst of World War II. Written by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, the song resonated with soldiers and their families, though Gannon reportedly once said he was thinking of anyone who is separated from loved ones at Christmas.

That was me back in 1980. I had spent the fall at school in Ireland and, thanks to my grandfather’s generosity, traveled to the continent after finishing the semester. On Christmas night, I stood in a Florence phone booth waiting for an operator to connect me to my mother’s apartment on Federal Hill.

I heard my mom’s faraway voice — “John?” — and then the hurrahs of my family and relatives. Closing my eyes, I could see the dining room and the Christmas lights and everyone gathered around the table. The mix of happiness and sadness I felt made my heart clench.

I couldn’t wait to speak to my younger brother, James. When he got on the phone — “Hey Johnny, what’s happening?” — it wasn’t the same voice I had left behind. Puberty had intervened and my little brother — born five years after I was — suddenly didn’t sound so little any more.

The last time I had seen him, in early September, he was speechless. We were standing with my mother by the railroad tracks at Union Station in downtown Providence. After two years at Brown, I was heading to the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, leaving my hometown — and family — for the first time. As the train approached, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to James. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides.

I, too, ached at the parting; James and I were tight.

When our parents had separated, my father left me a letter that said, in part, “Continue to be good to James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world and relies on you very much.” At the time, James was 3-1/2 years old. My mother, who would go back to work at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, was more succinct: “Look after your brother,” she said, staring me in the eyes.

So I did, and it seemed as if James and I were always together. We shared a bedroom; his space was mine and mine was his.

When we played basketball in the basement — shooting mini-balls at a bucket on a barstool — James was Walt Frazier to my Willis Reed. When we huddled up for football in the back yard — drawing plays in the dirt — James was Fran Tarkenton to my Ron Johnson.

And when my younger brother once asked why our father’s Saturday visits ended before our mother got home from work, I did my best to explain.

The last of 13 cousins, James always made a grand entrance at our extended family’s boisterous Christmas Eve gatherings. Amid the smoke and cocktails and holiday din, someone would yell out, “Hey, Santa’s here!” and down the stairs my brother would come, pillows bulging under his red robe, fake white beard masking his smiling face. Everyone cheered as our diminutive Santa handed out gifts — wine for the aunts, scotch for the uncles, pajamas for the girls, colored underwear for the boys.

As he grew up, James acquired a worldliness that came with being the “baby.” A cousin let him drive her car before he was a teen. And once, while visiting me at Brown, he disappeared into the night and discovered zombies at a fraternity bar.

My return from Europe confirmed what the sound of James’s voice had announced over the phone: he was taller, stronger, a boy no more. Two years later, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. I admired his guts; boot camp made my English degree seem like a trifle. On December 19, 1983, James boarded a bus for the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J.

At Christmas dinner six days later, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, held up his glass, and said, “Here’s to our youngest family member, away serving our country.”

Glasses clinked, and my mother and aunt dabbed their eyes.

The Coast Guard launched my brother on a maritime career far from the life we navigated growing up.

That “home” of our childhood, both beloved and bittersweet, still exists — but only in our dreams.

All Gravy: Feedback on My ProJo Column

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My op-ed column, “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which appeared last Wednesday in the Providence Journal, is by far the most widely read piece I have written. To date, it has elicited 477 Facebook shares and 138 Tweets from the Journal’s online edition alone.

In addition to garnering social media love, the column has prompted readers to contact me directly via email. I have heard from fellow bread and gravy aficionados, displaced Rhode Islanders, people who grew up on Federal Hill and Charles Street, long-lost cousins… The feedback has been great, and I wanted to share some of the highlights.

                                                        

“The Italian bread never tasted better than when dipped in the gravy. Not to be confused with American white bread. As I am reading the article, I’m laughing because my wife’s family and mine have been having the sauce versus gravy debate for 20 years of marriage.”

                                      

“I grew up in Mt Pleasant (born 1956) and went to many of the same bakeries. My late mother, born and raised on Federal Hill, admonished me with the same words as she sent me to the Castle Spa to pick up a loaf of Crugnale’s bread. I recall running down Chalkstone Ave with the bread ‘like a football’ and taking a piece off the end. Your words warmed me as I recalled the love of my mother.”

                                     

“Having resided in NH since 1969, I’ve suffered with the lack of food products and choices I grew up with. This problem is only rectified by numerous trips back to RI to stock up. My New Hampshire-born wife had to endure the same ‘gravy-sauce’ and ‘macaroni-pasta’ education you mentioned.”

                                            

“My mother was from Federal Hill and my father the North End or, more specifically, Charles Street. Every Sunday morning on the way back from church at St. Ann’s I would stop at a little bakery on Russo Street (Palmisciano’s, as I recall) and would eat the heel before I was at the next corner – my house. I would turn the bread upside down and it wouldn’t be discovered for at least a couple of minutes when my father would take the bread out – for the same reason.”

                                      

“My wife and I are long-time bread lovers. When we lived on the East Side, we bought bread on Federal Hill, including at the old Palmieri’s.”

                                      

“I turned a shade of pink, having been guilty of stealing the heel.”

                                             

“I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence and we certainly had our share of bakeries. Fact is, as a young child, I baked the bread and delivered it to houses in those days. THANK YOU for stirring up those memories.”

                              

“My husband is half Italian and did exactly what you did when asked to go to the bakery. To this day, he dips a crusty piece of bread into the ‘gravy’ just to test!”

                                   

“Don’t we love the food debates and yes, a good local bakery that you can walk to is such a treat. Moreover, it brings back those great childhood memories.”    

    

“The scent of all those neighborhood bakeries rose off the newsprint. Thank you so much for that memory.”

                                            

“I was once in a high-end store in the Berkshires and following a couple whose wife asked her husband, ‘What kind of pasta should I get?’ Unable to control myself, I said, ‘Why the ‘rigs’ of course.’ They turned to me somewhat confused… ‘Uh, I meant rigatoni.’”

                                      

And finally, this gem:

“Thank you for supplying me with new material to use in the never-ending ‘sauce versus gravy’ wars we enjoy with our old Italian friends. I can still recall, as a child in the fifties, loitering in the kitchen waiting for my mother to ask if I wanted to try the gravy on a piece of Italian bread. She eventually taught my Hungarian wife to make equally high-powered gravy. One of our Hunga-Wop daughters carries on the tradition. We never, ever, used the word ‘pasta,’ either. That was for people on TV macaroni commercials.”

 

Thanks to all for sharing their bread and gravy stories. And if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to add your thoughts below – would love to hear from you.

 

Stirring Things Up: The Gravy Recipe

crushed tomatoes

I have written seven Op-Ed pieces for the Providence Journal since December. Topics have included Wiffle ball, the return of “Mad Men,” and Christmas Eve at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill.

Of all the pieces, one stands alone in its popularity: “Please pass the bread – and the gravy,” which ran this past Wednesday. It garnered, by far, the most Facebook shares of any of my columns to date.

I’m not surprised. Having grown up in Providence, I know first-hand how passionate people can be about bread and gravy.

When the number of Facebook shares topped 100 on Wednesday afternoon, I offered an incentive in hopes of generating more: if the shares reached 200, I’d publish my gravy recipe. It worked. Shortly before noon on Thursday, we hit the magic number. By the end of the day, the shares exceeded 300. First thing Friday morning, they were at 401 (appropriate number) and still climbing.

My gravy recipe is simple, but figuring it out was anything but that. Years ago, when I asked my mother about the ingredients, she said “depends on what you have.” (For meat, she would use sausage or pork or steak or braciole – whatever was on hand.) When I asked her about proportions, she used phrases like “just a bit” and “a good amount” and “you know, until it tastes good.” That’s when I learned these truths: making gravy is more art than science. And each batch is as unique and personal as a signature.

My mother’s gravy was delicious, the ultimate comfort food for me. I watched and experimented and fine-tuned. And then one day, many years later, my mom said, “Your gravy is good.”

If I had been elected President of the United States, she would have been proud. But it would have been a silver-medal accomplishment next to my gravy gold. I had arrived.

Opinions abound about what makes a good gravy, so feel free to weigh in. Just don’t get me started on the meatballs.

Buon appetito!

Here’s the recipe:

THE GRAVY

INGREDIENTS

> 1/4 cup vegetable oil

> 1 small onion, finely chopped

> 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

> ½ pound sweet Italian sausage, about 3 links, cut into pieces (OR pork or steak or braciole, “depending on what you have”)

> 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes

> 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce

> Fresh basil and thyme, finely chopped, OR Italian seasoning

> 1 small carrot OR a pinch of sugar

> 1 bay leaf

> ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

> ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and onions, and sauté until onions are tender and translucent. Add the sweet Italian sausage (or other meat) and brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, fresh basil and thyme (or Italian seasoning), carrot (or pinch of sugar), bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Simmer partially covered over low heat for at least two hours; if the Patriots are playing, for the entire game. If gravy gets too thick, add “just a bit” of water.

 

 

Please Pass The Bread – And The Gravy

 

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on July 16, 2014.

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.

 

Gifts From My Grandfather’s Store

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 24, 2013.

“John! Lock the door!”

I had waited 364 days to hear my grandfather say those words. He stood behind the register at Vincent’s, his children’s-wear and baby-clothes store on Federal Hill. It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve — the only day of the year when the store closed early. I dashed to the door and turned the key. The dead bolt hit the doorframe — pop! — and another exhausting selling season for our family had ended.

As a 10-year-old in 1970, I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, but not old enough to be aloof about receiving presents. I had asked for Pro Bowl Live Action Football, which I had seen advertised on TV. The ad touted the game’s “king-sized playing field” and “complete pro-type teams.” I hoped “Santa” would deliver.

As I turned away from the door, a woman swooped in from the Atwells Avenue sidewalk and pressed hard against the door’s glass — a would-be, last-minute Santa. The lock resisted. I hoped my grandfather would, too.

I recalled a story that my mother had told me many times. When she was young, my grandfather had brought her a fancy winter coat from his store. The following day, he took the coat back — a customer needed it. “Don’t worry,” he said to my mom. “I’ll get you another one.” (He did.) At Vincent’s, you always took care of the customer.

So, I wasn’t surprised on that Christmas Eve to see my grandfather unlock the door, to the woman’s great relief. Christmas Eve — at least my idea of what it should be — would have to wait.

*           *           *

Everyone who worked at Vincent’s was a relative or seemed like one. It was years before I realized that Auntie Gerry technically wasn’t my aunt, but by that point it didn’t matter. At Vincent’s, everyone was family.

My grandfather opened the store in 1927. It thrived through the Great Depression and became known statewide as the go-to place for baby clothes, christening sets, and communion suits and dresses. At the corner of Atwells Avenue and Acorn Street, Vincent’s had spectacular wraparound showcase windows — merchandising gold.

Each night, those windows presented a parade of brightly lit mannequins adorned in the latest fashions. During the day, my grandfather’s hand-painted paper signs beckoned to drivers and passersby: Layaway Plan! Winter Coat Sale! Christmas Gifts!

This was my first year of working on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I cut up boxes, picked up pins, retrieved layaways, ran out for coffee, killed time. The days were long, especially when I thought of my friends playing touch football or pick-up basketball.

Some Saturdays, Auntie Gerry would save me from my restlessness: “Let’s have Caserta’s for lunch,” she’d say, handing me a $5 bill. Twenty minutes later, I’d return with a cheese and pepperoni pizza.

I loved Auntie Gerry.

One Saturday, my grandfather gave me a welcome break from my routine. A group of guys was going to be renting the apartment upstairs for a nightly card game. My grandfather gave me two leftover gallons of paint from the store basement. Hands of poker would soon be dealt in rooms freshly coated in soft pink and baby blue.

*           *           *

For a second time, I heard the magic words: “John! Lock the door!”

This time, no last-minute Santa intervened. Outside, my grandfather set the alarm and Vincent’s was officially closed for Christmas!

At my Aunt Rita’s house that night, my mom and aunts sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes, my uncles drank scotch, my grandfather played the violin. Older cousins drank beer in the basement; my little brother and I, the youngest grandchildren, wolfed down Italian cookies in the kitchen. At times, just about everyone was talking at once: the familiar din of Christmas Eve. Then we all crammed into the living room to exchange gifts. At the end of the night, my grandfather handed white envelopes to my mom and aunts. Each of them thanked him with a kiss, and I somehow knew that the amount of cash inside was not insignificant.

On Christmas morning, Pro Bowl Live Action Football was waiting for me under the tree. But the game was not nearly as much fun as the ad had promised. It took forever to set up the teams. And then the plays were over in an instant. After trying it a few times, I never took Pro Bowl Live Action Football out of the box again.

It would be years before the memory of my disappointment about the game brought an epiphany. The best gifts from my childhood — the security provided by a grandfather’s store, the embrace of a big Italian family — didn’t come once a year. They were there every day.

 

Why We Love Our Aunts

aunt

We love our aunts because aunts are cool. Aunts laugh easily. Aunts are always ready with a hug. Aunts can level with us. Aunts knew us before we knew ourselves. Aunts understand.

We love our aunts because our aunts are not our moms. Not that we don’t love our moms. But the mother-child relationship is a complex stew, one that nourishes and, at times, boils over. Aunts are chicken soup.

We love our aunts because they allow us to see our mom or dad as a sister or brother. They reveal that person from long ago, foreign yet familiar. They make our parents more human, more like us.

The word aunt derives from the Latin amita, a diminutive of amma, which is baby talk for mom. The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of mom in our aunts. Just the right amount, I think.

I grew up in the embrace of an extended Italian family and was blessed with three loving aunts: Grace and Rita and Marie. They were ever-present in my childhood: at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill; at the beach house on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett; around the piano on holidays, singing show tunes and Christmas carols; at our front door whenever my mom needed them.

As a boy, I never liked sleeping over at friends’ houses. But staying with one of my aunts was different; it felt like home.

*     *     *

The song Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In by The Fifth Dimension topped the charts for six weeks during the spring of 1969 and helped spark an interest in astrology among my mom and her sisters. My Aunt Marie and I both have February birthdays, and she was quick to point out that we were fellow Aquarians. “We understand each other,” she told me. “We’re beautiful people.” I don’t know that either of us believed much in astrology. But I believed in Auntie Marie. And for good reason.

Key milestones in my life – college graduation, the day I got married, the death of my father, when my children were born – are marked by notes from Auntie Marie. Her words are always filled with sensitivity and support – or, as the song goes, “harmony and understanding, sympathy and love abounding.” 

We love our aunts because, as Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “love loves to love love.”

For Auntie Marie, with love and gratitude.

The Wonder Of Italian Bread

crugnale

Deb and I had known each other for two months when she asked me a serious question: “Do you really eat bread with every meal?”

The look of astonishment on my face hinted at the mix of cultures that our marriage would bring. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t you?”

Deb was raised in Canton, Connecticut, up in the hills northwest of Hartford. Lots of pine trees and farms and country roads. The nearest Italian bakery was forty-five minutes away.

I grew up in Providence. There were bakeries everywhere, and Italian bread was a staple at our supper table. When I learned the Our Father at catechism, give us this day our daily bread made total sense to me.

On Sunday afternoons, with her gravy simmering on the stove, my mother would ask me to run up to La Salle Bakery to grab a loaf of bread. “And don’t eat it all on the way back,” she’d say. As I walked the eight blocks home with the fresh loaf tucked under my arm, Pavlov’s Theory was proven once more. Salivating, I’d tear off the end of the bread and bite into its crust.

Up on Federal Hill, where I worked at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, my aunts would send me to Scialo’s for bread. Driving home from the Hill, I’d sometimes stop at Amore’s on Valley Street if we needed a loaf. And if I didn’t get to a bakery in time – bread sold out! – I’d head to a neighborhood market where I might find a loaf of Crugnale’s (perfect crust).

After college, I lived in a tenement near Holy Ghost Church on Federal Hill, right next door to a bakery. Each morning, I’d awake to the smell of bread baking in the ovens. Heaven.

When Deb took her first job out of college, she worked in East Hartford – in a building that was right next door to a Wonder Bread factory. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s Sunday afternoon. My gravy’s simmering on the stove, but I need macaroni. I run to Dave’s Marketplace. As I deliberate over which pasta shape to buy, my phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text from Deb: Don’t forget the bread.

Amen.

Two Hills, One Rhode Island Moment

The Hill and Harbor District is fourteen miles away from Federal Hill by car, and a world away by any other measure. But the two came together for me early one morning this week.

As I was leaving for work, a man walking up Peirce Street waved and asked about my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. I told him Dick had died in February. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I always saw him walking. He was like the mayor around here.” I smiled. Dick’s legend lives on.

“I’ve been here since 1959,” the man said. “There were only 3,000 people in town. Then they all came for the schools.” He laughed. “Been here since ’59, but I’m still considered an outsider.”

A yellow bus churned by. “How long you been here?” the man asked. I thought of my daughter, Juliana, who was born five months after we moved to East Greenwich. “Sixteen years,” I told him. “I’m an outsider, too.” We laughed and I said I was from Providence. The man’s face brightened.

“You Italian?”

“Pantalone,” I said. “On my mother’s side.” I told him my grandfather had a baby clothes store on Federal Hill for more than 70 years. We were no longer strangers.

“Still have to go to Cranston for pastry,” he said with a knowing nod. “Zaccagnini’s.”

Bread, too, I added. It was like talking to an uncle at a family wedding.

“Your wife a good cook?” he asked.

“Outstanding. But I make the gravy on Sundays.”

“With the pork?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“John.”

“That was my father’s name.”

We spoke for a few minutes. About his heart transplant and doctor. About my copywriting career. About Atwells Avenue legends. When I asked his name, I didn’t catch his reply. I wish I had. We had a lot in common: the Hill and the Hill, Dick and pastry and Zaccagnini’s, bread and Sunday gravy. And now, this morning on Peirce Street.

I’ll find out his name the next time we meet. I bet the conversation continues.

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