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“Brooklyn” and the art of making meatballs

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As published in the Providence Journal, January 17, 2016.

There is so much to love about the film “Brooklyn” — from its compelling narrative and superb cast to the gorgeous cinematography. Rhode Islanders in particular will have a keen appreciation for the romance at the heart of this poignant, coming-of-age story: a charming Italian boy, Tony, woos a lovely Irish girl, Eilis, after she arrives alone in New York in the early 1950s.

If you’re from Rhode Island, you’ve likely seen your share of Italian-Irish pairings. You may even have been born of such a union, as I was, though my parents’ ethnicities are reversed from those of Tony and Eilis.

I was two weeks into my freshman year in college when a classmate noted my Irish surname.

“Actually, I’m half-Irish, half-Italian,” I said. “My mom’s maiden name is Pantalone.”

“That’s an odd combination,” the girl replied. Clearly, she wasn’t from Providence.

Had she grown up in the city’s Elmhurst neighborhood, like me, she would have seen Italian and Irish families rubbing shoulders, house by house – Riccios and Ryans, Fiores and Whelans, Gugliettas and Lennons. Is it any surprise that Cupid’s arrow occasionally flew over the fence?

In “Brooklyn,” Tony asks Eilis if she likes Italian food.

“Don’t know, I’ve never eaten it,” she says.

“It’s the best food in the world,” he says, and invites her to have dinner with his family.

That’s when we know things are getting serious between them.

I grew up thinking Italian food was the best too. And just about everyone around me, regardless of their ethnic background, seemed to love Italian meatball grinders.

Uncle Frank made a good one at his sandwich shop on Smith Street near La Salle Academy.

Mrs. Breen, my friend Jimmy’s mom, made a good one too. She was delighted when I complimented her.

“After all,” she said, smiling. “You have an Italian mother.”

My mom’s meatballs were delicious, though occasionally she’d put raisins in them, which I picked out with a fork.

Not that my palate was refined – far from it. I loved the meatballs that my Nana Walsh served, and they came out of a can. My mother was appalled when I asked if we could get some Chef Boyardee for home.

In “Prizzi’s Honor,” Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) advises former flame Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) to “settle down, get married … practice your meatballs.”

It’s a funny line – and wise. Making good meatballs is an art to be practiced for a lifetime.

My mom didn’t write down recipes, and her measurements tended to be vague – “some,” “a bit,” “enough.” But I did glean a few of her meatball musts – a mix of ground beef, veal, and pork; Italian bread soaked in milk; an egg. From there, I was on my own.

My first attempts were woeful – rock-hard meatballs, soggy meatballs, tasteless meatballs, push-to-the-edge-of-your-plate meatballs. They were so bad, my Scottish-Welsh-Irish-German-American wife wouldn’t eat them. I gave up. I went meatball-AWOL for 15 years.

But as our family grew and my Sunday supper traditions deepened, it was time for another try. I discovered Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for turkey meatballs. My inaugural batch was edible, even tasty. I started practicing. And a few months later, I was ready for the ultimate test.

“A recipe from a celebrity chef?” my mother said, looking suspiciously at the container of meatballs and gravy I was leaving with her. “She’s probably never seen a kitchen.”

“Just try them,” I said.

“I don’t like turkey.”

“Just try them and let me know.”

My mom was not one to candy-coat her opinions – about politics, about fashion, about anything. She’d let me know what she thought about my meatballs all right.

The following morning, my phone rang.

“I had your meatballs,” my mom said. Her voice was hushed. Oh no, I thought. Had they made her sick?

“They were fabulous.”

At last – this half-Irish, half-Italian kid had found his meatball mojo.

Joyce, Bloomsday, And The Color Of Money

You can tell a lot about a nation by the people it puts on its money. In the United States, our legal tender celebrates our democracy and the leaders it has produced. A parade of presidents graces our dollar bills – Washington ($1), Jefferson ($2), Lincoln ($5), Hamilton ($10), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50). Ben Franklin, a colonial triple-threat – diplomat, inventor, essayist – gazes at us from the $100 note. Franklin coined the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Save enough pennies and you can carry Benjamins in your wallet.

When I arrived in Ireland as a student in 1980, I was struck by the pre-euro pound notes that made up the Irish national currency. There were different colors for different denominations – green, orange, pink, blue. The notes were larger than American bills. And look who appeared on the notes – Jonathan Swift on the £10 bill and William Butler Yeats on the £20. Writers on money! As a student of literature, this was the country for me.

That semester, I fell under the spell of James Joyce and his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. Considered by many to be the finest English-language novel published in the 20th centuryUlysses is a dazzling and difficult work, 783 pages of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, and comedic joy. It charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus on a single day in Dublin: June 16, 1904. Why did Joyce choose this date? That’s when he took his “first walk” with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

Bloom is Joyce’s everyman. By paralleling the events of Bloom’s day with those of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus in the Odyssey, (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man – you and me and the rest of us – as a modern hero. The fact that Bloom is an ad canvasser endears him to me further.

Now known as Bloomsday, June 16th is the day when the world celebrates all things Joyce. In Dublin, literary pilgrims retrace the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen. In New York, Symphony Space holds Bloomsday on Broadway. In France, the Paris Bloomsday Group presents songs and readings from Ulysses. Last year, even Twitter turned Joycean when @11lysses tweeted the novel 140 characters at a time.

When Ireland issued its new series of banknotes in 1993, Joyce appeared on the £10 note. The notoriously money-challenged author would have loved the irony.

Happy Bloomsday!

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