italian

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

“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.

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.

 

Finding Meaning In Macaroni

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When I was growing up, I loved macaroni and hated spaghetti. But it’s all pasta, right? Not to me – not back then. The word pasta wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. At our table, it was either macaroni or spaghetti.

Macaroni meant 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.”

Rhode Island-native Nancy Verde Barr’s first cookbook was titled We Called It Macaroni: An American Heritage of Southern Italian Cooking. That made sense to me. My grandparents emigrated from southern Italy. They called it macaroni, too.

So did Thomas Jefferson. He was introduced to pasta in Paris in the 1780s and even had a “maccaroni machine” shipped to Monticello. But according to James and Kay Salter, in their book Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, pasta’s real introduction in America “came with the great Italian immigration wave in the late 1800s, when it was known as macaroni, still the word Italian-Americans use for pasta.”

With its many shapes and sizes, macaroni serves up a feast of melodic words and colorful etymologies:

> Farfalle, which means butterfly, though in our house, we call this shape bow ties

> Orecchiette, which means little ears; we call them pope’s hats because they resemble the pontiff’s zucchetto

> Penne means quill pen, as the pasta is cut on the diagonal at both ends

Mostaccioli translates as little mustaches; it is the staple macaroni in our house today

> Cavatappi means corkscrews; this pasta is a twirling tube

> Rigatoni means large lined ones; a favorite of mine growing up

With age, my aversion to spaghetti – little strings – has abated. I have even come to love spaghetti’s thinner (in the U.S.) cousin: vermicelli. It means little worms.

Buon appetito!

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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