Prizzi’s Honor

“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.

Pursuing The Perfect Meatball

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It’s my favorite Jack Nicholson line and I can’t find it on YouTube. I had no trouble finding the others:

“Here’s Johnny!”

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“Hit me, Chief, I’ve got the moves!”

But this gem, from Prizzi’s Honor, is nowhere to be found:

“Practice your meatballs.”

In his role as Charlie Partana, Jack advises former flame Maerose Prizzi (Angelica Houston) to “settle down, get married, have a few kids, get a life, practice your meatballs.”

The line makes total sense to me. Good meatballs earned you big-time props in my Italian-American family. But they don’t come easily.

Good meatballs take practice – lots of practice. The variables are endless. Ground beef or a mix of beef, pork, and veal? Fried or baked? Bread or bread crumbs? Onion? Seasoning? And what about the eggs and milk? How do you get the right consistency – not too dry, not too wet?

My first efforts in the mid-1980s were woeful – rock-hard meatballs, soggy meatballs, tasteless meatballs, push-to-the-edge-of-your-plate meatballs. They were so bad, I gave up – I went meatball AWOL for twenty-five years. And then I discovered Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for turkey meatballs. My inaugural batch was edible, even tasty. I started practicing.

*     *     *

“I don’t like turkey.”

That was my mom’s reaction when I handed her a container of my turkey meatballs and Sunday gravy. “Just try them tonight and let me know what you think,” I said. 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, alright.

The following morning, my phone rang. “I had your meatballs,” my mom said, in a serious voice. “They were fabulous.”

If I had become a doctor, my mom would have been pleased.

If I had been elected President of the United States, my mom would have been proud.

If I had invented a universal TV remote that didn’t require the assistance of an MIT professor, my mom would have been my first customer.

But these would have been mere silver-medal accomplishments next to my meatball gold. They were fabulous confirmed that I had found my meatball mojo.

*     *     *

In The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, published in 1761, the author states that “practice makes perfect.” Adams’ dictum reflects his era’s belief that through reasoning and diligence, man could become the master of his universe.

But meatballs are not easily mastered. Making them is more art than science, and meatball nirvana is fleeting. The next batch may have a tad too much milk, or the oil may be too hot, or there may be a sudden drop in barometric pressure. You can never predict exactly how the meatballs will turn out. Consistency is a more realistic goal than perfection.

It’s like shooting foul shots in basketball. One day, you go ten for ten; the next day, you’re throwing up bricks.

I don’t think John Adams knew jack about meatballs.

But Jack certainly does.

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