A family legend has it that I invented Aglio Olio. This was back in the early 1960s when most kids were eating bologna sandwiches with processed cheese on white bread.
I was raised in an Italian/Irish household — heavy on the Italian. My parents grew garlic and herbs among the tomato plants. There was always a large jar of olive oil in the pantry and tomatoes ripening on the windowsill. My father attempted — and succeeded — in growing figs in a northern climate. I loved Saturdays when my parents brought home provisions from a local Italian deli: prosciutto, hard salami, briny olives, a crusty loaf of bread and a thick wedge of Pecorino Romano for slicing or grating.
On holidays, we headed down to my Aunt Rena’s bar and wedding hall. Closed to the public, the bar was a kids’ paradise — a bowling machine, a regulation pool table, a well-stocked jukebox and Uncle Emy, who opened the register and poured coins into our hands to use on the bowling machine.
What wonderful times, with Elvis on the jukebox, my cousin Linda teaching me and cousin Luisa to twist, my grandfather and Uncle Italo playing Morra with their fingers, shouting out numbers in Italian. Meanwhile, my aunt and assorted relatives had worked like little elves in Santa’s shop to turn out hundreds of ravioli in pork-infused tomato sauce, large platters of rosemary-garlic chicken, gnocchi with meat ragù, beef braciole with bacon and cheese, breaded eggplant and cauliflower braised in red wine. For appetizers, we dipped slices of fennel into oil and vinegar and pulled the stretchy cheese from rice balls, which my family referred to as “telephone wires.” Desserts were fat tangerines, cheese and nuts that my dad shelled with his teeth, ricotta pie and beautifully wrapped torrone, with the Holy Communion wafer ready to peel from both sides before you would bite into the pistachio-studded nougat.
Occasionally, there were moments when my North American world clashed with my Italian world — a Greek tragedy of monumental proportions back in the 1950s. I nearly fell through the floor with embarrassment when the “pizza” my best friend and I eagerly awaited was carried from the kitchen by my grandmother, who added to the trauma by insisting on calling me “Nunziata.” We stared in dismay at Grandma’s version of pizza — a dense bread round, sliced in half, drizzled with olive oil and stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. A baked-on slash of tomato sauce decorated the top. It was crusty and warm and delicious but where was the pizza, we cried?
I am descended from a long line of cooks and I carried that provenance into the family kitchen in 1960, at the age of nine, by creating Aglio Olio with the garlic and parsley from my parents’ garden on a Friday night when good Catholics refrained from eating meat. We settled in to watch The Flintstones, our entire family, marvelling at the science that transformed just a few fresh ingredients into a delicious Italian repast. I felt as culinarily qualified as Wilma Flintstone with the brontosaurus burgers.
My mother, a remarkable cook herself, likes to quote my grandmother’s culinary philosophy often: if you put good, fresh ingredients into the dish, you will put a good, fresh meal on the table. And that, my friends, is our little thing — the remarkable secret of great Italian cooking. Now mangia!