Every spring during the 1950s, my Sicilian grandmother Nonna would host the entire California branch of the Guzzardi family to a home cooked Italian feast. More than a week in preparation, the meal included all the Italian favorites including pasta dishes, sausages, peppers and artichokes.
Nonna and my grandfather Anselmo were part of the second wave of Italian immigrants who arrived in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the later Italian immigrants came from Italy’s southern provinces. While Southern Italians had few skills that would enable them to become immediately upwardly mobile, the Guzzardi family like others of the era worked hard at menial jobs and persevered. The women learned how to stretch their bare pantries.
As I grew older and became more aware family traditions’ importance, I looked forward to the spring food fest more than Christmas or my birthday. Most of all, I enjoyed listening to Nonna talk about how her American life had unfolded since she arrived in New York. As Nonna retold it, the five most important days in her life were the three days each of her children were born, the day she became an American citizen and October 4 when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won the World Series. Nonna loved the Dodgers and took her devotion to the team with her to Los Angeles.
In the early 1940s, Nonna followed her college educated children from New York to Los Angeles. Nonna knew her children had reached marrying age and that grandchildren were not far off.
On Mother’s Day, some Lodi Dads may be thinking about cooking dinner to give Mom a break. Grilling is great but, a tip of my hat to Nonna, Italian food is better and the outcome more certain. Fresh ingredients are abundant now in Lodi; that makes the probability of preparing a fail-safe dish even higher. Additional bonus: unlike beef whose prices hit a record high last week, pasta remains affordable.
Last year, Italian food---specifically Nonna-style food---made a comeback in, of all places, Italy. The 2012 economic crisis stretched Italian pocket books to a point where they rejected fast food and returned to their home kitchens. The most energetic Italians bake their own bread, an idea I wholeheartedly endorsed in my Lodi News-Sentinel column several years ago.
Figures released by Italy's National Institute of Statistics confirmed that over a third of Italians have cut food spending and have returned to their kitchen to cook what’s cheap and easy but also healthy.
Recently, the southern Italian town of Giovinazzo started its annual “Festival of Grandmother’s Sandwiches” which is a hustling, bustling gathering of 200 volunteers who pile up 11,000 rolls and baguettes to be filled with assorted cold cuts, olives and peppers. Each volunteer sandwich-maker has his specific task---passing, cutting, filling and serving. The festival’s founders included a group of concerned teenagers who fretted that fast food joints and convenience store snacks had pushed their grandmother’s honest, healthy food to the brink of extinction.
When it comes time for dessert, lucky Lodians can take advantage of the strawberry season to prepare a traditional Italian dessert, Strawberry Cream Cake. Often served on Mother’s Day, easier to prepare and tastier than Tiramisu, the cake requires only fresh berries, eggs, butter, flour, sugar, milk plus salt and baking soda.
Even if the cake doesn’t bake up perfectly, the strawberries will save it. And assuming it's assembled with affection by her loving family, Mom won’t care if the cake isn’t a blue ribbon winner.
Joe Guzzardi’s makes a mean baked ziti. Contact him at email@example.com