When I was a kid, every Sunday we had a traditional Italian-American style Sunday dinner. I remember waking up early to the strains of Jerry Vale singing Mala Femina or Lou Monte singing about Pepino the Italian Mouse. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes my nose would catch the fantastic smell of pork sausages being browned in a pan and garlic sautéing in olive oil. I'd come downstairs and find Mom at the stove and my Grandmother at the kitchen table rolling meatballs (each one of course gradually getting bigger and bigger until finally Mom would yell "Ma!!!!! They're meatballs not basketballs!" and Grandma would giggle and reroll them smaller.
My job was to take the cans of peeled tomatoes and run them through the food mill to crush them and get out the seeds. I loved the way the handle fit perfectly in my small hands and the sound the blade made as it scraped against the bowl. When I was finished with the tomatoes I'd help Grandma with the meatballs.
Inevitably either Mom or Grandma would start telling stories of the past and suddenly those would bring to life long gone family members. The kitchen began to feel crowded with family I never had the chance to meet. It didn't matter (and still doesn't) how many times I'd heard the stories. I'd sit on Grandma's lap, Mom would be at the stove and they'd tell stories about Maruzielle, the Italian Bulldog who was bested by a french poodle or of the time that tiny Uncle Jimmy beat up a kid twice his size and half his age. I don't think I was ever happier then when I was in that kitchen.
After the meat and the gravy (NEVER call it sauce) were happily perking together on the stove Mom would rush us upstairs to get ready for church. After Mass we'd drive to the bakery to pick up a loaf of bread and maybe a cake or some pastry for dessert from Cuccio's bakery on Avenue X. I think that to this very day, Cuccio's has the best bread in the world. We'd sit in the car and stare at the long crusty loaf that smelled so good eventually Mom would tear into it (we almost always had to get two) and hand out pieces to each of us. If we were exceptionally lucky, there would be a loaf of lard bread to share on the ride home loaded with spices bits of salami and bits of creamy pork fat.
Dinner was always early on Sundays, usually sometime between 2 and 3pm. My Dad was bartending and worked Sunday nights so this also allowed all of us to have dinner together. The hardest part of Sundays was trying to stay out of the kitchen while the gravy warmed and perfmed the air with tomatoey garlicky goodness. It smelled so good that it was nearly impossible not to go in and dip a hunk of that delicious bread into the pot. My mother's hearing became supersonic on those Sundays and as soon as we'd walk anywhere near the pot of gravy you'd hear "GET OUT OF THAT POT! AND DON'T EVEN THINK OF DIPPING A PIECE OF BREAD IN THERE!" The thought of crumbs in the gravy made my mother crazy. Years later we finally learned that if we spooned it onto the bread it was ok. Topped with a little (or a lot) of grated cheese there was absolutely nothing better.
My brother and I would set the table (and sometimes succeed in not fighting) and Mom would throw in the macaroni of the day. My favorite was - and still is - a long fusilli. And then finally, when we thought we could stand it no more Mom would call us to the table. Dad would say Grace, inevitably some variation of "Thank you God for this food. Take care of our family. Amen." Short, sweet and to the point. And then we'd dig in!
First came the macaroni followed by the meat in the gravy. If it was a regular Sunday it would be meatballs and sausages. If it was a special occasion the gravy would also have spare ribs and braccioles (or a spinelle - a large piece of beef stuffed with parsley, grated cheese, pine nuts and garlic) and if it was a big holiday like Easter then it would also have the pork skin bracciole (I have no idea how to spell out how my family says this in Italian. It sounds something like a'godon. The actual term in Italian is 'cotina' - and I've found as many dialect translations as there are shapes of pasta so for now, pork skin bracciole will suffice. ) This is one of my favorite indulgences. Its probably one of the worst things healthwise but it's incredibly delicious and find it gives a velvety richness to the sau....oops...gravy. :) Last thing to hit the plates was always a green salad. No salad dish necessary. I learned from Mom and Grandpa to use the lettuce to sop up the last of the gravy on the plate (sounds strange I know but its good, trust me!). And of course, there was the bread! Lots of bread dipped in the gravy and not a drop of butter to be seen on the table unless there was a "Medigan" (American) present.
It took hours to prepare and less than 30 minutes to eat. As a family we'd talk before and after eating - but when the food was out you ate! Inevitably Mom or Grandma would say "I can't believe I'm getting full already!" signaling the near end of the meal. When it was over my brother and I would split the duties of clearing and washing and Mom would take a well deserved rest. Grandma would stay in the dining room until the last of the food had been cleared sneaking little tastes and nibbles that Mom wouldn't see - or perhaps she just pretended not to.
Looking back, I can't even begin to express how much I miss those days. When Grandma was in the nursing home in what turned out to be her last few months here on earth I had the chance to spend an evening alone with her. I made her macaroni and meatballs (sadly not my best effort) and we sat and talked like old times. I remember how beautiful she looked that day in her favorite pink sundress with matching jewelery and her hair freshly coiffed. The gravy and macaroni made up for the tough meatballs and we sat for hours talking and telling stories of the past. I'm sorry that my last chance to cook for her turned out to not be my best, but I think that it definitely helped me to never make that mistake again. Every time I prepare a meatball I hear her voice in my head going "Not your best effort kid...." and I make sure they come out perfect just for her.
Today I came home from church, put on Jerry Vale and made my own Sunday gravy. The meatballs came perfect and are happily bubbling in the sauce while I write. I thought I had made 10 but now see there are only 9 floating in the pot. Grandma, I hope you're enjoying it!
Mitsy's, Mom's and Grandma's Meatballs:
1/2 lb. each Ground Pork, Beef and Veal (or your choice of ground meat - turkey works well too)
3 cloves of garlic - chopped fine
2/3 cup of grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 chopped fresh parsley
1-2 eggs to bind (sometimes I find one is enough. Sometimes you need 2).
Salt and Pepper to taste
Mix all of the ingredients together (being careful not to overmix the meat - you'll end up with tough meatballs!!!!). Roll the mixture into balls (slightly larger than a golf ball works well). You can either fry the meatballs in a little olive oil or bake them in a 450 degree oven for 20-25 minutes. Serve with your favorite sauce (just please don't tell me if its jarred).