Updated: Mar 1
(by Rosina Rucci)
The ancient Romans believed “nomen omen”–your name is your destiny, your name is who you are. My mother’s name was Olimpia, and although only five feet tall, she was Olympic in every other respect. She had a smile like a klieg light, and she was hilariously funny, with absolutely no filters or fear.
When my parents bought our home in South Philadelphia, my mother thought that the contractor hired to do badly needed renovations wasn’t getting the job done. She asked him to meet her there, and while waiting for him to show up, she found a two-by-four, which she placed strategically in a corner. When he arrived, he told her that she was not permitted on a construction site, jabbing his finger into her chest and backing her into the corner—where she grabbed the two-by-four. “I’ll teach you a lesson, you sonofabitch,” she yelled, pummeling him until he ran out screaming, “Somebody help me—there’s a crazy lady in this house.” She got her money back, and a better contractor who bent to her every wish and finished the job on schedule. Lucky for him.
In the neighborhood where both she and I grew up, there are lots of ladies with this kind of spirit and moxie–don’t even think to think to cross them. South Philadelphia is a highly concentrated microcosm of Southern Italy–we’re all either Napoletani, Abruzzesi, Calabresi, or Siciliani, with a few other lesser-known regions thrown into the mix. Each region has its own dialect (in some cases, its own language outright), traditions, and cuisine, but one of the things that unites us all is The Kitchen.
(Mom at her bridal shower)
Olimpia was an amazing cook, and everyone knew it. She began cooking as a small child when her mother took ill and could no longer care for the family. She stood on a step-stool at the burners, cooking the family dinners for quite a few years until she began work as the first licensed female diamond expert in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I would say, “Mom, show me how to make a roast pork, please.” And she would reply, “Leave me alone when I’m in the kitchen–don’t come in. Anyway, you’ll never learn what I already forgot.”
All of her favorite recipes were kept in a black and white marbled copybook, the kind that third-graders use. As time went by, she started losing her eyesight, and she recopied her favorites in the back using a thick black marker to make two-inch high letters so she’d still be able to read her own writing. One recipe is called "Mary Pinto’s Biscotti." (It's incomplete, but if you get this far, you should be able to go the distance.) Once she taste-sampled all the fruits of the kitchen labors of her friends, my mother created her own recipes for everything. In their cotton house dresses, dolled-up hair, ruffled aprons, and "scuffy" slippers, these girls all had a crazy competitive nature, and it really is true that they’d have bake- and cook-offs.
Olimpia drove me and many others crazy for the 86 years she remained on the earth—the reasons would fill volumes. Let’s just say that she had an enormous presence, which was quite a lot to manage. Always making a big splash in life, leave it to her to pass away on Christmas Eve of 2004, assuring that the holiday would never be the same without her, and really locking up her place in all our hearts for eternity, not to mention leaving an impossible-to-fill hole in The Kitchen.
Rosina Rucci grew up in South Philadelphia, then lived in Rome for a dozen years, where her beloved son, Luca Ottorino Emanuele, was born in 1997. She became director of communications for her brother, fashion designer Ralph Rucci, in New York. She now divides her time between Rome, Tunisia, and Philadelphia, where she volunteers for her state representative in getting people (especially people of color) registered to vote and providing transportation to the polls on election day. Her memoir 6000 Days of Us was published in 2014.
Mary Pinto's Biscotti
1 1/3 c. sugar, sifted
1 1/2 c. vegetable oil
1 T. vanilla extract
3/4 c. chopped walnuts
4 t. baking powder
4 c. sifted flour
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Beat together eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla.
Gradually add baking powder and sifted flour. (Dough will be sticky.)
Divide into three parts, and place on a greased and floured cookie sheet.
Stretch to form three long strips.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Slice about 3/4 inch thick, sprinkle with cinnamon, and continue baking for 10 minutes.