Watch and Learn
(by Vanessa Raffaele)
“Practice makes perfect,” my mom always said, and I’ve tried to live by that adage, often coming up short as I realized that the pursuit of perfection wasn’t sustainable. I got my perfectionist trait from her. She puts maximum care and effort into every task, no matter how tedious.
As a little girl, I loved watching her, seeing her strive for that perfection. You can learn so much from observing. You watch someone long enough, and you pick up on every habit, every quirk and every detail. By watching, I learned to imitate and eventually do. I would sit in the bathroom, in our tiny apartment in a small Italian town outside of Milan called Merate, and look at my mom fixing herself up. “You’re so beautiful,” I’d say, my eyes fixed on her face as she opened her red leather beauty case and pulled out a small tube of eyeliner. Her long, thin fingers would lift the pen to her eyes, holding one hand on the outer edge of her eye and painting with her other hand. A long, bold, black line accentuated her round eye. After repeating the same process on the other side, she would turn to me and ask, “Do they look the same?”
Guiding her through her makeup process made me feel important; I had the final say in how she would look before leaving the house. Looking clean and polished was very important, even if she was going to the grocery store. Her mom had taught her that, just as she taught me; their lips were always colored with a rosy red tint, and their cheeks flushed.
Then there was her perfume. White musk. My favorite scent. Light, delicate, and fresh. She would rub some on her wrists and neck, just enough that I could catch a whiff.
While I adored watching her get ready to go out, there was nothing like watching her in the kitchen—a kitchen always filled with delicious aromas. For Italians, the kitchen is where we create, where we come together, where we come alive. I’m not exaggerating when I say no one can throw a meal together quite like my mom. I’d watch as she pulled out her big binder and leaf through her countless recipes, or pull ingredients from our fridge and make dishes up on the spot. My favorite was, and still is, mozzarella in carrozza—mozzarella in a carriage. There is something so regal about this name, and about how it’s made. I wasn’t allowed to help with the making of it often because it was a bit of a messy and lengthy process, and one that in our perfectionist minds, we couldn’t afford to get wrong. I didn’t mind, I was perfectly happy just watching and, of course, later eating our creation.
I was a timid and introverted girl, but my mom pushed me to take risks and overcome my shyness—small things at first like asking a store clerk for a pair of shoes in my size or buying my own ice cream cone, then later scarier things like pushing me to audition for a ballet school when I was eight years old, or enrolling me in a summer camp when we came to America, despite my scarce knowledge of English. (My mom’s dream had always been to live In the U.S., and after she started a language/cultural exchange, our family—Mom, Dad, and five kids—made the move.) At the time, I dreaded those moments, but today I am so thankful. I’ve gone to college and moved to New York City, and I can’t imagine I could have accomplished any of that without those little shoves from my mother. Sure, the little shy girl is still in there, but she’s not so scared anymore.
Watching the woman I admired so much in her simple, everyday life, I began learning and doing. Now, 20-something years later, I stand in front of the mirror and paint long, bold black lines on my own big, round eyes, and I stand in my kitchen as I recreate dishes she taught me how to make. And whenever things don’t go as they should, or my memory falls short, I call her up, watch and learn all over again.
Vanessa Raffaele is a dancer, choreographer, photographer, videographer, and artist in New York City. She can be found at www.vanessaraffaele.com.
Mozzarella in Carrozza
mozzarella (sliced thin)
Preheat oven to 385 F.
Place some milk, flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs in separate bowls or dishes
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and brush with olive oil
Take 2 slices of bread and dip each in the milk.
Put a couple of slices of mozzarella in between the two slices, covering the bread
Dip the edges of the sandwich in some flour to seal it together
Dip the sandwich in the beaten egg, then in the bread crumbs.
Place on the baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.
Repeat for as many sandwiches as desired
Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden.
Cut each sandwich in half diagonally to serve.
(A video of the sandwich-making process is here.)