You Don't Look Italian
Updated: Feb 29
(by MaryAnn Elizabeth)
"Hey, watch yourself, Jerry, you’re gonna sit on the dough!” my mom would shout to my dad from the kitchen, over the volume of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” or Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Every seat in the living room, including my dad’s favorite recliner, was occupied by round silver baking pans filled with dough, each pan carefully tucked into a warm bed made of clean dishtowels. Here the dough would incubate for several hours until doubling in size, later filling the house with the magnificent smell of freshly baked bread that Mom would drizzle with green-gold olive oil, freshly grated Parmigiano, and for the adults, anchovies.
Growing up, this was the Sunday tradition. My mother and her mother would dedicate hours in the tiny kitchen of our home outside of Philadelphia to preparing dinner, typically served at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and continuing until early evening, when my sister and I helped wash the last of the dessert dishes (by hand; we did not have a dishwasher). My father and brother were excused from all “feminine” forms of labor, not an uncommon cultural theme, as both my parents were 100 percent Italian. (They were second generation Sicilian, thus deemed “not technically real Italians” by my two closest childhood girlfriends, one from Abruzzo, the other from Naples. I believe this bias had more to do with the fact that my family made “gravy,” while theirs made “sauce.”)
There was a pot of Mom’s gravy on the stovetop mid-week too—for my dad, it wasn’t dinner unless there was macaroni with gravy on the table, and Elizabeth (or “Bessie,” as Mom was known affectionately) loved to cook and bake. She had an impressive recipe collection, never alphabetized or categorized, but she could instantly find her "goomba's" favorite pound cake (yes, that's the word she used, endearingly, about her godmother) or my grandmother’s stuffed artichokes among the pile of handwritten recipes, newspaper clippings, and index cards she had amassed over the years. Most often she prepared traditional dishes without ever needing to look at a recipe, often wearing a favorite ruffled apron with two large deep front pockets and generously long strings that met in the back of her full-figured bottom in a perfectly drawn bow.
Cooking was a passion for my mom well before she became a mother. She did not work outside of the home until my dad began his battle with cancer. Then 56 years old, she needed to find a job, with no formal education or work experience; looking back, it appears she had no fear either. She found work using the only real skills she knew: cooking at a local Kmart cafeteria for minimum wage. I attended a private parochial high school, where most of her wages went towards my tuition. During an economics class, we were asked about our parents’ careers. My peers rattled off titles like business owner, banker, or nurse. When I answered, “My mom cooks at the Kmart cafeteria,” the entire class roared with laughter, thinking it was a joke. I was horrified at my loss of status. Just a few months earlier, I had gained a certain celebrity as the girl who was scouted by the renowned Ford Model Agency and offered an exclusive contract. But my father and mother would not hear of sending their 15-year-old daughter off to New York City. In their minds, modeling was equal to selling me into a life of prostitution.
(My mom and grandmother)
My mom bought herself a pasta machine with the fancy attachments, but my grandmother preferred the old school method, rolling the cavatelli by hand with a long knitting needle at lightening speed, then cutting the long strands into smaller pieces that were pressed with a fork into their final shape. It was my grandmother who kept the old recipes alive in our American home. Born in Sicily in 1898, she came to the United States as a young women shortly after her arranged marriage (also common), but her heart remained in the farmland near the city of Trapani. In between Sunday courses, we’d play cards while she talked about Sicily. I pictured the farm like a Garden of Eden, where fresh figs and lemon trees were bountiful, and families ate their meals outdoors under the generous shade of grape vines.
I never met my grandfather, who left my grandmother widowed for nearly 40 years. She did not remarry but was very good at taking care of herself. I would go along with her when she collected rent from her tenants. I remember one day particularly well, a man’s gnarly long beard poking through a narrowly opened apartment door, his hard weathered voice saying that he couldn’t pay the rent until the next month. Without hesitation, my grandmother walked straight into the apartment—all of five feet tall, tightly girdled and perfectly groomed from head to toe (she never wore a pair of pants in her 98 years of life). She opened the refrigerator to find it fully stocked with beer. In her still strong Italian accent and broken English, she said, “If you-a can buy-a-beer, you can pay-a-me my rent. You pay-a today or you wanna leave-a-tonight?”
These women are my family. But the comment I heard my entire life was “You don’t look Italian.” I am Italian on the inside and a mix of German, Irish, and Persian on the outside. Adopted at birth, I have two mothers. One gave me life, the other gave me love.
In my early 20s, I reunited with my birth mother. But that is another story....
12 heaping T. seasoned bread crumbs
1 - 2 T. grated Parmigiano cheese
4 T. chopped fresh parsley
dash of garlic powder
10 T. olive oil, divided
salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, quartered
Wash and trim artichokes, and turn upside down on towels.
Combine bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, and garlic powder.
Spread leaves of artichokes to loosen, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Put about 2 T. of bread crumb mixture in each artichoke, spreading between leaves.
In a pot large enough to hold the artichokes upright, put 1/2 c. water, 1/4 c. olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic quarters.
Add stuffed artichokes, and drizzle each with 1 T. olive oil.
Cover and cook over low heat for 1 - 2 hours, until outer leaves are tender.
Keep adding water as it evaporates, along with a little more salt and olive oil