My paternal grandmother, Maria Grazia DiPaolo, was, to put it mildly, a piece of work—especially to her daughter-in-law, holding a grudge against my mother ever since she wasn’t invited on my parents’ honeymoon. She was Olivia Soprano without the mob ties. We knew this from so many examples. Like, how she tortured my father until the day she died, at 89, (just a year before he did, at 64—she almost outlived them all, as we all feared she might) about the spelling of our name. Torture, I tell you. She was convinced he did this in the Navy, or when he went into business—yeah, like you are going to change DiPaolo to DePaulo to Americanize yourself? In fact, it wasn’t until my dad died and I found his birth certificate that I realized it was the “Ameddigan” doctors who screwed up the spelling. My grandparents, Maria Grazia and Pietro (he was a saint, by the way), could neither speak nor read English when he was born, so this went right over their heads. But it didn’t keep Grandma from haranguing him. Forever.
(Mom, second from left in back, wearing a dress she made herself; I'm the little girl on the right)
(Grandma in the center—of course—pioneering the man-spread)
Which brings us to the holy holiday of Easter. Grandma did so many crazy things, but at Easter, she really outdid herself. The tradition in my family was the same every year: On Easter Sunday, we would drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house (they lived “up the country,” as we called it, although it was just a half hour, tops, from where we lived outside Scranton, Pennsylvania). They ran a store where they sold fresh vegetables from their yard. Grandma sold her amazing homemade ravioli and ricotta gnocchi, and Grandpa sold his homemade red wine that he made in the basement, except when he got busted during Prohibition. But that’s another story (and one that I never learned until long after my parents died; no one talked about stuff like that). What I did know was that they would come in from the store, every day at 1 pm, to sit on the couch and watch “Divorce Court.” Or as my grandmother called it, “Divorce-a-Court.” I adored Maria Grazia, totally unaware for decades of how crazy she was.
On Easter, Grandma always set an enormous table—extending from the dining room to the living room—for all the relatives. And the food would come out and out and out, platter after platter—meatballs, bracciole, sausage, and pasta, pasta, pasta, every one delicious.
But then. This would happen every year. She would bring out her Easter Bread, presenting it so proudly. It was gorgeous, eggy and moist—think: Italian challah—but with one notable distinction. There were always two loaves—the boy loaf and the girl loaf. Yes, the bread was shaped like babies. And it gets worse. The boy loaf had a penis, the girl loaf had…oh, don’t even get me started. Every year, Grandma would do this. And every year, my mother, her daughter-in-law, would be mortified. Though perhaps not as mortified as she was when dessert was served and Maria Grazia would—every fucking holiday—whip out an old photo album with pictures of the girls my dad dated before he met my mother. She would go on and on (as only a crazy old Italian can go on and on) about how wonderful all these other women were. For many years, I was too young to realize how humiliating this must have been for my mother. Did I mention that Grandma was a piece of work?
I never did get the Easter Bread recipe. Or learn how to make penises with dough. So instead I will share my mother’s Easter cookie recipe. I remember she always brought a big tin of them to Grandma’s house. How she didn’t throw them at her, I’ll never know.
Lisa DePaulo has been a contributing editor at GQ, George, Talk, Philadelphia, and many other national magazines.
Taralli (Easter Cookies)
1/2 lb. margarine, melted
6 eggs, beaten
1 c. sugar
1/2 t. lemon extract
juice and grated rind of 1 orange
6 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
2 T. vegetable oil
4 - 6 c. flour
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Mix all ingredients together, in order given. Dough should be soft and spongy. Add a little more flour only if necessary.
Roll like small meatballs.
Put on a greased cookie sheet (Mom used Crisco).
Bake for approximately 6 minutes, until slightly brown on bottom.
Transfer to a rack to cool.
almond, anise or lemon extract
Combine enough confectioners’ sugar with hot milk to make a very thin icing.
Add a few drops of extract.
Separate into cups and add a drop of food coloring to each, making pastel colors.
Ice the cookies once they are cool.
(Feel free to cut this recipe in half. Most old-fashioned Italian cookie recipes are enough for a wedding.)