My mom has three daughters: Amanda, Norma, and me. Amanda and Norma were born when Mom was in her early 20s; then she remarried and had me when my sisters were 16 and 13. My sisters were raised by a mom who was more like a friend, still growing up herself. It was a kind of Italian family life that I only know from dusty VHS tapes, in New York houses with floral wallpaper, cousins living right next door to each other. By the time I came along, Mom’s early parenting jitters were gone, and she was more easygoing—not so much “you need to finish your homework.”
As the youngest, smallest, and quietest, I was babied for quite some time—maybe even to this day. (I’m not complaining). But there was another reason. When I was three, I was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called ITP (first misdiagnosed as leukemia). The immune system attacks platelets in the blood, causing easy bruising. Being rushed to the hospital for a blood transfusion no doubt affected the protective cosseting that was lavished on me. It was almost like I had three moms.
Mom worked hard as a psychotherapist (and still does; she recently got her PhD). I usually had a nanny, but there was never a shortage of my mom in my life. Even after a long day, she would come home and cook for the family. At an early age, I could help blend the milk and butter for mac and cheese.
Growing up in an Italian family means a lot of expectations—food expectations. The recipes are endless, some dating back to my mother’s mother’s mother, and continuing to be passed down. Whenever Mom was cooking, we knew it would be a great meal, and with a great meal comes great company. We had extravagant dinner parties for holidays and birthdays—there was always a reason to invite company over to eat.
In my mind’s eye, I think way back to Frank Sinatra playing in the background, as my mother made sure everything was “nice” and on time for the company. She had started at the crack of dawn, wearing her favorite white robe and the green gel eye mask she’d pull from the fridge. With a cup of coffee in hand, she would begin to prepare the sauce because it had to simmer all day, and the house filled with the aroma of tomatoes and crushed garlic. Occasionally I’d dip a piece of bread in the pot—you know, for quality control. My aunt was Mom’s sidekick, both of them yelling at their husbands to get off their asses and get ready for the party. My teenaged sisters did their best to help, typically causing more of an inconvenience than assistance. And Nana, sipping a glass of pino grigio, overlooked the whole operation, chiming in when necessary.
Once the sauce was simmering, Mom would get dressed, using a bright turquoise pick with purple and pink tips on her big pouf of dark curly hair. Her red Lancôme lipstick was paired with a darker lip liner, and her finishing touch was Opium perfume, a scent I could never forget. Sometimes I would play her in closet, walking around in her colorful high heels while she chose a shoulder-padded dress.
I wasn’t old enough to receive (or, honestly, be interested in) cooking lessons, but the images made an everlasting impression. As more family came through the door, the decibel level grew louder, everyone laughing and yelling in the “Hi! We’re New York Italians” way. It’s almost like one person needs to out-speak the other. And the older I got, the more I fell in love with my family heritage. I loved how loud everyone was (and still is), how they would “play fight” with one another, how they (and now me included) would kill countless bottles of wine well into the evening; double-fisting our espresso and pizzelle combo, my uncle slicing up pears as my aunt shuffled cards for a wild game of “poke-ah.”
I would eventually watch and learn how to speak in front of people, entertain a crowd, and leave them always wanting more. In fact, my family’s celebrations of abbondanza may have helped pave the way to the actress I am today.
Alexandra Izzo is an actress in Los Angeles. She can be found at www.alexandraizzo.com, on Instagram, and at IMDB.
3 T. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 large cans imported whole tomatoes, crushed in food processor (or 2 - 3 cans Pomi)
salt and pepper to taste
handful of fresh basil, chopped
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
1 large, unpeeled and washed carrot, cut into chunks
1/2 c. dry red wine
Heat olive oil, and sauté garlic until golden brown.
Cook over medium heat until sauce starts to boil and then lower to a slow simmer.
Add salt, pepper, basil, parsley, carrot, and wine.
Simmer for about 40 minutes or until you see the oil floating on top of the sauce.
Serve on spaghetti, linguine, or capellini.