On how a white-bread kid growing up in Cleveland becomes an honorary Italian cook
If I had not been born in Cleveland, Ohio, I probably would not be an honorary Italian cook.
I say ‘honorary’ because Anglo-Saxon genes make up the majority of my heritage, and not one bit of Southern European blood flows within me.
My mother, of Scottish origin, grew up in Wisconsin. My father’s family, arriving in the late 1700s from England, settled and stayed in northern New York.
My father, as part of the generation of college-educated young men produced by the GI Bill after World War II, became one of many in that generation to leave their long-time home places to take a job. A Cleveland bank offered him a position, and he and my mother settled there.
If that hadn’t happened I often wonder what I’d be eating today. I don’t like to think about that for very long, though, because I love what I found in my hometown and what I’ve done with that discovery over the years.
Hometown heritage – mine vs. everyone else’s
Cleveland was, and still is in many ways, a segregated city. Most people immediately think of race when the word ‘segregation’ is mentioned, but in its early days, Cleveland’s population divided itself more finely than that.
I can tell you where the Polish, Italian, Slovenian, Irish and Jewish neighborhoods were when I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s. While the general population mixes more readily now, many of those old neighborhoods still retain strong elements of their roots.
I also learned as a kid that those neighborhoods had some really tasty food filled with ingredients that were not part of my family’s menu.
In my home, food was bland, stodgy and dull, served unseasoned save for the haphazard application of salt. While my mother recognized this and wanted to do something about it, she was, regretfully for all concerned, a cook of limited potential. She tried mightily to improve her skills and to be more creative, but with only modest success.
These problems, combined, doomed us to mealtime mediocrity.
Seeing the lunches brought to school by kids being raised by parents born in those ethnic neighborhoods was probably the first time I noticed food could be exciting and fun and not just fuel.
Mom’s repertoire for my school lunches was small.
Most days she packed me peanut butter or tuna sandwiches on store-bought white bread and canned fruit. Pale yellow pear halves, drowning in sticky sweet syrup and possessing the texture of a wet human ear, were a favorite of hers. I successfully lobbied in my later elementary school years for a switch to mandarin oranges, which managed to retain at least a smidgen of tartness buried under all that sugary goo.
Dessert came straight out of a box stamped with the Hostess brand name. I likely ate my own weight in Ho-Hos and Twinkies every school year.
I took greatest note of what the kids from Italian-American families brought in.
Some of those kids’ mothers made bread themselves in the classic Sicilian style most common in Cleveland, moist and slightly chewy on the inside with a thick, crunchy crust on the outside. Sandwiches crafted with this bread came with colorful and flavorful ingredients, such as spicy salami, fresh milky mozzarella cheese and deep green spinach leaves. Meaty tomato slices, picked from plants in the family garden, were included if the season was right.
Along with the sandwiches, my lucky classmates enjoyed fresh fruit, or a salad made with shell-shaped pasta, green beans and onions. A tangy vinegar-based potato salad made its appearance in the winter.
I was also envious of the desserts, although those tended to show up only on special occasions, such as birthdays or one of the Catholic holidays.
One of my favorites were the delicate pizzelles, a type of thin, round wafer cookie cooked on a small griddle press similar to a waffle iron. Embossed on both sides with a floral pattern and infused with the licorice-like flavor of anise, these crispy cookies quickly dissolved on the tongue, leaving only their essence behind.
I must confess that I traded my Twinkies and Hos-Hos for a pizzelle or two on more than one occasion.
My love affair with Alesci’s
My father took note of my growing interest in Italian food, and since it was unlikely my mother would ever master any aspect of Italian cuisine, he did the next best thing.
He took me to Alesci’s, the local Italian market, to buy what we could not get at home.
The best season to visit Alesci’s was winter; the colder the weather, the better. If the inside of your nose froze just a bit as you breathed in and the snow squeaked under your shoes as you trudged through the parking lot, it was perfect.
The best time of day, of course, was mid-morning when the kitchen workers had the ovens fired up and had been kneading, shaping and baking bread since dawn.
Approaching the store, you would see fog rimming the windows as moisture from the hot bread escaped the ovens, humidifying the air inside. As you swung open the door, the powerful, yeasty aroma of the baking bread and the warmth from the ovens would flow out onto the street to greet you.
Walking inside was like being enveloped in a hug from a favorite friend.
A decision deliberately made, no doubt, was to put the bakery in the back of the store. While your only goal might have been to buy a loaf or two of that bread, you’d have to trek past all of Alesci’s other wares.
Dozens of salami and cheeses hung tantalizingly from the ceiling. Steel shelves were heavily stocked with cans of imported plum tomatoes in any you style you might like – pureed, diced, crushed, stewed or whole, with herbs and without.
There were many varieties of olive oil, from small glass bottles of the finest quality, pale gold extra-virgin type, highly filtered and used for finishing salads and pastas, to shiny steel gallon containers of the robust emerald green standard oil used for volume cooking.
Dry pastas consumed still more space, in any and every shape you can imagine, from everyday spaghetti to the exotic lingua di suocera (Mother-in-Law’s tongue), its thick, twisted multicolored strands and serrated edges clearly meant to evoke its name.
Close to the end of the journey, you would have to pass the large glass display cases filled with sliced meats, cheeses, and desserts. It would take supreme effort of will not to stop right there.
Finally you would arrive at the bakery counter, where the large elliptical loaves, placed in baskets, awaited you, still warm and perfuming the air.
My dad would select a loaf, hand it to me and say, “Here, hold this for me while I get a few more things.”
I’d hug that toasty loaf and feel like I’d gone to heaven.
Growing into my borrowed heritage
As I got older and started to cook for myself, I began to explore the more complex elements of Italian cuisine.
I learned about pastas, cheeses, meats and wine from every region of the country. I own Italian cookbooks, watch television shows dedicated to Italian cookery and serve Italian food in my home at least twice a week.
After a busy day at work, I might put together a simple, quick everyday dish like cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta), which contains only four ingredients: linguine, cheese, butter and pepper.
A special occasion might call for something fancier and more time-consuming to prepare, such as Gatto di patate alla napoletana (potato cake of Naples).
Its rich mixture of mashed potatoes and several cheeses and meats, all baked under a bread crumb topping until beautifully golden brown, is always a hit with guests and worth every minute to create.
Perhaps my most important discovery, however, is that every dish can be delicious, regardless of complexity.
My mother once commented that perhaps she’d picked up the wrong baby from the hospital. I said no, it was more of a case of having her baby at that particular place and time.
While I may not be a real Italian, this borrowed food tradition is something from the city of my birth I can carry with me for the rest of my life and I feel lucky and grateful for it.
Some love affairs never end
Perhaps the surest sign that I am merely an honorary Italian is that after trying for years I still can’t make Sicilian bread as good as what I ate growing up.
I still have to stop by Alesci’s whenever I am in town, and I’ll still hug that toasty loaf and think I’m in heaven.