52 True Tales of Family, Feasting, and the American Experience.
“Turtei” means “tortelli” or “ravioli” in the dialect of my grandparents, who grew in peasant families in northern Italy. The biggest town in the area was Berceto, known for its ninth century cathedral, which sits along Via Francigena, an ancient Roman road. It is also well known for its funghi. My grandparents, whose story is told in Eat Now; Talk Later (eatnowtalklater.com), had some strange pronunciations, no doubt influenced by Austrian and French invaders. For example, prosciutto was pronounced persütt (with an umlaut) and formaggio for formagg (with soft “g”). Here is a local recipe for turtei.
You need a mix of greens, usually Swiss chard, spinach and beet tops, but any mix of comparable seasonal greens—peasant foods are practical, if nothing else, as well as resilient and forgiving. These are exactly the qualities you gain when you eat turtei!
4 tablespoons of butter or some olive oil
2 nice sized shallots, thinly sliced (shallots are the most nutritious and least subject to molds of all the onions)
Chopped herbs such as parsley or basil or both equaling about 1⁄4 cup; and
1/2 cup of a soft cheese like ricotta, mascarpone, or (in a pinch) even cream cheese. (You can bring down its sweetness with a little sprinkle of salt.)
1/2 lb. of fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and pepper. (It’s good to know that sea salt is actually a low sodium salt with high trace minerals that is very beneficial for energy.)
Tear off greens from stems. It’s easy and satisfying to simply rip the leaf away from the stem or any of the tougher ribs. Wash greens and toss dripping into a wide pan. This water will serve to steam them and cook them down, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain under cold water to retain intense color. Then squeeze excess water out of the greens; do this playfully, but reverently. They have just given their lives for you. Now chop them in ribbons of 1-inch wide.
Mix in cheese, an egg, herbs, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Now you can make classic egg pasta dough
You need 3 cups of flour turned out onto a table or board in mounded shape; press the bottom of small bowl into top of mound to make a well in the center.
Now comes the fun part.
Break 4 eggs into the well. Stop and observe the humor of it. Four eyes will be looking up at you with trust. With a fork, and working quickly, scrape flour from the inside well into the eggs, lightly and little by little. Once the eggs are absorbed by the flour, push the rest of the flour into the mess and begin to knead about 10 minutes, until it’s smooth and elastic. If it is sticky add a little more flour. Be patient and strong.
Wrap it in cloth or plastic and set it rest for 20 to 30 minutes. You rest, too. You will want to perfect this technique before you invite observers, but you will master it quickly. From now on you will never do it any other way; it’s magical.
Divide the dough into two balls and roll out as thinly as possible on a floured surface. Then working from the center outwards, turn it like a clock, keep pressing from center outwards. Keep turning and rolling until you are tired. Your second ball is of course covered and waiting in the wings.
Cut your dough into strips. Some edges, of course, will be curved, but don’t worry about this. The universe takes care of it. Now back to rolling. The amount of filling you drop onto the pasta is your choice—a tablespoon is good, but leave enough dough to cut them into pillows after you’ve covered them with the second sheet of dough (below).
Now from a separate small bowl of one egg yolk beaten with a few drops of water, brush (or you can use the back of a spoon dipped in the binder) around the filling. Apply a second sheet of dough on top, press your fingers around filling to seal the pillows and cut them apart with a sharp knife, pastry cutter, or a cupping tool (see photograph). Move pillows to floured board, cloth or pan, and let the pillows rest for an hour or so.
When you’re ready to cook them, drop them into boiling, lightly salted for 3 to 4 minutes, then drain. Don’t overcook. These are not as rugged as machine made frozen ravioli.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter (or use olive oil) with 4 small sage leaves torn to bits and tossed into the butter. Pour butter into a serving bowl and fold in turtei. Sprinkle with about half a cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Carry out the bowl in both hands held high above your head. Land on table with ceremony.
The following are stories that didn’t make it into the book, mostly because they did not quite fit the book’s theme. Nevertheless, they are worth telling and worth reading.
To save money during the winter, my grandparents burned wood instead of coal in the kitchen stove. Tony got the wood from the West Side rail yards between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues. It was discarded stuff, usually pieces of crates or broken skids. To haul it home, he’d built a dolly on rubber wheels that was pulled by a rope.
He and my father foraged on Saturday mornings, arriving as early as possible to avoid the billy club-wielding railroad dicks. Father and son used a crow bar to pry the wood apart and a hammer to remove nails. Usually, their stealth was successful, but sometimes a cop would step out from behind a boxcar and tell them to dump the wood and get lost. If my grandfather had just begun work, he would leave the wood and go. If his dolly was stacked high, he would leave but refuse to give up the timber.
The dicks could be nasty. On one occasion, when Tony peaceably refused to give up his wood, the dick began slapping his club on his palm.
“Oh, no mister, this wood no good,” Tony said. Out of the corner of his mouth, he said to my father, “Stai da dietro, stai da dietro, stay behind me.”
The cop cursed. A plume of steam from his warm breath momentarily obscured his reddish face. He took a menacing step towards Tony.
Smiling, my grandfather pleaded, “Sir, please, I go home now. I leave with wood.” To my father, he whispered, “Stai a dietro!” With his hand, Tony slowly began unwinding a cord that kept the wood in place. The cord had been tightened with a crow bar that was wound round like a propeller.
The dick pounded his club across his hand and told Tony he had ten seconds to disappear.
Finally, my grandfather had undone the cord. He produced the crow bar, and for the first time, looked the dick in the eye, with his own fierce eyes.
“Bastard dago!” said the dick. He threatened to do my grandfather harm if he ever saw him again and left.
Tony slowly re-tied the bundle. He lit a cigar. With Tony pulling the crate, and my eight-year-old father pushing it from behind, they went home. They stacked the wood in the kitchen. My grandmother burned it all day. At night, she threw a few shovels full of coal in the stove, which kept the house warm until 4 a.m., when Tony’s alarm clock rang for work.
THE HOT SEAT
The apartment on West 39th Street was a railroad flat. You entered onto the kitchen, which was flanked by two small bedrooms. The windows of one looked out onto the backyard; those of the other faced the air shaft, which was a garbage repository for many tenants. At night, large Norway rats crawled among tin cans and cardboard boxes and fought over clumps of food.
The toilet was in the hallway. On especially frigid winter days, the water in the bowl would freeze. To keep this from happening the chain would be tied down so the water kept running all night.
This did not address the problem of the seat. Rolling out of a warm bed and placing your behind on the ice cold seat was an unpleasant shock. My father’s solution was to wait by his front door for Anna Lanza, who lived next door. She had an ample posterior. The moment he heard her return to her apartment after using the toilet, he rushed out and sat himself down on the warmed seat.
My father went to college at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He chose the school partly because Colonial Williamsburg, in terms of ambience, was as far away as he could get from Hell’s Kitchen.
At his first Thanksgiving, he had no money to return to New York. He was invited to spend the holiday with the family of his roommate’s girlfriend. My father didn’t know any of the guests, but having Thanksgiving with strangers was better than eating turkey in an empty college cafeteria.
The young woman’s father was a minister, and he warmly welcomed my father to the family table.
“This is just wonderful to have you here, Selvi,” he said, in a Southern twang. “We’ve never had a visitor from New York City in our home.”
After everyone was seated at the table, the minister continued, “I wonder, Selvi, if you wouldn’t mind doing us the honor of saying grace today. It’s a privilege we always extend to our honored guests.”
My father’s heart stopped. He had never said grace before in his life. Tony and Desolina, like many peasants, had an anti-clerical streak in them. It was not that they didn’t believe in God. But they were largely suspicious of priests who, in their experience back in Italy, were corrupt hypocrites who lived well, at the expense of the peasants. To them, it was no coincidence when a child in the village resembled the parish cleric. They didn’t attend church, except maybe at Easter or Christmas, and they certainly didn’t say grace. If any higher power had gotten food to the Vescovi table, it was the American experiment in democracy and capitalism.
My father hadn’t the slightest idea what to say, but he had to deliver something, because his roommate, the girlfriend, the minister, and everyone else were waiting on him, heads bowed.
He turned to the minister. “In my home, we always say grace in Italian. Would that be all right?”
After a moment’s thought, the clergyman replied, “Well, that would be wonderful, Selvi. Please go ahead.”
My father cleared his throat and, in Italian, said, “Caro Jesu, Dear Jesus, I don’t know why you put me in this predicament. I have no idea how to say grace. And all these people are listening to me. I can’t think of what to say, and this is a very embarrassing situation. Please don’t do this again. Thank you for this food. Amen.”
The minister looked up, beaming. “That was a lovely prayer, Selvi,” he said. “I didn’t understand a word of it, but it was lovely and we feel truly blessed.”
He made a gesture for everyone to dig in.
Boys in Hell’s Kitchen largely took one of two paths: either they escaped and attended colleges like Fordham or City College or they got ensnared in the wiles of the neighborhood and became small-time hoods and hustlers.
Early one morning, as Tony left the building, he saw a burglary in progress across the street. He said nothing and went on his way. As he returned that evening, he was met by one of the neighborhood thugs, who called him aside to say, “What you saw you didn’t see.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Tony responded. “You have your business, I watch mine.”
That warning would have been sufficient in Hell’s Kitchen. The two could have gone their separate ways. But the guy was trying to act tough. He added, “If you talk to the cops, I’ll come after your wife and son.”
Tony’s eyes blazed. He wanted to throttle the man, but knew it would heap trouble on his head. So he said, “You leave my family out of this. And if you ever, for any reason, touch a hair on their heads, I’ll spill your blood over the street.”
In Hell’s Kitchen, honor was as important as food.
My father was glad to get away from crime, but even in Williamsburg, he discovered he could not leave it completely behind.
During his freshman year, he returned to New York for the Christmas holidays. Several of the local ne’er do wells approached him, said they hadn’t seen him in a while, and asked what he’d been doing.
“I’ve been at college,” he said.
“Virginia?” one man said. “We drive through Virginia every spring on our way to Miami to play the greyhounds. Whereabouts?”
“Small college called William & Mary, in Williamsburg.”
“Yeah?” said another man. “Next time we’re through there we’ll stop and see you.”
To be polite, my father gave them his campus address but didn’t for a million years think he would see them.
On a drizzly night in March, my father was awakened by a fraternity brother at the Kappa Sigma house.
“Stretch,” he said, using my father nickname, earned by his height, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on but there’s three guys, they look like hoods, Stretch, who say they’re here to see you. Are you in some kinda trouble?”
After taking a few moments to wake himself up, my father jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. When he saw his old cronies from Hell’s Kitchen, he felt as if he’d walked into a dream. The men looked completely out of place. To his frat brothers, most from gentile Southern homes, the men must’ve looked like characters in a gangster flick.
My father invited them to stay the night, which they did, but the situation was awkward. Small-time hoodlums from New York’s West Side bedding down in a fraternity house in Williamsburg, Virginia?
The men left early the next morning. As they got into their car, one guy stopped and turned to my father. It was clear he was somewhat moved by what he had seen: a boy from Hell’s Kitchen was making good. The guy reached into his pocket and pulled off a few hundred dollar bills and offered them to my father. It was a lot of money, considering tuition was $250.
The first time my father told me this story, I got a lump in my throat. It was a touching scene, like something out of a Frank Capra movie.
“Well, Pop, how much did he give you?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question in the world.
“Are you out of your mind?!”
“You didn’t take it?”
“Of course not!” he said. “I was as polite as possible. I didn’t want to insult him. Sure, he meant well, but he was from Hell’s Kitchen. There were no true gifts there. I knew, someday, he might come knocking on my door, wanting something I couldn’t or didn’t want to give.
Tony did not like to remove his cigar from his mouth. The ash fell of its own accord: on a pant leg, shoe, picnic table.
When he held me as a baby, he did not want the smoke to get in my face. If I was on his right shoulder, the cigar hung from the left side of his mouth. When one shoulder got tired, he shifted me to the other. The cigar was shifted, too, though without him touching it. He clenched it between his teeth and, scooted it across his mouth by moving his lips. I could smell the damn thing but never saw it.
A GOOD BUCK
After my grandfather retired his boss asked him to come back. He was offered part-time work and pay at time and a half. The boss even showed up with cake and wine to plead his case, but Tony refused. He had had enough. He was tired. He didn’t want to build anything new.
Instead, he occasionally went into Manhattan to examine the work he had done. He visited Rockefeller Center and 40 Wall Street and various churches to see how his craftsmanship was holding up.
Several years after his death, the building where I worked underwent renovation, including replacement of its terrazzo floors. On my lunch hour I watched the crews, mixing the cement and marble chips and polishing the surface to a hard sheen. I struck up a conversation with a foreman. I told him about my grandfather and mentioned an article I had written about Tony and his terrazzo work.
“Are you the guy who wrote that?” he asked. “We’ve had it up on our bulletin board at the company!”
Before I could express my surprise, he grabbed me by the arm and said, “You got to meet Al. He worked with your grandfather!”
He led me to a construction trailer, but Al had left the job site. I was given a number to call.
A few days later, Al and I met for pizza. He had worked with my grandfather thirty years earlier, when he had been an apprentice and Tony was on his way out.
Al pushed his slice of pepperoni aside and said, “I got something for you.”
From an envelope he removed a photo of Tony at a company Christmas party in the 1950s. Piled behind them were huge sacks of cement. There he stood, in a room packed with his fellow workers drinking wine. They must’ve drunk a lot because every guy in the photo has his mouth open. Everyone was speaking, no one listening.
My grandfather, with his halting English, could never completely convey the process of making terrazzo floors. Al and I returned to the site, and he explained to me the skill of mixing of the chips, pouring, and finishing.
Finally, he looked at me and said, “What do you do around this place?”
He shrugged, looked me up and down again and said, “You ought to try this. You can make a good buck.”