The steep concrete stairs leading from Nana’s avocado-green kitchen into the cellar were narrow and slick, so she was always afraid one of us might slip.
She warned us away by telling us how our uncle once dropped pop bottles on the very same steps and needed stitches. But one day, as a pot of water boiled on the stove, she let me follow her.
When we came to the bottom of the stairs we turned a corner, and Nana reached up and yanked the chain of a bare bulb that hung in the middle of the room. There I stood, blinking until stiff strands of floury dough drying on a cotton-string clothesline came into sharper focus.
And that was the exact moment I came face-to-face with my Italian immigrant past.
“Spaghetti?” I asked, not really sure exactly what I was looking at.
“Yes. The recipe is so easy: just flour, water and eggs,” Nana said.
In fact, she was always rattling off recipes from memory, prefacing her list of ingredients with “It’s so easy ...
Not that I paid all that much attention to cooking techniques back then. As a child of the ’70s growing up in the Denver suburbs, I didn’t really cook. I ate. And mostly I ate All-American hamburgers. The only noodle I knew was the Kraft kind — sold in a blue box with a Day-Glo orange powdered cheese sauce.
Celeste “Sally” Iaia Anello was my maternal grandmother, and we always called her Nana (nahhh-nahhh). She was born in 1918 in Rochester, N.Y., one of six children whose parents emigrated from Italy as teenagers. Her “food gene” skipped a generation and, whether by blood or infusions of her slow-simmered red sauce, eventually passed on to me.
Each summer, Mom, my two younger brothers and I would fly to Rochester for a two-week vacation. But weeks before we arrived, Nana started cooking and freezing, as if an army was about to arrive and camp in her backyard for a year.
It goes without saying she made spaghetti, although Nana always referred to a dish of noodles as “macaroni.” Yet she never served it with cheese, unless you were talking about a dusting of grated Parmesan.
And there was always “sauce” — but never spaghetti sauce. Just sauce. As if there were any other kind.
The tomato brew started out with garlic to flavor the olive oil, but then Nana removed the clove to avoid the pungent smell that often led to ugly ethnic slurs when she was a young girl. Sometimes she added fresh basil, but never oregano because she didn’t like the flavor. And the sauce was always loaded with whole sausage and giant meatballs.
Nana also made homemade pizza, chicken cutlets, eggplant parmesan, fettuccine alfredo (Aunt Connie’s recipe) and Clams Casino, a clam, bacon, green pepper and breadcrumb appetizer broiled until it sizzled in the half shell it was served in.
With food at the ready, Nana invited the extended family and friends over for pool parties in her backyard. She passed heaping plates of food out the window in the dining room until we could eat no more.
One night my brother Scott had eaten so much he lay moaning on the bedroom floor where we slept. We joked that he might need his stomach pumped, and it may not have been far from the truth.
Every night before we went to bed, Nana would push more food.
“Are you hungry? How about a little dish of macaroni?” she’d ask, her eyebrows arched and her tongue smacking her lips for emphasis like a cartoon cat who had just devoured a canary.
If you insisted you were full, she’d say, “If you need a midnight snack ...” Well, you know, help yourself. Morning, noon or night, her kitchen never closed. Oddly, she was never one of those pleasingly plump Italian grandmas you see in the movies.
But when a fictitious Italian grandma named Mama Celeste began hawking her frozen pizzas on TV, I tried to convince Nana she could quit her stressful job as an inner-city special education teacher and market her own line of frozen pizza.
Or maybe she could sell pizzelles. One of Nana’s signature cookies was a pizzelle, a flat Italian wafer cookie made with a special wafflelike iron with a lacy imprint. The deep grooves give the vanilla-flavored dough an elegant flower shape.
In our house, each pizzelle was sprinkled with powdered sugar, a touch I’ve never seen in another recipe. And my family typically made pizzzelles for Christmas, although other recipes refer to them as traditional Italian wedding cookies. One cookbook I read insists that pizzelles are pronounced “peet-sellay,” although we always called them “peet-Sals.”
When Nana moved from retirement in Florida to a senior-living community in Denver to be closer to my parents, she asked if I wanted one of her pizzelle machines. My mother dutifully delivered the iron, but for some reason I couldn’t find a pizzelle recipe. So on one of Nana’s trips to Kansas City, we made chocolate pizzelles from a recipe I found in “Cookies Unlimited” by Nick Malgieri.
“With a name like Malgieri, he should know what he is doing,” Nana told me. “I’m not sure why I never thought about adding chocolate!”
Over the years I tried to collect her recipes and began to dread the inevitable. When I asked Nana why I didn’t have more of her recipes, she sighed and said that in her old age her handwriting had become too shaky to read.
That’s when I started trying to squeeze cooking lessons into our visits. While in Denver one summer, I recorded her recipe for sauce. Another time we made her signature biscotti, a softer twice-baked cookie that she called “Italian dunkers.”
As we sliced the biscotti “nice and thick,” then turned them to bake twice, Nana told me she didn’t like the rock-hard biscotti that had become so chic at coffee shops across the country. To her, those weren’t true Italian biscotti.
Without a doubt, she was opinionated about Italian-American food. She was thrilled to play the role of armchair critic when The Star’s restaurant critic invited us to join her for a review dinner at a venerated Italian restaurant in Kansas City. The sauce was too sweet for her taste, but she enjoyed eating out, noticing the little details, such as plate presentation and garnishes.
A career woman long before most women had jobs outside the home, Nana was always realistic about the amount of time it took to put a meal on the table. On more than one occasion, she reminded me it’s OK to serve Ragu, as long as you doctor it up.
Perhaps not surprisingly, she was an early adopter of new technology. She was one of the first people I knew to buy a microwave oven (which she shortened to micro-oven), and she was so passionate about her Cuisinart (she rarely tacked on the words “food processor”) that she snapped one up at a garage sale and gave it to me shortly after I got married.
When she eventually lost the ability to cook for others, Nana was reluctant to let me take over where she had left off.
“You’re spending too much time in the kitchen!” she would admonish whenever it was my turn to host a family gathering.
In the last chapter of her life, we had slowly reversed roles. It was my turn to cook for her. To smother her with love and to let her know I would not forget. That I was proud of my Italian roots. That even a feminist could — and should — learn to cook.
Then Nana started losing her appetite. On one of our last visits, we eagerly ordered pizza, but she barely ate a slice. With great effort, she wheeled herself to the dining room at the senior living center, but we were eating only because I was hungry.
She no longer cooked macaroni late at night. On her last Christmas, she couldn’t find the energy to make pizzelles with her great-grandchildren. And during her final weeks she no longer craved her weekly dozen of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a late-in-life addiction that my 10-year-old, Daniela, insists explains her own love of fried dough.
Nana’s joy for food was gone. And soon after, so was she.
She died two summers ago, at age 88, and although I am lucky to have many of her recipes to guide me, I still have questions. When I made pizzelles recently, I would have loved to ask her about the recipes: the one my mother had given me over the phone and another my sister-in-law e-mailed me.
OK, which one was her recipe?
In the end, I figure Nana would have shrugged her shoulders. She probably used both, as the mood struck her. And why not? She always did have a huge appetite for life.
Makes 24 cookies
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup margarine or butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a medium mixing bowl, beat eggs lightly with a whisk. Add sugar and beat lightly to incorporate but not overmix. Add cooled melted butter and extract. Sift flour and cornstarch and gradually mix into egg mixture until just incorporated; batter will be sticky enough to be dropped by teaspoonfuls. Preheat pizzelle iron. Coat design with vegetable cooking spray or vegetable oil-soaked paper towel. Press pizzelle until steam no longer escapes from the side of the iron. Transfer pizzelle with a wide spatula. Place pizzelles on a rack to cool. Store cooled wafers between waxed paper in a container with tight-fitting lid.
Per cookie: 160 calories (48 percent from fat), 8 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 19 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 182 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Nana’s Meatballs and Sauce
This recipe comes from an all-day cooking session in 2002. My sister-in-law, Michele Buchanan Wendholt, and I discovered how hard it was to pin Nana down on technique. So much of her cooking was, as typical of most Italian grandmothers, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Note there is no oregano in her recipe, but she did find a use for her favorite modern kitchen appliance, the food processor.
Makes about 2 gallons sauce
2 pounds (80 to 85 percent lean) ground beef or 1 1/2 pounds beef and 1/2 pound ground pork
Salt and pepper
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
Chopped fresh parsley (or dried), to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 to 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
3 1/2 to 4 pounds pork sausage links
4 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, break up by pulsing in a food processor or blender
3 (28-ounce) cans puree ("swish" 1 tablespoon water in each can to remove remaining bits of sauce; Nana hated waste)
1/2 tablespoon salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon dried basil (if using fresh basil, add the whole leaves and remove at the end of the cooking time)
1/2 teaspoon cracked fresh pepper
1/8 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Pinch of baking soda, optional
For the meatballs: In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients. With moistened hands, roll meat mixture into meatballs the size of pingpong balls; place on a baking sheet until ready to add to sauce.
For the sauce: In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, add oil and soften the garlic cloves, making sure they do not brown; remove.
Add one-fourth of the sausage links and brown them slightly but do not cook through; remove from the stockpot using long-handled tongs and set aside on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess grease. Working in batches, brown remaining sausages.
Add the pulsed tomatoes to the pot; allow the mixture to come to a low “perk” with bubbles just breaking the surface and add meatballs; simmer for 20 minutes. (Avoid stirring for several minutes so the meatballs keep their shape and do not fall apart.)
Add tomato puree and “swish” water, salt, basil, pepper and red pepper flakes; stir, then allow the mixture to return to a “perk.” Add sausage to the pot. Allow the sauce to simmer on low heat for at least 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste the sauce; if the tomatoes taste too acidic, add a pinch of baking soda to adjust.
To freeze sauce: Remove meatballs and sausages from the pot after cooking and place them in a freezer container, arranging them so they do not touch. Freeze liquid portion of sauce in a separate container.
Per (1/2-cup) serving: 187 calories (64 percent from fat), 15 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 39 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 54 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.