Becoming Italian

(Photo used by permission.)
(Photo used by permission.)

I’m hardly Italian. Nowhere near it. With a family tree first planted in America in 1632, a seedling from a village not far from Norwich, England, we’ve been in the New World so long that we have no ethnic ties or traditions at all. But for some reason, Italian food and culture and history tapped something in my soul. Through my pots and pans, I’ve adopted Italy’s cooking. And dreams of idyllic Italian style. My house walls glow terra-cotta red in the morning sun. Rows of rosemary, oregano, and mint sprawl in my garden. And I collect Italian cookbooks like a money-mad King Midas wallowing in gold coins.

I recently asked myself how this obsession with Italy came about. And two vivid food memories surfaced.

When my brother Sasha slithered into the world on a morgue-like February day, my mother—unlike new mothers today—stayed in the hospital for several days to recuperate. She needed that down time because my 18-month-old brother Ivan, and I, a talkative 5-year-old already babysitting, waited for her at home.

Taking pity on my clueless and, at that time, cooking-impaired father, Anna Litvin —an older, wise woman married to one of my father’s work colleague—invited the three of us over for dinner one night. The smell of baked macaroni smothered with a meaty red sauce and wonderful buttery bread wrapped in a huge piece of foil swirled around us as we walked in the door.

I didn’t even notice the paper plates or the fact that my feet didn’t touch the floor as I proudly sat at the big people’s table. After a day or so of my father’s cooking, mostly cans of Campbell’s soups, I ate Mrs.-Litvin-to-you’s version of what I now know as baked ziti like the starving child that I was. And the bread, soft and buttery and garlicky, captivated me. I gobbled three or four pieces until my father, embarrassed perhaps at my obvious hunger, said that was enough.

Memory being what it is, all I know is that on the way home, I pestered my father about the bread, what was so good about it, why it didn’t taste like the bread we ate at home. Driving over the icy roads in our bulky black Pontiac, an amber Indian-chief head propped on the prow like a tiny figurehead, the car my mother later sold to a graduate student for one dollar, my father said, “Well, that was garlic bread.” Or the Americanized version of bruschetta.

I remember answering that I loved garlic and wanted more. His eyes widened in surprise as he said, “But your mom doesn’t like garlic.”

That much was true. Mom didn’t like garlic. Let’s face it, Mom just plain hated cooking.

Take her spaghetti sauce, for one thing. And that’s the other signpost on my journey to becoming Italian.

A can of Campbell’s Tomato soup, another of Cream of Mushroom soup, stirred into a pan where grayish hamburger backstroked in grease along with half-cooked chunks of celery and onions, each piece the size of large red kidney beans. Mushy noodles floating underneath like white worms swimming in blood. That was it. Quick. Oh yes. Easy. Oh yes. Delicious. Oh no.

Not until I babysat one night for a family I’ll call the Barolinis did I find the food that spoke to my soul and set me on the path I trod still—seeking the peace and tranquility of the archetypal Italian family kitchen.

When Mrs. Barolini called me to ask me to babysit, she mentioned that I would be eating with the kids that night. Would spaghetti be OK? I wanted to say “No,” but polite girls needing money in those days did not say “No” very often to babysitting jobs.

When I got to the Barolinis’ house, there, on the kitchen table behind Mrs. Barolini, sat a huge bowl of red sauce soaking mounds of spaghetti, meatballs as big as my dad’s handballs resting on top. Slabs of olive oil-and-garlic slathered bread lingered on another plate. Impatiently, the Barolini kids waved at me to hurry up and sit down, no formal greetings necessary when hunger stood in the way. I needed no more prompting. As Mrs. Barolini scribbled down the phone number of the place they could be reached in case of emergency, my rear end hit the chair. I grabbed the serving spoons and dished up my plate. By that time, the kids were half done with the food their saintly mother dished out as soon as she heard Mr. Barolini and me walking through the door.

We ate greedily, like the kids we were, wadding up balls of bread and stuffing them into our mouths, olive oil and garlic and sauce made from real tomatoes and rich red wine running down our chins, spotting our shirts with little red and gold dots. For a brief moment, a strange, almost electrical, feeling buzzed through me. It was sheer simple happiness. And since happiness at the dinner table was usually as rare as a day without air at my house, it was a new sensation for me. And I wanted that more than anything, again and again.

I gobbled another three or four meatballs, and licked my fingers clean before I put the dishes away and did the dishes that night. What a delicacy that spaghetti seemed to me, a kid whose diet depended on the continuing production of the Campbell Soup Company’s repertoire of soup-based sauces. No offense to Campbell’s, but it thrilled me to learn there was more to eating than a can of soup.

When Mrs. Barolini walked sleepily through the door at 11 p.m., I begged her for her recipe. She said, “Of course, I’ll write it down for you.”

And so she did.

Today, when I stir the red sauce, I’ll look up occasionally and smile. Right next to my head hangs Mrs. Barolini’s recipe, enshrined in a cheap black frame I bought at the grocery store. Stains puddle here and there, defacing Mrs. Barolini’s handwriting like a watercolorist at work. Truly, that recipe is a great work of art, to me anyway.

Mrs. Barolini’s Italian Spaghetti, Ragù

Serves 6

3 T. extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. ground beef

1 medium onion, diced

½ green pepper, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

3 8-oz. cans tomato sauce

1 cup Calif. Burgundy wine (or Calif. claret or Chianti)

1 t. mixed Italian seasoning (basil, oregano, marjoram), or to taste

½ t. salt

1. t. sugar

½ lb. (2 c. broken) spaghetti, cooked

1 c. grated Parmesan

Heat oil. Add hamburger; brown. Add onion and green pepper; cook until onion is transparent. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce and wine, seasonings, sugar. Cover and simmer gently for one hour, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat, stir in ½ cup of the cheese. Pour over cooked spaghetti and sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Serve with lots of garlic bread.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen



  • Beautiful post.
    I was about 5 when I decided that I did not like milk. My mother made spaghetti sauce with a recipe very similar to yours, though she always served the sauce and pasta (called noodles back then) in separate dishes. I was getting full as I finished one plate, but it was so delicious that I wanted more. Unfortunately, my mom noticed I had not drunk my glass of milk. I drank it, resenting every drop because it filled my stomach and there was no room for more wonderful spaghetti.


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