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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Italian in Me

Memories of my childhood are like a series of movie trailers played on the movie screen between my eyes and the back of my skull.  I have several memorable trailers of my robust Italian family.

My papa doing his thing.  My aunt (left), my daddy (right) Ma and my cousin, Valerie

My family is sitting upon Ma's old hard wooden chairs around the ravioli table.  This is in the screened back porch of Ma's (that's what everybody called my grandmother) house.  The room smells of her steaming kitchen; sauteed garlic, onion and parsley .  My mouth waters just thinking about it!  This was the world of love and food.

Ma's house.

Papa just harvests lettuce and onions from our garden and drizzles our own pungent vinegar in the olive oil, salt and pepper coated greens.  I can see the 'mother', like floating placenta, in the the bottle as he tips the "Pigani Red Wine" jug, the label is written over in Papa's high pressured scrawl:  "Devincenzi Vinegar".

After the feast, we sleep!  Me and Papa.
Those were the days of our Italian/ American infused family, fun, and food.  My Uncle Dutch, born Atillio Caselini, had several dinner clubs in San Francisco (amongst other establishments, uh-hum) and when he and Lala Marie came to visit, they would have armloads of groceries from Molinari's  of North Beach.  There were white paper wrapped packages of salami, prosciutto, Fontina and large rounds of crusty sour-dough.  As Uncle Dutch took over the kitchen, the rest of us would tear crusts, fold on a thin slice of prosciutto and eat with pure pleasure.  The room like a bee-hive, Ummmmmmmmmm!  The sound almost deafening.

Uncle Dutch gets busy.

There weren't many fat Italians in our family.  I think it is because we were extremely choosy with what we put into our mouths.  Like French women don't get fat, neither did we.  We didn't own a cookbook with low-fat recipes and the concept of grabbing 'fast food' was, in our mind, idiotic, when we could go to Ma's and have her homemade lasagna with her Bolognese sauce and bechamel.  The product was rich yet light to the mouth as it went in.

My favorite cookbook.

On Monday morning, I read Fiona's blog about comfort food and she mentioned having used cottage cheese instead of bechamel in her pasta casserole.  I had an immediate flashback to Ma's kitchen and her whisking the beshamel then spooning it between layers of spinach pasta, sauce and fresh grated Parmesan.  In my opinion, there is no substitute for bechamel and commented that I would send the recipe today.

For two cups bechamel, melt three tablespoons of butter in a heavy medium saucepan 
over medium low heat.  
Whisk in four tablespoons flour for a minute and a half. Do not brown.  
Gradually add two cups of hot milk, whisking constantly until the sauce is thick as heavy cream. 
About fifteen minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Consente' Mangia!


  1. That was a fun read! I love the old family photographs.

    I am keeping that bechamel recipe. Thanks.

  2. Debra,

    I love seeing these pictures! It's always interesting for me to see pictures of your Papa since he built our house - and yours. I would have liked to have known him. He raised a wonderful daughter.


  3. Janice,
    Thank you for your enjoyment!

    A, I know how this feels for you. I miss my Papa and yet I get the amazing privilege of seeing him around me every day! Thank you for your kind words!

  4. Debra,

    Sounds like you have some wonderful memories of your family, enjoyed the pictures and all that food...yum! That is so cool that your dad built yours and Adrienne's house.

    When my mom passed away I had the diamond from her wedding ring made into a solitare necklace. I wear it almost every day and I feel like I have a part of her with me.


  5. Very few of my Italian relatives ever got fat and we all ate very well. My Mom always called bechamel "white" sauce.

    She invented a white sauce dish for meatless Fridays. White sauce with sweet yellow corn, sliced tart pimento stuffed green olives, and carefully folded in sliced hard cooked eggs. Spooned over toast it was the ultimate comfort food.

    I need to know more about this house building thingy. Your Dad was a builder? Details, details. Inquiring minds need to know.

  6. Linda,
    It is so special to have their energy in the form of something tangible with us or around us. I'd love to see a photo of it sometime!

    The scoop on the house is that my grandmother (I need to post one about this class act of a woman) bought land here in the Sonoma Valley in '48. The house pictured is the one she bought and lived in. Across the highway from her she bought land and my dad, along with family etc., built several houses, as Italians do, for my aunt and himself. After my parents divorced this house was sold (like losing a family member) and is the one Adrienne lives in with her family today. My dad then built (with help, as he was a cement contractor and had plenty of contacts in the trades), three more houses. He lived in the one I am living in now until his death in '98. I am fortunate to be on the road I grew up on. thanks for asking!

  7. I married into an Italian family. They have wonderful food and family gatherings, there is always a lot of noise. An Italian trait, no? My husband's father is a craftsman carpenter. He can build anything, fix anything! He is amazing. He also taught my husband these skills and I love having a husband that can do these things. I am always in awe of how he pays attention to detail on the simplest project. My husband and his father built many of the unique houses in Las Vegas, before tract housing took over. It was great to learn about your family and I agree bechamel is the best!

  8. I love the details. Thanks! So you and Adrienne live close to each other. You're lucky to have a friend close by.

    I live on 5 acres with our pastor (priest) on one side (which is handy in case of heart attacks, and such - heh) I can't even talk about the pigs on the other side. We just keep planting more and more stuff and in a few more years they will be completely hidden in both the winter and the summer. Sigh...

  9. Ms. Bucket, yes indeed noise is a huge part of this culture. "I must be heard and seen!" I wonder if anyone is actually listening. We all listen, though, when there is a good story of times past involving the uncle who embarrassed himself miserably by peeing in a wine jug at the last family reunion or the grandfather who threw a chisle to his son only to pierce his son's hand then yelled at him for bleeding! "What in the hell are you doing?" We can be a motley crew!

    Oh my, you do have a coveted spot near the priest! As an Italian woman, you are living near the "man"!

    Isn't it a drag when you have neighbors who don't seem to care about the wonderful land they live upon? Keep planting. One day they will go away!

  10. Thanks for your bechamel sauce recipe Debra. I love that it is authentically Italian. I enjoyed your stories and photos too. Your Pa was a very talented man.