Do recipes belong in an autobiography about a musical-theater artist? I pondered this question for sometime while writing my memoir, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater. Initially, I wanted to include some of the more interesting dishes from my Sicilian grandparents’ repertoire. About halfway into the book, it became painfully obvious that this was not going to work. The autobiography read much like a novel, and placing recipes in the middle of it stopped the action cold, impeding the entire narrative structure. So, the recipes had to go and find another home.
Being the only remaining member of my family who knows how to make these dishes, I realized that they would die with me. I couldn’t bear letting my Nonni’s tasty culinary efforts meet their demise. It’s important to me to keep them alive because some of the recipes are unique. I’ve never tasted them anywhere else. Others, like the cassateddi or sfincione recipe, are simply excellent versions of these traditional dishes.
My paternal grandparents immigrated to Rockford, Illinois, from Partinico and Belmonte Mezzagno, towns near Palermo in 1907. Though they never became full-time chefs, they were both excellent cooks. They had a secondary income cooking for Italian weddings in Rockford. In fact, they cooked the entire wedding dinner for 150 people in the church basement when my parents married. For a period, they were the head cooks in a very successful, but short-lived, restaurant owned by their son, my uncle Paul. The restaurant unhappily folded prematurely because Paul and his wife were an irascible and argumentative couple, and my grandparents, quiet and mild-mannered, simply couldn’t endure the constant friction, not to mention the embarrassment when these petty squabbles boiled over into the dining room.
My grandfather Ignazio’s signature dish, served at the weddings and in the restaurant, was his ditali with meat sauce. This was an enormous hit with the restaurant’s customers, most of whom came from Rockford’s predominantly Swedish population. Only one other Italian restaurant existed in the town at the time, so this was novel culinary fare for the Swedes. There is nothing exotic about the recipe. It’s simply cooked in a different way than the more common method of beginning with ground meat. The end result is a richer, silkier sauce that offers a very different taste experience. The sauce is one of the recipes I’ve encountered nowhere else, though I had assumed it was a Palermo-area specialty. I’ve so often wished I had asked Nonno, a native of Partinico. if it was specific to his family. Ignazio always used Caciocavallo, more typical of Sicily, but Parmigiano works equally well. Traditionally, it required a meat grinder, but I’ve found a food processor is a good modern substitute.
Ignazio’s Salsa di Pomodoro con Carne
- 2 pounds of round steak, cut 1/4-inch thick
- 1/4 cup of virgin olive oil
- 2 quarts of homemade salsa pomodoro (see recipe below)
- 1/2 pound chunk of Parmigiano or aged Cacciocavallo broken into pieces or 1 cup grated cheese 1 pound short pasta, such as Ditali, Tubeti, or Conchiglie, for 4 people
Dry the slices of round steak thoroughly on paper towels. Sauté the slices in the olive oil in a 3-quart Dutch oven or kettle until nicely browned. Remove the slices. Using the same pan, make the salsa pomodoro below. If the oil from the meat has burnt, discard it and add fresh olive oil to sauté the onions and garlic. Add the meat slices to the tomato sauce and simmer gently for two hours or until the slices are fork tender. Remove the slices and using the fine grinding plate, pass them through a meat grinder, along with the cheese chunks. Alternatively, you can pulse the cooked meat a few times in a food processor, until fine ground. Don’t turn it into a paste. For this method, use pre-grated cheese and mix it with the ground meat. Cook the pasta in several quarts of salted water until al dente. Drain. Return the pasta to the pan with the meat, cheese, and a cup or two of the tomato-meat sauce to warm very gently, covered. Serve in bowls with additional sauce and grated cheese. Serves 8 to 10.
2 large cans of peeled Italian tomatoes
1 large red onion, chopped fine
4 plump cloves of garlic minced
1 small carrot grated
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of peperoncino (crushed dried chili pepper)
2 tablespoons of finely chopped Italian parsley
2 teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons of fresh rosemary (optional)
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil (if in season)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon or more of sugar if tomatoes are too tart
Over medium heat, sauté onion, carrot, thyme, parsley, optional rosemary, and peperoncino in olive oil, until onion is golden.
Add the garlic and sauté two minutes, making certain it isn’t burning.
Crush the tomatoes and add to the above ingredients.
Add basil. Add salt, pepper to taste.
Add sugar, only if it’s necessary.
Often accompanying the pasta con carne or on special occasions, my grandmother, Francesca, made her especially delicious sfincione. Sfincione is a Sicilian specialty and a common street food found particularly in the Porta Sant’Agata area of Palermo and the Ballarò Market. It can also be found in different versions in many Sicilian cities. It is much like its more northern relative, focaccia, but it tends to be a bit heavier, at least in my grandmother’s version, and is topped with more savory ingredients.
Only recently, I discovered that my Nonna’s recipe is considerably simpler and easier to make than the traditional versions found in Palermo. Almost all recipes I’ve researched make a cooked tomato sauce for the topping, use copious amounts of cheese, and top the whole with breadcrumbs. Many recipes require overnight refrigeration of the dough.
What essentially makes my grandmother’s recipe simpler and different is that she used canned tomatoes, chopped into pieces rather than a tomato sauce. Also, she eliminated the bread crumbs and the voluminous amounts of cheese. I find anchovies give it a truly distinctive taste, but you can feel free to eliminate them. Traditionally, grated Cacciocavallo and Ragusano cheeses are used, but either Parmesan or Romano are fine substitutes. The crust is deliciously crispy, offering a wonderful contrast with the tender crumb and the savory topping. The generous sprinkling of dried oregano on the top gives the sfincione its delightful fragrance and its typically Sicilian flavor.
I’ve discovered that with the food processor, I can make sfincione an even easier task than my Nonna had. It no longer needs to be a dish for special occasions only. It’s so easy to make by this method that I often do it as a luncheon dish. It can also be served as a festive bread, accompanying a dinner. The nice part is that you can vary the toppings to suit your taste. I come from a family of very finicky eaters, so my grandmother had to make three or four different versions each time to suit everyone. Any leftovers can be successfully reheated.
Sfincione alla Nonna
For the Dough
1 package dry yeast
2 3/4 cups bread or all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup lukewarm water
For the Topping
14.5-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
10 anchovies packed in olive oil
1/2 cup sliced black pitted olives
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Caciocavallo or Parmigiano
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Add flour and salt to the food-processor container and process for one minute, using the cutting blade. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let proof for 5 minutes. Stir the olive oil into the yeast mixture. With the food processor running, gradually pour the yeast-oil mixture into the flour. Continue processing until the dough forms a ball. Remove from the processor and knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for a few minutes until the dough is smooth and satiny. Coat a bowl with olive oil, roll the dough ball in the bowl until completely coated in oil, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the dough is doubled in bulk.
Deflate the dough. Generously oil a 9- x 13-inch baking pan. Stretch the dough gently to fill the entire bottom of the pan. Cut the anchovy fillets in 1/4-inch pieces. With your finger, gently press the anchovy pieces into the dough, spacing them evenly. Drain the tomatoes and cut into small pieces, pressing them gently into the dough. Then spread the sliced olives over the sfincione. Sprinkle the grated cheese, then the oregano evenly over the dough. Drizzle the olive oil over the top. Cover and let rise for about 1/2 hour or until doubled in size.
Bake in a preheated 450° oven for about 20 minutes, until the sfinicione is nicely browned. Cut into squares and serve hot or at room temperature.
A Room Full of Food
In Rockford during the 1940s and 1950a when I was growing up, older Sicilian women offered St. Joseph’s altars. This joyously beautiful tradition was very popular among Rockford’s Sicilian community, though it has all but disappeared today even in Sicily—much too much work for the younger generation. On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, those elderly women, who were asking some favor from the saint, cleared out the living rooms of their houses. They enlisted the help of relatives, who cooked elaborate dishes beginning at least a week in advance of the feast.
My Nonna’s daughter, Jennie, had contracted an incurable and rare immune-system disease called pemphigus vulgaris, which at the time could be found in fewer than 100 cases in the medical literature. In the hopes of saving her only daughter, Nonna committed to creating her own San Giuseppi altar in 1957.
On the evening of March 18, the bounteous food, which filled the entire room, was elaborately displayed on white linen- and lace-covered tables. Tiers were built in the middle of one wall to resemble an altar; each tier was covered with food, and a painting or statue of St. Joseph was placed at the apex, lighted with candles. In the center of the room was a round table, also covered in white linen, with three place settings of the finest china, crystal, and silver. The local papers listed all the homes that had prepared the altars, so that anyone could come to view them in an open house the night before the feast day. Generally, there were about eight to ten each year. The rooms were roped off so you could not enter. However, the women served the visitors cookies or small pastries, as they marveled at the altars.
I loved being taken from house to house to witness the remarkably inventive ways in which the food was presented. There is no word to describe the intoxicating fragrance that wafted through the room from the mingling scents of the wide variety of foods created. To this day, I can summon up the memory of that perfume, though I’ve not seen a St. Joseph’s altar in sixty years. There was no meat at the altar—only ornately decorated whole fishes, piles of beautifully presented vegetables and frittatas, varieties of colorful pastries, including cream puffs in the shape of swans, whole oranges carved into basket shapes, highly ornamented cookies, wreaths of fresh-baked braided breads, two feet in diameter, with wide red bows tied about them, and enormous sheaths of spaghetti, two-feet in length, also tied with red bows.
On the feast day, three children were selected from orphanages to play the roles of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and they were costumed appropriately. No one ate until they took their places at the center table. They were expected to taste—if only a single bite—every one of the foods in the room. Once they had sampled each dish, festivities began: the family and invited guests, often as many as fifty people, began eating all that was left on the altar. It was my first time to partake as a guest at the feast, and how lucky I was to have had this opportunity.
A Special Pastry
One of the pastries featured at Nonna’s St. Joseph’s altar was the Cassatedde, a fried turnover filled with sweetened ricotta, small chunks of chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla encased in a pastry dough. Her
Cassatedde bear a strong affiliation with the more famous cannoli. However, because the filling in the Cassatedde is fried inside the pastry, it offers a very different taste and texture from its more ubiquitous relative.
Although Cassatedde are best eaten warm, soon after cooking, they can be chilled and eaten cold. They can even be gently reheated or even frozen and thawed, still retaining their flavor—though most of the crispness of the pastry is lost. For this reason, I always make extra to savor later in the week.
Cassatedde di Ricotta
3 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
6 ounces unsalted butter
4 ounces lard or vegetable shortening
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 pounds whole-milk ricotta
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3.5 ounces of best quality dark chocolate
Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter and the lard or shortening until coarse crumbs are formed. Beat together the eggs, milk, and vanilla. Stir the liquid into the dry ingredients until just combined. If the mixture is too dry to form a ball, add a bit more milk. Shape into a ball, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
Lightly beat the sugar into the ricotta. Add the cinnamon and vanilla. Break the chocolate into small pieces and stir into the mixture.
Roll out the pastry dough on a floured surface until very thin, less than 1/8 inch. Cut out circles 5-6 inches in diameter. I use the top of a sharp canister lid to do this. Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of ricotta filling on 1/2 of the circles, making sure you don’t go too close to the edges. Moisten the edges of the circle with water and fold the unfilled half over the other half, creating half-moon turnovers. Seal the edges with the tines of a fork. Chill for an hour or more before frying.
Heat enough vegetable oil to nearly cover the pastries to 350°. Fry the pastries a few at a time, turning once until they are lightly brown on each side. Remove to paper towels, patting off any excess oil. Cool almost to room temperature and sprinkle heavily with confectioners’ sugar. Though best eaten shortly after frying, leftovers can be refrigerated and eaten cold or reheated for 5 minutes in a 300° oven. They may also be frozen.
A Singular Pasta Sauce
Without question, a marinara sauce was traditionally served at the San Giuseppi altar celebration. However, my grandmother liked to present a second possibility, pasta con le lentichhie or pasta with lentil sauce. Here was one more sauce I’ve encountered nowhere else outside my family. I’ve often wondered where it originated. Sadly, I never asked my grandparents or parents whether it was handed down through generations or was a dish that they concocted on their own. It makes a wonderful meal for a cool autumn or winter evening.
Although not particularly attractive in a presentation, lentil sauce has many qualities to recommend it. It’s great for vegetarians, and it’s very healthy. Lentils are high in fiber, folic acid, and potassium, all of which lower cholesterol and support heart health. This legume can also decrease blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, increase energy while being low in calories—230 to a one-cup serving.
This sauce offers many advantages to the cook. It is inexpensive, easy to make, reheats well (though you’ll need to add extra water when doing so), and it is delectable. Just make certain that the lentils are very tender and that the sauce is neither too thick, making the dish too dry with pasta, or too soupy.
Pasta con le Lenticchie
1 pound lentils
1 onion chopped fine
2 carrots minced
1 celery stalk minced
1 whole clove garlic
2 cups shredded escarole
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 teaspoons fresh or dried thyme
1 pound pasta
Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
Rinse the lentils and remove any stones or foreign objects. Place in a large kettle with at least 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to the boil, and boil for 5 minutes. Turn down the heat to a simmer and add the vegetables, the olive oil, and the herbs. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the lentils are very tender and the mixture becomes a nice thick sauce. Be sure to stir the lentils frequently because they can easily burn on the bottom of the pot. You may have to add water from time to time, if the lentils absorb too much of the liquid. Sometimes I add a little water even at the end of the cooking. You want a sauce that’s neither too thick, nor too soupy.
Remove the whole garlic clove and the bay leaf. Taste for seasoning. I find it takes an ample quantity of salt and pepper to achieve a good flavor.
Cook any shape pasta just until al dente. Drain and mix some of the lentil sauce with pasta. Serve in bowls with another ladleful of sauce on the top. Accompany with a crisp green salad.
Sadly, my Aunt Jennie did not survive her disease, but she was ecstatic and proud as the honoree of my Nonna’s San Giuseppi altar. And I believe that my Nonni would be pleased that their recipes will survive as well.
Partly excerpted from The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater. For more Sicilian recipes and further information on the book, visit: https://normanmathewsauthor.com