Throughout my earliest memories, I can recall sinking my teeth into pastas of all shapes and sizes smothered in rich tomato sauces and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Our weekly dinner at Grandma’s house consisted of a big pepperoni stick served with crackers and cheese ahead of time, olives, and celery sticks arranged in a dish on the table, salads dripping with olive oil and vinegar, and thick crusty seminola breads from Nicolo’s Bakery.
However, the centerpiece of the meal was always the pasta: thick lasagna smothered with melted mozzarella, manicotti made with real crepes rather than boxed pasta rolls, homemade pasta firm, yet chewy, and gravy (aka tomato sauce) chocked full of meatballs and braciole (bra’zhul).
I grew up in a small town in northern New Jersey, a New York suburb heavily populated with Italian Americans. My grandmother and her sisters had moved from the Italian neighborhood of Jersey City to the suburbs in the 1950s, living together in the same two-story white clapboard house on Nassau Road for more than 50 years.
Like many Italian Americans, family time centered around the old walnut dining room table, each of us taking our place at our usual seats, with my father at the head and Grandma on his left.
Personally, I always looked forward to dessert: Rich éclair pastries stuffed with cream, covered with a thick layer of chocolate; cannolis with their crunchy exteriors and filled with a slightly bitter cream with a sprinkling of small chocolate chips; and Italian anise cookies, not too sweet but with an addictive licorice taste. Sometimes she would make us kids’ ice cream parfaits, with mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles assembled in old plastic parfait cups ahead of time.
When I was 22-years-old, I left the Northeast for Arizona to attend graduate school. It was a time of great transition for me; I knew no one, and the culture was very different from mine. It was hard to leave my family, friends, and the urban landscape I had always known, but what I found myself missing the most was the food. Eagerly, I sampled the couple of Italian restaurants in town, only to find the gravy did not taste right, the meatballs were too dense, or the bread resembled that from a grocery store rather than my hometown individually owned bakeries.
As the years passed, I adjusted nicely to the relaxed routines and outdoor lifestyle that Arizona had to offer, but I would still find myself homesick for the smells and tastes of Grandma’s kitchen. Finally, on a trip back home, as I hugged her goodbye, Grandma slipped a handful of recipes into my hand. I was so excited about all the meals I would make. However, I was a typical 20-something at the time, and after thumbing through them on the plane, I tucked those recipes away in a notebook and promptly forgot all about them.
A couple of months later, I moved into my first solo apartment without any roommates, and for the first time, I felt the need to nest, to really establish myself, to create a space that felt like home. I remembered the recipes, and after some searching, I dug out Grandma’s recipe for lasagna.
After reading it over, I decided to skip the meatballs — this was in my vegetarian days — but headed to the store to see if I could find the rest of the ingredients I would need. Of course, not everything was available — for example, I could only find regular Romano rather than Locatelli cheese, as Arizona caters more to a Mexican/Southwest cuisine — but I was able scrounge up enough substitutions to make the recipe work. I bought the tomatoes already crushed, as I had no mill to run them through, and the mozzarella came vacuum-sealed rather than packaged in water.
I also took shortcuts with the pasta, buying boxed pasta sheets rather than rolling and hanging homemade sheets to dry. Soon, as the gravy bubbled on the stove, I mixed the ricotta and eggs, and I had the lasagna ready to be assembled.
As I popped everything in the oven, a rich aroma spread throughout the apartment, and I felt like I had walked into Grandma’s house just in time for dinner. The next morning, as I awoke to the lingering smells in the kitchen, I felt like I had finally come home.
From then on, whenever I felt homesick, I continued to replicate Grandma’s recipes in my own kitchen, first for myself, then for my husband, and later for my children, Grandma’s great -grandchildren. Now the lingering smells of garlic and tomato, and the comfort that a belly full of pasta can bring have become a part of their own childhood tableau. Hopefully, when they get older and go out into the world, Grandma’s lasagna and meatballs, will continue to bake in their ovens and help them create their own sense of place, so that they can come home in spirit regardless of where they may live.
Marge’s Lasagna and Meatballs
This is my grandmother’s recipe for lasagna, passed down to me on a carefully typed out index card along with a handful of other favorite recipes.
1 lb. chopped meat
1 TB Locatelli cheese, grated
Dash of black pepper
Breadcrumbs (enough to form meatballs)
1 clove chopped fresh garlic
Put all ingredients together in a bowl and mix well. Form meatballs. Fry in
Teflon pot and set aside.
2 cans plum tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
Run tomatoes through blender. Mix in tomato paste and cook for about 1½
hours. Add meatballs and simmer for another 30 minutes. Set aside.
1 lb. lasagna noodles (homemade or boxed)
3½ lbs. ricotta
½ cup Locatelli cheese, grated
1 small ball of mozzarella cheese, shredded
Dash of black pepper
Boil water, and cook lasagna noodles until half soft. Meanwhile, mix together ricotta, Locatelli, eggs, and pepper in a bowl. Blend well. In glass tray, put a layer of gravy on the bottom. Line with lasagna noodles, add ricotta mix, and shredded mozzarella. Spoon the gravy over the layer, and repeat layer after layer until the tray is full. Bake about one hour at 250 degrees. Let cool slightly in oven. Serve hot.