The Bronx, New York is the birthplace of my dad, Antonio Anello. He is the son of Sicilian immigrants Luigi Anello and Marietta Straguzzi. He’s the youngest of seven. My dad spent a lot of time with his mom and three sisters while the rest of his brothers were in the service. He said he learned how to make gnocchi and other pastas from his mom. He was home alone with her often and I’m sure the attention he got was nothing short of educating.
I first learned how to make pasta from my dad. He was a widower at thirty-seven with five of his own children. He was a pretty good cook I remember. I was seven when one night I decided to push the chair up to the stove and make him dinner that I wanted ready when he got home from work. I watched him do this a hundred times so after that many dress rehearsals, I was ready for showtime. I’m sure I was channeling Grandma Straguzzi the entire time. When my dad walked in the door that night, the look of surprise was exactly what I was going for. In all fairness it could have been because of the mess I made but I like to think he was happy dinner was on the table. I sat across from him with my chin resting in the middle of my folded arms and watched him eat every bite. I’m sure Grandma was right there with me. I knew at that very moment I wanted to do this for everyone. I wanted to make people happy with the food I created for them. So the journey began.
Dad ate some pretty weird stuff to me too at the time. He loved sardines. What Sicilian didn’t?? I thought they were gross only because we had a couple of beautiful fish tanks in our home and I couldn’t imagine marinating them in olive oil and mustard and slapping them on a piece of Wonder bread. When he first started eating these around me, I would run to the fish tanks and count the fish. Phew!! The head count was good! None the less, I asked dad if I could make his lunch every night for him to take the next day. Sometimes the sardines were in mustard dressing and sometimes just olive oil. Other days he would have mortadella and cheese. I loved making his lunch. I didn’t know it at the time but the love I put into every sandwich he would receive at lunch the next day.
I would try to imagine his mom in the kitchen with me. I was two when she passed away. How I wish I had a lifetime to cook with her. I’ve learned a lot from my aunts and uncles and of course from my dad. But I think of what else I would know. I love the stories of how she would sit in the window of her apartment on 187th Street in the Bronx and wait for the produce cart to come by. I would imagine some old worn out horse that just wanted to take a nap pulling an old wooden cart full of produce. She would yell down to the produce man and tell him what she wanted. How cool is that? I wish we could still do that today. Maybe you can in Sicily. I just wish this country still had the honesty and trust for such a simple request. Point at someone today in the street from your apartment and yell to them what you want and I guarantee you won’t be getting green beans and pears. It’s always nice to imagine what it was like though. Dad talks about going down to the chicken coop and picking out the chicken for dinner. As any boy would, dad loved watching the butcher prepare the poultry from start to finish. He loves telling that story especially since I don’t eat meat. He’s still a little boy at heart. One of his favorite things to make around Christmas is gnocchi. He showed me using the small holes side of a cheese grater. It works pretty well. I’ve since ordered a gnocchi board from Italy made out of olive wood in honor of my grandmother. Some other cool traditions I’ve carried on are bread at dinner and always bringing something homemade to a friends house when invited over. I also always have something to make if I have a surprised guest stop by. I’m plantbased now so I use the same techniques and just adjust the preparation to a plantbased one. It works every time. It’s all about hospitality. It’s love. Love in love out every time. It’s Grandma Straguzzi’s influence. It’s about family even when you aren’t related.
Spending time with My Aunt Rose and Uncle Larry was always a special time. Rose was the oldest daughter of Grandma’s. Boy could she cook. I remember going to down to Florida to visit her and my uncle with my dad. The feast they put on for us was amazing. Meatballs, braciola, pasta, salad, bread and wine. My uncle always loved to have a glass of wine with me. He put my glass right next to his at the table. I’m sure my grandmother was right there with us. The very next day Uncle Larry decides to make some more meatballs. He was going to teach me the art to making the perfect meatball. Each one he carefully formed into the perfect sphere as if he was performing some intricate surgery procedure. He showed me from the ingredients to the final product what he himself had learned as a boy. Now as a chef I listened carefully. There has never been a moment when I’ve passed up a recipe and this was no different. I love being the student. I loved being his student. Off in the distance I could hear my aunt chiming in with a few of her own suggestions and it was then I knew the love I had felt all along from this family was pure. I adored them both and their children. I wish grandma Straguzzi was there to share that moment. In spirit she most definitely was.
So not a day goes by I don’t think of her. Not a moment in the kitchen is lost without thinking about how she would prepare something. I’m sure everyone loved her food. I’m pretty sure with her influence, I can treat people to the same love with mine.
That, my friends, is the power in food.
My grandparents Marietta Straguzzi and Luigi Anello