My mom, Helen (originally Elena) with her mom in about 1937
in Yonkers, NY. She was a sassy one!
I come from an Italian family. My grandparents immigrated here from the Abruzzi region of Italy. My grandmother was six months pregnant with my mother when she arrived in Ellis Island, NY in 1928 with her three children to meet up with my grandfather; who had already been in the states for three years setting up a home and new life for his growing family. (My mother always said she was “Made in Italy“).
They settled into an Italian neighborhood, the Park Hill Ave. section of Yonkers NY, where they were able to continue to enjoy all the traditions of their homeland. (Recently the New York Times published an article on this hidden gem of a neighborhood, click here to check it out!)
My mother and her siblings all stayed in this same neighborhood within a few houses of my grandparents when they grew up, and started their own families. It was in this little Italian-American community I learned how important food is for the soul.
My strongest childhood memories are about the celebration of food and family. Every Sunday at 2:00 in the afternoon, my extended family would gather together at our house for dinner together. We lived in a 3 story Mediterreanean style home, my grandfather “Poppi” (Zopito) lived on the third floor, my Aunt Amy (Armeta) and her family lived on the second floor and we lived on the first floor. We spent the whole morning cooking and preparing. There was always homemade pasta. I would sit on the big table with a fork pressing little grooves into the gnocchis, or run a little metal wheel around pockets of ravioli, or crank the handle on the metal pasta machine and watch the ribbons of noodles my mother carefully laid across the table to dry.
My grandfather had an impressive garden on this small city plot of land. He grew tomatoes, basil, vegetables and had fruit trees and grapevines on trellises. He made his own wine in our cellar, and dried his own meats…our garage was converted into a second kitchen with a long dining table for summer gatherings. He built a huge brick outdoor fireplace for grilling in our yard.
Some Friday mornings I would go with him to Arthur Ave. in the Bronx where he would meet many of his friends and drink espresso, smoke cigars and buy his meats, fish, cheese and poultry, and I would get an Italian Ice. Our neighborhood was filled with bakeries, Italian markets, and cafes where our community gathered to socialized. We had an old man, “Santo, The Peddlar” who would come through the neighborhood every morning in a beat up old red truck and sell fresh fruit and vegetables. My mom would give me some change to get broccoli rabe or fresh peaches from him. He would always give me a small brown paperbag with a little bunch of green grapes as a treat for me.
Food was the center of our existence. It was simple, fresh and abundant. There were never rich sauces, or fancy techniques.
My Dad came from Germany just after the war, married my mother, and settled right into this Italian way of life. We continued this tradition for many years, and as we all grew and moved on to start our own families, we would all gather occasionally and celebrate in our traditional way.
One of the most poignant moments of my life was when my Mom was passing away a few years ago. She requested to be released from the hospital to die at home. We put a hospital bed in her kitchen and for the last few days of her life, all of my cousins and their families came from near and far to her house (there were 30 of us at a time) and we cooked all the old dishes with my Mom looking on, singing all the old songs, laughing and together we sent her off in the manner in which she lived and loved.
Click here to get copies of my mom’s recipes for Marinara Sauce and Meatballs. These are simple and delicious, I hope your family will enjoy them as well. I’ve loaded my Amazon Storefront with tools I use in my kitchen to make these recipes. Click here to check them out. And, I’ve done tutorials for both recipes on the Old Silver Shed YouTube channel for you to check out. Click here to subscribe and get access to these videos.
Aunt Helen’s Marinara Recipe
3 cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes
4 sprigs of rosemary
2 tablespoons of dried oregano
1 large sweet onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic
1 Knorr’s beef boullion cube
1 to 2 tablespoons of fennel seed
Red Pepper flakes (optional and to taste)
1/4 cup of olive oil
1 large handful of fresh chopped basil
1/2 teaspoon of sugar or substitute a small chunk of cooked carrot
1/2 cup of Chianti
• In a large saucepan add olive oil, rosemary, oregano, chopped onion, garlic, beef boullion, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes (if you are using them)
• Cook over medium heat until onions start to sweat, then add sugar, stir mixture as it cooks scrapping the bottom of the pan to keep ingredients from sticking.
• Add the Chianti, letting the liquid reduce down a bit
* Remove rosemary sprigs, and add whole tomatoes and salt to taste
• Cook for 20-25 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally
• Using an immersion blender to smooth chunks be sure to
leave some texture
• Add a handful of fresh chopped basil and let simmer for 5 more minutes
This is my mom’s basic marinara sauce you can add shrimp, scallops, or meatballs or serve over pasta!
Aunt Helen’s Meatballs
3/4 lbs each of ground VEAL, PORK, and BEEF
3/4-1 cup of bread crumbs (I prefer Progresso Italian style)
About 1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons of garlic powder (optional)
2 tablespoons of dried oregano
A big handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 to 3/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese (adjust the amount to taste)
Good quality olive oil (for the pan)
• Put breadcrumbs in a small bowl and cover with milk. Stir with a fork until well mixed and let them sit to soak up milk,
then add the rest of the milk to moisten
• In a large bowl add all the ingredients the meat, eggs, the breadcrumb mixture, the oregano, garlic powder, parmesan,
salt and pepper, and finally the chopped fresh parsley
* Using clean hands, begin to mix by squeezing to ensure all ingredients are evenly mixed
•. Form small handfuls of mixture into 1 1/2″ to 2″ balls and place them on a lined cookie sheet
* Heat olive oil in a skillet and carefully add meatballs, leaving space between each
• Gently turn each meatball for even browning on all sides
* Transfer them to a paper towel lined dish after browning
• Don’t worry if they are not cooked through, the will continue to cook in the sauce later