Friday, November 20, 2015

The Beauty of Traditions

     One of my favorite songs from a musical is “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. I love how the song lyrics talk about the roles of the Mamas and Papas, the daughters and sons. I also love the idea that, even as children, when we have no idea why we participate in certain customs, we build memories of togetherness that tie us to the family and friends who share in our ways. Traditions remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from. They bring to mind those who came before us, those who loved us enough to share their unique spirits, in hopes that we would carry on their traditions when they were gone.

     And we do.

     Italians, like other cultures, have so many traditions. Some customs may seem superstitious – burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard when you’re trying to sell your house or wearing a special golden horn around your neck to ward off the evil eye. My grandmother used to say you should bury a potato to make your warts go away. I wish she were here today so I could ask her about that one.

     One custom my family has upheld since long before I was born is making homemade ravioli for Thanksgiving. My Nana - Amelia Parmigiani, my mom, and her sister would get together some time in November to make “the ravs.” My grandmother was a strong lady. My mom always talks about how she made the dough and rolled it out by hand to pasta thickness – which is pretty thin and not an easy task when you have that much dough.

     What I remember most is the three of them, all talking at once (one louder than the other,) while they worked to make one of the most special family recipes we have. They’d fight over whether someone was making the ravioli too big or using too much filling. My grandmother would taste the raw filling and sometimes declare it too cheesy or too salty. Now that my grandmother and Aunt Ceil are gone, we make the ravioli at my house, and my mother inevitably forgets the juice glasses we use to cut the ravs. She always runs back home to get the special glasses, because God forbid we use something that’s a tenth of an inch off. That would change the size of the ravs, and that is a no-no. Nana Parmigiani and Aunt Ceil always come up in conversation, and I’m sure they’re smiling down on us as we roll, fill, cut, and press. They’re probably critiquing our form, and I can bet my bottom dollar that they’re shaking their heads at all the kids around my kitchen island. When I was a kid, I was not invited to the pasta-making party. It was serious business, and I was told to skedaddle. Now, we include all of the grand-daughters in the process. My kids have been making ravioli since they were one year old, as has my eighteen-year old niece, Cassie. After years of itching for the superstar role, Cassie’s now the leading lady of the pasta machine, rolling out the dough sheets like a pro.

     “The ravs” are the most coveted dish at our Thanksgiving table. We eat turkey and all of the traditional American fare as well, but our ravioli are the piece de resistance. Every year, my mom worries that we won’t have enough, but we always do. Maybe someone’s looking down on us from above, making sure we have just what we need.

     My Nana Parmigiani could make homemade noodles in her sleep. She didn’t have a food processor or a pasta machine. She had a rolling pin, a big wooden board, and some serious upper-body strength. I was lucky enough to have my Nana live with us during my teenage years. She was a special lady, always ready for a good laugh or a heart-to-heart chat, always there to spice things up in the kitchen. My brother and I loved her homemade macaroni, but I never picked up the recipe.

     Last weekend, when we made the ravs, we had leftover dough, as usual. As we have in the past, we used it to make some homemade noodles for the kids’ lunch. What a treat. A few days later, I was getting ready to make a pot of chicken soup for my Shaia who was home sick from school. She said to me - ”Mom, let’s make homemade noodles for the soup.”   I didn’t really feel like going through all the trouble, especially with a broken dishwasher. I imagined it to be a mess, and I told Shaia that I didn’t have the recipe.

    “3 eggs, 3 cups of flour and some salt,” she said matter of factly. “A little olive oil too. And you add water as you need it to get the dough to come together.”

     Bug-eyed, I asked her. “How did you know that?”

     “I watched Nunny,” she said.

     In that moment, I was so glad I included my kids around the kitchen island to help make the ravioli.

     Sure enough, Shaia was right on the recipe. The noodles were perfect, even if they were a bit thick. Next time we will roll them a little thinner. It wasn’t that messy. I’ve included some pics of Shaia watching my mom, intently, as she makes the dough for the ravioli and also some of our homemade soup noodle day.

Here’s the recipe:

Homemade Noodles

3C flour
3 eggs
A pinch of salt
1T olive oil.
1/8 to 1/4 C water

Combine eggs flour and salt in food processor. Turn it on and drizzle oil in as it’s mixing. Add water by the tablespoon until the dough comes together like a ball inside the machine. Take the dough out and work it with your hands into a smooth ball.
Flour your work surface.
Cut the dough into pieces that are a good size for you to roll into sheets.
Slice the sheets into noodles of whatever size you like. We did about ½ inch thick.
Let them dry for about 30 minutes.
Note: These take much less time to cook than dry pasta. As soon as the start floating around, taste them. They will probably be done.

     Visit my blog next week for the Thanksgiving ravioli recipe. My mother has given me permission to share it one here. I was shocked that she’d allow it. Her reasoning was this.

     “Nobody’s gonna make it taste like ours anyway.”

     She makes me laugh so much. I love her.

     But, I bet you can make them if you try.

     Until next week, eat happy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

WARNING!!! RANT INCOMING. Why I'm annoyed at a local grocery store.

     Usually I write positive, heartfelt, pieces about things that inspire me. Food, people, travel, the theatre. Today I’m going to rant about a place that’s been bugging me for awhile.

     It’s a local grocery store that I won't name.

     It’s Giant Eagle’s snobby sister.

     Why can’t you hire some baggers, UNNAMED GROCERY STORE ? I don’t want to spend fifteen minutes in the checkout lane while your friendly cashiers study every third item they ring up from my order. I’m not interested in sharing recipes in the grocery lane. I do that on my blog. Not only do they ask what I’m going to use the Thai coconut curry sauce for, but they then take forever to file it neatly into just the right cheap plastic bag. One cashier and one bagger for each cash register. That’s all I’m asking for.

     In most people’s opinions, this UNNAMED GROCERY STORE’S prices are high compared to other stores. In fact, in April 2015, ranked Giant Eagle stores in general among the grocery store chains with the “worst prices in the nation.” With such high prices, this store should be able to afford to pay baggers. Give a high school kid a job for goodness sakes! Quit spending profit to pay the tuxedo-clad piano player who’s pounding out Beethoven’s 9th and clogging up lane 15. Use the surplus cash to pay a bagger.  Your less fancy counterpart doesn’t have a string section in the dairy aisle, but guess what they have.

     There’s a laundry list of reasons that this particular grocery store gets on my nerves.  I’ll point out just a few.

     There are always at least a bazillion workers re-stocking in every section. They tote extra-wide bins that are nearly impossible to navigate a shopping cart around. Less stockers. More baggers.

     Every lane has a ridiculous amount of minutiae piled on brand new fashionably rustic shelves, obstructing cart traffic and causing lines of shoppers to develop on either side of these super-practical things they’re offering. Things like raspberry scented dog toothpaste or toaster covers with Justin Bieber’s face silk screened onto them. Can’t live without these things.

     There’s no great magazine section and very few greeting cards to pick from, but UNNAMED GROCERY STORE sells ostrich eggs.  Giant alien-looking eggs that are draped in fake straw and marketed to shoppers in farmy-looking yellowish baskets that are probably made in China. Why such a crappy greeting card section, UNNAMED GROCERY STORE? Is your target market seriously more likely to buy an ostrich egg than a birthday card?

     Just quit purchasing the weird stuff. Quit stopping up my shopping trip with grumpy stockers. Quit training your cashiers to allay their customers’ annoyance with goofy chatter.

     Hire baggers.

     End of rant.

     DISCLAIMER: In no way am I bashing someone for buying an ostrich egg. I like exotic foods. Also, raspberry dog toothpaste is fine. Justin Bieber toaster covers – not cool.




Friday, November 13, 2015


     It is finally here! Book three and the final installment of the Whisper Trilogy is set to be released in December. To commemorate its release I am offering a free signed copy of War and Wonder to the first 10 people who review Wake, book 2, starting today.

     Here's the link for both Whisper and Wake on Amazon. If you haven't read them yet, get to it! The end is coming!

Whisper, Book 1 -

Wake, Book 2 -

     After you've posted a review on Amazon, just send me a message on Facebook or tweet me, and I'll make sure to get your address so I can send you a free copy of War and Wonder! It's easy! Hurry! Ten reviews. Ten free books.

     Have fun reading and reviewing!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Farm to Table - Southern Italian Style. Simply a Way of Life.



     If I tried to explain the term “Farm to Table” to my family in Southern Italy, they would probably end up on the floor, laughing at the concept of this “new trend.” Why? Because "Farm to Table" is not something trendy or hip to them. It’s simply how they’ve survived for decades. They probably don't use the phrase “locally sourced,” and I’m sure they don’t refer to their foods as “organic,” but when you sit at their table for a meal, you can bet your bottom dollar that every bite you take is as natural and fresh as it gets. After all, they grow or raise nearly everything they eat.

     On one visit to my grandmother’s relatives in the mountain town of Tronca near Reggio Calabria, my cousin, Antonio took my brother and I and our families on a walking tour of his “gardens,” as he called them. We strolled from the broken cement steps of his humble home, past apricot trees that hung heavy with fruit outside his kitchen window. Lemon, prickly pear, and olive trees dotted either side of his property, lacing the air with pungent sweetness. Continuing along a gravel road where random chickens crossed without hurry, Antonio spoke in heavy dialect of his passion – farming.

     We came to a fenced in area that housed rows upon rows of plants. Tomatoes of every variety, squash, peppers, beans, basil, all types of greens and lettuces. I could go on and on. Our mouths hung open, and our eyes bulged at the abundance of goodness at our feet. We walked up and down the rows, admonishing the children not to pick the pretty red tomatoes. At one point, my brother innocently asked Antonio a question.

     “Do you sell this at market?”

     Antonio pushed a breath of laughter through his nose and shook his head.

     “Sell it? No, no.” He wagged his finger at my brother’s face then gestured toward his plants. “This is how I feed my family.”

     I suddenly remembered the overturned milk crates I’d marveled at earlier on Antonio’s rooftop and the ones lining the stairwells in his house. They were blanketed with dried tomatoes, dried herbs. The jars that stood in his cellar were filled with an assortment of vegetables – the vegetables he’d tended to with his own wrinkled hands. He and his wife had surely picked and jarred and stored. Why? Not to be trendy. No, no.

     To feed their family.

     Beyond the vast array of vegetables and herbs in his garden stood a rickety whitewashed building. The closer we moved toward it, the riper the waft of animal waste became. Our children began to moan over the stink, and the skin around Antonio’s black eyes wrinkled with amusement.

     “Those are the pigs and the goats,” he told us. He went on to explain that he raises the animals to make sausage, salami, cheeses, and other things. As a sing-song braying and snorting lit the air, I thought of the delicious mortadella and tomato sandwich I’d eaten on my last visit to Tronca. I remembered thinking that the mortadella tasted different from what I was used to at home. Fresher. Brighter.

     No wonder.

     It was “Farm to Table.”

      Because it was on the way back, Antonio led us past the rubble of rock that was once my grandmother’s childhood home. We climbed the craggy hill, me in non-functional high wedge sandals, my young children in flip flops, and explored among the uneven ruins. Antonio explained that my grandmother had lived in the two or three room structure with no electricity or running water. She and her family had had to walk down to the stream once every few weeks or so to bathe. I didn’t ask how they’d kept warm though the mountain winters.

     For all of the nights of my youth, when I’d lain beside my grandmother in her bed, listening to the stories of her childhood as I drifted off to sleep, she had never once told me anything about these hardships. She’d talked endlessly about her family’s farm – the goats, the pigs, the harvesting. She talked about celebrations and food. Always food.

     Maybe she’d purposely chosen not to talk about the impoverished nature of her early life, but I don’t think that was it. I think that she was just sharing the essence of her spirit – hard work, family, and the joy of breaking bread together – these things were what mattered to her.

     I loved her stories, and I loved her food. I’ll never forget picking green beans at her side in the garden. We’d wash them, snap the ends off, and she’d make a waxy green bean salad with olive oil and chopped garlic that was to die for.  Even though she’d told me hundreds of stories about her family’s farm in Italy, my adolescent mind couldn’t fathom how she’d managed to create a little slice of Eden in the heart of the city. Everything around her Pittsburgh row house was cement and gravel, but Nana’s backyard burst with the green of her garden. She even had a grape arbor that my brother and I loved to climb when we were kids. My grandfather made wine from the grapes, which was used as wine vinegar for years after his death in the nineteen-seventies. Farm to table, right? My grandmother was a forward-thinker.

      Seeing Antonio’s “garden,” with its rows upon rows of vegetables, connected the dots for me. I understood that my grandmother must have arrived in Pittsburgh, a place she knew nothing of, and just done what came naturally to her.

     She planted a garden.


     Not to sell produce or to be hip.

     No, no, of course not.
     With her overworked hands and strong arms, she dug up the plot of land that was barely a tenth of what she’d had to work with in Italy. She sifted and raked and prepared the ground. She sowed the seeds and tended to the plants. She created a lush slice of paradise within the urban boundaries of her new home. I bet the garden stirred happy memories for her, but that wasn’t why she cared for it.  

     She did it to feed her family.

     In memory of that wonderful day with Antonio and my grandmother’s family, I would like to share my recipe for Tronca pasta – a dish that my cousin whipped up in no time when we showed up, unannounced on her doorstep one August afternoon. I will never forget how my children happily gobbled down helping after helping, while my cousin Carmela watched them contentedly, living to refill their bowls.  When we got back to Pittsburgh, I worked hard to recreate the dish, and, although it’s close, nothing can truly compare to the freshness and simplicity of eating in Italy. Nevertheless, my children cheer when Tronca pasta is what’s for dinner.

Tronca Pasta


1 lb short pasta – our favorite to use with this is a specialty pasta called Spaccatelle. My cousin Carmela sent us home from Italy with a few bags of this pasta. It’s hard to find here, but some Italian specialty stores have it. Either way, this dish works with penne, rigatoni, etc… Any short pasta will do.
2 T olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
A large handful of fresh basil, torn
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs ground sweet Italian sausage, not in casings
2 28 oz cans tomato puree
Locatelli Romano Cheese for topping


Boil the pasta until it is al dente
Saute the fennel, onion, garlic in olive oil with salt, pepper, and basil
Once the vegetables are translucent, add the sausage and cook until browned
Add the sauce and let it simmer for at least 30 min and up to 2 hours
Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and top with some grated Locatelli.


I also wanted to share this picture of the fountain that delivers mountain fresh drinking water to the town of Valanidi, where my father lived as an infant. The water fountain remains in the square outside of his father's family's property. It's a meeting place for old men and women to gossip and a place where young people gather to flirt in the evenings. I spent many moments alone at this fountain during my last trip to Italy, when over twenty family members, including all of my first cousins, traveled from Pittsburgh to Calabria together. Battaglias from America, France and Italy came together in a magical experience. Every night, there were at least 45 people around the dinner table. There were moments when I was overwhelmed by the joy I felt at having my entire family - American, Italian and French - all together in the birthplace of my father. When I needed a breath of fresh air or a second to pinch myself, I escaped to this fountain, where I always found a measure of peace in its constant flow.