Just as I got used to the weird, off-balance silence of having one kid in college, she came back. And Husband. And teenage son (from school, that is.) They all stayed at home one day. And then the next and then the next. Days passed huddling around the television watching the news, hearing panicked-yet-professional reports from newscasters and meteorologist about this catastrophic growing (and staying strong!) storm called Irma:
We were doomed. Florida was going underwater, after everything got blown away to bits, Big Bad Wolf style.
One of my sisters took her dog, got in the car, and headed north. Way north. D.C. I-ain’t-taking-no-chances north. So did 1.3 million other Floridians- the biggest evacuation in the state’s history.
I can’t say I blame them. After all, mandatory evacuations had been issued to 8 counties. Anchormen had taken off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves, quite literally. Our pretty, statuesque meteorologist, Lissette, suddenly looked pail, her lower lip slightly quivered. She mentioned having slept over at the station. She mentioned missing her pretty daughters, the ones she always posted on Instagram wearing matching sundresses. She mentioned her husband putting hurricane shutters OVER their hurricane-proof windows.
I have hurricane-proof windows.
When we remodeled the house sixteen years ago, it was the single most expensive investment. Burly men carried bunker-sturdy panels of double glass while chatting to each other in Italian in between puffs of unfiltered Camels. I remember being impressed by their coordination: the lifting, the walking, the talking, and the smoking. The fact that it was in a Romance language certainly elevated the experience. And the sharp jaws, all lined with stubble before stubble became chic. That seemed part of their uniform.
“You no worry, miss. You and de baby will be so safe with dees now,” Vitto promised. De baby was my soon-to-be-born son, who’d turned my belly into a sphere freak show.
I knew Vitto by name because he was the one always fucking things up.
“Fai attenzione, Vitto!”
“Vitto! Non lasciare cadere il bicchiere, per amore di Dio!”
“Lentamente…lentamente….No più lento, Vitto! No!!!”
Ya, you had to feel a bit sorry for Vitto, really.
But even though he wasn’t as skilled in the hurricane-glass installation business as his brothers (I assumed they were brothers, they all had the same gorgeous eyes) they seemed not minding having him around. He knew the best jokes, or, at least, fool-proof ways to make the others break into unbridled laughter. His English was apparently the most advanced, so aside from encouraging phrases directed at my belly (“is gonna be a stronga boy, eh? Molto forte!”) he also explained the lock mechanisms, the screen system, and other critical information one would need to know in the event of a hurricane.
Like the one barreling towards South Florida now.
It had been a while but I decided to trust Vitto and his brothers. Irmageddon was approaching. I had water. I had batteries. And I had faith in Italian craftsmanship.
It turned out I also had a lot of free time waiting for the storm to make landfall. So I baked. And I cooked.
Peanut butter cookies, brownies, cumin-marinated chicken and orange-infused pork tenderloin. There was also plenty, and I mean plenty, of pasta. That bump Vitto pointed at is now a constantly ravishing fifteen-year old boy. Pasta is a favorite of his and he is quite flexible with what goes in it. Pesto, seafood, bolognese, and vongole are top picks, but for all the Irma craziness, which thankfully only took a few beloved trees, I found comfort in a classic basic spaghetti al pomodoro. Sometimes the sweetest and simplest things are the ones that help make us feel safe, happy and molto forte.
You know, my husband and I said, way back when, we did this for our kids. They were little back then. Like, really little. They wouldn’t sit through a Passover Seder, the long, tedious amounts of reading, praying, and singing I’d been subjected to as a kid. I remember feeling that night to be endless, even if I had the coveted spot of sitting in between my mom and my dad.
And don’t get me wrong. My dad was quite the show man, and Pessach was no exception. No one could sing Dayenu faster than him. No one could storytell like he could. Glasses of wine stopped being counted, heck, in fact, we had a huge plastic bin filled to the rim with homemade Sangria providing a constant flow for those longing to remain sweetly and happily inebriated.
But there was still tradition. My father was still, after all, the son of Itzaak Abbady. And even though I never met my grandfather, I knew he was a hard core traditionalist. I’d heard from my dad, the rebel and adventurer of the family, as he sizzled up bacon on Saturday mornings in our Venezuelan home.
“Your saba would turn in his grave,” he say with mischief in his eye, nodding towards the pan as he flipped over a piece of bacon. I never knew if he was serious or not. I grew up on a steady diet of Jewish law rule-breaking, but, when it came to Passover, the Haggadah was pulled out and read from front to end.
I was always starving throughout it all. Matzoh, I tell you, isn’t much of an appetite repellent.
So when my husband and I found ourselves in the role of hosting the Seder, we turned to The Rugrats, our 2-year old’s favorite cartoon show. They, apparently, covered the whole thing in 32 bright and funny picture book pages.
That first Seder was a huge success. We cut up an ocean-themed shower curtain, nailed it over the front door, and announced everyone would cross the Red Sea. Craft paper covered our front entrance, paint brushes were handed out, and instructions shouted: “Here! Paint! Mark the house so God will pass over us!”
When we read about the 10 plagues, toy frogs and wild animals whirled across the table at each other, making sure Eliyahu’s cup didn’t get knocked over.
So, here’s the secret:
If you include a shower curtain, red paint, and toys in your Passover Seder, people pay attention, people come back.
The funny thing is that, as you have also figured, kids grow up. From babies to teens, ours, and everyone else’s grew in front of Eliyahu. But the Rugrats still reigned during Passover Seder. The Rugrats, actually, are still in high demand.
This year my daughter will graduate from high school, but in between making her list for what she will need for college and figuring out what classes she will take once there, she is still a killer frog thrower. Knows how to zonk one right on her dad’s forehead.
Those things hurt, you know.
They are small and plastic and surprisingly pick up speed, efficiently bypassing plates of chariest and half a rosemary-infused lamb. My husband may flinch at first impact, but he does what makes this night even more special, he laughs, and immediately throws one right back.
That’s all you can do. It’s a war zone of flying plastic frogs at our Seder. Attack or be attacked.
We keep a fresh supply of plastic frogs handy. Next year they’ll all come back again.
This is not how I wanted you to learn of Amatrice. No. Not this way. Not this footage of distraught relatives, of broken families. Of rubble. Of desperation. Of so many lost lives.
I want you to learn of the Amatrice I first discovered as a recent college graduate in 1992, the Amatrice that greeted a young, curious foodie exploring the culinary treasures nestled in the smallest Italian towns.
“Where to next?” my traveling partner had asked, and I had replied, “Amatrice,” with my finger set on the tiny spot half-way down our weathered Italian map.
The earthquake that hit Italy on August 24, 2016 destroyed most of the town I visited almost twenty-five years ago. “Amatrice is not here anymore,” the mayor was quoted as saying in response to the earthquake that registered a 6.2 magnitude. I, like the rest of the world, stopped at the gravity of those words, wondering, how can an entire town be gone, just like that?
My partner did not know of this town, I could tell by the confused look he gave me as my finger froze over a web of lines and names. But he could tell from my smile that I did. Because even back then, in an era before Tripadvisor or Yelp or Google, I did my research of where to eat what, when. I did this recognizance old school- namely scouring through a dog-eared copy of The Lonely Planet and by asking as many locals as I could in broken Italian (courtesy of my 9th grade language teacher, Signora DiLeo) :
“Dove è il posto migliore per mangiare?” Where is the best place to eat?
The failproof source to ask were old men sitting at the piazza, chatting and chain smoking. Every town had them. They’d glow at the opportunity to dazzle a pretty young Americana and would always steer me well.
“Amatrice! Amatrice!”, these chosen men had answered in unison, their face falling a bit when they noticed The Boyfriend staring protectively by the fontana over there. But they had all been young once and surely in love, and of course, still knew how to eat well, so they nodded in approval at him and continued, “Prove la pasta!”
They were right. Spaghetti all’amatriciana is a delight and, as it turns out, quite simple to make.
Guanciale (pork jowl), is one of the local ingredients used in this dish. It is hard to come by here in the States, but pancetta serves as a worthy replacement. Bucatini, also known as perciatelli, is a thicker spaghetti with a hole running through it, and is the pasta traditionally used. The long strand is perfect for absorbing the rich, smoky flavors of sun and meat.
This is what I remember of Amatrice. This splendid meal I had on a bright sunny day, amongst friendly, kind people with the man I most loved and still most love today. It is simple, pure comfort food, what one is craving in sadness and happiness as well.
What I want to do is surprise Husband with an elaborate dinner, one that involved hours of wrapping homemade puff pastry around fancy cuts of meats stuffed with equally extravagant aphrodisiac delicacies like oysters or asparagus or shaved truffles.
Of course, I’d wear the strappy stilettos.
“What strappy stilettos? You only wear those nasty slip-on sneaker things. You always say your feet weren’t designed for heels.”
Ignore that. That is my child in the background.
I do have strappy stilettos. They are midnight black and come equipped with thin sparkly straps that secure themselves around my slender (yes, slender) feet with the same expertise Christian Grey would secure Anastasia in his Red Room. There is no safe word with these shoes.
That’s how I’d start the evening.
“What about us? What are we having for dinner?”
That’s the other kid. Excuse me while I kick a box of cereal in that direction.
The house would be aglow in romantic scented candles.
“Fire hazard, Mom. Gosh. Don’t you know ANYTHING???”
That’s the sixteen year-old. Of course, that’s the sixteen year-old.
“And you can’t do scented anything, remember? Cause YOU…GET… HEADACHES!!!”
Okay. That was really, really loud. Where was I? The house aglow in romantic, scented candles. Me in sexy shoes.
I’d be wearing a silk something or other, something to show off that amazing flat stomach.
…One second please.
“STOP THAT LAUGHING! It was flat before YOU PEOPLE RUINED IT!!!!!!!”
Anyhow, there’d be smooth jazz playing, maybe some Miles Davis Autumn Leaves…
“Hey, isn’t that the song you wanted papi to learn to play on the saxophone you bought him? The sax that’s been sitting there gathering dust for a hundred years?”
Ignore them. As I said, Autumn Leaves would be playing in the background. I’d serve dinner. I’d look amazing. Husband would gaze into my eyes and…
“Ewwwww…get a room!”
“BTW papi isn’t here, remember?”
So they are in stereo now?
Okay fine. I’ll make this quick:
I look hot. I’ve made this fancy dinner. There’s dim lighting and sexy music.
There’s no children. There’s no children. There’s no children.
There’s just Husband and I. Maybe he’s gotten me roses or a gift or both (I don’t need it, I don’t need any of it, just him, but, hey, it’s not like I am going to say no) and we gaze into each other’s eyes and smile and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
But here is how it really goes guys:
Husband is off in some other country for work, as usual. These kids, good God, these kids that I sometimes wanna kill (in the most loving way) are here. And they’re hungry. And dinner isn’t ready yet. So I’ve gotta do something quick. Something simple. I’ll throw a steak on the grill, make some mashed potatoes, offer up a nice green salad.
“We hate salad, Mother…”
Okay, whatever. Hopefully one day they’ll eat salad. One day after meals and meals and meals of watching their mother eat salad, something will click and they’ll eat a salad.
And then dessert, because after all, it’s still Valentine’s Day.
I need something to commemorate my love to my man, albeit apart and long distance. Something that would follow that amazing entrée I’ve made up in my head.
I’m thinking crepes.
Don’t be afraid!
Crepes are easy, really.
You can super cheat and buy them premade. (I’ve super cheated, yes I have.)
Or you can whip up a batch and keep them in the fridge- just pull them out whenever you want. They’ll last up to two weeks like that.
Raspberries go great with crepes and feel fancy. And you’re gonna love this: all you do is spread your favorite raspberry jam inside the crepe, roll it up, and sprinkle the outside with raspberries, confectioner’s sugar, and fresh whipped cream. Seriously! That’s it!
“Wait, did you say crepes?”
“Yes, yes! We want crepes! Can we have crepes?”
Oh no. They’re still here?
“Can we just have dessert for dinner, Mom?”
“Ooooh, yeah, dessert for dinner! Dessert for dinner! Dessert for dinner!”
Throw everything into the blender (start with the wet ingredients first.)
Blend until smooth, about 1 minute.
Let batter sit for at least 30 minutes. If you are organized and plan ahead, letting it sit overnight in an airtight container is the die-hard way to go (just mix it up when ready to use)! But don’t worry. I am unorganized and impulsive when it comes to food cravings which leads me to wanting crepes RIGHT NOW, i.e., letting the batter rest a half an hour works just fine.
Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.
Lightly coat with butter or Pam.
Add 1/3 cup of the batter and swirl it around so it coats the whole skillet.
Cook for 2 minutes..
Use a spatula to carefully flip. Cook 1 minute.
Slide crepe off and repeat, coating pan each time.
You can keep crepes warm in a preheated oven or just store them in the refrigerator in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, taking out what you need as you go. To heat, just microwave on high for 10 seconds.
Use 4 crepes (2 per person.)
Pick your favorite raspberry jam. Add 2 teaspoons in center of warm crepe and spread all around. Roll up crepe.
Sprinkle with fresh raspberries and confectioner’s sugar and add a dollop of whipped cream.
If you want it super fancy, include a sprig of mint for extra color. Repeat.
The first person I met who wore bright, short silk scarves tied tightly around her tan neck was Signora DiLeo. She also pulled off elegant button-down blouses with jeans and loafers flawlessly. It was back in the 80’s, when I was a teenager trying hard to navigate through the many ridiculous messages thrown my way about beauty. Aside from big hair and bigger shoulder pads, that included electric blue mascara, Sassoon jeans (worn two sizes too small), and miniskirts, the shorter the better. When I walked into my 6th period class of Italiano 1, however, and saw Signora DiLeo’s effortless elegance and class, I knew everything Seventeen Magazine was screaming at me to do was wrong.
Signora DiLeo’s room was in the farthest corner of the second floor of my high school’s sprawled out campus, away from the main traffic of noise: girls crying over latest heartbreaks, boys playing basketball well past break time, teachers exchanging pleasantries on their way to the copy room. We heard none of that in her hidden alcove. We were privy only to Signora DiLeo’s singsong voice as she conjugated verbs.
Eventually, we arrived at the verb “eat” and Signora DiLeo’s friendly hazel eyes brightened.
“Questa settimana impareremo sui cibi italiani!” She announced, her words gliding quickly and comfortably in her native tongue.
“To eat: mangiare!” She proclaimed, gesticulating with her slender hand.
We all understood this much Italian and even the boys in the back, the ones that were always joking around and being disruptive, suddenly grew attentive at the subject of food, which really sounds quite beautiful in Italian.
For that week we learned to conjugate the verb “to eat”:
Lui, lei mangia
We learned how to order food in Italian: antipasto, primo, secondi, and of course, dolce. We learned about pasta: agnolotti , bucatini, conchiglie, and pappardelle, to name a few. When we were delirious and dumbfounded by those options, we learned about the sauces: arrabiata, bolognese, burro e salvia, fra diavolo, marinara, ragú, puttanesca.
“And then, of course, there’s pomodoro, tomato sauce,” Signora DiLeo whispered. “The best sauce. Simple.”
She raised her chin and closed her eyes for a second, falling back into a happy memory that I assumed included this sauce.
“Tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and of course, time,” she told us, her eyes still closed. “È davvero così semplice. Le cose migliori della vita sono le cose più semplici. The best things in life are the most simple things.”
She translated the last part, for good measure. This was a lesson she didn’t want us to miss.
When Friday came around, we got a taste of Signora DiLeo’s cooking as well as her wisdom. The hallway leading to her room was enveloped in a luring scent of onions and garlic simmering in olive oil, making the whole school wish they had signed up for Italianio 1. Signora DiLeo stood in the front of the classroom, her stylish outfit covered up by a spotless white apron with the Italian flag flanked across the front and, just to hone in on the point, the proclamation, Italia!, scrawled underneath it in vibrant red. She was stirring sizzling onions over a portable burner that had magically appeared in the front of her room.
Signora DiLeo explained the steps involved on how to make the easiest of all Italian culinary treasures: salsa di pomodoro, pronouncing each ingredient carefully as she added it: olio d’oliva, cipolla, aglio, pomodoro, una presa di sale , una presa di zucchero.
When she was done, she pulled out bowls that she filled with spaghetti and ladled up pomodoro sauce for us to eat. I’m not sure where or how she made spaghetti, but I do remember the sauce. The sauce was memorable. The sauce was magic. The sauce was elegant, classy, and sophisticated, just like Signora DiLeo.
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes (if you find San Marzano tomatoes, use those!)
½ teaspoon sugar
salt, to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat up olive oil and sauté onions and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring every so often for 10-15 minutes. The onions should get a caramelized look to them.
Add remaining ingredients, raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring once in a while, crushing up tomatoes with back of a wooden spoon.
When sauce is done, you can add fresh basil (3-4 leaves, torn) and/or ¼ cup heavy cream.