Whenever I write about food, I realize how lucky I am to have been taught by my grandparents, two incredible cooks who handed down an amazing repertoire of tried-and-true recipes and the knack for turning out a filling meal even when the cupboard is pretty bare.
So, the other day, pinched for time and lacking the ingredients for all my standby lunchtime fare, I made pizza. Not your classic pizza, mind you, and a far cry from the sizzling pies my grandparents used to sell from their stand at Old Orchard Beach. For starters, I didn’t have yeast to make the dough, or even a spoonful of sauce to put on it. What I had was a whole wheat tortilla, which I toasted just enough to crisp up. I topped it with a few thin tomato slices, some shredded fresh Mozzarella, and a drizzling of rosemary-infused olive oil. Then, I popped it under the broiler just long enough for the cheese to soften and the edges to brown, added a few basil leaves and salt and pepper, and lunch was served.
No doubt my grandfather would have had a thing or two to say about my “pizza.” But my grandmother would have applauded. You see, the interesting thing about my grandparents is that they had completely different approaches in the kitchen, two unique styles that totally worked.
My grandfather Cirino (pronounced Cheer-ee-no), left Sicily in 1920 when he was 15 years old and booked passage to America. After settling in a Massachusetts mill town, where his name was pronounced Charlie, he worked as a baker and met my grandmother, Theresa, whose family had emigrated from Naples.
In the old country, a hot-tempered Sicilian and a northerner with a contagious laugh would have been less likely to marry. But here the distinction between two Italians paled, and my grandfather, missing his homeland and still speaking broken English, found my grandmother’s friendliness comforting. She, in turn, was charmed by the attention of this ruggedly handsome young man with charcoal hair and blue eyes. They raised two boys, saw them marry, and welcomed seven grandchildren. And all the while, though the intrinsic difference in their personalities prevailed, they shared a common goal: to provide good food for the family. They loved to feed us.
My grandfather did the baking, his penchant for perfection evident in the precise spacing of the pastry lattice on his blueberry pie. And in the silkiness of the chocolate and vanilla puddings he cooked, cooled, and whipped by hand, then spooned into pastry bags to pipe into crispy cannoli shells just before serving. The result of all this fastidiousness was perfection: cakey cookie ball angelettis coated with a lemony frost, golden fried strufoli piled high on a plate and drizzled with honey. His recipes were classic Italian, and he never varied them.
My grandmother did plenty of cooking, too. Savory main courses that were mostly cooked on the stovetop and, like my grandfather’s creations, consistently mouthwatering, though she never metered ingredients in a cup or a spoon. Measuring in handfuls and pinches, she’d whisk seasoned breadcrumbs and grated Romano into a half dozen eggs and pour the batter into a frying pan of crisped potato slices. She’d drop marble-size meatballs into her simmering chicken-and-pasta soup, tuck spinach and mozzarella into her scrambled pork pie.
In the end, my grandparents did much more than feed a family’s appetite. Together they showed us how to follow convention and throw out all the rules — and left us with liberty in knowing there is merit in both.