Sunday Family Dinners:
In our Amsterdam family the Sunday routine consisted of going to the nine o’clock mass at St. Mike’s, purchasing the Sunday newspapers, and then heading over to our grandmother’s house to watch the TV Tournament Time bowling program, hosted by the popular local television weatherman, Howard Tupper. While Big John German or Skip Vigars was battling Joe Donato or Johnny Walthers in a televised three game match, my grandmother and aunts were busy as hell in the kitchen finishing the sauce they had begun cooking the evening before and preparing all the other components and courses that made up a Cinquanti family Sunday meal.
My father’s two sisters were physically large women and when the two of them and my grandmother were working in that same tiny kitchen there was no room for a fourth person to get in there. At noon, eleven of us gathered around a dining room table designed to seat a half–dozen to eat a three-course meal that began with homemade soup, either chicken with postine or Italian wedding, served piping hot. It could be a ninety-five degree day in August or a below freezing day in February, it didn’t matter. Hot homemade soup was always on the menu on Sunday’s at Gram’s house. My family loved to eat soup, not just because one of my aunts was a soup-making wizard but also because we were a clan that loved to slurp. When all of us got going on that soup at the same time, my grandmother’s 10’ x 12’ dining room sounded like the end of a drain cleaner demonstration.
As soon as the soup bowls emptied, huge platters of the main course would start appearing on that table. There was always a platter containing five-dozen meatballs, enough so that every person at the table could have at least five. My Aunt made a delicious meatball, unlike any I’ve ever tasted before or since. Fortunately, both my mom and the woman I have been married to for over 40 years also made their own versions of a terrific tasting meatball. The result is that I have spent my entire life in meatball heaven!
Along with the meatballs would come a platter containing 24 links of sweet Italian sausage purchased from Califano’s Market on the corner of Division and Clinton Streets. Alongside the sausage was the same number of braggiole, each still tied into tight little rolls with my grandmother’s white braggiole string. In our family, kids learned how to get a hot braggiole untied without burning your fingers long before we learned how to tie our shoes.
Once all the meat was on the table the pasta would be served in my grandmother’s huge pasta bowl, which could have doubled as a backyard wading pool. Every week that gigantic bowl was filled with five pounds of P&R Pasta. It might be rigatoni, ziti, the little shells, spaghetti or my personal favorite, the accordion-shaped macaroni’s. The third and final course was always a tossed salad, which my aunt seasoned by hand, rubbing the olive oil, red wine vinegar and spices into each lettuce leaf, black pitted olive, home grown tomato and cucumber with her thrice-washed fingers. Strangely, the Cinquanti’s of Leonard Street always ate their salad as the final and not the first course.
I still remember the taste of every dish on that Sunday table and the sounds and voices that were as much a part of those family meals as the delicious food. There would always be arguing, sometimes loud and long, lot’s of neighborhood gossip often spoken in Italian and lots and lots of laughing. One of my uncles would always tear apart a paper napkin and convert it into eyebrows and a beard that he’d stick on his face. He’d also stand up after filling his belly to the brim, unbuckle his pants and pull them down in front of us all to “get some room to breathe” as he would explain it.
“Give my baby another meatball, he’s a growing boy!” “Eat, please eat, there’s more in the kitchen!” “Finish your macaroni little Jerry, it’s a sin to leave ziti on your dish!” “Who’s on Ed Sullivan tonight?” And while all this is going on, my sweet grandmother is sitting off to the side with a huge smile on her face watching her beloved family gorge themselves with all this delicious food she had helped make. On her lap was a little bowl with a few pieces of pasta and maybe half a meatball. She would eat more later, after she was sure there was enough food for everyone else.