Tag Archive | "Nonna"

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck

(Great) Grandparents, Crab Pasta, and The Guy Who Used to Sell Seafood from an Ice Cream Truck


My grandparents bring a certain magic with them wherever they go. It’s the kind of magic that comes with 85 years of living, an impeccable memory, and so many stories to tell that they jump at you before they can even walk through the door. One minute you’re talking about traffic on the Verrazano bridge, the next they’re telling you about the year it was completed, how they were still living uptown across the street from the Knickerbocker Brewery, my grandmother practicing English with her upstairs neighbor so she could help my dad with his homework. Lately, I just want to sit with them and soak up everything. They have so much in them—stories, skills, recipes, everything—that I often panic at the thought of letting that all slip away, undocumented and one day gone. And I don’t care how many times they tell the same story, because a new detail is revealed with each telling.

Such is the case with pasta and crabs. We’ve heard my grandmother tell a story about bringing blue crabs home one night and leaving them in the kitchen to cook the next day. The story goes that they woke up the next morning, and the crabs were all over the kitchen, climbing the walls, on top of the refrigerator, in the bathroom. My grandfather spent the morning chasing them down with gloves and tongs, everyone laughing and screaming and forgetting what they were going to do with them in the first place.

That’s the most we’d heard of the crab story, until last weekend. By an unexpected twist of fate, our whole family was in NJ for the day. Husband Joe (Joe S.) and Brother Joe (Joe G.) were scheming a crab bisque recipe first thing Sunday morning when our grandparents appeared on the front porch for a surprise visit.

After much excitement and cuddling between Nonna and my niece Sofia (they’re overwhelmed with joy at being great-grandparents), Joe S. and Joe G. unveiled the crab bisque plans. Never mind the fact that they don’t know what a bisque is. Talk of crab immediately evoked the “runaway crabs in the kitchen” story. Only this time, we got two new, crucial details:

When Nonno finally pulled the crabs off the walls, they made a pasta sauce with them.


They got the crabs from the guy who drove around Brooklyn selling local seafood from a truck. Like the ice cream man, only with crabs, clams, oysters, and other Godly creations. Can you imagine? Talk about a Brooklyn that is no more…

With the story in full force, we had to make the crab pasta sauce. Bisque Schmisque. We had Nonna right here, eager to revive a dish she hadn’t made in decades. Bisque who? And what perfect timing—we got to use our homemade sauce! Here’s the recipe, straight from Nonna, with a little help from the Joes. I stood back and discussed the philosophy of life with Sofia, who, at three months old, is quite wise. I did break for photo ops, of course.

Spaghetti with Crab Tomato Sauce
1 dozen blue crabs
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large white onion, sliced into moons
salt and pepper to taste
1 32-ounce jar tomato puree
dried or fresh oregano to taste
dried or fresh basil to taste
1 pound spaghetti

First, wash the crabs. If they’re still alive and kicking, submerge them in ice water. The ice will sedate them so you can handle them without losing a finger. Leave the crabs whole and scrub off any visible dirt. A few rounds of rinsing will get rid of any hidden gunk.

While the crabs are soaking, prepare your sauce.Coat the bottom of a very large pot (big enough to hold the crabs) with olive oil. Add chopped garlic and sliced onions. Season with salt and pepper.  When the onions begin to soften, stir in the tomato puree. Season with oregano, basil and more salt and pepper to taste. Leave everything to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors start to combine.

Once the crabs are calm and clean, plop them into the sauce. Be careful! Use tongs to avoid getting splashed with boiling hot sauce. At this point, Joe G. covered the pot and shook it to coat the crabs in sauce. You can do that, or just mix them with a giant wooden spoon.

Now just leave the pot to boil so the crab flavor blends with the sauce, about 30 minutes, on low to medium heat. When the sauce is about done, cook the spaghetti. I’ll spare you these steps if you already know how. If you’re still working on your pasta-cooking skills, try these great instructions. Remove the crabs from the pot and toss the spaghetti with half of the sauce. Use the remaining sauce to top each plate of pasta before serving. We ate the crabs separately, which was fun for about five minutes. In truth, eating whole crabs covered in tomato sauce is messy and annoying. I’m sure kids would love the opportunity to coat themselves in sauce, but we boring adults gave up pretty quickly. The rest of the dish was worth every trouble, though. Especially when eaten in a houseful of family.

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Figs are here!

Figs are here!

It’s that glorious time of year….figs have arrived! My parents just picked these plump babies from their tree in New Jersey. We wait all year for them, then spend August and September eating figs full-time. I feel a subtle obligation to make something fancy and then share my prolific recipe. But honestly, we never let them last long enough to even think of doing anything but eat them straight-up. You can certainly find a slew of creative recipes involving ricotta, honey, balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, etc. I’m sure they’re all swell, but listen: if you should ever find yourself in the presence of figs, do yourself a favor. Pop one in your mouth. That’s all you need. They’ll sing their own song, without the help of anyone.

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An Interlude with Nonna, Compliments of Artsparrow

An Interlude with Nonna, Compliments of Artsparrow

My pal Andrea is an amazing illustrator, cartoonist, and all-around kick-ass artist. She’s also a fellow Siciliana with stories to tell. Months ago, when Pomato Revival was still just a glimmer of an idea, I stumbled upon this cartoon on her blog. I still can’t get over how perfect it is. That floral housecoat, that plate of plain grandma cookies, the caring-yet-irrational temper, the busted up English…what’s there not to love?? Click on the image to enlarge it. Those conversation bubbles are not to be missed.



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Tomato Time Machine

Tomato Time Machine


We grew up on a lot of tomato sauce. Our basement cupboards housed rows and rows of jars that we canned every August to last for the year. My feelings toward the annual sauce-making weekend have taken a few turns throughout my life. The spectrum ranges from ecstatic to bored, embarrassed to hopeful. I’m teetering on hopeful now—that is, hopeful my parents will do it this year so I can pay attention for once.

I was around 3 years old the first time I helped. We lived in Brooklyn and I found my mom in the basement surrounded by bushels of plum tomatoes. It looked like mountains of red surrounding my little four-foot-ten mama—so many tomatoes that she actually agreed to let me help. She set me on the floor with a butter knife and a bowl, and I spent the day (or maybe 10 minutes—time moves so slowly when you’re 3) cutting tomatoes in half for the strainer. I remember it being hard work and envying the knife my older brother was using. I swore I could get more done with a real knife…and well, I had a point. But the thrill of being given an honest-to-God job was enough to keep me going.

I spent a few years ignoring the whole production, staying upstairs in the air conditioning while my parents sweated through the year’s batch. When adolescence hit I was mortified by the ordeal. I couldn’t believe my parents could be so old-fashioned, so out of touch with the fact that you could actually buy the stuff already made. Already seasoned, even! I remember cringing when a friend opened the cupboard looking for a water glass and discovered the stash.

Now I’m making up for lost time. My parents haven’t made sauce in a few years since they’re no longer feeding a houseful of kids. I have no idea how to do it. I’m starting to panic. I let the tradition pass me by without a care and now I have to convince them to bring it back. But we’ve set aside a weekend in August to make a few jars so I’m hopeful.

In anticipation of the comeback, I’ve been remembering my favorite sauce dishes growing up. We made the usual classics: pastas, pots of meatballs, stews, etc. One dish in particular, though, only emerged at my grandmother’s house: Tomato sauce with eggs. It was a weekday lunch more than anything—something you threw together for one or two people with a stale hunk of bread. This was a staple for my mom and her family in Sicily since they had easy access to tomatoes and eggs on the farm. And it’s one of the first things I learned to cook once I mastered the fine art of cracking an egg.

I hadn’t eaten sauce and eggs in a good 19 years—since my grandmother passed away—so I revived it for dinner this weekend. It’s amazing how smells and flavors can bring you back, even more than a song. I’d forgotten what it was like to sit at my Nonna Rosalia’s kitchen table until I made this. It got me thinking about the Last Supper painting that hung on the wall above her table; how she owned a tiny frying pan small enough for one egg; the way she always rubbed her hands together; the house coats she wore with the little blue flowers; that dish of Sicilian hard candies she kept in the closet; the can of concentrated lemonade in her freezer I never once saw her use.

I wasn’t expecting such a rush; I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten and how many memories were buried, just waiting for a reason to resurface. And so, this tomato-egg comeback is back in the rotation, with all its welcomed ghosts.

This dish is so easy, you’ll never need to consult a recipe after making it once:

Coat a frying pay with olive oil. Throw in some chopped garlic and onions.

Pour in a can or jar of crushed tomatoes (however much you want) once the onions and garlic begin to soften.

Season the tomatoes with basil, oregano, salt, and pepper to taste. You can add more olive oil if you’re so inclined.

When you get the sauce to your liking, crack an egg or two into the pan and immediately stir to break the yolk. You have to act fast to keep the egg from cooking into clumps rather than blending into the sauce.

Serve it with a plain loaf of Semolina bread or a baguette. We ate it with garlic bread but decided it’s better without any other flavors competing for attention. It’s also good straight-up, with a spoon.

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