Tag Archive | "Nonno"

(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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Misadventures in Tomato Rearing (or, What Would Nonno Do?)

Misadventures in Tomato Rearing (or, What Would Nonno Do?)

I’ve been working on my own garden of sorts this summer. I originally had high hopes for planting in the ground, but I ended up with pots along the edge of our tiny urban “lawn” after a difference of opinions with my neighbor on who can plant where. Fine. I’ve moved on.

It started innocently enough, with some patio tomatoes and cucumbers from the hardware store. Nothing major, just low maintenance enough for my unruly life. They were doing well for a while, growing strong, sprouting flowers, keeping calm. Just like store-bought seedlings should, I suppose. Then the bad kids showed up, leaving nothing but poor examples in their wake.

My grandfather gave me a pot of tomato seedlings he’d grown from last year’s seeds. You could imagine my excitement at this prospect—ten direct descendants from his holy garden! I promptly set them up in their own pots, complete with support sticks for when they’d inevitably need them. And then the daydreaming began. I tend to do this: dreams of overflowing bowls of tomatoes, salads with cucumbers, tomatoes, an red onions. Sauce. Stew. Tomatoes and eggs. All from my little jungle out back. What a glorious summer it would be.

But things aren’t turning out quite like I’d planned. For one thing, they will not listen to me. They’re out of control, growing every which way, paying no mind to their neighboring plants—even their own tomato siblings in the pots next to them. They keep getting taller, demanding more water, more space, more support, and they refuse to flower. Finally, *finally,* a couple of them sprouted flowers this week. But I won’t get my hopes up. In the meantime, I’m tying more support sticks to those already there, which are no longer enough. I’m catering to their whims like a fretting first-time mother.

And even worse, they’re teaching their store-bought cousins that this behavior is okay. Our dear, once-well-behaved plum tomato plant is a disorderly mess. It grew so tall, so quickly, that the stem snapped under its own weight. That incident actually sparked a new brand of crazy. The stem that snapped was full of green tomatoes, so rather than giving it up for dead we thought, what would Nonno do? Channeling his unconventional resourcefulness, we rigged a support system–a cast of sorts, by tying thread tightly around the injured stem with the hope that it would survive. Half was already completely broken, but we were hopeful the rest of the stem would hold up. And damn, did it. Our little thread cast was a miracle healer. This plant never knew it was injured. It’s been blooming and sprouting tomatoes more than any of its intact cousins. We’re so proud of him.

As for the rest of these guys, they just won’t give us any tomatoes. What’s going on?? Anyone else having this problem? Or are we just bad parents? My grandfather isn’t having this problem. Maybe it’s our soil. I’ll have to consult Google, I suppose. The fruitless chaos just continues to grow…

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The Garden is in Bloom—Make Good Use of Those Road Signs

The Garden is in Bloom—Make Good Use of Those Road Signs

I’d like to introduce you to my grandpa Sal. Nonno Sal moved to Manhattan from Sicily in 1954. He lived alone on 92nd Street, working, saving money, and creating a home for my grandma and dad until they immigrated over 2 years later. He worked in road construction, laying tar to build the city streets. He recently told me that he built the roads for the terminals at JFK and for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, among other major streets. I can go on…I can’t sit down with him and my grandma without getting some crazy story that makes me wonder how much I really know them.

You’ll be hearing about them a lot, but I’d like to start with Nonno’s garden. He and Nonna have lived in their house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn since 1963. It’s the only house that’s been consistently in my life since birth, and its magic is not to be taken lightly. Take their garden, for instance. When I was a child it seemed like acres, but in truth, it’s a 15 x 20-foot patch surrounded by concrete and fences. But that’s never bothered them. They came from the country, running around on farms and picking vegetables every day. They moved to America for a new life, but the country never truly left them.

And so, naturally, the only thing to do was turn that patch into a fully-functioning vegetable farm. Wouldn’t anyone?

Their little concrete farm houses a two-story persimmon tree, beds of scallions, garlic, onions, fava beans, string beans, escarole, eggplants, zucchini, celery, and cucumber vines. Their tomatoes alone deserve an entire chapter in a book. The vegetables aren’t even the best part. My grandfather has taken the art of using what you have to an impressive level. Nothing has been overlooked for building material: wood, road signs, sheet metal, old window screens—they’ve all been transformed. Road signs and wood planks were turned into dividers for raised beds. Sheet metal creates barriers for squirrels and mice; bright orange caution tape tied around aluminum poles mark vegetable beds. Severed stereo chords tie vines to  support staffs. Paint buckets and faded bed sheets cover fig trees for winter. Squash vines weave in and out of repurposed piping overhead to create a canopy. Old work shirts wave from fences as makeshift scarecrows.

Recreating this garden is something that any sensible person understands is not entirely possible. You can’t just start transforming scrap household items into garden equipment all willy nilly. He’s been digging in that dirt for 47 years, building and “designing” the beds, supports, layout, and scarecrows; learning what thrives best in Brooklyn soil, what can survive the winter, how to wrap up a fig tree in t-shirts and garbage bags just right.

There’s still a lot to learn from his vegetable garden, even if you can’t recreate his world. Most of his advice won’t be found in gardening books, and experts may disagree with much of it. For example:


  • Never underestimate the usefulness of anything. Coffee cans, old screens, sheets, pipes, broom handles, Tupperware—this is all building material for raised beds, support systems, and weatherizing.
  • Talk to your troops. At 5am, preferably, when it’s just you and them, with no city distractions.
  • Baby them. Then baby them some more. In high heat, he waters them twice daily and talks to them even more. All they want is water, sun, and company, he says.
  • Anything can be a scarecrow. And by scarecrow I mean scaresquirrel, scaremouse, scarepigeon, scarealleycat…whatever deterrents you’re building, you’re probably not worried about crows if you’re in a city. Growing up I remember he used to put pipes through the sleeves of an old flannel shirt and top it off with a bucket for a head. Cowbells placed in unexpected places to catch the wind also help.
  • You don’t need as much room as you think. In the years I’ve spent fussing over gardening books, I found this is the one rule my grandpa defies the most. Forget planting tomatoes 12, 24, 36, however many inches apart. He squeezes 3 to 4 plants into a 12-inch pot, and they’re all bulging with fruit. Plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, whatever. They’re all squeezed in, and they’re all happy.

I can’t match his efforts; not in the backyard of our ground-floor rental, where our neighbor’s flowers occupy most of the yard. But it doesn’t mean I can’t create a little patch of madness here. A couple of months ago I planted pots of tomatoes out of seedlings from his yard. I have 10 babies growing right now, plus a few cucumber vines. If all goes well I’ll have the goods for sauce, pickled green tomatoes, salads…let’s see what the summer brings.

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