My friend’s Italian Grandmother Makes Me the Best Homecooked Meal I’ve Ever Had

Date July 27, 2012

collage

In the opening intro of ABC’s hit food TV show The Chew, Chef Mario Batali says “There are two types of people: Italians and those who wish they were Italian.” If you’ve ever wondered what this means, eat a meal cooked from scratch by a real Italian nonna (grandmother) and you will understand; it’s pure food bliss. You can taste the years of practice and tradition, passed through the generations from some quaint Italian village, in every bite.  And thanks to my friends Eric and Caterina Cook, I was privy to a home cooked meal from Caterina’s Calabrian Nonna and now, I don’t think I ever want to go out for Italian food again.

Of course I had no idea what I was in for upon sitting down at Caterina’s mom’s kitchen table. When Eric and I used to work together, Nonna made him the guy everyone wanted to trade dinners with.  He would occasionally share leftovers from some Sunday feast Nonna had prepared; a potato croquette here, a piece of eggplant parmesan there. Whatever it may be, it was always delicious and I never wanted to miss it.

The meal began light and bright; a delicate salad of lightly fried strands of eggplant tossed with red and green pepper all marinated in hearty olive oil.  Nonna was starting me off slow.

eggplant salad with peppers

Vegetables quickly gave way to some of the finest soppressata I have ever tasted. Nonna made this spicy pork sausage by hand and hung it to air dry for a few weeks. Each thinly sliced wheel tasted of fat, garlic, and chile, and after a few bites it would just melt away. I wanted to hide in a corner somewhere with my back to everyone and make the entire plate disappear.

soppressata house cured, smoked and dried

Before I could run off with the cured meat, the sound of frying oil diverted my attention to the stove where Nella, Nonna’s daughter and Caterina’s Mom, was pan frying some potato croquettes.  Eric had previously brought me these at work where we would reheat them in the microwave. Fried food is usually terrible from the microwave but I never missed a chance to devour Nonna’s croquettes if they were being offered.

NYC FOOD GUY 211

The site of these golden croquettes coming to life in their bath of hot oil made it very easy to forget the fried food warning legions of doctors offered me through the years.

potato croquettes frying

Just look at how perfectly it all comes together. The photo does not begin to do justice to the knee-weakening richness of the parmesan and parsley infused mashed potatoes within each croquette.  I think I could eat about 36 of these.

potato croquettes

Of Nonna would never allow that; there were many courses to come and I was tasting all of them whether I liked it or not.  Pushing the plate of croquettes away wasn’t quite torture, especially since the space in front of me was re-filled with handmade, hand-folded spinach ricotta ravioli in cream sauce. Seriously Nonna?! How can I ever eat pre-made ravioli again now that I know what it’s really supposed to taste like?  So delicate it doesn’t even need chewing, just press against the roof of your mouth with your tongue and release a sea of flavor and endorphins that must be similar to a Colombian cocaine high. Just… floating.

handfolded spinach ricotta ravioli in cream sauce

And the perfect chaser to a rich, creamy ravioli? Eggplant parmesan of course.  This little square was sliced from a tray large enough to feed at least one and a half Mario Batalis, and it was a perfectly delicious as you’d expect it to be.  A just-thick-enough crown of crisp, browned mozzarella cheese caps off layers of tender, breaded and fried eggplant dressed in a bright tomato sauce. Perfection in simplicity.

eggplant parm

This is usually the point where most normal meals end, but not when Nonna is in the kitchen. I took a few deep breathes and braced myself for the hearty, soul-satisfying plate that came next: hand-rolled gnocchi in a pork ragu with pork neck bone on the side.  A meat-covered, marrow-filled pork neck bone — ON THE SIDE!  This is the kind of dish that makes you close your eyes and shake your head with each bite, wondering how something could be so damn good.  And despite its menacing presence, the neck bone deserves its place on the plate as it provides the ragu with its flavor, stewing in the Italian tomatoes for many hours, releasing that fatty pork flavor I’ve grown to love more and more every day since my Bar Mitzvah.

gnocchi with pork neck bones

There’s only one thing left to stick a fork in now: me.  But with the powers given by her birthright and title, Nonna must continue to cook and feed. And was I really not going to take a taste of the handmade sausage she slow cooked over wood in the fireplace? Nonna may start with “no,” but that’s not a word you say to her when she offers you another dish.

handmade sausages and slow cooked under wood in the fire place

It’s at this point that I’m literally gasping for air.  It’s not entirely Nonna’s fault – I did eat two lunches right before this meal (here’s one) – but if ever there was someone I was genuinely happy to blame for a crime, Nonna was the culprit.  Her charge? Spiraling me into the happiest – and most instantaneous – food coma I’d experienced in my 25-plus years on this planet.  Batali was right, I do want to be Italian.

me and nonna

13 Responses to “My friend’s Italian Grandmother Makes Me the Best Homecooked Meal I’ve Ever Had”

  1. DF said:

    I want to switch Grandmas! Thanks for the great report.

  2. rosemary said:

    Being Italian, there is nothing like mom’s cooking. Or a grandmom for that matter! Looks wonderful but she missed the dessert?? I love that quote by Mario because it is so true indeed. Looked like you had a wonderful time at this meal of love and probably had to be wheeled out of her house! Lovely post!!

  3. The NYC Food Guy said:

    @rosemary,

    She didn’t miss the dessert, I couldn’t have eaten it if she paid me! I barely had enough energy to walk myself out of the house.

    @DF,

    You’re very welcome.

    Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    Lawrence

  4. Jillian Mckee said:

    Hi,

    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could e-mail me?

    Jillian

  5. PC said:

    Wow! I was just living in Bologna, Italy for a few months and now that I’m back in NYC I am missing the food like crazy!! This takes me back!
    Does Nonna offer cooking lessons?? I would love to make the gnocchi pork ragu dish..and the others too! Do you have any reccs for amazing Italian food in NYC now that you’ve had the real deal at Nonna’s?? Thanks so much for posting!! :)

  6. Diana said:

    hey lawrence! this looks divine! i have yet to find a great italian restaurant in nyc, nor do i have any connections to nonnas out there. i am very jealous of this post. yummmmm. i plan on looking at your posts a lot today as i am headed to nyc for a food fest. tragedy struck when my hubs lost a “to eat” note i kept in his phone that had all the things i wanted to try in nyc. are you on yelp? i would love to read your reviews there.

  7. shira said:

    Was the mention of eating 36 croquettes a play on the fact that 36 is double chai (life), when really eating that many could have the opposite effect? (though surely, you would die and go straight to heaven). I am sad I do not have a nonna hookup here – che fortunata!

  8. Rebecca said:

    Italians know how to do everything right… I still need to find that wonderfully transporting Italian restaurant in my neighborhood that will become my go-to for when I need my Italy fix!

  9. Katie said:

    I could almost smell the food in your photos. The food looks divine, especially the ravioli. Once you have eaten proper home made ravioli you cannot go back to the bought stuff. God, I feel hungry now…

  10. Connie said:

    What is it about Italian food that makes it so tasty. It’s so varied too – everything from pizzas to pasta to steaks to ice cream and lots in between. Never boring and always full of flavour.

  11. Antonio said:

    Complimenti,tutti questi piatti hanno un aspetto fantastico….complimenti

  12. Katie Star said:

    Oooh my mouth is watering! How long did it take to eat this meal? Did you REALLY have two lunches before? have you got hollow legs? ;-)

  13. Michelle said:

    I am part of the “wish I was Italian”! That’s why I visit Italy a lot and got to know a lot of Italian restaurants in Amsterdam..

    Enjoy the lovely meals!

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