Pasta pangs

Marcy O’Brien, retired Executive Director of the award-winning Struthers Library Theatre, is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

When I was a kid we called it spaghetti. I don’t think I even heard the word pasta until I was into my 20’s and it sounded upscale – fancier than spaghetti. Who knew about fettuccine, rigatoni, fusilli, orzo, and penne? I’m sure my Italian friends did, but back in the dark ages, my world didn’t go beyond mac and cheese and my throbbing heart’s desire, spaghetti, and meatballs.

A little restaurant in the next town was where my mother took me to for the “genuine article” – old-fashioned, homemade spaghetti and Mama Mia’s meatballs. The tables, covered with red gingham oilcloth, were lit with candles in wine bottle baskets. It was there that I mastered twirling spaghetti on the big spoon. Mostly, though, I just gorged on the spaghetti and meatballs.

Much later, as a senior in high school, I dated an Italian boy whose mother made the grand feast every Sunday. Mrs. Ferrante was a great cook.

The first time I went for dinner at noon, we started with antipasto from an enormous overflowing platter. I really enjoyed all the fresh and fancy delicacies. His father, who kept a gallon jug of his homemade red wine by his right foot, poured everyone a large tumblerful at the beginning of the meal. At seventeen, I protested but he insisted I try it or he would be insulted. Next came the large bowl of zuppa – my first bowl of Italian wedding soup – yum. I was stuffed.

Then Mrs. F. brought the spaghetti and meatballs. What is this? Wasn’t that dinner that I just ate? Mr. Ferrante kept motioning for me to sip more as I pushed the pasta around the plate. I wasn’t skilled at sipping his kitchen vintage. He kept everyone’s glass full while his wife cleared and served, cleared and served. Her gravy and meatballs were deliciously different, and that’s when I realized that the region of Italy determines the flavor. The Ferrantes were Genovese and I had unwittingly grown up eating Sicilian. Who knew?

After she took my pasta bowl she brought out the large roast chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and all the vegetables. I was bug-eyed. How can these people eat like this? Still taking tiny sips of the wine, my head was swimming in the hot kitchen and I was trying not to groan audibly. That’s when she served the cookie platter and the espresso. It was after 3 o’clock when I stumbled away from the table.

I remember being allowed to sprawl, semi-comatose, in front of the TV until six or so when we’d drive to the nearby Italian bread factory to pick up warm loaves at the loading dock. Mr. Ferrante split the fresh warm bread and filled it with meatballs and mozzarella for supper.

All of this was before the invention of the elastic waistband. I spent many Sundays eating the exact same thing – only the soup and the roast changed. . . and my dress size. Fortunately, the romance fizzled before I left for college or I’d have rolled into freshman orientation.

I learned to make my spaghetti sauce from my boss when I was in college. I worked part-time for a group of engineers at a major hi-tech company. The lead engineer, Salvatore Nicolucci, was a funny, warm “Paisan” who made his family’s spaghetti sauce every Sunday. He called it “gravy” and he occasionally brought a container to work. Eventually, he taught a few of us how to make his sauce and he introduced me to garlic for the first time. I loved that man. I still use Sal’s sauce secrets today.

In my twenties, Paisano Pete’s Pizza House #2 was the name of our favorite little neighborhood hole-in-the-wall in Pacific Beach, California. Pete made everything himself and he often had telltale orange stains on his white mustache from tasting the gravy. Pete was from the old country and one night I asked him where Paisano Pete’s Pizza House #1 was. He laughed. “There izza no number one. I named it-a number two soza people would-a think I’m a success!”

Pete would often burst into song, beginning always with “O Solo Mio” to announce his mini-concert. He wandered up and down the rows of Formica tables singing Verdi and Puccini arias, wiggling his bushy white eyebrows at the ladies and leaning in for kisses where he thought he could score. His meatballs were fabulous, his opera was fun and I usually managed to move just enough for his mustache kisses to land on my cheek. In the decades since then, I’ve often wondered if there ever was a Paisano Pete’s Number 3 . . . or 4.

Richard recently mentioned that since the weather is cooling down it should be time for a batch of spaghetti and meatballs. My son-in-law, who once received an entire batch for his freezer, is always hinting, so I imagine we’ll have to plan a spaghetti night during the Christmas holiday.

Nowadays, I only make spaghetti and meatballs a few times a year. I’ve never thought it made sense to make a small amount so I usually set aside a weekend afternoon and make an enormous batch, mostly for the freezer. The house does smell wonderful though, with sautéed onions and garlic, simmering sauce and meatballs laced with hot sausage. And which pasta? Fuggedabouddit. Not pasta.

Pass the spaghettini #3 . . . and the parmigiano . . . and a good bottle of Chianti classico.

I did finally master the sipping.