Me and Italian food, we go way, way back; all the way back to the dusty, faded, Polaroid-tinted memories of my early youth in the 70’s. I spent my single digit years in one of Montreal’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, Park Extension, or Park Ex to those who have more pressing matters to attend to and don’t have time for three syllables.
Park Extension has always been a gateway neighborhood for new immigrants to Canada, and in the 70’s, the cultural landscape was largely made up of people from Greece, Italy and other Mediterranean countries. It was and still is a lower income working-class neighborhood, poor of means, but still rich in tradition and a strong a sense of community.
Both Dad and Mom worked outside the home, which wasn’t all that common in those days. There were no school buses to take me to and from school, no after school programs, and I walked home for lunch every day because the school didn’t have the staff or the facilities for the children to eat there.
Just in case you were wondering, yes, we had electricity, yes, there was indoor plumbing, and no, we did not use clay tablets to write on.
I do remember one extra special day, a day when there was a solar eclipse schedule to happen right at the time we went home for lunch. Apparently the school believed that if young children were caught out on the street during the eclipse, they would succumb to the urge to look at the sun, and their eyeballs would melt right out of their heads, or something to that effect. So for that one day only, I was allowed to eat lunch in my classroom with all the other antsy, excited children and one slightly bemused and frazzled teacher. This was undoubtedly the most thrilling thing to happen to me in my young life up to that point. Unless you count getting my first goldfish, may he rest in peace. My second goldfish followed a few months later, after I had learned a few things about feeding, tank cleaning, and goldfish carcass disposal.
Sorry, the mind just wanders when you get to be as old as me. Right, so where was I?
With Mom working days and Dad working the hours a fireman works, I needed safe harbor after school and at lunch when they weren’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Ciaramellano and their two children lived next door to us. Literally next door, since we shared the same front balcony. I was instructed by my mother to head directly to their house at lunch time and after school. I did this unerringly and without question, because I was a good little girl, and because I greatly valued the hide that my Father would flay off my backside if I didn’t. Mrs. Ciaramellano didn’t speak English very well, but that was ok, because I didn’t speak Italian very well either. She sure knew how to cook though, and that’s what was really important to a hungry six year old. After the walk home from school, I barely had the chance to knock before she would be opening the door to usher me in, always with the prerequisite kiss to each cheek. I would then follow her and her white apron to the kitchen from which the most wonderful aromas always escaped. Sometimes she would let me help make the pasta or gnocchi for that night’s dinner, and I remember the joyful sense of accomplishment I felt the first time I rolled a piece of gnocchi off the tines of a fork and it looked just like the ones she had made, and not like an albino garden slug. She tended a vegetable garden on her postage stamp sized piece of cultivatable land, and grew herbs and even fruit trees in pots she would haul back into the house every winter. I can still smell and taste the deceptively simple sauce she would cook from her garden tomatoes and herbs. Served over a bed of freshly made pasta, it was a bowl full of the earthy-fresh flavors of a well loved summer garden.
This stracciatella soup is another one of those simple yet soul-warming dishes that are at the heart of Italian cooking. Eggs and parmesan cheese are whisked into the rich broth of slow cooked bollito di manzo to make a soup that will warm you up from the tip of your nose to the tips of your toes.
And to you, Mrs. Ciaramellano, wherever you are, I say thank you; for your generosity of spirit, and for teaching me to love and cherish good, simple food.
If you have the time and the inclination, take a peak at this wonderful series of pictures on Flickr of Park Extension today from urbanphoto.net.
Roman Egg-drop Soup – Stracciatella
Adapted from Livia Tistarelli via Gourmet
4 large eggs
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
¼ tsp pepper
¼ tsp nutmeg
8 cups of broth from bollito di manzo
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, cheese, nutmeg, pepper and 1 cup of the cold broth. Bring the remainder of the broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Pour in the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute, continuing to whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve with additional parmesan on the side, if desired.