Monday, September 28, 2015


I wasn’t a bad kid so much as a child that trouble found. My reasoning was guided by my lack of understanding of what the line drawn meant, the teachings of my grandparents and parents so desperately tried to instill in me.

“Joseph, go to the store for me” could have been anyone giving me guidance as much as: “Don’t do that or else!” It was the Old Italian spirit of discipline; Grandma could smack you around just as well and maybe with more experience than Mom or Dad. Usually it was Grandma who ran to my aid, just as the boom was being lowered, saving me from getting it.

It was a Sunday morning, bright and sunny and I was getting dressed for church. Mom was very fiscally responsible and Dad was her resource. Not being a churchgoer, Dad was still in bed and it was time to leave for church. Being it was summer, there were no requirements that I sit with my class during mass, so Mom made sure I got there by accompanying me there.

“Joseph, go get some money from your father for the collection.”

I wake up Dad and tell him: Mommy said, give me some money for church.” (I didn’t have to say please when Mom ordered it) Slowly he opens his eyes and rolls over and grabs his pants from the side of the bed, reaches in and gives me 2 shiny nickels.

As I head toward the kitchen from the bedroom, I pass Mom’s sewing basket, and an idea hits me. For a nickel I could buy a bottle of Pepsi, and for another nickel I could buy a package of 5 or 6 small powdered donuts. I given powdered donuts, you could get me to do anything, say anything or lie about anything! Yes, powdered donuts were my addiction!

So quietly I go into Moms sewing bow where she kept her buttons and reasoned that if I took 2 shiny metal buttons, I could confuse Mom when they came to collect money, then afterward, I could celebrate with a Pepsi and donuts! I couldn’t believe my genius had taken me so far!

Our Lady of Lourdes was a beautiful church, with marble floors and columns, stain windows and a large dome that sat over the front altar. There were three additional altars with the one in the back having La Pieta inside a gated enclosure.

Being a large church, with a school, and about 5 priests, the ushers always dressed to the nines, and when collecting, had these long handles collection baskets made of what looked like wicker.

Mom and I sat, she in deep meditation and prayer, and me deep into whether or not I could scale the grotto wall behind the main altar. Suddenly I noticed the ushers with the collection baskets and reached for my first button. As the basket slid under my nose, I slipped in the first of the shiny buttons. Mom deposited her money and went back into her prayers (probably for my soul) and said nothing. Ah, I rouse was working!!! Donuts for sure!

The second collection comes, and like the first, I slip in the other shiny metal button, Mom deposits her money, and once again goes into deep pray-filled pleading for my wicked soul. Oh! The joy of deep quiet celebration, knowing there were donuts soon on the horizon, glory is to God!

Mass is over and as we walk home I start to talk to Mom, but she is not answering me. I figured her mother instincts for survival have kicked in. This goes on for a few blocks, nothing being said by Mom. We climb the two flights of steps to our third floor apartment, when I announce to Mom that I am going down stairs for a while. (Donuts on my mind)

Suddenly, I feel this grip on my shoulder and the words: “Embarrass me in church?” Whack, dragging me into the apartment. “Hoe dare you embarrass me in church of all places?” Whack, whack and whack. If nothing else at this critical moment, she was certainly hitting the target!

This went on all the rest of Sunday morning, every time she saw me, “Embarrass me in church?” Whack, and more whacks. Dad kept a low profile; he didn’t want to get in the way of her fury, no need to interrupt. That whole morning and early afternoon, I started to pray myself for preservation and rescue, hoping for company to show up immediately, if not sooner.

Relief finally arrived when Aunt Philomena and Uncle Dominick arrived, with customary cheesecake and appetite.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


Both Mom and Grandma were religious fanatics. Like all Italians, to both women and some men, Saint Mary, Our Lady, or Madonna was the central figure in the religious philosophy of “Ya gotta go to church.” You prayed to the Blessed Mother, and as a child when told that, I used to think: “We talk everyday, even Dad talks to her, pray too?” Then it dawned on me there was another Blessed Mother!

Mom: “Did you do your homework?”
Me: “almost!”
Mom: “What do you mean ‘almost’? You better pray to Our Lady that you do it, or else!’ Which brings to me to a pet peeve, where did the Blessed Mother have the time to be ‘Our Lady’ of just about everything? Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Loretto and even Our Lady of the Snow! Was she the Virgin Mary too? And who was going around as Saint Mary?

Grandma had a shrine in her house; in fact I think the house was the shrine, dedicated to who else, and statues dotted her apartment and bedrooms, keeping a steady eye on me.

In one part of Grandma’s shrine was a bureau with a votive candle that was always lit, a statue of need I mention who, and a picture, it being a very dark room with no windows. Now this picture would creep me out. Yes for someone around seven, seeing this for the first time, brought some realizations alive: that we all die. The picture has a dead person, in a coffin looking up at the camera. It was taken in Italy, and was a major attraction for all young cousins to view when visiting Grandma, a kind of Disney World if you would, and when you realized what it was, you rode your shoes out of the room, sometimes running out of them to get away! The flickering votive candle constantly shifting the dark shadows, the dead guy looking at you, made for an atmosphere that sent shivers through my spine.

One particular day, my older sister and I were in Grandma’s bedroom looking for a statue of the Virgin Mary and I noticed the picture.

Me: “What’s in the picture?”
Sister: “That’s a dead person in a coffin.”
She started to say something else, but by then I was in the well-lit and happy confines of the kitchen, my nose deep in the refrigerator smelling salami and cheese.

Grandma made pilgrimages to Italy for orphan children and arranged bus rides to upstate New York to shrines. These were all pilgrimages as they say. Mom was content to stay at home: her pilgrimages were to my school, to visit one of my teachers who required her presence. Grandma could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by just conducting a tour of the house!

Tomorrow: The Sermon of the Buttons. (You’ll find it in the newest version of the New Testament, someday to be published)

Saturday, September 26, 2015


The newly arrived Italian-American Luigi was about to apply for his citizenship at the court. He fretted about his answering questions from the judge, since the man knew such little English. The moment arrived and in walked the distinguished jurist, white hair and moustache, and long black flowing robe. Nervously Luigi stepped forward to the bench and looked up to the judge and said: Hyur honor, I’m a no speaker English very good. Ima read and I know hall a da answers you aska me, who’sa the first presidente, a how manya states a dere hiza and Hi canna recite the pledgea of alligeance, but I no getter the citizenshipa because I no speak well de English.

The judge was taken aback by the man’s plea, and sternly pointed down at Luigi, Old Glory behind him and says: “Solonga I’ma da Judgea, you gonna becoma Hew Hess Citizena!”

At the turn of the century, Italian-Americans were very conscious of the prejudice displayed against them. They lived in tenements overcrowded with people, clustered in enclaves with other Italian-Americans. That factor alone must have had a major impact on their survival as a whole. The prejudice began at the top, the White House and the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.

Coming to America, they expected the streets to be paved with gold. Instead they found nothing but hard work, and their response: they rolled up their sleeves, and all that gold? They took on jobs as sanitation workers and swept all that gold!

My grandmother Mary, a single mom with three young girls, every morning put on the radio back in the 1920’s and the first thing to play was the Star Spangled Banner, and all her children stood up around the kitchen table, with their hands over their hearts!

Grandpa Joe came here to America at the turn of the last century stowed away on a ship, where he avoided political persecution in Italy and customs in this country and then somehow joined the army to fight in the ‘Great War’, where when he came home, he caught Spanish Flu and was hospitalized. Anxious to see his son and daughter, he jumped out of a hospital window and into a large snow bank, in his hospital gown. A few days later he died at home with his wife, and children at his side from Pneumonia. Between the ship and the army, he helped grandma establish a fruit and vegetable stand in Brooklyn.

Grandma loved America, she worked hard and organized flights to Italy and bus trips to upstate religious shrines, where she took the profits and gave the money to build an orphanage in her hometown after WWII. They named it after her but she did the money raising, after hearing stories about the many orphans that populated Italy from the constant bombardments and battles fought there. Many a sponsorship was she behind of people coming to this country from Italy.

Grandma’s older brother Felix or ‘Uncle Zio Felice” had 19 children as I wrote a while back, and one of them laid down his life for our country, or his country at Anzio Beach. Investment was heavy in this country.

What I would give to see and speak to all those relatives from the past one more time. To hear all the stories they could tell about coming to America and what it meant to them, but I did get a lot of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


"It is always possible to be grateful for what is received rather than resentful over what is withhold. One or the other becomes a way of life."
- Elisabeth Elliot. 

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950’s, life could be hard if you let it. We were a poor family; we didn’t have much since Dad didn’t make much, about what everybody else made in the neighborhood.

But Mom did an amazing job of using Dad’s earning frugally, and with the best of intentions, to feed us, cloth us and made us as happy as could be. Like most Italian-American families of that era, we didn’t know we were poor, we knew we were happy, but not poor. Mom and Dad had carried over the thriftiness of the Great Depression and so we made do. Mom could sew, cook and clean the house herself, polish old shoes everyday and made sure we were clean. We were extremely rich in the joy of our families, the simple dishes that were prepared for a conversation around the kitchen table. The rule was NOT ‘try to be home in time for supper’, no it was BE HOME IN TIME FOR SUPPER. If we weren’t, we didn’t eat. If we didn’t like what we were getting for dinner, we ate it anyway because there was nothing else allowed. Mom cooked, so you better be prepared to eat it or nothing. Good rules.

Mother and wooden spoon owner
We hardly bought new shoes, taking them instead to an Italian shoemaker to fix the old to look like new. Our clothes were not threadbare but well mended. Mom like all Italian-American moms where we live, was home for their children after school.

Mom was a great cook, but would on occasion cook something I didn’t like, like pig’s feet and knuckles, or stew and beans and macaroni (pasta fagiola: something I would die for today, and make my own, or even pay a hefty price for in a restaurant).

I remember when in college, coming home after school or after working as a designer in the city, the winter night cold, but a warm glow calling me to Mom’s kitchen, my dinner gently warming in her magical oven, the smell saying: “Joseph, I’m glad you’re home.”

Tomorrow: WHAT DID WE EAT?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


He was a big hulking man, filled with kindness. He showed up every Sunday morning to pay his respects to my mother and father. He was ‘il Goomba’, a friend from the home turf.
He walked with a cane, and would climb the two flights of stairs with measured precision, the cane in his right hand calling out greetings in broken English as we eagerly awaited him. He had two sons and a daughter, and the most wonderful wife a man could ask for even though I didn’t understand half of her words, as she mixed Neapolitan with English, a kindness radiating from both husband and wife.
When he entered the apartment on Sunday, Dad or Mom would reach for a whiskey bottle Dad kept out of reach of his young prodigy who I am sure would have been tempted to try it out.
Dad would pour the old man one shot of whiskey, and ‘Pop’ as Dad called him would salute us, raising the shot glass eye level and down it went. They would chat in Italian and soon he would leave. But the visit did not stop there. Next to visit us was Mike, his youngest unmarried son, who was a joyful man and up he came, reaching into Mom’s sauce to fish out a meatball, and in one motion from the pot to his mouth, in went a meatball! No, he didn’t break it first.
'Dad' the kindest man I ever met.

Many a morning, when I came home from church, Mom would ask me to go to A “Ah Goommada” for some prezzemolo, the parsley. I would walk over a few apartments to “Ah Goommada’s” place, reach up to ring her doorbell from the bank of buttons and call up to her: My mother says do you have any prezzemolo?’ She would laugh while I was climbing the steps where I was first entertained with a cup of coffee and a donut. For a six or seven year-old, this was being a big boy! All too often, I would go home without the parsley and was sent back. We went full cycle from Pop having a shot at my kitchen, to me having a donut with coffee in his kitchen!
And so the joy of having people from the old country, sitting next to you in a strange land help with the language barrier, acceptance into society that was a struggle at first, and into the world of today, a revered race of people both in the world of Italy, America and the whole world leave their mark in art, science, math and medicine, culinary and amore', a wonderful gift of love and life.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Being Italian is having a sensitive nose. The Italian nose is used for a variety of tasks, and is relied on to solve most Italian mysteries.

For instance: what to make for dinner? How much basil or parsley are you going to fling. The nose was responsible for Columbus discovering America when he said: Umma smella da land!

And so that brings me to my childhood, and grandma’s table, the place I learned to smell, and learned to eat. It was grandma’s teaching my mother how to smell that made for a great cook in Ma. But grandma was the reason for the seasonings.

Grandma had a pair of floppies before they were called flip flops, and wore them to indicate where she was heading, usually to the garden to pick some basil or parsley, or maybe some tomatoes from her garden. Her screen door would bang shut on its hinges as she went out on an exposition for her spices, gliding under the grape vines that grandpa worked for his home-made wine. When she returned to her large kitchen, I would take the time to smell the basil, and always think of her when I do today, calling it; green gold.

While Sunday mornings meant church, mom would fry her meatballs and start her suga, leaving the rich aroma of onions and garlic gently frying in the early sunrise that took longer to do in Brooklyn than it did say on Long Island, because of the building surrounding us. Once she added her tomatoes to the pot, the aroma became a hunger clue, for which we were affected all day.

After a large dinner of pasta and chicken or any other side dish grandma made, we sat for the onslaught of Italian pastry and the smell of almond candies, that usually came from either the Italian bakery or from a party favor from the many weddings grandma was invited to. Cannoli or sfogliatelle, the choice was yours, and the demitasse cups filled with black coffee and anisette: completed the meal with the lemon peel sitting in the empty cup, until later that evening when the sandwiches broke open, as we seamlessly began another meal. There was always a white linen table cloth, with the stains of pasta sauce and wine, dotting the fabric, under the broken pieces of nuts that scattered across the long table, my uncles and grandfather along with dad, playing poker, the swear words coming fast and furious at another table.

And so there were smells everywhere, in the food, the garden, even the hallway entrance to grandma’s kitchen, life was wonderful! 
La vita e  bella!

Sunday, September 20, 2015



It was a vacant lot that sat between to apartments in the middle of the block. If you passed it, you didn’t notice it much except to say it is vacant. But for such a sight, the grass somehow mixed with some kind of crushed stone, a grayish caste on it was evident. But come Sunday afternoons in the late spring through the early fall: it was a hangout for old men. The lot was an arena to contest personal skills.

About 6 older men would appear, with rolled up sleeves and Di Napoli Cigars perched in their mouth, they would mechanically toss this small black ball toward a gaggle of balls that sat at the other end, and as they tossed each on with surgical-like precision, a slew of Italian curse words kept it to the rhythm and help it along, where it would finally rest at or in some cases next to the aimed at ball. A chattering of laughter and Italian emoted from this small crowd, as they applauded or derided the attempt of the rivals toll.

These wonderful old gentlemen had carried their love for life from the dinner table to the Baci court, a glass of wine in hand.

Sometimes if I was outside at Bacci time, I would lean against the chain-linked fence and try to figure out what it was you needed to do, but at 7 0r 8 years of age I never understood it because my observations inevitably led to the cast of characters that brought the game alive.

In my fascination one Sunday afternoon, after my macaroni dinner with meatballs, bragiola salad and roasted chicken, and a couple of slices of orange from the pitcher of grandpa’s wine, I headed downstairs to that magical world of my childhood and once again came upon the Baci game in progress. One old gentleman was in fine form, letting off a slew of words I did not understand, and one stood out the most. I decided to ask Dad what it meant, and so returned to the apartment and found Dad half asleep on the couch watching the Dodgers. Mom was in the kitchen cleaning up and so I announced loudly:

“Dad, what does %#*)^# mean?”
Dad jumped out of his skin and Mom came running with a wooden spoon yelling:
“Where did you learn to say that?” laying the wooden spoon across my butt suddenly. “DON’T YOU EVER USE THAT LANGUAGE IN THIS HOUSE (Whack) you understand me? And if you do I’ll give you the rest!” (Whack)

To this day I have yet to use it, however I do incorporate similar sentiments when addressing frustrations on my own. Baci was a lesson learned from the wooden spoon, a lesson many a young Italian-American boy learned.

My parents did love me, and I have the wooden spoon BUMPS to prove it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Yes, Uncle Zio Felice was not just an uncle; he was my great uncle. He comes with lore and odor, mainly a Di Napoli cigar. To smoke a DiNAPOLI CIGAR, you have had to spend your life in a world of your own, because no one could take that smell! The lore comes from the fact that he had 19 children, all with one wife! How she got close to him at all with that cigar once, let alone 19 times is hard for me to understand.

Being a child of Uncle Zio Felice was a big responsibility: you had to know your place, not only in the pecking order, but at the table also. His wife Zia Maria would cook every night for 21 people. One would think that after the first 3 kids, she would have lost her interest in just about everything, but no, she made homemade pasta for Uncle Zio Felice and 21 people every night!

Once the children heard their father climbing the steps after he worked all day, they all lined up around the dinner table and stood behind their chairs. Once Uncle Zio Felice sat down, then and only then could the brigade sit. Not one morsel of pasta was to be eaten until father had started eating. No one talked unless he spoke to you.

On the job the little foreman ruled with an iron hand. Being in construction, he would run his crew as hard as he ran himself, especially his compatriots, when things were slow, he would hide some of his men until the inspectors left so they wouldn’t lose any pay. Then one year he hired my father’s brother on his crew. My uncle was to get a wheelbarrow filled with bricks and push it up a few wooden planks, as the building was being build upward. Soon he had calluses and his hands were bleeding. Uncle Zio Felice taught him to go behind the building to urinate on his hands, to toughen up the skin.

But the man was never the man he could have been. Prior to World War II, he had a son who wanted to be a priest. He forbade his son from entering the seminary to realize his dream. Had he become a seminarian, he might not have joined the army during the war, and give his life on Anzio Beach. Uncle Zio Felice always blamed and never forgave himself, a sad way to live the last 40 or so years of his life.


Grandma Frances had a brother, who we called “Uncle Zio Felice”. OK, we were redundant, but then again, we didn’t know it at first. When you are young and being introduced to a new language, it takes a while. (Just ask my Spanish teacher)

Uncle Zio Felice was the oldest of the brood that immigrated to America. He was about 4’5’’, had a long Jerry Colonna mustache and wore it when he stepped off the boat at Ellis Island in a white shirt, black fedora, black suit and brown shoes. Halfway across the ocean, someone told him there was NO MACARONI in America! Uncle Zio Felice made a dash for the rail to swim back to Italy. Fortunately they convinced him to stay on the boat until it docked.

One day in our new house since we moved from Brooklyn, on a Saturday morning Mom and Dad were out grocery shopping. The phone rang, and since I had nothing to do at the moment, I answered. It was my Aunt Angie, my father’s younger sister telling me she was coming over with two special guests, Grandma and Uncle Zio Felice! He wanted to see the house. Uncle Zio Felice considered himself important, more important than the President (after all, Eisenhower didn’t speak Italian and the Pope wore a dress.) Alone by the front door I awaited, and soon the cortege arrived. Actually it was only Aunt Angie’s car, a nice used Ford, nothing fancy but she happened to be following a neighbor, Uncle Zio Felice sat in the back with Grandma. Not being able to drive him self (His feet couldn’t reach the gas pedal, or more importantly the brake and the driver’s learning permit test was in English), I go out to greet them as protocol calls for.

Jerry Colonna
With his black fedora and brown shoes, squinting in the noonday sun, I couldn’t help but conjure up images of Emiliano Zapata the Mexican bandito! Getting the tour of the house, my aunt in Italian gave him all the pertinent information including the location of the cesspool, which I would have skipped.

Suddenly he turns to me squinting and says:

“Ah comma witha me.” Leading me to the center of the front lawn he draws a circle with the toe of his shoe. He puts his hands on his hips and says:

“Now a hover here (pointing to the line he drew,) hew putta da brick, anice. Then you digga holea and planta da flagga pole. Pointing upward. anice!”

Under my voice I think:
“Can I plant a picture of Garibaldi at the foot of the pole?”

I think the accents were so special. They took the time to learn the language and insisted their children speak English, so that not only could they learn the language with their kids but to survive, after all, there was no accommodating the new immigrants as there is now. God bless everyone of them.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Poor Grandpa: a peaceful man who worked hard and took orders from Grandma. Grandpa had a horse and wagon, and a dog named Ginger.

Every morning at 3:00 AM, Gramps would hitch the horse to the wagon, call ginger and off the three of them went to the Hunt’s Point Market in the Bronx. One would think it crazy that at hour to do such a thing, but owning a fruit store and pizza restaurant was hard work, and to maintain business, you needed fresh produce and meat, plus a very cranky Grandma if he didn’t get moving.

It was a long trip from Brooklyn to Hunt’s Point, and the horse did it every morning, stopping at red lights and moving on green. Once arriving at the destination, the horse would stop and Ginger would bark, waking up Grandpa, who had fallen asleep before the horse took his first step!

Grandpa was from the old school, quiet, strong and could have a mean streak if you didn’t do things right. He was a ‘Jack of all trades’ and often was seen when he wasn’t “resting my eyes” with a hammer on some project, or a trowel in his hand, when not fixing his plumbing.

One year we all got to sleep at Grandma’s, and there weren’t enough beds to go around. The reason for the occasion I don’t recall, but since there weren’t enough beds, Grandpa, Dad and myself slept on chairs in the kitchen. A rather large mistake!
Suddenly in the middle of the night, the room came alive with the rumble of what at first seemed like a train! I awoke and heard the noise, made sure I wasn’t on a track and noticed we were all up, except for Grandpa. He was pounding the air with his snoring and snorts, swearing in his sleep in good old Neapolitan, at some vendor. Grandma marched in the kitchen and threw a towel over his face that caused him to
Stir and end his tirade.

Grandpa loved Grandma, and she loved him. They never outwardly showed affection, but in their hearts you knew it. He cared for her and she cared for him, always telling him what he should do, whether he wanted to end his nap or not. Grandma always got the last word in: come to think of it, she got the only words in.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015


But first we eat!

Dad was a big Mets fan, always getting free tickets for Shea Stadium, usually about 4 to 6 a game. He would take me and whoever else was interested, as long as someone else would drive. One day he came home and invited Mom, who although was a Mets fan, never watched the games. Mom was suddenly excited: she was going to a baseball game. All week long before the Saturday game, she kept saying how good those ballpark franks tasted and how much she wanted one. If you went by Mom, she would blurt out, “Oh those ballpark franks, so good.

Saturday came along, and along with me was Dad, Mom, my brother-in-law and my sister, as we piled into the car, Mom was missing.

“Dad, where’s Mom?” I asked.

“She’s in the kitchen wrapping some something to eat for the game.” He said.

Suddenly, out comes Mom, a brown paper shopping bag, filled with heroes of sausage and peppers, meatballs and sausage, and veal and chicken parmesan.

“Ma! What are you doing?”


What is all that stuff?”

“Eh! We gotta eat!”

“But Ma, what about the hotdogs at the ballpark?”


Well, we went to the game, and I remember the awe on people’s faces as Mom unwrapped the aluminum foil and distributing the food, the surrounding fans marveling at the feast.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


Being Italian American, we can lay claim to the best noses in the world. There is a tendency for Italians to have long olfactory units, but that is because God deemed us the cooks of the world. As cooks we need to be able to smell when something is cooking correctly.

Growing up in Brooklyn, coming home from church in an Italian neighborhood, you could smell the gravy cooking from house to house, the sauce with it’s little Italian basil floating freely, gave you the sense of hunger and anticipation, of glorious pasta and meatballs, bragiole and sausage, a nice salad all waiting for you. Dad had his wine chilled in ‘the frig’ with a few slices of orange, and mom with nuts and cakes for dessert. Like was good. My sister and I would fight for the oranges, which dad doles out fairly to both of us.

Smelling is a big part of Italian life, you went to grandmas and she was out in her garden picking the green gold, the basil for her gravy, grandpa would smell his homemade wine and decide if it was ready for vinegar.

The biggest smells that ended the year on a high note were the smell of the Italian feast of Christmas Eve, the seven fish, starting with the beautifully prepared lobster gravy and spaghetti. As you entered the house, the aroma took you over, your mouth watering, the pots steaming on the stove, and Mom, my mom looking so homey in her floral apron and wooden spoon, her hands smelling of the ingredients of love, like a maestro about to present a culinary symphony!