By Julia della Croce – a story teller, print & broadcast journalist and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and teacher. She lives on the west bank of the Hudson up river from New York City. Julia runs a cook school in Umbria in the summer months.
Please welcome Julia della Croce, a US born Italian well known as an independent who has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. Julia Child cited her as her favourite Italian food writer.
English and American readers who are familiar with my work may know that I have been immersed in the world of Italian gastronomy for over three decades, writing not only about the food and the land, but also about the faces — kin and acquaintances alike.
I’ll admit that my world of food has been something of an obsession and not, perhaps, for the reason one might surmise from the dedication pages that have often read like love letters to my mother, a woman born in Decimoputzu, Sardinia, in the early part of the 20th century. A narrative of her life in the crosshairs of an abusive, if wealthy, father; of Fascists, Nazis, and the debacle of Mussolini’s Italy would read more like a Lina Wertmüller story than the romance I am perhaps guilty of portraying. Case in point, in the introduction to my first book, I wrote, “My mother was fresh from Italy, so to speak, having met and married my father there after the last war. When she came here, she brought only her most treasured possessions, some packets of saffron and recipes dating from her Sardinian childhood and her adolescence in Rome…. It was not only that she loved to cook. It was her quiet passion. It was her poetry.”
While my description of her history is truthful, the tender words reflect the mind of a child caught in the crosshairs of yet another war, this one of the sort that adults wage on each other in the wake of their own childhood turmoil.
Italy has never been one nation in spirit, and it certainly didn’t unite under our roof. Sardinia, my mother’s turf, is a long way from my father’s in Puglia – countryside as below scattered with the historic dry stone trulli houses dating back to the 1700s and maybe even before then.
My mother complained about my father’s Pugliese predilection for pasta, especially if beans entered into it, no matter the occasion. “Give him a plate of pasta e fagioli and he’s happy,” she’d carp. “Il mangiare dei morti di fame!”( meaning “Food fit for people dying of hunger”). She was from Sardinia, where bread rules.
Still, as long as she didn’t get any ideas about trying out the post-war fads of the times—TV tray dinners, canned soup, instant meals, or other 1950s American food notions, dinnertime was open season for her.
I don’t know where the two of them got some of the provisions that glued their marriage together. We lived in Pearl River, a sleepy hamlet north of New York City bordering Camp Shanks, named after Major General David Carey Shanks, once the largest army camp and point of embarkation for American troops sent overseas during WW2. In 1945, it sheltered German and Italian prisoners of war. Once all the POWs were gone, there was neither hide nor hair of Italians anywhere except for us, as far as I could tell.
I remember bumping along in the backseat of my parents’ 1955 Dodge on Saturdays, going to the Italian neighborhoods of Paterson and Newark, where they bought olive oil, canned tomatoes, and spaghetti in two-foot lengths wrapped in indigo paper. My mother was always lamenting the gaminess of American lamb, claiming it was no better than mutton, or the toughness of the artichokes. Tomatoes didn’t taste like tomatoes should and where would she ever find the potent mushrooms of her girlhood?
Only the original versions of anything she tasted were the true ones. It seemed like we were always on a quest for some ingredient or other that she wanted. It’s no wonder I’m hardwired to sniff and taste for a living, like here picking artichokes in the country near Toritto where my father’s family were from.
At first I was shy about introducing such seemingly peasant fare to my culinary circles, but my mind kept returning gratefully to the everyday food of my childhood. Eventually, finding Americans evermore adventurous in their eating habits, I began to serve up the family heirlooms to friends and students. One by one, the recipes were unabashed successes whenever they debuted.
One dish, which we called simply, ‘Macaroni and Broccoli’ is a particular favorite wherever it goes. A meatless dish requiring no more than four ingredients — broccoli, good olive oil, anchovies, and pasta —with no compromise in flavor. Its origins are the classic Orecchiette con Cime e Acciuga – little hand made pasta ‘ears’ with ‘broccoli rabe‘ in Italian-Americanese and anchovy – this was a specialty of my paternal grandmother’s native Bari.
Speaking of cime di rape, literally, ‘turnip tops’ (Brassica Rapa Ruvo), these pleasantly bitter greens were a quiddity of Puglia and a few other southern Italian regions until 1973, when the legendary grocer Andy Balducci ordered a few crates of it via airmail from a childhood friend of his who was growing it back in his native town, Corato (Provincia di Bari).
Where there was once no cime di rapa anywhere to be found in American produce stalls, now the likes of James Beard (‘ always Mr B’ to the Balducci’s), Cher and chef Mario Batali were coming to ask for it at the famous Greenwich Village shop.
But that was a long time after my forebears sailed to America in 1908. With no such providence in the markets of the south Bronx on her arrival in New York City, Nonna Domenica was forced to improvise using broccoli instead — a vegetable unknown to southern Italians until fairly recent times, but back then, one in widespread use in the States. This delicious and exuberant dish of the sort Americans rarely experience is, if anything, a true Italian-American hybrid and easily adapted to the British kitchen.
My sisters and I loved it so much that we fought for whatever bits were left at the bottom of the bowl—even after we had had second helpings. My mother eventually learned to make double what she usually made, and the next day for lunch, she warmed up the leftovers in a frying pan until the rigatoni were sizzling, and crisp at the edges—we fought over that too! Even avowed anchovy haters for whom I have made this dish have loved it (why, I wonder, do so many Americans hate anchovies?). The little preserved filets dissolve completely into the hot olive oil to form the sauce. Note: never feel tempted to add grated cheese, please.
Nonna Domenica’s Macaroni and Broccoli
(From Italian Comfort Food: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce – Kyle Cathie, London)
For 4-6 people
1 large head of broccoli
2 tsp sea salt
1 Ib (450 g) good Italian rigatoni (alternatively ziti, penne or penne rigate)
1-2 tins or jars anchovy filets – only ever those in olive oil
½ cup (125 ml) good extra virgin olive oil
1 Wash and trim the broccoli, cutting off any tough or discolored parts. Divide the top part into florets, and slice the stalks into thin 2-inch pieces as no part of the head of broccoli goes to waste. (Editor’s note – I sometimes will peel thicker stems)
2 In an ample pot, bring 7 litres water to a rapid boil. Stir in the salt, broccoli and pasta all at once. Cook over high heat until the pasta is al dente and the broccoli is soft and creamy (we don’t want broccoli al dente here). Stir several times as the pasta cooks to prevent it from sticking together and allow for even cooking.
3 Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-low heat, warm the olive oil and the anchovies together, including the oil from one of the anchovy cans/jars. The anchovies will dissolve completely in the oil, so forming the basis of the sauce. Keep warm.
4 When the pasta is cooked, drain it, but don’t over-drain; set aside a teacup of the cooking water, which you will no doubt need shortly. Once drained, the pasta should still be moist and dripping a little. Toss the pasta and broccoli with the anchovy sauce in the skillet. If you think it could use a bit more loosening up, work in a little of the reserved pasta cooking water. Serve at once, piping hot. Once again, resist the temptation to add grated cheese of any sort.
Thank you e grazie mille to Julia della Croce for enriching our Independents’ roster.
Visit her on her website: www.juliadellacroce.com and blog: http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/ Connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce – chef & foodwriter – Twitter: @juliadellacroce – Instagram: juliadellacroce. Julia writes regularly for Zester Daily.
1 Author photo, Julia della Croce ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
2: The author (sitting on the pedestal), with her family, 1952.
3: A trullo in my father’s ancestral Toritto, Bari countryside, 2014. ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
4: My mother’s pasta e ceci, pasta and chick-peas, a favorite dish of Puglia. Credit: ©Paolo Destefanis/www.paolodestefanis.com
5: Italian POWs with their visitors at Shanks Village near our home, c. 1946. Credit: Thomas MacAvoy for LIFE, courtesy LIFE archives
6: The author doing field work in Toritto, Puglia, her father’s birthplace, 2015. Photo: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
7: Broccoli from Triscase Porto, Lecce. Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
photo 9 (right): Vendor selling cime di rapa at the Palo del Colle market, Bari. Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
10: Nonna Domenica’s Macaroni and Broccoli | Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer & Melissa Hamilton for Italian Comfort Food: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce (Kyle Cathie, London, 2010)