Of my Italian grandparents only my father’s mother, whom I called Nana, spoke conversational English. After visiting Aunt Angie and Uncle Tony, my family usually headed across Providence, Rhode Island, to my father’s parents’ triple-decker on Pomona Avenue and ate again there. I loved climbing the stairs to their house because there was always something cooking on the stove in a small, black cast-iron skillet. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, I’d steal a piece of whatever was cooking—and then another. I can still taste the deep flavor of Nana’s meats. She used that skillet when she taught Aunt Marie, my mother, and me how to cook. I still adore my grandmother’s marinara, meatballs, eggplant, and chicken Parmesan—classic Italian-American dishes I’d learned to make by the age of twelve.
More than the dishes themselves, I learned from Nana that food mattered and how you prepared it mattered. Shopping in a grocery store? Unthinkable! She bought all of her raw ingredients from small, specialty vendors in Federal Hill, Providence’s Italian neighborhood. What does the meat guy know about fish? What does the fish guy know about vegetables? That was her attitude. She wanted the best of everything to go into her dishes. And cook she did—all day long, in small batches (necessary, she explained, to make sure that every part of a dish is evenly done). Often she would stay with us and
cook with my mom, peeling garlic, cutting eggplant, and standing over my mom’s shoulder, watching her every move, making sure she executed perfectly the DiFillippo family recipes to which she’d been given access. Looking back on it, I think Nana might have left a key ingredient or two out of each recipe when she gave them to my mother. Somehow the same dishes always tasted just a little bit better when Nana made them herself.
A couple months after Nana died, in the early 1990s (on my birthday, as it happened), my father invited us to come down and take whatever we wanted of her things. My relatives took useful items, like TVs, chairs, and tables. I had a successful restaurant by then and was after only one thing. I walked into the kitchen and saw that black cast-iron pan sitting there on my grandmother’s white 1940s stove—the only time I ever saw it empty. Grabbing it I walked down the old squeaking staircase and went to my car. My father was out on the lawn.
“Why aren’t you taking anything?” he asked.
I held up the skillet and said, “I have everything I want.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, so I decided to explain myself. “This started it all for me, Dad. I’m not sure where I’d be today if it wasn’t for Nana.”