The Classic

Nothing beats "The Classic" pasta dish in our family -
Nothing surpasses “The Classic” pasta dish in our family –

By Mary Anna Violi |@Mary Anna Violi

When my daughter arrived home after a round of law school midterms and finals, she was exhausted.  In honor of her academic work, I had a large pot full of pasta sauce and meatballs with a side of Swiss chard to bolster her flagging spirits.  The weather had turned chilly, but sunshine abounded that evening she drove home for a restorative weekend.  Nothing warms the cockles of one’s Italian heart like a hearty dish of pasta and meatballs.

Having taken that particular Friday off of work in order to prepare for her first homecoming post exams, I hastened to Whole Foods to talk with one of my favorite Whole Foods meat counter fellows.  We had an invigorating talk about the kind of pork to be found in the Whole Foods’ case.  He waxed poetic about the caliber of pork and the quality controls required of the porcine population deemed worthy of occupying space in the Whole Foods meat case.  In turn, I explained how my mother’s recipe is the Golden Child of Meatballs, demanding half ground chuck and half ground pork among its nine ingredients.  We chuckled over those who insist on making meatballs with only beef, thereby rendering the meatballs heavy on the tummy.

That night Anjelica and I bit into the meatballs before winding linguine around our forks.  Her eyes lit up as she exclaimed, “Mama!  These are the best meatballs you’ve ever made! They’re so light and tasty!”

I had to agree.

Ciao for now.

Marcella’s Way

Marcella made a fine pasta bolognese -
Marcella made a fine Pasta Bolognese –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

When I read of Marcella Hazan’s death in late September, I felt more than a twinge of nostalgia.  She had virtually no cooking skills when she arrived in the United States in 1955.  She was from the province of Emilia-Romagna, home to Bologna and Modena, to name two, an area rich in its own Italian delicacies as the heart of Northern Italian cuisine.  While she held a Ph.D. in Biology and knew her way around scientific research, she was less adept in the kitchen.  I picture her as aghast at what mainstream Americans perceived as “Italian food”:  spaghetti drenched in tomato paste, sugar and some version of canned tomatoes.  It pains me to know there are still those in the U.S. who think Chef Boyardee spaghetti in a can is authentic Italian cuisine.  I can only imagine Marcella choking on that quintessential summer repast:  hamburgers slathered in yellow mustard and dripping with ketchup, which is not all that bad if the beef and buns are from Whole Foods.  Since Whole Foods was not on the supermarket horizon in the 1950’s, my guess is that Marcella grimaced at the “new” frozen dinners that had begun to appear in frozen food cases.

Marcella was married to Victor Hazan; they had one son, Giuliano, who is also a prodigious cook.  She learned English from watching television, and she learned to cook using the lone Italian cookbook her husband had. A legendary cook began to blossom. Her tomato sauce that incorporates only tomatoes, a large onion, butter, and salt has always intrigued me.   Marcella’s is good, but I still prefer our Southern Italian family pasta sauce.  What she drove home was the importance of regional Italian cooking in its purest versions.  I loved the way she extolled the virtues of simple recipes utilizing simple ingredients.

Marcella Hazan reminded me of my own parents’ Italian cooking that used basic Italian ingredients coupled with a dash of panache.  Pasta and tomato sauce sound good on this chilly autumn evening.

Ciao for now.



Getting Together

My nephew Daniel with Cousin Marianne at our July family celebration
My nephew Daniel with Cousin Marianne at our July family celebration

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

   Tonight I had the good fortune of dining with my cousins.  The special occasion was a visit from Cousin Marianne’s sister-in-law, Mary Kay, from the Dallas, Texas environs.  Mary Kay’s husband, Cousin Tony remained behind in humid Texas [our Violi men traditionally dislike travel that takes them far from their homesteads].  Cousin Marianne’s sister Rita, her brother Donnie, his wife Jennifer, Marianne and husband Steve, and their daughter Chrissie were there too.  Having arrived 50 minutes late, due to a previous social engagement, I found I had just missed Zio Saverio and our Cousin Ned.  Our local Cousin Tony had to relinquish our company for football practice with the hometown Catholic team he’s coached for the past 20+ years.  The rest of us managed to make a spirited, noisy band of cousins. 

   Not only was the camaraderie exemplary, the food tasted mighty fine.  When I had the Violi Clan over in July, I served up baked rigatoni.  Cousin Marianne also makes a mean baked rigatoni.  Truth be known, we all love that rigatoni and ate it tonight con brio.  We can always count on heaps of Italian food, beverages, and family when we gather.  In the greater scheme of things, these are good to anticipate.

Cousins Tony, my brother Frank, Cousins Steve, Rita, and Zio Saverio at our Juy
Cousins Tony, my brother Frank, Cousins Steve, Rita, and Zio Saverio at our July

   No matter how much time has elapsed between our coming together en masse, we always pick up where we left off.  That is how comfortable we all are with one another; that is how long we have known one another.  Cousin Rita and I are the same age.  We grew up playing with our Barbie dolls together.  Our fathers were brothers, along with local Cousin Tony’s father. Our families met regularly and lived only a few blocks apart. While Zio Saverio is the lone living member of the original three Violi Brothers, I am grateful to have my cousins in my life.  They enrich my life immeasurably.

   Ciao for now.



The Disquiet of Quiet

Orecchiette and vino -
Orecchiette  with greens and vino –


By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Today marks the first weekend since April that I it has been just me with Fellini and Coco Chanel, our two indoor cats.  My daughter continues to move household items to her new apartment.  But today she is handling moving solo.

Already she has planned to have lunch at a tavern eatery [a graduate school watering hole downtown] with a sorority sister who is working in this new town.  This evening her cousin arrives to spend part of the weekend with her in her cozy new apartment.  Tonight my daughter and niece will have fun hanging wall décor, arranging furniture, and simply enjoying one another’s company, for they are more like sisters than cousins, having spent much time together over the years.

To help the cause, I arose early this morning and prepared a dinner for Anjelica and Lauren tonight.  My guess is they will dine on the orecchiette pasta made with anchovies, garlic, freshly grated Pecorino-Romano cheese, Swiss chard, salad, crusty bread, break open a bottle of vino, and kick back.  Yesterday Anjelica selected fruit tarts from Whole Foods for their dessert.

Last week was spent juggling schedules with the upholstery cleaners [the sectional sofa, side chair, and ottoman in storage in Bloomington were thick with dust], maintenance personnel [the air-conditioning and hot water were on the blink], and exterminators [a weather strip needed to be installed on the bottom of the patio door to keep the bug population at bay], it pleases me to know that her new abode is shiny clean, that the dishes and glassware have been washed and arranged in the cupboards on the newly laid liners, the floor vacuumed with her new sweeper with the Febreze attachment, and all the bedding freshly laundered.

The quiet unnerves me.  My daughter’s presence rocks my world in the best of ways.  At least she returns to town tomorrow evening, home, before she gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Law School.  At least she knows I’m always here, her anchor, her refuge, her unwavering champion.  At the very least, she deserves to begin this next phase of her academic life knowing I’ll happily provide her with Italian food.

Yet the quiet on my home front is deafening.

Ciao for now.


Spring Among “The Greens”

Swiss chard like my father used to grow in his garden -
Swiss chard like my father used to grow in his garden –

 By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The happy hoopla of early May college graduation has abated.  The pomp and circumstance of that halcyon graduation weekend has been replaced with the internalized terrors of “Oh, my god!  I am starting law school in two-and-a-half months!”  The summer job hunt, once discouraging in early May when promised work failed to materialize, has borne fruit with several promising interviews.

The contour of my work changes as the university’s academic year draws nigh.  Summer transfer students from other colleges around the state return home and provide fresh faces among the student population.  These quieter rhythms are no less demanding while helping shake off the winter doldrums, the routine, the mundane.

I prepare more dinners with “minestre”, “the greens” as they are affectionately called in my family.  The “greens” are made up of whatever tickles my Italian fancy:  A mixture of mustard greens, kale, and Swiss chard one night; a concoction of endive, collard greens, and Swiss chard another evening [I confess to having an affinity for colorful Swiss chard].  “The greens” are simmered slowly with generous portions of olive oil, garlic, onion, potatoes, salt, and pepper.  I slice chunks of cheese, Asiago or Parmesan, set out a small ceramic bowl brimming with black Calamata and green Sicilian olives, accompanied by thick slices of crusty Italian bread.  Once the vino rosso is poured, a sultry evening’s dinner `e pronta  [is ready].

May reminds me of when my father would fire up his rotatiller to churn the garden dirt for planting.  Inevitably the Toro rotatiller broke down and had to be serviced before thorough soil preparation could commence.  Once all systems were a go, we did not see much of my father until early September.  After a full day of work in his shoe shop, he dined with us, and then hastily changed into his garden clothes [“Even the St. Vincent de Paul Society would want those rags,” lamented Mama], burning a trail into the garden.  It was most satisfying both for my father and for us when “the greens” sprouted up and were soon ready to be plucked and prepared to eat.

To this day, I concur with my beloved Papa that “Minestre is-a food fit-a for-a king-a!”

Ciao for now.


Che sara`, sara`

Dining al fresco -
Dining al fresco –











When I was a young sprig, my parents were the harbingers our Italian community’s news.  They knew who was ailing, in the hospital, had died, was visiting from of town or country, or was traveling, to name areas that incited Italian interest.  My father, who owned his own shoe business, kept me abreast of these and other Italian news breaking events.   My mother, whose community service and Catholic Church work brought her in touch almost daily with cutting edge events, also kept me informed.   From my earliest years, whether or not I believed myself to have a vested interest in the day-to-day hot-off-the-press-informal-Italian-Gazette news flashes, I as made aware.

And then a funny thing happened:  As I matured, the elders in my family began to die off, like great Roman gods.  With my own mother’s death and my father’s increasing dementia, I became the point person for hot-off-the-wire family updates.  There was a problem with this role suddenly thrust upon me:  Not only was I working full-time, I was divorced and raising my daughter without any help, financial or otherwise, from my ex-husband, in addition to overseeing my father’s care.  On most days I functioned on autopilot.  The immediate needs of my child and my father were in the forefront, as they should have been. Well-intentioned family phoned me constantly in the evenings after I returned from work, and on the weekends.  Finally, I had Caller ID installed to screen calls as a survival mechanism.

As the months and years rolled by, it became more challenging to know what was going on among Italian families, beyond my own, for my friends were also experiencing the deaths of their Italian shamans.  My full-time working friends became increasingly engaged in elder care while attempting to juggle complex lives.  We all coped, not always in exemplary fashion, but always honoring our parents, keeping them at the forefront of our efforts as we also attended to our children.

A dear cousin of my father’s died last Saturday.  His funeral was held on Ash Wednesday, an odd day for a funeral among Roman Catholics.  I did not even know of his death until late Wednesday afternoon.  I grieved alone, for not one of my local relatives called to notify me prior to our cousin’s funeral.  What I used to jokingly refer to as “The Italian Twilight Bark” has perished.  Yet I prefer to contemplate our late cousin dining sumptuously above with my parents on a hearty repast of Italian food.

Ciao for now.

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

October Nostalgia

Lake Michigan, not so far from our smaller lake –

Around this time in October, my aunts, uncles, and cousins from Detroit and Dayton would meet my family at our summer house on the lake, not to swim, but to “put it to bed for the winter”, as Mama was fond of saying.  We all had assigned tasks:  The men folk dismantled the pier, storing the large squares under the house where the parts remained hidden behind white wooden crisscrossed fencing.  They heaved and ho’d to remove the rowboat and paddle boat out of the water.  The rowboat was placed over wooden horses and then covered with thick heavy canvas tied around it for protection from the winter snow soon to come.

Pasta supremo – tangledpasta

Aunt Adelaide supervised us in raking the leaves that fluttered down from the large oak trees in the backyard.  The crisp October air prevented any thought of swimming, much to my cousins’ and my chagrin.  Instead we contented ourselves with romping through the leaves, re-raking them repeatedly in order to leap into them savoring the crunch they made.  Back then we raked a huge pile of these leaves in order to burn them under my aunt’s watchful eye after satisfying our leaf-leaping joy.

Inside the cottage, Mama and Aunt Agnes cleaned the house from stem to stern.  They wiped all the windows clean, dusted and polished every stick of furniture, swept and mopped all the floors.  After a Saturday marathon of “putting the cottage to bed for the winter”, Aunt Adelaide made her killer Manhattans for the grown-ups and homemade hot chocolate for the non-adults.  Munching on crudités of carrot and celery sticks and bell peppers, we kicked back.  Television was verboten in the cottage; we played board games and lived without the “idiot box”, as Mama called the TV.  We then sat down at Grandfather’s old mahogany dining room table for a dinner of cabbage rolls, potato and fennel casserole, Italian prosciutto, salami, provolone, crusty bread, and Daddy’s homemade red wine, “made with-a Napa grapes”.

After attending Sunday morning Mass, we again convened at the table for a satisfying pasta and salad dinner, courtesy of Mama and Daddy.  Before parting ways on Sunday afternoon, the beds upstairs and down were stripped – the linens to be taken to our houses and washed, the blankets stored in cedar-lined chests, the porch rocking chairs moved to the great room, the refrigerator cleaned out, and the large brick fireplace –the cottage’s only heat source – swept and cleaned.  We hugged and kissed one another, and talked about the looming Christmas holidays when we would be together again.  As my family’s car lumbered up the driveway’s knoll, I couldn’t take my eyes off of my beloved cottage.  I took comfort from knowing she would joyfully greet us in May, welcoming us back another summer.

Ciao for now.