Italian Comfort Food
















The pasta bowl was filled to the top with Pasta e Fagioli, but I was hungry, and I had eaten most of it when I remembered I needed to snap a photo. –

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

Maybe it had something to do with the death of one of my 48 first cousins last week. Perhaps the up and down warm and chilly weather affected me, or my usual spring melancholy at the end of a teaching semester accounted for it. Whatever the reason, I craved a Southern Italian food I had not made in a while: Pasta e Fagioli, otherwise known as Pasta and Beans. This filling, comforting dish of Italian tastiness is not complicated to make. In fact, Pasta e Fagioli can most likely be created from pantry items at home. Its ingredients are those I keep on hand. If I run out of an item, it is purchased the next time I stop at the grocery.

My guess is that I rather lost my taste for this classic Italian peasant dish when it became popular among affluent upscale types. Collectively those people were enough to make me lose my appetite when they seized upon our traditional food. After seeing my beloved Pasta e Fagioli on a restaurant menu priced at $5.00 to $10.00 a bowl, depending upon which part of the country I was in, it felt like a death knell had tolled. Having Pasta e Fagioli on a legitimate Italian restaurant menu did not faze me; it was seeing it printed on non-authentic Italian restaurant menus that saddened me.

Growing up in an Italian Catholic household, Pasta e Fagioli was standard Friday night fare since we were forbidden to eat meat or fowl in those years, although we could eat fish. There are as many variations on this Southern Italian classic as there are on vegetarian chili: every cook indulges in the chef’s prerogative when it comes to ingredients and consistency. Some prefer a thick Pasta e Fagioli, while others like it more in a soup form. I have always preferred it thick and hearty. However, now when I make Pasta e Fagioli, I use far less tomatoes than in years past. This is noted in the recipe included below.

Pasta e Fagioli

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped [or 2-teaspoons onion granules]

1 24-ounce bottle organic strained Italian tomatoes [or a 30-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes]

1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

2-1/2 cups organic chicken stock

2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans

8 ounces organic elbow macaroni [or 8 ounces mini-farfalle]

1-teaspoon salt

1-teaspoon ground black pepper

Grana Padano cheese to taste

  1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, and cook about a minute more, but do not burn the garlic. Stir in strained tomatoes, oregano, dried red pepper flakes, and chicken stock. Cover and cook to heat through, about 5-6 minutes. Add cannellini beans and simmer 10 minutes or so.
  2. Cook elbow macaroni in a large pot of salted, boiling water until nearly cooked, about 6 minutes. Add to mixture, and cook 20 minutes. Add salt and ground black pepper.
  3. Serve in pasta bowls with grated Grana Padano cheese on the side.

Buon appetito!

Ciao for now.











Italian Food Cravings

No matter which version one makes, Pasta e Fagioli is delizioso! -

No matter which version one makes, Pasta e Fagioli is delizioso! –

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Lately, I have had a penchant for the traditional Southern Italian food of my parents’ preference. Talk about cheap eats: pasta, fagioli [beans], greens [endive, mustard greens, chicory], marinara sauce, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, peppers, potatoes, asparagus, eggplant, sardines, anchovies, olive oil, and eggs, all add up to fabulous meals, and none with meat. In fact, it is food I rarely tire of because it is possible to reinvent Italian dishes using these deceptively simple ingredients.

I was sixteen years old before my gustatory senses were awakened to the fact that not all pasta was drenched in a red sauce. This revelation occurred when my parents took my brother and me to Italy for the first time. In Northern Italy I at pesto for the first time, as well as green lasagna with béchamel sauce. In Tuscany I feasted on Linguine with Clams, baked fennel with potatoes and cheese; all my previous notions of Italian food underwent a catharsis. By the time we arrived in Calabria, at my father’s family’s doorstep, I was back to pasta with marinara sauce, but it tasted very good after several weeks of Northern and Tuscan cuisine.

On this Sunday afternoon, I am making a Calabrese Pasta e Fagioli [pasta and beans]. There are numerous variations on this peasant classic. It may be as thick as a stew, my personal preference, or as thin as a zuppa [soup]. Some years ago, my brother was in Manhattan on business. When he saw Pasta e Fagioli on the menu at a swanky New York restaurant, his interest was piqued. He declared the purchased version inferior to our mother’s, and it was expensive to boot. Among its shortcomings: the restaurant version was like a thin soup. In my family, we like to cut our Pasta e Fagioli with a knife, for it is as thick as can be.

Pasta e Fagioli

2 tablespoons olive oil                               2 15-oz. cans Cannellini beans, drained

I medium onion, chopped                         8 oz. ditalini, or small shells, or elbows pasta

3 garlic cloves, chopped                                        Salt and pepper to taste

1 28-oz. can Italian crushed tomatoes                Grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon Italian herbs,                                       Italian bread

or 1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 cups chicken stock, or less for a thicker consistency

Bring a large, heavy pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil, and add the ditalini. Cook for 5 minutes. Drain pasta.

In a large, heavy pan, heat olive oil over medium heat, and then add onion and cook until softened, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional minute. Add tomatoes, oregano, and chicken stock. Cover and cook until heated through, 5-8 minutes. Add Cannellini beans and bring mixture to a simmer, approximately 10 minutes. Add ditalini, and then cook for 20 minutes to meld the flavors, and to finish cooking the ditalini. Season with salt and pepper.

Ladle the Pasta e Fagioli into pasta bowls. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and Italian bread on the side. Buon Appetito!

*Variation:  Add 1 small carrot, chopped; 1 rib celery, chopped; and 1 large dried bay leaf; saute the carrot and celery in olive oil until tender, then add to the pasta e fagioli.

Ciao for now.

Memorial Day Rain


Memorial Day at my parents' monument -

Memorial Day at my parents’ monument –


By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

The rain awakened me this morning.  The loud “plunk, plunk, plunk” of fat raindrops on the patio furniture refused to abate so I could further indulge my drowsiness.  Once again I had slept through the clock radio blathering of NPR informing me of tragic events, violent acts, and other random tales from around the world.   I rouse myself out of bed to escape hearing about the latest act of depravity

Yesterday we had mulled over attending the annual Memorial Day parade in our town.  It’s a humdinger of a parade:  Colorful and lively with our hometown high school band playing joyously as we cheer and applaud along the parade route.  It reminds me of The Music Man. Yet on this soggy Memorial Day morn, the parade will not materialize.  As a former band member myself, I understood how much effort went into the parade, and how local folks counted on the parade.  I felt a twinge of sadness as Mother Nature put the kibosh on today’s festivities.

The day before we had decorated my parents’ monument.  The Veterans had already placed a U.S. flag next to my father’s name.  Shortly after my father’s death seven years ago, the Veterans fastened a large plaque to the back of the pale pink marble headstone acknowledging his military service during World War II.  The monument was installed twelve years ago after my mother’s sudden death.

The sedum I had planted several years ago and the sedum I planted last autumn with my Houston friends Juliet and her husband Mark, himself a Veteran, looked strong and vibrant.  The grossly overgrown shrub that Mark had furiously whittled into a tall narrower shape exuded renewed health.  Now we hung two small hanging baskets of cheery red geraniums onto the ornate trellis next to the headstone.  We brushed off grass clippings the caretaker’s lawn mower had tossed onto the foundation.  We picked up bits of Nature’s debris scattered around the site – twigs, weeds, and leaves.  We performed the same acts for my late uncles’ monuments next to my parents’.

On Decoration Day, as it used to be called, my father used to tend the graves of his in-laws, and that of the grandfather-in-law he never knew, but who, like my father, was an Italian immigrant.  A profusion of red, white, and pink impatiens annuals carpeted the grounds of our departed.  My father nurtured the sandy soil, treating it regularly to prod it into growth.  His was the green thumb of the quintessential Italian gardener.  My own genetic makeup lacks the green thumb gene; consequently, I plant perennials instead.

At least there are bright red geraniums and glossy green sedum, an American flag, and a perimeter swept clean surrounding my parents’ monument.   Thus on this overcast Memorial Day, come rain or shine, I laud our Veterans and the work they do.  Thank you.

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

The Wedding Anniversary

The wedding cake with white roses -

The wedding cake with white roses –

Today, February 9, 2013 would have been my parents’ 74th wedding anniversary.  At least we got to celebrate their 63rd.  My parents were married over a decade before they had children, and they were not practicing birth control.

February 9th capped the triad of milestones for Mama and Daddy.  Mama’s birthday was on February 7th, Daddy became a U. S. citizen on February 8th, and they were married on February 9th.  When I inquired why these events occurred in the Heartland’s snowy month of February, they would smile and gaze into one another’s eyes.  After all, Daddy was an Italian immigrant and Mama was a second-generation Italian; in the end, they were romantics at heart.  They simply wanted to be married, frigid winter weather be damned.

Married they were in St. Monica Catholic Church in Mama’s hometown and Daddy’s adopted one.  Nimble seamstress Great-Aunt Agnes fashioned the bridal gown and those of Mama’s two attendants, her sister Adelaide and her cousin Mary.  The bride’s dress was made of candlelight slipper satin with rows of small satin-covered buttons down the back and at the wrist.  The flirty front slit beguiled the groom, who was dressed in a navy blue suit, crisp white shirt, and navy and white striped tie.  A boutonnière of white roses adorned the suit’s lapel. One bridesmaid wore pale blue; the other attired in soft pink slipper satin.  Mama’s bouquet, called a shower bouquet, held a bounty of white roses and delicate greenery.  Satin ribbons with petite white roses fastened to the ribbons with small greenery cascaded from the bouquet. A wide lace- trimmed veil trailed after Mama, as did the train of the gown.

After the Mass, all celebrated with a wedding banquet at the bride’s family home.  Mama related how they dined on chicken, pasta, asparagus [from the freezer], and salad.  Another relative made the tiered white wedding cake.  Amid good wishes and adieux, my parents left for their Niagara Falls honeymoon.  They drove in the snow and ice of February for an even colder climate to begin their married life.  They had their Italian love to sustain them, as it did throughout their 63 years of married life.

Ciao for now.

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Let There Be Light

Coco Chanel likes small white lights too -

Coco Chanel likes small white lights too –

In our family we traditionally maintained our live Christmas tree until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, my brother’s birthday.  Although we knew other Italian families who took down their tree either the day after Christmas, or on New Year’s Day, or the day after New Year’s, we tended our tree with loving care to prolong its indoor life through January 6.  While this tradition has been eased by the use of artificial Christmas trees, the pang of dismantling the tree remains.

The past several years we have tried to be more liturgically correct:  We do not tamper with the Christmas tree and the surrounding decorations until the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  This takes us almost to mid-January.  Usually I try to gradually take down the decorations, removing those that are readily at hand to pluck up and store in a plastic bins.  Yesterday we carefully put away the outdoor lights.  However, I insisted that the outdoor wreaths remain intact; they are festooned with big red bows that brighten the dreary gray landscape of northern Indiana.  This is why I loathe unwinding the lighted garlands that cheer the dark winter nights.  Gradually we will put the indoor garlands to bed for the winter.  By next weekend I will have become reconciled, or nearly reconciled to actually storing the Christmas ornaments and full-like-so real Christmas tree.

Probably the last decoration to be put to slumber for some months will be the banister garland and lights.   The white lights and faux cypress garland lift my spirits, as do the Christmas tree and crèche.  While I know the days are gradually getting longer and the nights a bit shorter, the dreariness of seemingly endless gray skies saddens me.  Like a moth drawn to the flame, so am I drawn to small white lights that lace their way through garlands.

Lately I have been contemplating purchasing pink lights to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Not because retail shops and Hallmark dictates it is time to turn attention to February 14, but because I have concluded that it is perfectly fine to have tiny lights that greet me throughout the Midwest winter.

Ciao for now.

A Star-Spangled Birthday

Crowded street scene prior to the Bristol Four...

Crowded street scene prior to the Bristol Fourth of July Parade. The town’s unique red, white, and blue center line is also visible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

July 3rd Fireworks

July 3rd Fireworks (Photo credit: zappowbang)

English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July

English: Fireworks on the Fourth of July (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Fourth of July fireworks display at the Wash...

A Fourth of July fireworks display at the Washington Monument. Location: WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (DC) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A chocolate cake during the 4th of July

English: A chocolate cake during the 4th of July (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At six-thirty a.m. on the Fourth of July twenty-one years ago, my darling daughter came into the light of the world.  A Fourth of July birth was so completely unplanned that it was hard to keep a straight face when people assumed that it was.  From the maternity ward room’s large picture window, my beautiful pink, dark-haired baby and I watched her first Fourth of July fireworks on the river.  For years my daughter thought every Fourth of July fireworks display was in her honor.  None of us attempted to dissuade her from this belief.

Several summers ago we landed in Bristol, Rhode Island on her birthday.  Our friend informed us that Bristol, RI has the oldest Fourth of July parade in the United States.  I doubted it not, for our friend Marianne was a fountain of lore regarding her home state.  We scrambled with our friend and her cousins early in the morning to set up chairs on a grassy strip near the avenue for primo seating in order to view the nearly 3-mile long parade.  Elaborate floats, military veterans, marching bands from around the country, acrobatic clowns, and entertainment galore hold spectators’ interest until the very end of the parade, which ended some three hours later. It was a spectacular that Florenz Ziegfeld would have envied for his Follies.

After the parade ended, we gathered up our lawn chairs and retreated to our friend’s house for al fresco dining.  We feasted on Italian sausage, roasted peppers, coarse Italian bread, and mountains of fresh fruit.  But the piece de resistance was the fabulous red, white, and blue frosted chocolate birthday cake from a local Italian bakery.  Anjelica celebrated her birthday Rhode Island style that year.  She reveled in every moment of it.



Savannah, Mon Amour

Forsyth Parc - Savannah, Georgia

Forsyth Parc – Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Elvis Pépin)

Last summer we vacationed in Savannah, Georgia with our Houstonian friends, Juliet and Mark.  Every six months we get together in a new locale; this time it was Savannah.  Southern Living magazine had run an article replete with photos, of Savannah, which sold me on the idea of converging in Savannah.  Juliet, a long-time, intrepid Girl Scout Leader, had her heart set on two things:  Visiting the founder of the Girl Scouts’ Juliette Gordon Low home, and dining at Paula Deene’s The Lady & Sons.  My wishes included taking in the Savannah College of Art and Design [SCAD], the squares, architecture, Mercer-Williams House, and Bonaventure Cemetery, immortalized in John Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  But mostly, I wanted to soak up the richness of the language variety of Savannah.  Through my years of living in Houston and my travels in the South, I fell in love with the people and the wealth of linguistic variety and principles of Southern Hospitality.

Savannah answered our desires in spades.  We hopped on an Old Town Trolley Tour to get the lay of Savannah’s Historic District.  We toured historic homes, a number of which were restored by the late Jim Williams [read the aforementioned book to learn how vital he was in the restoration of historic homes in Savannah].  We stayed at the Avia Hotel in the Historic District.  We dined at fabulous locales like The Olde Pink House [Low Country], Circa 1875 [French], and at The Lady & Sons [heavy on the fried chicken] on Mother’s Day. Goose Feathers served up breakfast with tantalizing quiches and more Low Country cooking [no complaints on my end].

After meandering in those irresistible squares with their gnarled trees dripping Spanish moss, we wandered over to The Paris Market.  We shopped at the Savannah Bee Company Honey House [honey, honey in everything, even the soap], Nourish [all natural body products], and art shops [teeming with art by talented SCAD graduates].  After lingering over scoops of ice cream at Leopold’s Ice Cream [rose petal and lavender were our favorites], we took a horse drawn carriage ride at night. Our driver peppered the tour with anecdotes, both racy and humorous.  Savannah does have a most colorful past [read Berendt’s book].  Hunger pangs struck again.  That night we washed down mussels and pasta entrees with wine at Garibaldi’s Café.  The mirrored walls reminded me of Le Grand Vefour in Paris where we also relished steamed mussels.  Garibaldi’s fresh Italian fare was tasty, to say the least, and even reminded us of a Venetian palazzo.

All too soon our voyage ended.  We will return one day, Savannah, for you captured our hearts, mon amour.

Image of Savannah, Georgia

Image of Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ciao for now.

The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rhode Island, Con Amore, Part I

We visited our Italian friend, Marianne, in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Never having been to the Ocean State, we were enthusiastic about touring the state with Marianne.  In our rental car, not only did we scour Rhode Island from stem to stern, but we also dipped into Massachusetts, and Mystic, Connecticut.  We made the pilgrimage to Mystic Pizza, which was locally famous long before the movie.  Numerous art galleries proliferate in Mystic behind tiny, almost secret gardens of flora and fauna.

One of the joys of feasting is when it includes fresh seafood, of which there is much in Rhode Island.  My daughter pondered the ambiguity of  “stuffed shrimp”, and marveled over quahogs, and clam fritters.  While driving along coastlines that resembled travel magazine settings, we would pull over when hunger pangs manifested themselves, to crab/clam/lobster shacks that dotted the coastline.  Sitting at rough-hewn picnic tables overlooking the ocean, we feasted on fresh caught crabs/clams/lobster/shrimp or quahogs.  Marianne thought us hilarious because we could eat seafood anytime, anywhere throughout our Rhode Island visit.

Row upon row of blue hydrangeas created vast walls of beauty along the roads.  Even the flowers on Federal Hill in Providence nearly blinded us with their vibrant hues in the summer heat.  Flowers proliferated everywhere in the state.

Federal Hill abounded with Italian bakeries, coffee shops, delis, and restaurants.  Even a negozio di souvenir shop caught my eye. At our friend’s urging, we entered many of these establishments if only to praise the mountains of Italian biscotti, the liquor-laced tortes, and the magnificent breads.  But the greatest treat of all was hearing so many Italians speaking Italian on Federal Hill.  I spoke with two padres who were indulging in a caffe and biscotti break in a charming café.  They were from northern Italy and were in the States for the next several years.  Wherever we walked as we meandered up and down Federal Hill, we encountered Italian speakers.  Memories of my hometown in my childhood sprang to mind.  Gatherings on hot summer nights at the Santa Maria di Loretto Club in August to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.  Dancing in the cordoned off street, the scent of roasted Italian sausage sandwiches drenched with fried peppers and onions, and the people.  Most of all it was the people. Generations of Italian families on the north side of my hometown are whom I see before me laughing, kissing one another on the cheek, and pinching children on the cheek, arms around loved ones and friends.  The gossiping older women, the handsome men seemingly absorbed in conversation while missing not a trick, and the dark-haired children dancing, singing, and chasing one another around the dance arena under a starry sky.

Those days spent on Federal Hill in Providence recaptured the sweetness of times past for me, before first and second-generation Italians migrated to the suburbs and became “acculturated” into the homogeneity, the blandness of suburban life, relinquishing the Italian language, except when ordering pizza.