Lunch at Tony's Mom's House
Back in 1997, I started keeping an online diary of my meals on Chowhound, called "What Jim Had for Dinner". It was perhaps the first food blog, and the following was one of the earliest entries.
Important Note: the photos were taken years later and do not match the dishes described in the text. You can see more photos of Mrs. Signorini's work here.
Friday, December 26, 1997: Tony's Mother (meatless Friday)
I was invited by my mechanic and friend Tony Signorini to enter Heaven...the hallowed kitchen of his mother, Mrs. Signorini.
Over the course of my five year friendship with Tony I'd been fortunate enough to try--strictly on the fly--a few things cooked by his mom: things like frittata heroes dropped off at the garage by Tony's sister, simple pastas nibbled with plastic forks from atop oil drums, a chunk or two of firey roast chicken while racing to the junkyard. But Tony, a neighborhood fixture in Astoria, has lots of friends (Pakistani taxicabs, greasers in low-riders, and old ladies in Oldsmobiles pass by his garage all day honking horns and yelling "TONY!!"), and he can't invite EVERYBODY home for lunch. Yesterday I got lucky.
Astoria was Italian before the Greeks arrived, and the Signorini family dates from those days. The area's no longer an Italian enclave, but their apartment is pure Italy; no English spoken, mama (elderly but beautiful as a Botticelli painting) stirring pots, taciturn dad in undershirt, kids underfoot being hollered at and embraced...sometimes simultaneously. Mrs. Signorini has culinarily assimilated only as much as she's had to, mostly with ingredients. But when she tells me she uses Carolina rice, her pronunciation of the brand name makes it sound positively imported.
Mrs. Signorini never adds salt, and you don't miss it. She also doesn't load her cooking with garlic...or with anything else. The word "simple" is her favorite word; simple ingredients, simple techniques, simple flavors. Simple life. Her cooking has nothing to do with the bold lusty flavors New Yorkers expect from Italian food; rather, it consists of unfooled-with ingredients presented healthily (I doubt Mrs. Signorini knows anything about modern nutrition, but purely through wisdom she's prepared health food for decades). The soup tasted of ultra refined scrumptiousness; a touch of barley and small cubed vegetables, the broth neither weak nor potent. Middle-ground. Simple. Everyday food rather than special occassion food, but eating this stuff every day would be the most extravagant luxury.
Then came an enormous frying pan filled with frittata (omelet with potatoes, green peppers, and a touch of parmigianno). We ate while dunking fresh italian bread in non-fancy (but aromatic) olive oil, punctuating the flavor with little chunks from a plateful of extra cheese, everyone busily--and unself-consciously--seeking the perfect balance of frittata, cheese, and bread. The egg was soft but not runny, the potatoes smooth (teeth glided through) yet maintaining their spudly integrity.
Then to finish (or so I'd thought), we had a pastry just like a giant rugela; doughy spirals around cinnamon and nuts (with a touch of cranberry--a new touch for Mrs. Signorini, who's always trying something new). I'd tasted a previous version, and had sent word via Tony that she might try adding cream cheese to the dough. But, misunderstanding, she'd merely added chunks of the stuff into the filling. I tried to explain what I'd meant, and she nodded indulgently while Tony threw up his hands in indignation ("That's exactly what I told her!"). Mrs. Signorini is as unlikely to bake Jewish-style rugelach as she is to play quarterback for the Jets; it's simply not in her nature. She IS Italy.
The real treat came later. She ran to the store for some provisions, and announced she'd be making Frittelli de San Giuseppe, a Tuscan specialty usually served only on the feast of St. Joseph.
VERY interesting dish: you simmer rice (CAROLINA rice) in milk with a little sugar, and mix flour and orange zest into a bowl of eggs (attaining a paste neither stiff nor watery). The rule of thumb seems to be one or two orange's zest per egg. All are combined (more flour added to adjust thickness...again, that middle point is sought), and tablespoons are deep fried in corn oil. They cook almost instantly, and are unbelievably delicious both brown/crunchy and yellow/mushy). Amazing dish (we ate them with some strong wine made by Tony's father), and a rare pleasure since she only makes the things once or twice a year. The trick seems to be to go lightly on the orange and the sugar. Balance. Simple.