Staff Stories: Growing Up Brooklyn-Italian

By Emma Ryan

In 1950, a poor family gathered around a table of freshly caught fish and bowed their heads to thank God, in a small picturesque town in the South of Italy. 

In 1985 in Brooklyn, NY, music blared down the street as everyone yelled in Italian, English, and Italinglish, over each other’s crimped and feathered hair. 

Now it’s 2018 in Orangeburg, NY. There are a dozen cars parked outside a house with every light on. The hair isn’t as big, but the party is just as loud. Twenty-five people cram into the dining room to get a chance at the panzerotti my Nonna is frying. This year there are six different varieties. The fried dough is filled with ingredients like mozzarella and tomato sauce, or capers and onions. There’s also focaccia for everyone to snack on, one with tomatoes and one without, for all the picky children (including me). With all the clambering, it seems like this would be the only course, but there will be more to come.


Nonna’s Focaccia

1 cup warm water

2 tsp dry yeast

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

4 cups flour

1 mashed, boiled potato, water potato cooked in reserved

Mix water, yeast salt and sugar in a cup and let proof for 10 minutes. Add flour, potato, and salt to a large bowl. Add yeast mixture and blend.  If using a mixer with a dough hook, mix for a few minutes. The dough should be very sticky.  If it is dry, add some of the potato cooking water. Take care not to overbeat. It should look silky. Coat the bottom of a pan with ¼ inch of olive oil.  I use an iron 18-inch round pan.  Spread the dough evenly in the pan.  Let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

Preheat your oven to its highest setting (550).

When the focaccia has doubled in size, sprinkle salt and oregano on top. You can also place slices of Italian tomatoes.  Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 10 more minutes.  Watch it closely to ensure it does not burn.  If you check the bottom and it is dark brown but the top is not golden,  you can broil the top.  When you take it out of the oven, remove it immediately from the pan and place on a paper towel to absorb the oil.  After 5 minutes, place the focaccia on a rack.


My mother is a first-generation American, and my Nonna and Nonno are off the boat from Mola di Bari, Puglia, a small town in the South of Italy.

Growing up Italian, food has always been a way we communicate; dinner is a way to tell someone you love them. My mom always said to me that the difference between Italians and Americans is simple, “Americans eat to live. Italians live to eat.

I was taught that eating should be an experience. It should awaken your senses and remind you of home. When I’m stressed I make carbonara; a spaghetti dish which could double as breakfast made with pancetta, parmesan, egg whites, and egg yolks. For me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.

The process of creating a carbonara is easy, especially if you have pre-cooked spaghetti. Chopping up the pancetta (bacon) into small cubes and sauteeing it in oil is the simplest part. What’s always been tricky is the sauce. You need three egg yolks and two egg whites to create it, but they cannot go in at the same time or you get a scrambled egg mess. Put the al dente spaghetti into the same pot where you just cooked your pancetta, and then add the egg whites first with a little bit of pasta water to cook them. To keep the eggs from clumping, keep tossing the pasta as you add the pasta water a little at a time. The movement helps keep from scrambling. Then add the egg yolks one at a time with a bit of parmesan cheese, (a bit means a cup and a half) which makes the sauce creamy. Finish with cracked pepper and you, my friend, have a gourmet meal in under an hour.

I grew up eating dinner with my entire family every night. A lazy cooking day for my mom meant homemade red sauce with pasta, and a green veggie (that was her thing, we needed green vegetables). No pasta will ever beat my mom’s. Her red sauce feels like home.

Mom’s Red Sauce

1 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ cup white wine
1 28 oz can puréed crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp chopped basil and parsley
1 clove chopped garlic
water (fill the empty tomato can ¾ of the way)
2 tsp salt

Heat olive oil in a sauce pan on high. Add onion and salt and sauté until translucent. Pour in wine and let evaporate (10 minutes). Incorporate tomatoes, water and a pinch of sugar. Lower heat and add basil, parsley, and garlic. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Serve with your favorite pasta.

I  learned to cook by helping my mom in the kitchen making red sauce. The first time around, I did everything wrong. I burned the onions, used butter instead of olive oil (a no-no if you’re Southern Italian), and scorched the pan. Instead of reprimanding me, she taught me to follow the recipe and said it would eventually feel natural. And now it is.

Cooking has always been my love language. It brings me the feeling of going to confession. It allows me to let all my stresses out and bond with those that I care about. 

Since I’ve moved out, my mom knows I cook for myself, but she never believed I cooked well until I came home and pushed her to let me make dinner one night. It wasn’t the most Italian mealsteak and scalloped potatoesbut I definitely won her over.  

Now that I’ve impressed my mom, my Nonna is begging me to cook for her. I can’t say I’m not intimidated; she’s a hard woman to impress. I’m planning to make her own red sauce recipe for her, with gnocchi. I’ve been perfecting the technique. Hopefully, I’ll get it down before she comes home from Florida, but I’ll keep you posted.


Photo by the New York Times

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