There was a time when pasta was called macaroni and spaghetti sauce was made from scratch and was called gravy. When ricotta came in a tin and was cut with a string, and fresh mozzarella balls swam in water. Cassata was sold in Italian pastry shops, and cannoli filled with sweet ricotta were big and fat. Coils of fenneled sausages hung on hooks in pork stores with sawdust floors, and live noisy chickens were sold from wooden cages. Strange goat heads stared blankly out at the street from store windows, and salami and cheeses were almost always tasted before they were bought. “Here, signora, try a slice - mangia.” Ah, the wonderful smells of an Italian grocery store.
Food was everywhere and was eaten just about anywhere. In those days, men and women with shopping bags leisurely walked the streets looking for bargains while they casually ate street food: a frankfurter covered with mustard and sauerkraut, a large soft pretzel, or maybe a hot knish wrapped in paper. They munched on warm peanuts sold from pushcarts in the summer and roasted chestnuts in the winter. At the pizzeria on the avenue, slices of pizza covered with stringy cheese just hot out of the oven were offered over the counter. Scrumptious hero sandwiches, made with crusty Italian bread were filled with mountains of cold cuts, provolone and roasted red peppers dripping with good green olive oil. Sometimes the sandwiches were stuffed with veal and peppers, potatoes and eggs, or maybe Sunday’s leftover meatballs. A sangweecha, my grandfather used to say. Che bellezza!
In the mornings for breakfast, we kids hungered for “Yankee Doodles”, chocolate cupcakes three to a pack and stuffed with a cream filling. Sometimes we had jelly doughnuts along with our coffee with lots of milk and sugar. For lunch on Saturdays we usually had pasta brodo, with pastina, a minstra or macaroni with beans, what we called pasta fazool. Good, hearty Italian soul food! And because we were also good little Americans, we sometimes ran to the corner deli and asked for ten cents worth of baloney and fifteen cents worth of potato salad, food we never had at home. Later if we behaved, maybe Mama would buy us a mello-roll, a charlotte russe or a dixie cup with a wooden spoon. In hot weather we usually cooled down with small paper cups of thirst-quenching lemon ice we bought for only pennies.
Thursday nights was always spaghetti night. And we’d have spaghetti, linguini or maybe angel hair pasta, sometimes with garlic and oil or maybe a plain marinara sauce. We were saving ourselves for the big Sunday dinner. On Friday nights, of course, we always ate some kind of fish. And on Sundays, without fail, we all sat down for the big family dinner. It usually started about two and lasted until around five. The food was always something special, maybe sausages or braciole, some baked ziti or maybe a big lasagna. On special occasions, there would be platters of ravioli or manicotti.
In those days, food was a constant and was always with us. After riding the BMT to Coney Island, we walked among the crowds enjoying mouth-watering franks from Nathan’s. There would also be hot yellow corn right out of the pot and, of course, we always had French fries. Later we topped it all off with soft ice cream which we called frozen custard. If we overate we had seltzer water at the candy store or if we suffered from a serious belly ache, a tall glass of Brioschi in a blue bottle was waiting for us at home.
It was great to be alive. The war had ended and the adults got together and organized huge block parties in the neighborhoods. Again, the occasion revolved around food. On outdoor grills there would be hot sausages, sliced onions and green peppers - the original Italian barbecue, long before the rest of the country had thought about backyard barbecues. We strolled around and sucked on hard ceci beans. The streets were filled with the wonderful aroma of hot cooked foods. The girls were pretty and tempting. The music was good and loud. And the food... ah, the food...