Once upon a time, Brooklyn, New York was not a cool place to live. Back in those days – the late seventies, actually — in an unhip and unironically aluminum-sided neighborhood known as Borough Park, in the windowless basement of a plain row house with a concrete yard and a Madonna in the living room, a 95-year-old Sicilian woman named Vitina Turano toiled at a stove, four burners blazing. She was my great grandmother. Four and a half feet tall, clad in house dress, slippers, and homemade apron, bent of spine and hairy of chin, Great Grandma Turano was busy making meatballs.
A horde of us were gathered, as we did once or twice a year, at an enormous table covered in floral-print oilcloth that ran the length of an entire wall, a long wooden bench on one side, a humming furnace at the end. My parents and brother, my Aunt Patty and Uncle Julian, a few of my mom’s cousins and second cousins, none of whom I ever really got to know but all of whom had names like John and Sal and Paul and Mary and Anthony and Tony and… Anthony and Tony. (There was even a girl named Toni, no joke.) The men would all sit, drinking Gallo from a green jug, as the li’l matriarch did her thing, with an assist from the younger Turano women, until it was time to eat – at which point, steaming platters of food would magically appear before us, exist for a few perfect moments, and then be devoured.
Great Grandma Turano died when I was seven years old, so my memories of her, and of these epic dinners, live on now only in glimmers and shards: her heavily accented English, utterly baffling to my untrained ears; her basement lair; her folding lawn chair out back, where she would sit and motion for me to come over – “cuh me-uh,” she’d say, curling a crooked finger at me, “cuh me-uh” — so she could hug and kiss me, which in retrospect was a small thing I should have happily given in to, but in the moment felt kind of scary and to be resisted at all costs, despite my mother’s prodding.
And her meatballs. I do remember those meatballs. Though it’s hard, this far on, to say whether I remember the ones she made specifically, or the ones my mother made for us – using Great Grandma Turano’s recipe, of course, which she had been forced by her family to commit to paper before she passed away – pretty much once every couple weeks for the first eighteen years of my life. Talk about a staple of your youth: This was mine. Pasta and meatballs with a green salad and some crusty bread? Damn. I can picture those nights perfectly now, the pot of extras simmering on the stove, waiting to be pillaged for seconds. We’ve managed to keep the tradition going strong in our house, too, busting these badboys out on Sunday nights in the fall and winter for the past almost twenty years. Hell, they even made it onto our recipe door. The kids have gotten into the act lately, too — Phoebe performed half the work on the batch you see here, rolling the balls by hand, and helping to brown them. Five generations and counting…
Grandma Turano’s Meatballs Recipe (more…)