When people think of Italian migration, they often picture the vast number who left the South of the country in the first two decades of the twentieth century, headed primarily to the United States—families like the Pacinos and the De Niros, whose grandchildren went on to play violent gangsters in films. However, an even larger mass of citizens—as many as four million—had abandoned the North in the previous two decades, just as the freshly unified country was claiming its place among modern nations. For the most part, they didn’t leave in search of a better life. They left to avoid starvation. They were sent away by families who knew there were only so many mouths they could feed in the baby boom that followed the consummation of the Risorgimento, and choices had to be made.
Half of these migrants were farmers, people who worked in the fields and rarely owned any land. The now-prosperous Venetian region was hit especially hard. My maternal grandparents were born five miles or so from that regional border, at the far south-eastern end of the province of Mantua, in Lombardy. On my grandmother’s side, they were farm laborers, poorest among the poor.
I often play a game when I show people this photograph of my grandmother. “How old do you think she is?”
Few people come close. She was sixteen years old, and pregnant with my uncle. Orphaned of her mother at the age of six, she was about to move into my grandfather’s house at the time she posed for this portrait and she was about to start taking orders—there really is no more delicate way of putting this—from her mother-in-law.
I want to tell you about the food, but in order to explain what the food means, I need to tell you about the social structure of that world.
My grandfather’s family was a little better off than my grandmother’s. There was a small plot of land they accessed as sharecroppers. They owned a house, which they managed to hold on to from one generation to the next by agreeing to leave it to the last child to get married. My grandfather had apprenticed as a tailor and was about to enter the profession. But this relative affluence was just that—relative. It was 1922. A major war had just ended. Neighboring Veneto had lost nearly another million people to migration. Times were tough, as they had been without interruption for as long as anyone could remember—but then so were the cultural means to deal with permanent scarcity.
As in the case of many Asian culinary traditions, the genius of Italian cuisine is to be found in the ability to make palatable the unpalatable and to make little go a long way. What is a dumpling or a tortellino if not an edible container of leftovers? What are recipes featuring kale or cavolo nero if not elaborate procedures—refined over centuries—for turning a hardy, bitter vegetable capable of surviving the harshest winters into something that people will want to eat?
In the Mantuan province, the responsibility for ensuring that there would be sufficient food and clothing for everyone fell upon the rasdora. This word of the Mantuan dialect—which derives from the Latin verb regere, to rule, from which English gets regent and regicide—translates most closely as “housewife” but its connotations are very different from the ones carried nowadays by that term. Usually a woman of grandmotherly age, the rasdora was the custodian of the large and complex store of knowledge necessary to run a large household, and—just as importantly—of ensuring the transmission of that knowledge to the next generation. Because daughters typically left their family upon marriage, this transmission took place not from mother to daughter but from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. When my grandmother got married, she became an apprentice to her mother-in-law, who was a true rasdora.
We’re going to cook a full Mantuan meal—all of them family recipes—and it seems only appropriate to start with the bread. Procure some fresh baker’s yeast and a block or tub of beef tallow. The tallow is key, and not merely in the interest of authenticity: it’s what is going to be give this bread its unique texture and durability.
Dissolve 1 oz of yeast in one cup of warm water, adding a teaspoon of sugar. While you wait for the yeast to be activated, place four cups of high-grade flour in a bowl, along with two teaspoons of salt. Melt 2 oz of tallow on a low flame and add it to the mixture. Pour in the water with the yeast, add another half cup of warm water, mix and knead until the dough is nice and bouncy, cover the bowl and set it aside to rise in a cool, dark place for a few hours. We’ll come back to it later.
As I hinted above, the rasdora had a number of responsibilities besides the provision of food—including, but not limited to, the fashioning and mending of clothes. However, even when talking about food it’s important to remember that the rasdora wasn’t merely a cook: her primary task was to ensure a stable food supply, which required not only constant labor but great ingenuity, as well.
To illustrate this point, let us consider my great-grandmother’s duck scheme. It worked like this: in spring she would buy eighty or so ducklings at the local farmers’ market. After clipping their wings, she would release them every morning in the local canal, La Comuna (meaning “part of the commons”), where they would paddle downstream and eat and frolic. By the afternoon, they travelled a few miles, so my great-grandmother would fetch a clothes-line, summon the nearest relative and trot after the birds. Once they caught up, the two of them would stand at each side of the canal and beat the water with the clothes-line to guide the ducks back home. After six months or so of this daily chore, my great-grandmother would kill the ducks, salt the meat and place it in terrines sealed with duck fat. The meat would supplement the diet of a family of eight through the winter.
The family also kept a pig. This too would be bought in the spring and reared next to the house. However, you couldn’t do that on food scraps alone and the feed was expensive, so my great-grandmother grew some corn in a portion of the family’s sharecroppers’ plot and turn it into flour to feed the pig. Come November, the days would start getting shorter, and especially so for the pig, but its parting gift to the family—under the auspices of the local masalin, the pork butcher who went door to door—was a true gift of life: lard, salame, bacon, cotechino sausage (but not ham, much less what is known outside of Italy as prosciutto, or Parma ham, for that was a luxury reserved to the people who could afford to let a pig grow up lean). The lard alone would last the whole year. And of course, proverbially, nothing went to waste.
My mother, who taught history in middle school, used to tell her students that she grew up in the middle ages. What she meant by that is that many feudal relations and their attendant belief system were still in place in that rural province by the time she was born, in 1931. She often made the example of the filò: this was the evening activity of farm-laboring families, a mix of work and conversation that was essential not only for their social but also for their material well-being (weaving and clothes-mending, for instance, would generally occur at this time). In the winter, the filò took place in the barns made warm by the animals, and for that privilege, for that resource—the heat produced by animals that it was mostly their job to tend—the families had to compensate the land-owner with days of free labor. It was the natural order of things.
The rasdora operated in this world, pitting her knowledge and invention against a set of conditions that had not changed within living memory and so why would they ever? And how?
My grandmother once complained to me that she had been a daughter-in-law, but never a mother-in-law: she did not mean this literally—her son, in fact, did marry—but in terms of what being a mother-in-law entailed in the world she grew up: chiefly, the chance to be promoted into the matriarchal role of the rasdora, after years spent as apprentice and servant to her husband’s mother, learning the craft of generations of rural women.
That world was quickly swept away after the war, when Italy became a republic and a series of social, economic, and land reforms brought the very late middle ages to an end, at least in that region. My mother—who was too young to have become a daughter-in-law within the old system—was never the least bit sentimental about any of it. She remembered how brutal it was, and how easily Fascism has been grafted onto those atavistic practices, especially when it came to the fierce defense of the private property of the few against the subsistence and very survival of the many.
As for my grandmother, she worked all her life as a seamstress and took pride in her wonderful skills as a cook. Her recipes no longer responded to the hardship against which they were produced—in a sense, they lost their original meaning. Yet it’s all the more remarkable that they survived not just as historical relics and objects of nostalgic celebration, but as acknowledged masterpieces of culinary art.
On to the menu. We’re going to make cappelletti, which will give us three courses: entrée, main course and second course; a dessert called torta sbrisolona (“old crumbly”); and magic bread that keeps indefinitely, like in a story by JRR Tolkien.
We’ll start with, or rather go back to, the bread. This recipe actually comes from the nearby province of Ferrara, in Emilia. It’s the ciopa, which my mother learned to make it when she was around nine or ten. The family made their bread for the week on a Sunday night and had it cooked by the village baker, so at the beginning of the war that became her job.
Take the risen dough prepared earlier and cut it in half, then half again, then half again, then half again, until you are left with sixteen portions. Flatten each little ball of dough into rectangular strips of the thickness of half an inch or so. You need two to make a ciopa.
Start rolling each strip with your hand, back and forth, until you have produced this shape.
Take two strips and join them in the middle. That’s a ciopa, or “pair.”
(A few years back, when I asked my mother to give me a demonstration, she discovered that she was still able to roll both halves of the ciopa at the same time, one with each hand. She hadn’t done this for almost seven decades.)
I cook this bread on a pizza stone at 425°F (gas mark 7), without preheating the oven, for 30 to 40 minutes, but the combinations of temperature, time, fan-operation are virtually endless and vary from oven to oven. Stop when it’s cooked.
The ciopa is delicious when eaten fresh and then hardens into bread sticks without ever really becoming stale. Not that we ever let it get old enough to find out, these days.
Next, we’re going to make cappelletti, or “little hats,” a classic of Christmas banquets and family occasions that the border villages of the Mantuan province also share with neighboring Emilia. These stuffed pasta dumplings are served in a light meat stock so we’ll start with that. The ingredients are: half a chicken, 15 oz of chuck steak, one clove of garlic, one onion, one celery stick, one carrot. Dump everything in a pot full of cold water, bring to the boil, eliminate the foamy scum that forms at the top, then let simmer for three to four hours, salting at the end. Throw away the vegetables, set aside the meat, and leave the stock in the fridge overnight. In the morning, you will remove the thin layer of congealed fat from the top—not for spurious health reasons, but because you want the stock to be light and clear to compliment the cappelletti.
For the pasta: Four eggs, three cups of flour. This is enough for six people, add one egg and half a cup of flour for each extra person. Make a well in the flour, break the eggs in the middle and incorporate using a fork. Once the fork no longer does the trick, knead by hand until the dough is even and smooth. Roll with a pin or with a pasta machine until it’s quite thin. Thinner the better.
For the filling: One onion, one clove of garlic, 12 oz of lean beef meat, two fennel and pork sausages, one chicken kidney. Dump in cold water in a small pot for three hours, letting most of the water evaporate. Remove the garlic and onion and mix in a food processor. Add breadcrumbs, one egg and some Parmigiano Reggiano to the mixture and work it some more by hand. If it’s too dry to mix with ease, add a tablespoon or two of the liquid from pot.
Cut the pasta into 1.5-inch squares long. Place the filling on each square, fold into a triangle and then pinch two vertices together around the tip of your finger. If you lightly wet your fingers, the pasta will stick. You want to produce this shape.
Leave to set overnight on a lightly floured board.
When it’s time to eat lunch, bring the stock to the boil and cook the cappelletti for ten minutes or so.
Now remember how I said that this preparation would produce three courses?
The first is an entrée, bev’r in vin—literally “drink-in-wine.” It consists in serving a small portion of cappelletti in a bowl and adding a half a glass of the local wine, Lambrusco. This was regarded in peasant folklore as an elixir of health and, in case you are skeptical about the taste combination, I’m here to tell you that it’s one of the joys of my life.
Then there is your regular serving of cappelletti. One of the best dishes in the whole wide world.
Thirdly, there is the humble bollito—the meat you boiled for the stock and dutifully set aside, which you will now reheat and serve with sautéed potatoes garnished with parsley or a vegetable of your choice (but preferably sautéed potatoes garnished with parsley).
Finally, we have come to dessert. The Mantuan province lays a stronger claim on this one: the first documented traces of torta sbrisolona date back to the 16th century, in the years of the old dukedom, and describe a cake whose main ingredients—beef tallow, cornmeal and nuts—suggest the involvement of a judicious rasdora. Upon reaching the table of the Duke of Gonzaga, the recipe was ennobled by replacing the dripping with butter and the nuts with almonds, as well as by adding vanilla, that most wonderful of new-world spices. These ingredients survive today in varying proportions, leading to more rustic or genteel versions of the cake. At the peasant’s end, you’re supposed to break the sbrisolona by hitting it in the middle with your fist. At the aristocrat’s end, you can cut it in slices using a knife, like any old boring cake.
Predictably, the recipe I subscribe to sits near the ‘punch this cake’ end of the spectrum. It has as much tallow as butter, and as much cornmeal as flour. Now I know some of you will turn their nose down at the thought of beef tallow—not to mention the rather confronting fact that in this menu, not even the bread and the dessert are vegetarian—but it is necessary in order to produce the true and uniquely tasting sbrisolona, as opposed to a generic and anonymous crumble.
Having generously greased a 10- to 12-inch cake dish, we proceed to assemble our dry ingredients: 7 oz fine cornmeal, 7 oz high-grade flour, 7 oz sugar, 7 oz almonds (coarsely ground, plus a handful of whole one to garnish the top layer), zest of 1 lemon, pinch of salt, followed by our wet ingredients: 5 oz melted beef tallow, 5 oz softened butter, 2 egg yolks, 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence.
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in the middle and add the wet ingredients, Mix with your hands, messily. You won’t get a smooth or even coarse dough but rather a crumbly series of lumps. You’ll think you’ve done it all wrong.
Heat your oven to 350°F or gas mark 4. Transfer the mixture into your cake dish, without pressing it down too much. Cook for 45 to 60 minutes, until the top is golden-brow and the edges look slightly burnt. Let it cool.
The shards of a rustic sbrisolona are not unlike what some outside of Italy call biscotti (which for us is just the word for biscuits) and that Italians call cantucci or cantuccini. These are also almond-based and are consumed traditionally by dipping them into vin santo—literally “holy wine” but really a Tuscan style of dessert wine similar to Malvasia. Therefore, it won’t surprise you to hear that you can also dip sbrisolona in a dessert wine or, naturally, Lambrusco.
You could come up with similar menus, and similar histories, for most parts of Italy, and many places in the world. These just happen to be the ones that speak to me. Most obviously, they trigger memories of family and childhood, but they also encode strategies for survival that go back generations. However, peasant life wasn’t always or just a grim struggle to make it through the next winter. Dishes like cappelletti also speak of the joy of coming together as people, on the big occasions. It is a most intimate part of that wonderful, maybe unique-in-the-universe thing we call culture.