In the kitchen at Easter – Theresa Argento shares a delicious slice of her Italian culture
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
By Jocelyn Ruggiero
For me, holidays are defined by the foods I eat. In my Italian-American family, there are foods sacred to particular days.
No matter how much we might yearn for these foods throughout the year, we wait until the appointed day to indulge.
I am convinced that the waiting makes these foods taste even better. Which is why we wait. Nothing defines Easter for me more than “pizza piena,” or, as we say in my family, “pizzagaina.” When I recall with longing the Easter dinners I spent as a child around my Aunt Phil’s dining room table, it is pizzagaina that I taste.
The basic pie is a savory delight: fluffy egg and cheese, generously filled with salty ham and peppered ham. Every family uses a variation of these ingredients. I remember the March morning many years ago in my great Aunt Phil’s kitchen when she and my Grandfather Lou gave me a lesson in making pizzagaina. They had a longstanding debate about which of them made it better. And so that morning of my lesson there was some friendly Italian-style talk-shouting.
My grandfather put his hands together as if in prayer, shaking them downward slowly to emphasize his instructions (“Now, Phil, you gotta CUT the ham in small pieces … ”). My aunt added extra salt when my grandfather wasn’t looking, and swore because her oven wasn’t working right (it never was).
In the end, they sat at the kitchen table with a fresh pot of coffee, laughed and told stories as we ate the fruit of their combined labor. It was delicious.
I haven’t made pizzagaina on my own since that morning. But I decided this year that it was time for me to try again, especially since my own 3-year-old twins are eager to “cook like mama.”
A refresher lesson was in order. My grandfather and great aunt have long since passed away, and so I went to the most venerated local expert on Italian-American culture and cooking that I could find — Theresa Argento.
Eighty-eight-year-old Theresa is a force of nature. She has since 1978 been the co-chairperson of the yearly St. Andrew Festival in Wooster Square. She leads countless volunteer activities at St. Michael’s Church, including a sixth edition community cookbook. Her work as president of the St. Andrew’s Ladies Society provides scholarship money for young people. She is also chairwoman of the Amalfi Sister Cities program. If you attended the Cherry Blossom Festival in Wooster Square recently, you would have seen her booth displaying the photos she has collected, documenting the history of the historic area. She has worked her whole life to preserve the culture and heritage of the community into which she was born.
We have a mutual friend, but had never met before. Theresa opened the door of her New Haven home and greeted me with a hug and kiss. She led me through her immaculate house, proudly showing me the photos of her parents, her two daughters, four grandchildren and extended family that line the abode.
Her living room was neatly organized with rows of chocolates and goodies for the Easter egg hunt she will conduct on Holy Saturday for the little ones in her family. Everything will be labeled so that each child gets the same amount of candy. She gathered two chocolate bars and placed them firmly in my hands — “a little something for your children.” Her husband, Pat, used to joke that she was so generous she just might give him away some day. She never did of course, and they were married happily for 56 years until he died in 2003.
We sat down at her kitchen table, which was covered in a spotless cloth woven with sparkling silver threads. Each evening, Theresa cooks a full meal and sits here to eat with her daughter Nettie, who teases that she wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for her mother’s cooking. She served espresso as we talked, periodically laughing and telling me, “I’m a crazy lady!!”
Theresa texts her grandchildren and drives herself to her various committees and appointments, reserving Fridays to visit family graves, including that of her late daughter Frances. She keeps a bottle of Limoncello from Amalfi in her freezer, and a date book stuffed with her many appointments and contacts.
Her parents, Matteo and Antonetta Carrano, were Italian immigrants from Amalfi. They owned Carrano’s Fruit Market in Wooster Square. Theresa attended Commercial High School, and there learned her trade as an accountant and auditor, skills that still serve her in her volunteer work. As a young woman, she kept busy “gallivanting from one meeting to another”; it was not until she was married that she learned to cook. I can testify to the fact that her mother taught her well.
Like me, Theresa enjoys Easter even more than Christmas, because, as she says, it is a “food holiday.”
The dishes she and her family eat this season are familiar to me — variations on the meals my parents and grandparents grew up eating during the Easter season: fried asparagus, eggplant and fish and anginette cookies on Palm Sunday. Pizzagaina, spaghetti pie and Easter bread on Holy Saturday. On Easter, antipasta, dandelion soup, macaroni, artichokes, asparagus, ham and the sweet pies: wheat, rice, ricotta and cream.
Pizzagaina is eaten throughout the week, as long as it lasts … . It is so delectable that it can be eaten at any meal.
My Aunt Phil and grandfather made their pizzagaina with a crust, but Theresa likes to make a crustless version, and this is what she wanted me to share with you.
She feels it is a simpler way to make the pizzagaina, and she wants more than anything for the younger generation to learn to make traditional Italian foods, so that a small, but meaningful piece of heritage can be passed on and shared at your table like it is at hers.
Whether your family comes from Italy or Africa or Mexico or Ireland, and whether or not you celebrate Easter, I invite you to share in Theresa’s heritage and mine by making pizzagaina for your family this week. And remember, if you want it to taste even better, you must not make it again until next April. That is the tradition.
We invite you to comment at nhregister.com/life. Let us know how you liked the pizzagaina, and share your family’s spring food traditions.
THERESA ARGENTO’S CRUSTLESS HAM PIE, A.K.A. PIZZAGAINA
-1 pound ricotta
-¾ cup milk
-1½ cup flour
-2½ tablespoons baking powder
-Grated Romano cheese
-1½ pound diced farmer cheese; a local option would be Liuzzi’s basket cheese
-1 pound diced ham
-1 pound diced prosciutto, see note
Using a mixer, blend eggs, ricotta, milk, flour and baking powder. Add remaining ingredients.
Pour into greased and floured 10- by 14-inch baking dish. (Theresa uses lard).
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until center of the pie is cooked.
Note: Theresa replaces the prosciutto with peppered ham. She asks her butcher to cut it and the regular ham one-quarter inch thick.