After the war, in a quiet district of the city known as Astoria, whose claim to fame was as the home of Steinway and Sons piano crafters extraordinaire to the world, clusters of small cookie cutter bungalows appeared. By 1957 when I became intimately familiar with them, they had been a part of the local landscape long enough to lose that “brand spanking new, stick out like a swollen thumb character” and blend in to the neighbourhood, which was then very much Italian. My family rented an apartment a couple of blocks east, and with my father away long term and my mother supporting us with a 9 to 5er in midtown Manhattan, seven-year-old I needed care before and after school, and during the summer months.
Enter “Aunt” Sophie and “Uncle” Pete, who owned one of the aforementioned bungalows and needed a bit of extra cash. She was a kindly, heavy set, mid-50s matron in chief, a no nonsense homemaker you rarely encounter nowadays except in commercials for authentic Italian sauces, while Pete had recently suffered a permanent back injury and had to retire after years in the construction business.
A two-toned brown Studebaker Conestoga wagon could generally be found parked in front of their house, only disappearing from its appointed spot when Sophie sent Pete out to get something at the store, or when Pete made an occasional fishing foray down to the docks along Sheepshead Bay, dropping a hook or two with old friends and generally returning home empty handed. I remember that their car was the ugliest vehicle I’d yet seen in my short life, though the Edsel was soon to change this opinion.
The small back yard was Sophie’s domain, and featured herb plants, basil and oregano mostly, hot peppers and a number of plum tomato plants that grew taller than me. There were also a couple of teepees made of long wooden poles tied together at the top, up which climbed several varieties of string beans.
The house itself was dark and cluttered inside, with a lifetime accumulation of knick knacks, magazines, and the kind of quality, veneer-less maple and oak furniture that you couldn’t buy any longer. Sophie and Pete had two grown children, both now out on their own. Andy was a cherubic bachelor still looking for a big score, while his older sister Rosa possessed the looks in the family. Her nose might have been just a little too “Roman” for connoisseurs of beauty, but she had long and lush black hair that hung down in spiral tresses. She would always greet me with a big kiss, mostly on the top of my head, while her fragrant hair smothered me in joy. She had two children of her own, who were doted upon by Pete and Sophie whenever they visited. Otherwise, I got all the attention.
I don’t recall much of my interactions with Pete, a quiet, gentle silver haired man who mostly sat quietly in his overstuffed easy chair reading the newspaper. A foot high stack of past editions found a home alongside his chair, until Sophie would evict them during a house cleaning juggernaut. But Pete made it a point on days off from school to do something special with me. Most of the time, we’d stroll the two blocks north to the East River, where he would be more successful in catching little porgies and smelt that I would dutifully carry home in a small plastic pail. While I watched and learned in silence, Pete always seemed to meet up with someone he knew, instantly becoming more animated and talkative while speaking Italian.
From the very first time I walked through their front door, my nose told me this was a different domestic environment. After working a high-pressure job all day and commuting a couple of hours on top of this, my mother did her best to provide good meals for my sister and I. But it was canned corn, frozen beans, mashed potatoes and chicken legs or hamburger a million different ways--except Fridays, when we had to eat fish. The most affordable was swordfish caught out at Montauk Point on Long Island, which didn’t taste all that bad. Sometime later, the flesh was found to contain very high levels of mercury, so the commercial fishery collapsed and many believers sinned each and every Friday afterwards.
Sophie always had something simmering on the stove. Usually, it was a large cauldron of minestrone chock full of fresh herbs and spices. With a crusty slice of what we called “Italian bread” and a wedge of Romano cheese, a steaming bowl was often my lunch. Dessert was rare, but on occasion I’d sip a small cup of espresso into which I had dipped a piece of Sophie’s crunchy biscotti.
Often times Sophie would take me out to the backyard garden, where we’d pick ripe tomatoes into a silver bowl. She called then San Marzano, and said they made the best tomato sauce. When the bowl was overflowing with firm crimson beauties, we’d go back into the kitchen and drop them a few at a time into hot water. After a minute, they’d be thrust into ice water, kind of like a sauna for tomatoes. Sophie then showed me how to squeeze the stem end just enough to force the pulp out the other end into another large sauce pan, leaving the now empty skin in my hand. After a couple of embarrassing failures that saw tomato guts and seeds splattered all over my face, the counter and windows, I got the hang of it.
She would add garlic, basil and oregano, onion slices, a Serrano pepper and stir the pot every fifteen minutes or so with a giant wooden spoon for the remainder of the day. The delightfully overpowering smell beamed me into another world. The dining room was just off the kitchen, and featured a massive elliptical oak table where the entire family would sit down to mangia. Otherwise, a small alcove in the kitchen sufficed for the three of us. We slid into bench seats before a square table, which also served as a base for rolling out Sophie’s pasta dough.
Helping her make ravioli was THE highlight for a young cook in the making. She’d carefully roll out the dough so it covered every inch of the table, then repeat the process after the first sheet was rolled up and put aside. I was given a small bowl that contained a mixture of ground pork, spices and finely grated parmesan. A dollop of this would form the filling for each ravioli, and together with Sophie we dotted the sheet of pasta dough. Because I liked the filling much more than the pasta, my dots were bigger than hers, and she gently chided me, to no avail.
We’d then proceed to stretch out the second sheet of dough over the first, and race to see who could seal around each little mound of filling and finish first. I then cut around each individual ravioli with a serrated pasta wheel, after which Sophie gently spooned groups into boiling water. Combining the cooked gems with the long simmering sauce made for an epicurean dinner. And I always got a small glass of red wine too.
Nowadays, we hear a lot about hundred mile diets and farm-to-table meals, but I had my initial experience with these concepts in Aunt Sophie’s kitchen. And at the tender age of seven, I became interested in cooking with the freshest ingredients, something that later became a passion.
As was our habit in those times, we moved mid-summer to a cheaper apartment some distance away, and my adventures with Sophie and Pete came to an end. That fall, Rosa called to tell us that Sophie had fallen very ill, and was in the hospital. Mom gathered us up and we took the subway out to visit her. As was much more common then prior to the Surgeon General’s devastating indictment of big tobacco and the lives taken by cigarettes every day, Sophie and Pete were both smokers. From a rotund, jovial and kindly woman, Sophie had been reduced to a pale shadow of her former self, with tubes running out of her arm and mouth. She wasn’t able to speak. This was my first experience with cancer, and it took Sophie a couple of weeks later.
Pete himself was lost without Sophie, and in just a few more months he left to join her wherever we go after our time in this world ends. We got Christmas cards from Rosa for a couple of years, but then lost touch. I was too young then to think about death and dying, much less leaving a legacy behind. I now undoubtedly meditate too much about these things, and have come to appreciate the lasting effects people and places have had on me. If I were still a drinking man, I’d raise a glass to Sophie and the great inspiration she was to a young child looking for a place to belong, and an outline to a life he would lead. If I close my eyes tight, I can still remember the aromas that seeped from her kitchen stove out into her house, onto her street and up into the stars above.