I mentioned a long time ago that my Mom is Executive Vice President of Food Nostalgia here at Butter Flour Eggs. (She doesn’t spend a lot of time in the office, preferring to correspond with her terrified underlings by iPad.)
If you’re looking for insight into my food aesthetic she would be your starting point. I’d wager that’s true of most offspring. Did I read somewhere that Mother Orangutans chew food and then feed it to their babies mouth-to-mouth? What are the chances that baby Orangutans grow up complaining that their Mothers were terrible cooks?
Thankfully my Mother let me have first crack at my own food. She was a good cook, but when she wanted us to eat something really great she took us to our Italian Grandmother. Okay, I’ll cop to the fact that the only way I could really have had an Italian Grandmother was if she came here by way of Odessa. And spoke Yiddish.
No, my brother and I didn’t really have an Italian grandmother; we did, however, have two really great substitutes.
If you were casting a movie and wanted a sweet, tiny-but-sturdy, Italian Grandmother-type, Mrs. Cappy (short for Capobianco) would have been your choice. She was our babysitter, kind and patient, no fool, and certainly no pushover. Oh, did I mention she could cook? It bears repeating: she could cook. Mr. Cappy must have smiled a lot.
My Mom was a good cook. Mrs. Cappy’s cooking was like nothing we’d tasted before. Real Italian Grandma food. (My Mom is not insulted by this. She agrees.)
My other Italian Grandmother was a guy named Giovanni—John to his friends. He ran a joint called “Giovanni’s” near where we lived. I use the term “joint” affectionately. I have a feeling that John played Italian Grandma to thousands of folks like us because the one thing you could always count on to start your meal at “Giovanni’s” was a wait in line to get a table. I don’t remember how long the average waiting time was; when you were a fidgety kid like I was, five minutes may just as well have been two hours. In those days all I had to occupy my fidgety self while waiting in that line were the cigarette machines. Every once in a while I’d hit the jackpot on one of those many-armed bandits and a book of matches would fly out. (The matches always advertised New Jersey’s Palisades Park. This made no sense to me: we were in Boston.)
If Mrs. Cappy was an Italian Grandma out of central casting, then “Giovanni’s” was like an Italian restaurant out of a set designer’s imagination. I doubt John had more than fifteen tables crammed into what he must have started as a road house bar room. In one corner: the requisite shrine to John F. Kennedy, our local fallen hero. In the other corner? Who knows? John kept the place dark. Atmosphere? Memories of places like “Giovanni’s” always seem to exist in a visual time warp where film noir meets “Happy Days.” You could see the food. What more did you need?
I don’t remember any tables, just booths with Formica topped tables. Each booth came equipped with a juke box that flip-flip-flipped its pages so you could choose amongst the likes of Bobby Darin, Tom Jones, Dean Martin, and, of course, Sinatra. My memory is sketchy but I’d swear the paper placemats bore maps of Italy. Sound familiar? Probably. I have just described “Giovanni’s” and who knows how many other, similar joints in every metropolitan area of the country.
Menu? I’m sure “Giovanni’s” had one, but we never used it, because we were there on a mission: Veal Cutlet Parmigiana, my Mom’s version of soul food. She still says it was the best Veal Cutlet Parmigiana she ever had, and she’s very, very picky.
It won’t surprise you to learn that my most vivid memory is of dessert. There were two choices: Spumoni Ice Cream and Bisque Tortoni.
Bisque Tortoni was a tiny, subtly sweet, slightly mysterious frozen dessert served in a little paper cup with a Maraschino cherry on top. Was it ice cream? Kind of. But the consistency was a bit different: it was creamier when allowed to soften a bit, a bit drier, and had some kind of cookie crumbs swirled through it and sprinkled on top. There was a heavy hint of something—vanilla?—that flavored the entire affair.
Some years later, perhaps slightly before the internet became the encyclopedia of everything you always wanted to know about but never found the answer to, I found a recipe for Bisque Tortoni in the newspaper. The recipe answered my questions about the unusual consistency of Bisque Tortoni. It is a frozen mixture of whipped cream, whipped egg whites, and sherry. I clipped out the recipe, knowing that I now had the knowledge and the power to make Bisque Tortoni.
Until I lost the recipe.
Relax. The story has a happy ending. While paging through an old cookbook, the yellowed clipping fluttered out like an oak leaf that had been pressed between pages of a bible. A sign? I thought so.
I’ve updated the recipe a bit, if only cosmetically, by suggesting the use of Amaretto instead of sherry, amaretti cookies instead of macaroons, and by piping the mixture into ramekins instead of paper cups.
For full effect, eat it in a dark room while listening to Tom Jones.
Click here for the recipe for Bisque Tortoni.
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