by Phoenix Trent
While some look to the shimmering cities of Paris and Rome as bastions of culinary excellence, I look to the small suburban town of Patchogue, New York. Although this seemingly mundane municipality does not seem like much, it lays claim to a master cook, a magician of the saucepan, a gastronomic goddess, also known as my Nonna (Grandma) Grazioso. It is in her cozy and simple kitchen that I have been able to find true comfort.
My Nonna came to the United States from Vitoria, Sicily at the age of 8, bringing along with her the old world culinary traditions of her home country. For her, cooking and eating is not merely a matter of self-sustenance, but an act of passion and joy. She lives to eat and cook, and it is for this reason that she brings a fiery passion to her dishes.
I enter my Nonna’s kitchen and am instantly hit by a barrage of wonderfully distinct scents. From the acidic and meaty punch of a lamb ragout bubbling away on the range, to the pungent and earthy perfume of broccoli raab being sautéed in olive oil and garlic, to the sweet and milky aroma of a ricotta cheese cake slowly baking itself to perfection in the oven, it all comes together to form a small piece of heaven.
Promptly after entrance, she asks me in her wonderful mix of an Italian and Long Island accent to taste the sauce for salt. I grab a spoon from the drawer and taste. Absolute perfection, the deep flavor of the lamb combines fantastically with accents of vibrant oregano. It didn’t need any salt, and truth be told, her cooking never has. She has been making this recipe for 50 years, and it requires no improvement. Its simple unadulterated flavors bring both of us a deep feeling of comfort and calm. After all, with a ragout so perfect…what could possibly go wrong?
My Nonna has taught me this recipe many times, and with each demonstration comes a new wonderfully entertaining anecdote. She tells me about her days as a fashion designer in New York City, the prosciutto in Venice, and the mountains of Torino. Nothing is off limits, and conversation flows without the shackles of pretense and embarrassment. Carrots are chopped, fish is filleted, and pasta is cooked, yet it seems like no time has passed. It’s almost like the clock is frozen as the simple perfection of cooking and my Nonna’s love take over my world.
There is something about cooking that truly puts me at ease and gives me a strong sense of place and belonging. Onions will always brown when sautéed in butter, heavy cream will always thicken when whipped, and roasted garlic’s pungent aroma will always be mind blowing. The components of a great dish are so simple and absolute. No need for complex equations, or carefully tabulated statistics. It is as the Italians say, “La cucina è semplice ma perfetto.” Cooking is simple yet perfect.
A good simple recipe does not waver in its convictions and excellence; it is comfortable in its metaphorical skin. Although it may seem silly, a recipe that has stood the test of time is of great inspiration to me. It shows me that if a person keeps to his convictions and retains his own simple components, then perhaps there is a chance for true calm, comfort, and bliss in life. Perhaps there is room for happiness among the endless deadlines, and stressful requirements of existence.
It is in my Nonna’s wonderfully simple kitchen among the herbs, spices, and olive oil that I can truly open up and feel at home. While preparing a pasta con pesto I reveal to my grandmother my deepest fears, and while the lasagna bakes, I reveal to her my greatest desires, and hopes. Her kitchen is a place to release, a place that holds no judgment. It is a place where the simple perfection of a well-turned potato is celebrated and a place that will always hold great comfort for me. It is truly as my Nonna says, “La cucina è la vera casa,” or “The kitchen is the true home.”