I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, known for its breathtaking mountains, coal-mining roots and multiethnic food culture. There are German beer gardens (bars) and historically Polish churches, which serve up buttery pierogis and mouth-watering kielbasa at their seasonal bazaars. And in my old neighborhood, you couldn’t drive more than a few blocks without cruising past the front door of a pizza parlor or Italian restaurant.
My Italian-American family and I enjoyed a steady diet of “pies” from Revello’s, Three Guys and Victory Pig (the only pizza place I knew that offered pint-sized cartons of chocolate milk to accompany its square-shaped, deep-fried pizza). Meanwhile, you could find my parents, my three siblings and me at Perugino’s down the street for every birthday, New Year’s Eve and high school graduation. My standing order was Chicken Ala Andy, breaded tenderloins sautéed in white wine and then drizzled in a lemon-garlic sauce.
For a long time, there was even an Italian-American grocery store, Zachary’s, on the corner of Bennett and Kelly streets, just one block from my maternal grandparents’ house (and I grew up just one block from my grandparents, Poppy and Grandma). Zachary’s closed its doors some time ago, but back in the day, you could find specialty cold cuts like capicola and mortadella behind the deli counter, along with freshly made Italian sausage and containers of seasoned olives.
Mr. Zachary always asked kids if they wanted a slice of cheese; they always said yes.
Italians, of course, have a love affair with food, and this was true of the Italian-Americans I grew up with—my own family not least among them. This epicurean passion flourished in full force every winter, when my mom spent hours preparing homemade ravioli, sauce and meatballs for our Christmas Day dinner.
Now, my mom’s meatballs—mmm, I can almost taste them now. The three main ingredients were a combination of ground veal, beef and pork with Parmesan cheese and garlic. Succulent.
Today, I make my home in San Antonio, more than 1,500 miles from that old neighborhood and my mom’s cucina. It’s hard to find authentic Italian-style meatballs here in South Texas, where the main food group is Mexican cuisine. While I love ceviche, puffy tacos and fajitas as much as the next girl, I do miss my mom’s meatballs.
When my mom visits, she generously makes several Pyrex pans of her meatballs for my husband, our two daughters and me. On her last visit, my girls (ages 4 and 1) watched as she prepared her meatball mixture. They also enjoyed sampling the fruits of her labor afterward.
It goes without saying: My mom’s homemade meatballs didn’t last long in my house after she headed back to the East Coast.
“Mom, is this Nona’s meatball?” Grace asked one weeknight, pointing skeptically at the meatball atop her plate of gemelli pasta.
I told her no, we had already eaten all of Nona’s meatballs. I had bought these at the local grocery store.
Grace slumped back in her chair. “This is too spicy. I want a Nona meatball. Can you make one?”
With my 1-year-old underfoot, I had barely been able to boil the water for the pasta and heat up the store-bought meatballs in the oven, let alone cook, from scratch, my mom’s meatball recipe.
“Can you, Mom?”
I scooped Anna up before she could begin pushing the trash can around the kitchen, her latest developmental milestone. Then I knelt beside Grace.
“I have an idea,” I told her. “We don’t have any of Nona’s meatballs left, and I can’t make them right now either. But we can find another wonderful meatball. A second-best, store-bought meatball. Deal?”
Grace still looked skeptical. Anna began wiggling out of my grasp. “It will be fun,” I announced.
We needed to find something not quite as zesty as our first store-bought meatball, the H-E-B Spicy Italian Style Pork Meatballs. Thus, the next time the girls and I went grocery shopping, I picked up a package of Aidells Italian Style with Mozzarella Cheese Meatballs.
I loved these chicken meatballs. I also loved that they were fully cooked; all I had to do was heat them up stovetop in my favorite (store-bought) marinara sauce.
Grace, however, found them too spicy for her taste, again. At first, Anna seemed to like this meatball, but then she began grunting for her sippy cup of water. Too spicy for her, too.
“I don’t know, Mom,” Grace said. “Maybe Nona should come back. Or you should make her meatballs.”
“Both good ideas,” I replied, gobbling up some dinner (while standing at the kitchen island, of course—moms rarely sit when they eat). “In the meantime, though, we’re going to find the perfect store-bought meatball. Sound good?”
Grace picked at her pasta.
I found myself grocery-shopping solo the next time, which gave me the opportunity to peruse the meat market shelves in a more laid-back state than if Grace and Anna were riding along in the grocery cart, asking for a snack every couple of seconds. I spotted a container of Italian-style turkey meatballs. Both the girls liked turkey. I decided to give these meatballs a try.
That night, I served Grace her pasta with a turkey meatball on top. I cut another one up into tiny pieces for Anna and put them on her high chair tray. Anna took a piece, tasted it and gulped it down. Then another, and another.
I looked over at Grace, who was chewing and smiling. “Mom, I love this meatball.”
“Yes! And I want another one!”
“You do!” I spooned another meatball onto Grace’s plate.
She smiled again. “You did it, Mom.”
I smiled back at her. Mamma mia, how about that—I had found the perfect store-bought meatball.
The Italian-Americans back home wouldn’t think that was much of an accomplishment. A store-bought meatball? A turkey one at that?
“You want a third meatball?”
Grace laughed. Anna joined in.
Yes, I’d done it.
Photo credit: Pixabay
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