“My nona, in her kind, soft voice, said to me, ‘Oh, honey, you need to learn how to cook. The only way you will find a good man is through his stomach.’ ” So begins the introduction to what might be the most fitting way to honor an Italian grandmother, a book of her recipes.
It was with tremendous anticipation and some trepidation that Nikki Nicoletto Christie presented her family with her tribute to Viola Nicoletto on Thanksgiving. Anticipation because her best effort to properly represent her grandmother’s vast culinary repertoire had come to fruition. Trepidation because her nono, Viola’s husband, is not an easy man to impress, and her success with the project hinged on his approval.
“Oh, I was nervous,” she said. “My grandfather is a perfectionist.” But what was originally imagined as a series of photocopies stapled together like a classroom handout had, by Christie’s hand, become a 120-plus-page, full-color, soft-cover book with images from Viola’s kitchen and recipes organized by category. If anyone was capable of responding less than enthusiastically to Christie’s labor of love, it was her nono, whose reaction could, in perfect Italian grandfather fashion, be tinged with underwhelm. As it turned out, he was very pleased.
John and Viola Nicoletto, both 100 percent Italian, moved to Ventura from New Mexico in the mid-1940s. Both had been raised in coal mining camps where life was shared, and nearly everything they consumed was handcrafted.
Christie’s dad, Terry Nicoletto, remembers his mother making polenta from scratch, cutting it with a string and the Christmas cookies, including pitzels that she made in a special iron that bore her mother’s initials.
Before Viola passed away in 2003, she planned to compile her recipes, many of which were jotted down on the fronts and backs of note cards, some in Italian. Unsure about the mechanics of such an endeavor, she agreed to let her son Terry take it on, but as time and daily survival conspire to put such matters on the back burner, he never quite got around to it. Finally Christie, whose misty-eyed memories of hanging handmade spaghetti over the ironing board to dry in Nona’s kitchen linger like the aroma of red sauce simmering on the stove, decided to take matters into her own hands. Terry was very pleased with the outcome and applauds his daughter Nikki’s efforts. “She went above and beyond,” he says.
Anyone who’s grown up with, or even in proximity to, an Italian family knows that food is not only central to Italian-American culture: it’s in many ways the embodiment of love. Italian women show affection through food, and no one in the Nicoletto family went hungry.
While full-time homemaking, a lost art today, was not an unusual pursuit in Viola’s time, to be entirely fulfilled by caring for your family, immersed in activities that most women today find borderline abhorrent, was and is unique. Christie, a wife and mother of two (her husband is former Hells Angels, Ventura Chapter president George Christie) is awed by her grandmother’s selflessness. “George does his own laundry, and we cook together,” she says. “Things are definitely different. I’m not in the kitchen all day cooking, and I tip my hat to her because I could never do it.”
Christie’s fondest memories of Nona are hanging out in her “nook” and making ravioli and spaghetti from scratch. “It was a lot of work, it would take two days for the spaghetti to dry.” But the payoff was on the fork because nothing compares to food prepared from scratch. Characteristic of Italian families, everyone gathered on Saturdays for a large meal of meat, pasta, salad, garlic bread and dessert. “No matter what, everyone got together,” remembers Christie.
“Even if we had differences.”
When word got out last month that Viola’s beloved recipes were finally compiled and bound, with photos no less, family members across the U.S. and as far away as Canada began putting in orders for their own copies and Christie says she will consider making it available to anyone who expresses interest. Her next task is to fulfill those orders and maybe attempt some of her nona’s Christmas cookies. “I think in the recession a lot of people are cooking at home and it’s bringing people together again,” says Christie. As the most basic ideas seem to hold truest, Viola’s own words to her granddaughter offer a simple antidote to complicated times. “Everyone loves good food, and good food makes everyone happy.”