Even though I ate pasta three times a week growing up, I never knew what al dente meant until I started to watch cooking shows. I never understood why the people threw spaghetti against the wall either. My dad always just sifted out a piece of pasta and tasted it. Then it was done.
A favorite meal was baked Mostaccioli. We usually had it on weekends and every damn holiday except fourth of July when we cooked ribs on the grill outside.
When I was really little, about five or six, we’d go shopping on Saturday morning for our ingredients. My dad would put me and my sister in the old VW bug and give mom a little extra sleep time. Our first stop was always THE EGG STORE which was this little Italian food place on the East end of Cermak Plaza near the theaters in Berwyn, IL which was our next door suburb.
I remember walking through the big glass doors into the supermarket unlike any other. Mind you, this was the late seventies and the FDA hadn’t cracked down on food safety and handling yet, OSHA was a pipe dream and the Butcher was a Teamster with a big knife. I was always confused as to why it was named, “THE EGG STORE”, because we never bought eggs there. We only bought; sauce, cheese, Sausage, Oil, and the tub of spices. We never bought eggs. But I remember my dad talking up the butcher for some Sausage and veal and then talking to the sauce lady who would dish out with a ladle from a big tub, jar after jar full of homemade sauce. We always brought our own jar to refill, and man, that place smelled good.
I figure the place changed hands at some point and my dad fell out of sorts with the way things fell, so we started to go to this little place called, “Frank and Teresa’s”. It wasn’t far from our place and a little corner brownstone. The storefront was down below and Frank and Teresa lived in the upstairs apartment. They were old school before I even went to school.
Their place smelled even better than THE EGG STORE on account I figure it was smaller and the smells grew more in there. Frank made his own cheese and ground his own Sausage. Teresa made sauce and sold the leftover bread dough from a little place across the street called, “Turano’s” which wasn’t open on weekends back in those days and gave her their leftovers on the cheap.
Teresa was a kind lady but skinny and wrinkled with a big hooked nose and short black hair with lots of blue eyeshadow. She always told my dad that they should feed me more. She gave me these really sweet crispy spiral little cookies with chocolate in the middle, so I adored her.
Frank wore a wife beater and had a handlebar mustache. The wiry black chest hair sprung from the neck of his tee and through the thin worn fabric. He was cool. He’d grind your Sausage right there and reach his stubby hands into a five gallon bucket and squeeze out into a cheese towel your mozzarella cheese. They had little tubs of spices too. It smelled real good in there. It was the smell of part of my life.
Anyway, that little place called “Turano’s” I mentioned that gave Teresa her dough on weekends got pretty big digs a few years later supplying French and Italian bread to most of the restaurants on the West Side. They started to be open on weekends. So, after Frank and Teresa’s, we’d have to go across the street to Turano’s to get bread and dough. We always bought a box of cookies there too and some eclairs.
After that, we went to the booze store and dad bought a case of Old Style. My sister and I would get some penny candy from the jars on the counter.
I loved Saturdays.
In the afternoon, my dad would bust out the old iron skillet and heat it up. He’d drip in some oil and then some garlic, onions and green pepper. Then the sausage, which he’d let sit for a minute. Then, with his spatula, he’d chop up the sausage and the whole pan would sizzle and a big waft of smell would erupt from the pan. Just when the sizzle settled down he would add salt and pepper and a big pinch from the spice tub. The casing would burn off in a gnarled delicious. He’d drain the whole lot onto a paper towel on a plate and then return it to the pan. Thirty seconds later, the sauce. Simmer.
I also forgot to tell you that my dad used to put the mozzarella cheese in the freezer when we got home. By now, the water was boiling. So, he put a box of Penna or Mostaccioli pasta in the boiling water with a big pinch of salt and gave it a big stir like he was making a tornado. The cheese came out of the freezer, he’d tell me to, “Grate it”, hand me a grater and a bowl. The oven would be preheated and the baking dish absolved from under the cupboard.
A bit later, he’d cut the heat on the sauce and get a fork and jab a piece of pasta. He’d take a bite and then blow on the bit and hand it to me. I’d eat it.
”Taste that?”, he’d say.
”That’s aldente. Cooked, but firm to the bite. You better treat life that way Bob.” My father looked right into my little skinny eyes right then. I didn’t know what he meant until a few years ago. Twenty years later.
He’d sprinkle the baking dish with a little oil, and call in my older sister. My older sister would drain the pasta, add it to the sauce, fold it over and put a layer in the baking dish. I’d add a layer of cheese. Another layer of pasta and then, cover the whole damn top with cheese.
Bake 350 degrees F for twenty five minutes. Let stand for ten minutes.
Cut the French bread you bought up every inch and a half, butter it, sprinkle with garlic powder and put under the broiler for two point one five minutes but watch it.