Food is my most favorite thing in the world. We all need food to survive, but as an Italian, it’s more than that, it’s in my genes. People joke, okay just one person – a close friend’s husband (yes, you Justin) has joked before saying, “Wait – is she Italian or something??” because I use it as the reason for everything. Fact of the matter is, it IS the reason for everything. When it comes to food, it is the reason for it all. Whether it be shopping for food, preparing food, cooking the food, or eating the food – it is the way that I love, the way that I hate – it is both the way that I relate to people and the way that I hide or avoid, I use it to meditate or to expel and it is clearly my main form of therapy. All avenues of food do different things for me. Shopping, preparing, cooking and eating – they are all part of who I am.
Before we are even born, our love for sustenance is created. It is said that whatever is consumed when we are in the womb has a great affect on what we love as we grow. Italians are pretty infamous for their ability to introduce tiny babies to intense foods. In addition to the “Pastina”(small pasta stars) that are lovingly fed to babies as early as a few weeks old, and usually smothered with butter and freshly grated parmesan – I have seen Italian babies as young as 2 weeks old given meatballs, fish, wine, and of course, all of the rustic Italian bread they can eat. It’s our version of a Gerber zwieback biscuit – just gum until it’s mushy enough to ingest.
I grew up seeing food two ways: In my younger years it was used as a tool for discipline. My house was an “If you don’t eat what’s in front of you, it will be your breakfast” kind of house. There were hours of stand-offs and tears from being force-fed things like breaded smelt, liver, brussel sprouts, creamed spinach, etc. I became a master at hiding portions in random places when no one was looking. We weren’t allowed dessert on school nights because it was said that sugar made us hyper and we wouldn’t do as well in school. One rule that still puzzles me to this day: we weren’t allowed roquefort dressing. Roquefort is like a creamy cross between Blue Cheese and Ranch. We were told it was an ADULT dressing. All I know is it tasted 100 times better than Ranch, and made you sometimes have a messy mouth, and for that reason I wanted it super bad. The no-dessert thing was hard. It made my sister and I create plans of action when sweets were in the house. Our parents had special Italian chocolates called Baci (‘kiss’ in Italian) they were wrapped in blue foil and had messages of love written on the inside of the wrapper. My parents kept them in the garage, hidden on a high shelf only to bring out when we had guests over. We would keep watch for each other and sneak them, and eat them under the covers in our room. When company came over and they would pull the box out, there were like four chocolates left and it would be an awkward moment for them, as my sister and I shared shit-eating grins and flushed cheeks, giggling to each other.
“Sometimes the Spaghetti likes to be alone..” – Secondo, Big Night
My solace when it came to food – my vacations of sorts – was when we went to Sunday dinner at my grandparents house. My Nonna and Nonno (the Italian way to say Grandma and Grandpa) – Ada and Vince Mottola, Sr. – were the King and Queen of the Garlic Gulch. They would have the whole family over and it was all the food of my dreams in one place. Nonno would be grilling steaks and pork chops, Nonna would be in the kitchen all day, cooking her family Ragu or Roast. There were always sweets and wine, and there was a never-ending supply of bread. I was never limited and what I ate was never forced or controlled. Things that were not allowed at home were always allowed there – like soda, sugary cereals, Nutella spread on everything, sips of wine for the kids, anything. My Nonna even kept a bowl of Jordan almonds in her fancy living room, and I could always have one if I asked her first. I hated them because I always felt like I was going to break a tooth, but it wasn’t about that, it was about it being unconditional and accessible.
When I was about 13, Nonna started vocalizing things to me as she cooked. She would ask for my help even though, looking back, I know she didn’t need it – she was simply making a place for me to learn. She was spicy, impatient, and her steps were quick like lightning, but I loved the intensity of it. It was like watching a speed chess game. I was determined to figure it out. Nothing was measured or labeled. The first thing I learned to make was her
Ragu. A pork-based red sauce, simmered several hours, usually served with Penne pasta and a piccolo (small) amount of ricotta mixed in with the pasta and sauce, freshly-grated parmesan, and pork pieces on the side. The pork is cooked in tons of garlic and onions, then simmered in the tomatoes. The fats cook down to create a delicious velvety smoothness in the sauce. That dish will always be home to me. It is what I make for the people I want to show love to. It takes some time, finesse, and attention. It is the first dish I ever made for Ryan, and he said he decided that day he was going to marry me.
At the age of 16, I became old enough to work in the family restaurants. Vince’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria was started by my grandparents. With a combination of their recipes and love of food, and my Nonno’s perfect pizza-making skills, they opened their
first restaurant in 1957 in the Rainier Valley (at that time known as the Garlic Gulch). At one point in my life, they had seven restaurants around the Seattle area. I started bussing tables and helped as a hostess when I was just 16 years old. As the years passed, I was allowed to do a little prep cooking and some cooking when Nonno wasn’t watching, as well as waited tables. I watched Nonno train the cooks, and loved to watch the process. Even though it wasn’t given the time and love that Nonna would show in her kitchen in Seward Park – it was still given more than other restaurants during those years.
Watching Nonno make a pizza was a sight to behold. Oftentimes the pizza cooks would want to have a “Pizza Battle” with him. He would raise his brow and give a devilish smile (to which some compared to a young Jack Nicholson) and of course rise to the challenge. I would watch with pride, amazement, and intrigue. He moved a great deal slower than the quick-fingered cocky cooks who wanted to beat him. Nonno would say, “My food isn’t fast food, its takes time. If you can’t wait, go eat Dominos.” By the end of the battle, his perfectly-spaced pepperoni, soft but also somehow crisp crust, was evenly cooked and flawless. The cooks would always shake their heads with amazement as he snickered and laughed to himself. He was famous for arguing with customers that wanted a rush on their food or wanted a larger table than they needed or to change an ingredient. The customer was NOT always right in his restaurant, and he had no problem reminding people. When the smoking rules changed in Seattle, he battled it for months, keeping his back room the smoking area, so he could enjoy his cigarette and espresso after each meal.
I learned a lot in that restaurant. Not just how to hold a job and work hard, but I know my fierce intensity and sometimes unwavering stubborn side that comes out when I am busily cooking a meal for a big group was learned from my Nonno. He was very hard on me during those restaurant years. When I was 18, I had my first apartment around the corner from the QA Vinces, and I did a variety of tasks at the restaurant. Partially for the steady paycheck but in reality it was my way of having the food and the family as close to me as possible. By 19 and 20, I was making good tips (upwards of $700 a night because of Sonics games – RIP SONICS). I liked to party and went to raves and nightclubs on my off time, and sometimes would pull all-nighters – going from dropping acid at a rave to serving pizza at the restaurant the next day without any sleep. Nonno wasn’t stupid, he saw my wild side and I could tell it frustrated him. At one point I remember thinking he hated me. Still, no matter how rough I looked the next morning, he would tell me to sit with him as he had his coffee and cigarette, eating Margherita pizza, and he would say, “Mariangela, what’s the matter with you, eh?” The tough love that I give younger people today is very reminiscent to those smoke-filled espresso and pizza sessions with Nonno.
“It was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present.”
-Tita, Like Water for Chocolate
As a mother, it was important that I pass down my enduring love of food and the sacred process of preparing it to my own child. There is so much to cover here that I decided when in doubt, just make a list. So here is a list of “to do’s” as I see them. They are all over the place but they properly cover what I did over the years. Included are some of the rules I put in place to help shape who Madison is today, and also who I am as a mother and foodie.
- Never force your child to eat. If they don’t like what you make, give them the option of finding their own food, and or they will eat when they are hungry enough.
- ALWAYS have dessert.
- When in doubt, Pasta al Burro e Parmigiano (pasta with butter and parmesan).
- No cheese on any pasta with fish (i.e. clams, muscles, etc).
- If you ever eat Hawaiian pizza, deny it afterwards (Nonno is watching!).
- Spumoni is the ice cream version of Fruitcake, don’t do it.
- If your child is old enough to hold a toy they are old enough to help with dinner.
- According to Nonna, the key to perfect Rum Baba recipe is: 1 shot for you, one shot for the cake.
- Meatballs only turn out if you test them first with family before company arrives.
- The only way to make a frittata is with cold leftover pasta with red sauce.
- Give your kids a sip of wine, IT’S GOOD FOR THEM.
- Ranch/Roquefort/Blue Cheese dressing is good at ANY age.
- Always cook for at least 10 people, even for a family of 3. You never know who will drop by.
- Per #13 – never just DROP BY – because most Italian moms look like death while cooking a big meal, and then transform into Elizabeth Taylor just before company comes.
- Always take seconds, even if you are full, it really does haunt us.
- Never make your child feel guilty for not liking your food, just riddle them with inquiries about what else they ate that day and find an excuse for their taste bud inaccuracies.
- When making any sauce, if your fingers don’t smell like garlic the next few days, you did something wrong.
- The key to the perfect pizza dough is a small pinch of sugar.
- If anyone throws pasta on your wall, show them the door.
- Lastly, good food is made with love. If you don’t love the people you are cooking for, or the ingredients you are using, don’t cook – just order take out.
Vince Mottola Sr., King of the Garlic Gulch, passed away in 1998. His favorite location – the restaurant on Queen Anne Avenue – was closed shortly after. It is now a restaurant called Pesos, and the window into the kitchen that was once the window into the pizza maker, where kids would line up to see Vince and other cooks throw pizza dough high into the air – is still there as a reminder. The Queen of the Garlic Gulch, Ada Mottola, passed away last month, surrounded by all of her children. I saw her a week before she passed, and she shared her last full moments of lucidity with me and Madison, sharing laughs and jokes. I asked her what she needed, as she was clearly in pain and didn’t have much time left, and she said, “I don’t need nothing, except maybe a pizza and some Campari, thank you bella. You are my first granddaughter, you know me.”
I have made a separate page for all of the recipes mentioned here, as well as a few I feel like everyone needs in their cooking arsenal. Click HERE for the recipes.
Remember, food isn’t just our life force, it is our path to the hearts of others. If you put your heart into it, you will get the hearts of those you served it to back, tenfold. Take all of your energy from that day and pour it into your food like a special ingredient. Show those you cook for what you have been through as they eat. They will be grateful for not just a full belly but also a full heart. If not…forget them, they didn’t deserve you anyway! And if that happens, you let me know – you can always come to my house and we can dish over some wine and a homecooked meal.