Casa Mia

Casa Mia

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Italian Summer Barbecues

When you’re Italian, even summer barbecues take on different meaning: it’s never just hamburgers, hotdogs, potato and macaroni salad from the local deli for us. Aside from the fact that the salads are homemade and we use the recipes with real mayonnaise that my grandmother somehow learned 75 years ago, burgers and dogs are evening snacks after the grilled steak, ribs, chicken and sausage. And of course, and there’s always something Italian on the menu, and I don’t necessarily mean pasta.

So you probably wonder about the barbecue story behind this because, after all, my recipes always come with that! The barbecues I remember years ago took place at my grandparents’ house and though my grandparents were Italian, they were both born in the US and behaved more like Americans in so many ways, except of course when it came to food… oh, and the backyard: between my grandfather’s handmade cement-based clothes line where my grandmother dried zucchini strips in curls for an antique Calabrese recipe and his imported marble statues and hand-built fountains spraying water, you would think you were vacationing in Rome’s Tivoli Gardens! On those occasions when we went to Grandma and Grandad’s house for 4th of July or Labor Day, the Iannuzzi Gardens were in full display: red, hot (and mean looking) pepper plants were growing in cement pots on the outer terrace, Italian music was piped outside and playing loudly, littleneck clams were chilling on ice in the outdoor kitchen sink, the watermelon laced with anisette was brewing in one of the fountains and my grandfather could be found tinkering in the basement with the water pumps or on his originally designed spit for the charcoal barbecue grill that they would use to roast beef.

If I haven’t already told you, Grandad was a mechanic and an inventor and with just an 8th grade education, a self-made businessman who manufactured steel parts used by the US Navy, Westinghouse and the Verrazano Bridge. His eccentric genius afforded him a fairly luxurious lifestyle in a very prestigious neighborhood where clothes lines and fountains were not indigenous. Grandma was a beautiful, sweet, dignified lady who grew into her role of the successful businessman’s wife intelligently and gracefully, socializing with women from all backgrounds. With her innate interest and talent for Italian homestyle cooking, came the natural ability for cooking authentic, delicious recipes of different ethnicities supplied by these women she met, hence the origin of our American potato salad, stuffed cabbage, icebox cake and a variety of other delicacies. So while Grandad was tinkering, Grandma was putting the finishing touches on the barbecue’s menu and as we arrived, I would find her preparing the Bermuda onion salad that would accompany the thin sliced boneless club (ribeye) steaks that were waiting to be grilled, still wrapped in the brown butcher paper. Only one small part of our menu, these steaks were served on a sandwich with a seeded Kaiser roll and the Bermuda onion salad which has now become my family’s staple at every barbecue. Even when the steaks weren’t there, the onions were and they have become the perfect accompaniment for hamburgers and hotdogs too. This is one of our heirloom recipes I am providing below so I ask that you treasure it.

In those days, the pre-dinner partying was never as important as the actual meal itself, especially for my grandparents, so as soon as the entire family arrived, the eating would begin. My father and uncle, usually accompanied with a martini or two, would shuck the clams in the outdoor kitchen while my grandfather readied the barbecue coals, my mother and aunts brought the foods outside, and the kids romped in the “pools” in their underwear to cool off. The sausage was barbecued first, as it took the longest to cook, and was served with fried green sweet Italian peppers that we called “dalianeed” (Calabrese slang for who knows what) and are today referred to as cubanelle peppers. Inevitably there were also very hot and spicy red fried peppers to accompany any and everything for my grandfather. Iannuzzi folktale dictates that Grandad “snacked” on them since he was a young boy - taking a pepper from one back pocket and dipping it into salt from his other back pocket and then crunching on it, no bread or water to cut the burning sensation they invariably caused - and so they were a constant presence at every meal. Although the rest of the family couldn’t match up to him, we all loved the hot and spicy, but I didn’t learn until later in life that we Calabrese Italians were known for spicy dishes seasoned with those mean red things growing in my grandparents yard.

Once the steaks were grilled, everything for the time being, was ready to go. The adults sat at the concrete table and benches while the kids sat at a nearby folding table on the patio that had its very own double fountain with a bridge between. During this session, before the hotdogs and hamburgers, we laughed and talked and drank while eating the sausage and peppers, steak sandwiches with Grandma’s Bermuda Onion salad, the homemade potato and macaroni salad, corn on the cob with butter and salt, tossed salad made with iceberg lettuce, red wine vinegar and more salt, and another Italian summer barbecue specialty that lives on in my family: tomato salad. As a kid, I ate very few tomatoes out of that salad in favor of the crusty Italian bread dunked into the indescribably delicious juices that the tomatoes made when mixed with the fresh basil, garlic and “dalianeed” peppers. Old habits die hard!

And then there was dessert, the best part for any kid though our dessert did not follow the path of tradition. The spiked watermelon is something I will never ever forget, or duplicate. My grandfather would drill a small hole into the watermelon manually with a drill crank and drizzle anisette into it first thing in the morning, then leave it in the cold fountain water all day until it was time for dessert, which, due to the thin fleshiness of the fruit, enabled the liquor to completely permeate it. As the women brewed the espresso, Grandad sliced and plated the watermelon so that when it was joined at the table with the freshly brewed black coffee, kid or no kid, you wanted both. The smell completely surrounded us and one slice of watermelon was never enough for anyone. Ironically Grandad was never really sitting there enjoying this with the rest of the family because he was on to his next mechanical exercise, making the homemade strawberry ice cream. With fresh strawberries, cream and lots of ice on hand, he and my father took turns cranking the old wooden “machine” with the stainless steel top until we had the perfect dessert. Although I am a chocolate lover, I have to say that there was no ice cream that ever tasted so good.

Fully satisfied, the kids would spend the rest of the day into evening running around the yard, taking another dip in the fountains and catching lightening bugs; I liked to lay down on the chaise lounge in the screen porch and listen to the sounds that, I have to admit, would sometimes lull me to sleep. Grandad could be found sitting in a lawn chair in the midst of his Roman empire, toothpick hanging out of his mouth, with his head falling to the side as he nodded on and off. My uncles and father would be rehashing funny stories about the factory that granddad owned and where they worked while Grandma and the ladies did a lot of clean up. When dusk set in, the grill would go back on, the hotdogs, hamburgers, Bermuda onion and tomato salads making a final appearance before the party came to a close.

Bermuda Onion Salad

1 large Bermuda onion, peeled, and diced

2 T. Oregano

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

1 tsp. Salt

Touch of olive oil

Mix all ingredients in a bowl several hours before serving to enable the juices to release their flavors.

Serve at room temperature.

Tomato Salad

6 large ripe tomatoes
2 cubanelle peppers

1 hot green Italian pepper (optional)

2 cloves of garlic

Fresh basil to taste (I like alot so I would put about 6 large leaves)

Sea Salt

Olive Oil

Cut the tomatoes into quarters and each quarter into 2 or 3 pieces crosswise. Place in a large bowl.

Slice the peppers in half, scoop out the seeds, and slice each half into 4 slices, then cut each slice into bite size pieces and add to the tomatoes.

Slice the garlic and add to the bowl; tear the basil leaves in half and add. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add a drop of water and toss. Refrigerate for no more than one hour before serving or add a couple of ice cubes to cool off. When mixed with the tomatoes, the water and ice creates this delicious juice that is just asking to be sopped up with crusty Italian bread.