By Rita Watson
When both San Giuseppe Day and Easter would fall within weeks of each other — as with this year — Grandma would say, “I’m beside myself with all of the baking and cooking. I hope I still have the strength to stand on my feet for this.”
Despite complaints of her aches and pains, when Grandma was in her kitchen cooking, she smiled as if she was in a corner of heaven. Convinced that her Zeppole di San Giuseppe and her Easter-time pizzagaina were unrivaled in the family of cooks, she looked forward to hearing the words: “The taste of this is even better than it was last year.”
The zeppole was the first of the family bake-offs, and there was a discernible difference in taste and appearance. Unlike her in-laws, who made zeppole resembling a doughnut filled with cream in the center, Grandma’s looked like cream puffs. Then she would add swirls of extra custard cream on the top, highlighted by a dark Amarena cherry.
When the family gathered to celebrate San Giuseppe Day, which was Father’s Day in Italy, her in-laws would try to determine the ingredient that gave her pastry such zing. It was Limoncello, a liqueur that her brother brought her from the old country. Grandma never served it as an after-dinner drink because she was afraid the sight of the bottle would give away her secret. While her in-laws used lemon zest or orange zest with bits of candied fruit in their custard, Gram’s magic was hidden in back of the pantry cupboard.
At the end of the day, she and Grandpa would sit on a window seat overlooking the dock sipping their demitasse. Then he would pinch her cheek and say, “Nancy, even though my sisters make zeppole just like my mother, you are my Zeppole Princess, the best in America.”
The second March bake-off was with the pizzagaina, Napolitano Pizza Rustica. Gram believed that no one could compete with the texture, moisture and meats in her treasured recipe — baked ham, capicola and pepperoni. On the Saturday before Easter she held a women’s brunch for the exchange of hearty pies.
It was after the family left that Grandma’s blue eyes twinkled and she became the resident food critic. Tasting the leftovers on the dining room sideboard she would begin, “Zia still uses too much mozzarella. See how heavy this is. Concetta always makes hers too watery. This one is from Aunt Georgia. Just look how she skimps on the ham. And Antoinette, can you imagine she uses boiled ham instead of a fresh-baked ham?”
Looking at her face as she became “the taster,” it was apparent — Grandma was once again convinced that in the kitchen, she reigned supreme.
Rita Esposito Watson, a Journal columnist, adapted this from her “Italian kisses: Gram’s wisdom.”