There’s been a death on the nonnas’ block. Whether someone dies after a prolonged illness or has the good fortune to “drop dead after work on his way home from the subway,” a wake consumes the following week. So much to do. So much to do. The outfits come first: “Go buy a new pair of black stockings for me,” a nonna commands, addressing whichever teenage girl — niece, granddaughter, daughter, or neighbor– is in the house.

Only a few spots of flesh show through the holes in the black stockings that a nonna wears. They are the sole areas of her body not shrouded in black. One nonna has worn black for the past 25 years. First, her husband died; then her cousin “passed away”;  four years ago, her mother’s aunt  died; then her sister-in-law’s brother (whom she’s never met) died in Naples (or as it’s familiarly referred to “on the other side”). As a perpetual mourner, she has so many black dresses, coats, suits, and hats that she would look right at home taking a job at Vogue.

Younger women in the family dig into closets, run downtown to shop, or borrow from neighbors to get back in black. Amid all this activity, they discuss one thing: How long do we have to wear this? There is a sliding scale: a husband, many, many years; a parent, a year;  a cousin, several months, and a brother-in-law, three to four weeks at most.

After family and friends are done up in Zorro-like attire, their main concern is– what else? The food. In any funeral home in a postwar Italian-American neighborhood, there is a kitchen in the basement. In any home in an Italian-American neighborhood, there is a kitchen in the basement—the real one used for cooking, not the upstairs one used for show.

Wherever a wake is taking place, recruiting a cook to prepare meals is a piece of cake. Cousins beg for the privilege; cumari, or godmothers, plead; neighbors insist. The meals they plan to prepare for the family and visitors will bring instant acclaim to the would-be chefs; their train of gravy will carry them on to glory. So in fairness, four or five women are selected to alternate and prepare the lunches and dinners during the four-day event.

Those who are not at the stove sit upstairs; they weep and shout out the name of the loved one every five minutes, throwing in an occasional buon’anima (good soul, or may he rest in peace). Nevermore will the deceased be known simply as “Jimmy”; even 30 years after his wake, he will still be known as “buon’anima Jimmy.”

The call to dinner brings  family, friends, children, ages 18 months to 18 years, to the table in the basement. The main course: macaroni with gravy, always—every night. While dishes are passed around, the cook del giorno, arms folded across her chest, stands beaming and waiting for the word that her macaroni is better than the one served the night before.

After the funeral Mass, as they leave the church, the nonnas regard one another with both suspicion and satisfaction. Each has heard from the family,  unbeknownst to the others, that her dish was the best.

MACARONI AND GRAVY

Serves six

For the Meat:

  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 2 pounds Italian sausage, a mix of hot and sweet with fennel
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
  • 2 pounds baby-back ribs
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Heat large skillet over high heat.  Reduce heat, add 1/2 cup wine; bring to a simmer. Pierce sausage with the point of a knife; add to simmering wine. Simmer sausage, turning frequently until all wine evaporates, and sausage browns in its own fat. Set sausage aside. Wipe out skillet.
  2. Heat skillet over high heat. Reduce heat, add ribs and garlic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Adjust heat so that ribs cook until nicely browned on all sides, about 20 minutes. Set aside ribs.

For the Gravy

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
  • 2 tablespoons Amore tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons raisins
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 containers Pomi strained tomatoes
  • 1 Pomi container water
  1. While ribs are browning, heat a large casserole over high heat. Add olive oil. Reduce heat to low, add garlic and tomato paste,  salt, and pepper, stirring well. Simmer slowly, stirring often for 10 minutes.
  2. Add 1 cup wine, raisins, and herbs, to tomato paste mixture. Simmer until wine is reduced by half. Add  tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low; simmer, uncovered 20 minutes. Bring sauce back to a boil. Add ribs and sausage. Reduce heat to simmer. Allow sauce to simmer over very low heat three hours. If sauce seems to be getting too thick, partially cover.

For Serving:

  • 1 pound fusilli, perciatelli, or other long thick pasta.
  • Parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
  1. Bring a large pot of highly salted water to a boil. Stir in macaroni. Cook macaroni until al dente; drain well.
  2. Remove meat and half the gravy from the casserole to a serving dish. Stir macaroni into sauce in casserole; simmer for about five minutes over low heat. Serve macaroni with the additional sauce and meat on the side. Pass the Parmigiano.
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2 Responses to The Macaroni’s in the Basement–The Wake Is Upstairs

  1. Fran, I LOVE it….LOVE it! Better than an Irish wake. The Italian sister I live with is cooking today…better watch out…a “Sister” Nonna!!! Joan

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