Nonnas don’t drive.  (For that matter, neither do nonnos.) Instead, they rely on sons, sons-in-law — sons of cumare, and sons of neighbors– to get them where they have to go. And they do go — primarily to visit the grave of the most recently buried buon’anima, or a daughter who moved to  Nassau (the county, not the island), a shrine, a monastery, a cathedral. (See The Macaroni’s Upstairs–the Wake’s in the Basement.)

Every so often, though,  on a summer Tuesday night, the nonnas do not have to ask for a ride. A son, a son-in-law, a son of a cumari, or a son of a neighbor  invites them to tool down Stillwell Avenue to Coney Island and see the fireworks.  They are expected to be ready for their ride by 7:30. But they are often late.  Getting food ready for the journey (remember, they served dinner at 6 o’clock), gathering the grandchildren, taking off their front aprons — all take time. (See Sand in Their Shoes.)

Each calls out a window to extend an invitation to whatever grandchild is playing nearby. Numbers do not concern the nonnas. One lap can hold two grandchildren and often does. Thus, there are  three nonnas and five grandchildren in the backseat,  one nonna –and one grandchild —  in the passenger seat, and  the driver,  a total of  eleven making their way out of the neighborhood.

On the drive, the kids tease, insult, and abuse one another. The nonnas alternate between  yelling at the children and looking out the window to  grin  at and wave to neighbors who don’t have the luck to get to the big show.  After a while,  to calm the kids, each nonna reaches into her brown lunch bag and pulls out a shoestring of licorice. (A cumari, who works in a candy factory, provides the somewhat misshapen samples free  of charge.) Because each child has the same sweet, there is no haggling.

The driver parks the car as close as he can to the boardwalk. The children pile out, waiting a few minutes for the auto to get cool before they climb on the hood, the fenders, and  the roof — their perfect viewing spots. The nonnas surround the vehicle. It’s nighttime, and they  are responsible for the children. One nonna says, “Who knows what can happen in the dark.”  The other nonnas shake their heads solemnly. “Besides, we have to stay nearby to make sure they eat,”   one says. Relieved, they  nod and smile.

The first whiff of gunpowder tickles their noses, and the children become silent. They even stop  punching each other in the arm and making devil’s horns atop their buddies’  heads. And the nonnas? To make sure they don’t enjoy the  colorful spectacle too much, they busy themselves with handing out sandwiches filled with their dinner’s leftovers.

A nonna doesn’t worry about what kind of sandwich she gives the kids: peppers and eggs, meatballs, veal parmigiana — all good. What matters to her — although, she’s determined  not to show it —  is the way the driver is going to respond to her offering.   She knows her sandwich is better than those of the others. He accepts and polishes off  a sandwich from each nonna. They bring him cookies, licorice, and a thermos of espresso laced with a drop of anisette. And they wait.

“Terrific, ladies, thanks” he says. “That was some snack.”

Each nonna looks deflated as she  starts to munch on whatever remains in her lunch bag.

  • Veal ParmigianoServes six
    • 2 eggs, well beaten
    • 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
    • Salt
    • Freshly ground pepper
    • 2 pounds thin veal cutlets
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1 pound whole milk mozzarella, thinly sliced
    •  2 cups tomato sauce
    • 3 tablespoons fresh basil, finely minced
    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
    2. Add salt and pepper to eggs.
    3. Dip cutlets in egg mixture, then in bread crumbs.
    4. In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat.
    5. Saute cutlets a few at a time in oil.
    6. Add five tablespoons sauce to a  nonreactive shallow casserole.
    7. Add a layer of veal, a sprinkle of basil, and a layer of mozzarella.
    8. Continue layering ingredients; ending with a kayer of mozzarella.
    9. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of sauce.
    10. Bake  30 minutes, or until top layer is bubbling and golden.
    11. Let rest 10 minutes at room temperature before serving
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