Just about any holiday is an excuse to prepare and eat a huge feast in most Italian-American families like mine, starting with antipasto and ending about seven or eight hours later with fruits and nuts.
Most assume Christmas is the big one but what many don’t realize is that Easter Sunday is actually considered the holiest day in the Christian calendar which means it’s second only to Christmas Eve on the Italian food calendar.
Christmas Eve is really the alpha and omega when it comes to Italian food, family and faith. And grandma with her trusty Instamatic posing everyone like she’s Annie Leibovitz: “Go on the couch and sit with your cousin, hold the baby, smile! Stand next to your uncle. Now hop on one foot and bark like a dog.”
But when I was a kid, Easter Sunday was spent in my great-grandfather’s dark basement on 17th Street. I never met my great-grandmother – she passed away before I was born – but Pasquale Schiavone was the best. In fact, I look a lot like him; we have that same concrete Mediterranean peasant head. My wife hates when I say that but, hey, it’s the truth.
Pasquale, or “Poppa” as we all called him, was built like a fire hydrant. Like most everyone, he came to America through Ellis Island. He’d fought in the Navy. The mermaid and anchor tattoos on his forearms were so old, the black ink had turned green like Statue of Liberty copper.
Poppa was pretty deaf, too. He’d be sitting alone at the head of this giant dining table watching “The Price is Right” and it was so unbelievably loud someone could have easily packed his entire house into a moving truck before he’d even realize you were standing right next to him.
His freezer was always caked in ice and everything was freezer-burnt save for the octopus, some tripe and maybe a goat head or two. He worked at the fish store on Prospect Park West for fun. It was just a few blocks from his house and it gave him something to do and all the free octopus he could carry home after mass at Holy Name.
Poppa really loved me. After all, I was his first great-grandchild so I guess I scored some points there by default. Anytime I went over for a visit, he’d have a small chocolate pudding cup with a halved maraschino cherry on top from the delicatessen on the corner of Prospect Park West and Prospect Avenue waiting for me. The delicatessen is still there and, last time I checked, they still sell the little chocolate pudding cups.
I’ll always remember Poppa’s backyard: the shed, the fig tree that he would cover with a fruit bushel basket and tar paper for the winter, the cherry tree and the little spot he’d bent open in the fence so he could pass Cosmo, his next door neighbor, an espresso or an iced coffee in the summer.
His shed was the best. The sweet smell of peat and petrichor. The old, whirring General Motors Frigidaire, just like the one in the kitchen – caked in ice and freezer burnt – but instead of octopus and fish eyes, this one was stocked with ice-cold cans of Schaefer’s and a bottle of cold water that he filled from the hose in the yard (acqua fresca, as he called it).
The giant cherry tree in the backyard picked itself. All you had to do was climb up and gather all the cherries that had fallen on the roof of the shed. Often, Poppa would nod off in the summer heat in his folding rocking chair and the squirrels would feast on the “celise” and drop the pits on his head. He never woke up, just smiled and snored in his little Eden on 17th Street. It was wonderful. I think even then, as a boy, I knew it was pretty cool.
So, anyway, back to Easter Sunday on 17th Street. I think Cadillac Bonnevilles were standard issue at the time because everyone had one. Except us. Dad was working for RCA at the time and we had the company car, a Chevy Citation.
I remember there were so many of us down in Poppa’s basement that we had to use every table we could find. It created this magical quilt of card tables, folding tables, end tables, night tables – you name it, we used it. Chairs were the same. Every chair in the house was brought downstairs. I think some people got smart and started showing up to the feast with their own table and chairs!
The food was still being prepared in the kitchen. Steaming pots of salted, boiling water simmered as others prepared the special Easter antipasto which in my family was always called the benedicte. It’s different from regular antipasto and includes an essence of spring with hard-boiled eggs, ricotta salata, canestrato and cappiello cheese, orange wedges, lemon slices, olives and fennel. But before any of this could happen on 17th Street, all the men had to bless the house.
It began with one of my uncles taking a giant cross off the wooden panel wall as we all followed him up the stairs. Someone in the front of the line would sprinkle holy water as we walked through and blessed every room of the house with a short prayer.
I can distinctly remember the sound of the staircase groaning under the weight of my hungry uncles and cousins as we marched up to the third floor. If one of my uncles or cousins had been bad, they got a double shot of holy water sprinkled with a piece of palm.
The best part was later when it was time for pasta. Trying to ration enough ziti appropriately for each dish to a family of this size wasn’t easy. Inevitably, we’d all have to surrender our plates, passing them back to the head of the table like a bucket brigade for redistribution because whoever was serving the pasta had given too much, too soon and now there wasn’t enough pasta left for everyone. Portion control was never our strong suit. That runs in the family even at a table of two or three.
It’s sad but all too common: the matriarch or the patriarch of a family passes on and the family unravels. Indeed, after Poppa died, so did Easters on 17th Street. Everyone went their separate ways and started their own traditions with their own families.
But, don’t worry, we still keep it real at my house. Especially as far as the hard-boiled eggs, ricotta salata, canestrato and cappiello cheese, orange wedges, lemon slices, olives, fennel and pasta are concerned.
Buona Pasqua to you and your family! Cherish every moment with your matriarchs and patriarchs.
Justin Brannan is a community activist, born and raised in Bay Ridge. He and his wife Leigh own a small business on Third Avenue.