Thursday, October 8, 2009


     Its one of those things I always said I wanted to do: learn how to make pizza the way Nonna's been slinging them since before I grew teeth. Nonna's pizza is what can I say: Nonna's pizza. Its so distinct in flavor, so consistent over my twenty eight years, and always gives me that warm "I am loved" feeling when I bite into it. The dough is super nutty, oily and crunchy at the same time. The toppings are simple, the perfect combination of sauteed onions, fresh tomato and cheese, plus a little oregano. Its just perfect and all love.
    Nonna is 88 years old, although sometimes she says she 89, and when the arthritis kicks in and she is asking God to take her, she's 90. 
    "You know Jane (my name is Jen), yo Nonna issa 90 yees old." 
    And even so, when I asked her to teach me to make pizza, she rolled up her sleeves and led the way. I know it was hard for her. She has such pain in her hands that they literally go stiff. Trust me she had no problem complaining about that, either. 
   "This issa lotta work, Jane."
   "I know Nonna, let me do it," I said.
   "No, you can't do it."
   She says the same thing when I ask her to teach me crocheting or sewing or any other skill little old Sicilian ladies rock out on. 
   Second to complaining about the arthritis, she loves complaining about my brother Mike. How he leaves the lights on in the hallway and does laundry in the middle of the night and smokes cigarettes. He lives there, in her 3 family house in Queens, in my old apartment, and she rides him. At one point while kneading the dough, her little old Sicilian lady senses alerted her to Mike outside. He was actually keeping an eye on an injured pigeon in the driveway, which is a funny detail. Well, she stopped working that dough, went out on the balcony and started yelling at him about the bad way he put the garbage out, mixing the regular trash with the recyclables. Old people are obsessed with recycling.
   But as long as Nonna is complaining we are happy because its the sign that she is alive and kicking. Its not when she is complaining about her failed health at the age of 88 that we rush her to the hospital. Its when she stops complaining that we know something is seriously wrong.
   This pizza we made together really taught me about love. All that hard work that goes into it, which no one in our family sees or cares about. We just enjoy the fruits of her labor then we all go back for seconds and thirds and fourths our whole life. When you see the effort she puts in, the thankless hours of kneading the dough and making the sauce, without as much gratitude as, "Nonna, this is good," then you see what selfless love is. Its giving without getting anything back. And giving over and over just to give just because that is how you love.
   Now down to the technical pizza making process. This is a true Grandma slice. Better than anything you can get in a restaurant because its infused with Nonna love.
   Nonna has this gigantic board she puts on the table when making dough is involved. Its actually a mismatched piece of cabinet from when she redid her kitchen 8,000 years ago. Onto this board she put, oh about that much flour and made a well in the middle. There are no measurements with Nonna, even in baking. Everything is "ad'occhio" or "to the eye."
   As far as the flour is concerned, this was a major problem because I brought the wrong kind. It was some weird "Whole Wheat White Flour" from Trader Joe's. Nonna was not happy. And my yeast in the little packet, oh no, she scoffed at it and went into her freezer and pulled out some crazy frozen gummy yeast she picked up at some pizzeria. She boiled some water, let it cool, then dissolved the yeast blob in that. Then she started mixing the yeast mixture and the water into the flour. The whole mixing into the flour took a while. She kept moving it all around and scraping bits up from the board and slowly adding warm water a little at a time. I would say all in all she added about 3-4 cups of water. Then she began kneading the dough, which she did for a good 20 minutes. 

    After a while she made three dough balls and set them up in the back room on the couch layered in towels and topped off with a knitted blanket. They were so cute in there, all wrapped up. I took a nap while the dough was rising. 
    There is nothing like a nap in Nonna's ornate living room, with the Italian television blasting and Nonna having a full on conversation in Sicilian with me, discussing things like how the lady across the streets is trying to steal her "caretaker" Josephine away from her. The drama of being a little old Sicilian lady.
   Finally it was time for the dough to be rolled out. I'd say she let it rise for like an hour and a half. She oiled a pan and started spreading the dough into it. Meanwhile she sauteed some onions. She spread some fresh tomatoes on the dough, along with some "fresh cheese" like prima sale and some grated cheese. They she layered the onions on top and coated everything in more oil and fresh oregano. Into the oven for about 20-30 minutes. When they were almost done she opened the oven and layered mozzarella on top and let that melt. Finally it was pizza time. 
   The dough was weird. Not bad, only not the usual consistency. What is funny is the whole thing did not taste like how Nonna's pizza usually tastes. I realized later why that was so. When I was scarfing it down the next day is when it tasted like Nonna's pizza. All the oil and flavors by then had soaked into the crust to create this chewy, oily, cheesy focaccia-like deliciousness, which also made our flour choice irrelevant. I had never been there when that pizza was fresh out of the oven. I am so happy I finally learned to make that pizza. It tasted so good and felt so good because through the Sicilian complaining love was kneaded into that dough.
    On pizza day love was learned. And over fried eggplant Rocco said it best, "The only way you show your love is through the stomach. Ultimately, its the stomach." Well said, Dad.


Rocco Galatioto said...

That was a great tribute to Nonna. When she makes her pizza with the normal flour, as you know, its absolutely incredible. All my life I've told her to open a pizzeria with her pizza. She would make the others go out of business. But that's the rub, no pun intended. If she dis that the boys with no necks would come out of their Cadillac Sevilles and rub everybody out. She is quite a woman. I bear the scars of being her son. Good scars; food and love scars.

Proud Italian Cook said...

What an awesome Nonna you have, loved this post, and her pizza.

Pizzalicious Lauren said...

Jen, Your Nonna is beautiful! You're so lucky to have her. I'm definitely going to start cuddling my dough up with my grandma's afghan. My mémère still cooks like an iron chef but it was always my pépère who made the pizza. I wish i could have known him better.

Justin said...

interesting... the hard part for me is that i would NEVER have leftover homemade pizza. i made some dough this week and just bought some fresh mozz to go home and bake some pies, but it will be gone fast!

Morta Di Fame said...

Thanks for commenting, friends! I hope to bring more Nonna recipes soon. On the agenda: fresh homemade pasta and pasta with sardines...

and this blog said...

Nonna sounds awesome!!!!!! can your Nonna have her own Supper Club -pizza style? I would totally go! =)

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Lucky you! Your Nonna is awesome and those pizzas look scrumptious! I really enjoyed this post.



Underground Dining said...

yo nonna issa cute!

Brooklyn Edible Social Club said...

Cute Nonna!!! and cute you sleeping on that cute room... triple cute girl ;)

Gemma said...

Beautiful and very moving photos! What a lovely tribute.

pizzablogger said...

Jen, this is one of the best blog posts I have ready in many moons. It also has a personal note for me.

My mother is Italian, but my grandmother died when my mother was very young. As I get older this knaws on me more and more, as my mother and I have been somewhat cut off from having some of the direct cooking and cultural influences only a good Nonna Italiana can deliver. Having been to the boot helps, but nothing compares to grandma in the kitchen.

I have been on a quest to recreate a Sicilian pizza in my house and it tickles me pink to see both your grandmother and I put tomatoes on the crust before anything else (fresh by your grandmother and sundried by me)and that she also uses onions. I am definitely going to sautee my onions next time....thanks for the inspiration.

Jen, do you know what type of flour your Nonna usually uses? I have heard that Semolina is often used in a Sicilian pizza, but a Nonna in Little Italy here in Baltimore has told me in no uncertain terms that "doppio", or tipo 00 flour is the "only" way to go.

I normally don't put direct links to my stuff on other blogs, but your post is inspirational to my quest. Your Nonna's pizza is better than mine, but I can assure you I pour a significant amount of love (and a little neurotic worry)into my experiements as well. The second link shows an ingredient layering process not all that different than your Nonna's.

Great post and pictures. Your Nonna is beautiful.Thank you for sharing --Kelly

Morta Di Fame said...

Thanks for the thoughtful words Kelly. As far as Nonna's flour I think she just uses regular all purpose bleached flour. But I am going to try your pseudo-nonna-from-Little-Italy's flour.

Casino Nova said...

I really like this post. My Nannitta used to make the bread in the metal vegetable tray of the refrigerator (Sicilians are very resourceful)and she would leave the bread to rise on a bed. If you asked how much salt to use, she would hold out her hand and pour some in and say "this much"(in sicilian).