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.