I may be the only person who isn’t watching Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy” series right now.
I’ve been hearing rumblings about it, but am watching the first season of “Bloodline,” a family drama set in the Florida Keys on Netflix. I overheard a woman telling someone about it at the dog park, listening unabashedly when she described Kyle Chandler as a “hottie.” With spring still a few weeks away and no immediate travel plans, seeing palm trees, sand and the glorious blue-green water of coastal Florida on TV is my only escape. Kyle Chandler? Impossibly cute in a “Dad body” kind of way.
I got my first Covid 19 shot this week, a milestone that I treated as a major life event, a trophy to celebrate outrunning this virus for the past year. I washed and styled my hair, wore street clothes and two matching socks, something that’s been unnecessary up to this point. I brought the dog, whose gone from faithful companion to my appendage. When I had to drop her off for tests at the vet last week, I wondered how I’d survive two hours without her.
Note to self and anyone getting the vaccine: wear a T-shirt. I wore a pullover sweater and a button-down blouse, meaning I had to practically strip to find my left shoulder. Embarrassing. Like everyone else, I was thrilled that vaccine day had arrived, so I wasn’t thinking clearly. One kind woman brought the Yale-New Haven staffers manning shot central a bag of goodies to show her gratitude. I may copy her when I go for the second shot on March 25th.
So I’m not watching Stanley, at least not now. But I’ve done the next best thing, joining the Wooster Square Cooks, a lively Facebook page with 24,400 members and counting. My childhood friend Don invited me to join the fun, and I accepted, maybe the best decision I’ve made in the past 6 months.
I was so appreciative of Don’s invitation that I FaceTimed him, reaching him at his North Carolina home. We were once neighbors and good friends in Orange, CT., but I haven’t spoken to him in 40 years. This is what I love about cooking and being Italian American: it breaks down barriers, making it seem perfectly rational to call someone up after four decades.
Don told me that he was invited into the group about three weeks ago, and in turn invited about 25 friends to join. To his surprise, everyone accepted. Unlike me, Don is having no trouble finding cooking inspiration: for him, it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to tap into his Italian heritage and unwind after hours of screen time working remotely.
He posted his first dish to Wooster Square Cooks this week: chicken cacciatore which he likes spicy, adding a few jalapeño peppers to the sauce for kick. I asked Don if he was nervous about posting with so many great Italian American cooks on the site. I know I’m a little intimidated, the way I feel when I cook for other Italian Americans.
“A little,” he admitted. “But then I decided to just post it anyway. Everyone is very supportive on the page.”
For me, the page has rekindled my interest in cooking, something that’s been waning for the past few months. Like it or not, the past year has put enormous pressure on home cooks, particularly during the winter months when many of us refuse to dine inside restaurants. Take-out is nice, but we try to limit it to once a week, mostly pizza from the closest parlor. That means the other six days I’m on deck, often at a loss at what to cook. I’ve apologized more than once in recent weeks for my lousy dinners, and no one has argued with me.
I know about the New York Times “What To Cook” Column and I get that it’s helpful, though I could have come up with its lame suggestion of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on my own. What I love about Wooster Square Cooks is that people share photos of what they’ve rustled up for lunch, dinner or dessert, whetting my appetite with big bowls of linguine with white clam sauce stacked with little necks, or chicken cacciatore with meaty thighs swimming in red sauce.
Unlike “Foodie” photos of food prepared by restaurant chefs that can be so grating, you get the sense that the folks on Wooster Square Cooks are proud of their creations and want to share their joy, perhaps even inspire people when we all need a little inspiration, both in the kitchen and in life. I’ve never gotten the sense that anyone is bragging about their culinary skills; rather, they’re just putting them out there, assuming everyone is just as capable of making zeppole as they are.
So much of cooking inspiration is gleaned in casual conversations, explaining why so many of us are simply at a loss right now. Stuck inside our houses still, we lack the day-to-day interplay that often inspires us to try something new. Wooster Square Cooks is a virtual coffee klatch where people swap ideas and inspiration, igniting the palate and stoking desire for Italian dishes that we’ve forgotten about. It’s a little like looking at an extensive menu, being reminded how good certain dishes are and wondering what to order.
I’d expect nothing less of a group based around Wooster Square, a New Haven neighborhood that’s home to some of the best pizza parlors, Italian restaurants and pastry shops in the world. Sally’s Pizza and Pepe’s Pizza are both on Wooster Street. Need I say more? And though many of the group’s members have Italian last names like my maiden name, it’s thankfully not a prerequisite for membership.
Besides the impossibly tempting dishes, I enjoy the dialog and the questions among members:
“Can I mix white and red wine for chicken piccata?”
The consensus: absolutely NO.
“I want to make escarole and bean soup, but don’t have white beans. Can I use black beans?”
“My prize lemon. Now I have to decide it’s best use LOL,” wrote my old high school classmate Lisa Sorrentino Rehm.
At last count, she had 576 likes, three shares and 105 responses ranging from lemon cream pie and chicken piccata to scallops over angel hair pasta. Your mouth is watering right now, right? I told you this page is the bomb.
“Artichokes on sale for 99 cents each at such and such store, in case anyone is interested.” (Um, who isn’t? Thanks for that tip!)
“What’s everybody making for dinner tonight?”
I remain silent, not wanting to admit it’s hamburgers – again. That’s not what this group wants to hear, what it’s all about. It wants evidence that some imagination, effort and love was involved with trays of homemade lasagna or manicotti hand stuffed with good ricotta and mozzarella cheese. Posting hamburgers would be akin to admitting you’re making a McDonald’s run.
Lately, there’s been a lot of broccoli rabe with garlic, olive oil and sweet sausages, one of my favorites because it’s so easy. I always serve it over ziti or spaghetti, but have been surprised that many people serve it with Italian bread. You learn something new every day.
The other day after scrolling the page, I went to an Italian specialty food store about five minutes from my house for the first time. I was craving imported Italian pasta and red sauce made with San Marzano tomatoes, the kind you crush yourself in the food processor. I walked into the store and was surrounded with pastas of every shape and size stacked on tables and shelves. Looking around, perhaps to show that I am no neophyte when it comes to macaroni, I asked the saleswoman if they had cavatelli – pasta shaped like tiny hotdog buns. They did not, but I bought something that looked like it. It was flat, without the distinctive channel that runs along the center and catches the sauce so nicely.
I added to my haul, buying pasta twisted by hand to look like long pieces of licorice, and tight thin spirals called cavatappi that look like springs. The pasta is imported from Italy and about three times as much as I’d spend in the grocery store, but it’s worth it, like the difference between store brand ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s. I may never go back to Ronzoni. Who am I kidding? Of course I will, but it’s nice to dream.
I haven’t dared told the Curmudgeon how much I spent at the Italian store, but I don’t think he’d mind too much. He had three bowls of the imported pasta with sauce, meaning he liked it more than my usual stuff, sometimes referred to as “Irish sauce.” This sauce was thick and meaty, cooked slowly for three hours with sweet sausages to meld the flavors. It may have been the best pot I ever put up, and I have the Wooster Square Cooks to thank for it.