In 1897, Patrice Marotta's great-grandfather emigrated from Southern Italy to a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York called Williamsburg. Many friends and relatives from the old country lived there already, and many more joined him later. It was an exotically ethnic neighborhood where Polish, Hasidic Jews and Italians peacefully coexisted for several generations. Patrice remembers what it was like to grow up there as a child in the '60s.
"My relatives all lived within a certain radius of each other. Picture that: my whole family living all in one area. It was the custom for a family to own the entire apartment building. On the streets you could smell fresh bread from the bakers, and see the big provolone cheeses hanging from the ceilings of the stores. All these different things about that section of Brooklyn are being lost today," said Patrice.
Sadly, you can tell where this story is going. Chicago has seen its share of disappearing neighborhoods. It's a tale that's being told across the country. Williamsburg, as it once was, is gone, having been replaced with a different sort of vibrancy, one with trendy condos whose rents the original residents can no longer afford.
"The old-timers are being forced out by what they call hipsters, the hippie-artsy people" says Patrice. More than a year ago, while listening to her father tell the old stories, Patrice decided something should be done to preserve the memories. Thus, "Brooklyn Italian: A Memoir of Recipes of Days Gone By" was born (you can find it on amazon.com), and, now, as our Cook of the Week Patrice shares some of the old recipes.
Patrice, who "emigrated" from New York to Wauconda about 15 years ago when she married her Chicago Italian husband, learned how to cook as most Italians seem to do, by watching her grandmother.
"My grandmother was a hoot. When I would ask how much of something she was putting in a recipe, she would yell at me 'how much? I don't know how much, get out of here!' My family was all about cooking" laughs Patrice. "I don't know why I don't weigh a thousand pounds!"
One favorite that Patrice particularly loves is the meat pie, or Torta di Pasqua, aka Pizza Rustica, served at Easter. This is a mouthwatering combination of thick chunks of ham, ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella cheese, eggs, hot Italian sausage, all baked into a pie that is eaten hot or cold.
Granted, this recipe book is part memoir, so it has fewer recipes than the norm, but between the stories and the recipes themselves, you get a wonderful history of the neighborhood, including the difficult years during the Depression when families had little money for meat and had to find ways to feed a large family. One such meal was Scarola e Fagoli, a peasant dish from the old country that Patrice shares with us today.
Of course I had to ask -- is there a difference between the Italian New Yorkers and the Italian Chicagoans?
"Not at all!" she says with her Brooklyn accent. "We all come from Italy! For that matter, everyone comes from somewhere. I just don't want people to forget where we got started."
Patrice sees one major difference between New York and Chicago however.
"Chicago is so clean."