Iron Mountain Italian

“Here’s my chomboloni that went puuuuh,” she says, gesturing to one lop-side of a still delicious-looking lemon cake. She blames exhaustion—she was up at 5:30 a.m. canning raspberries. The kitchen table is set with crystal and wine goblets, but first we go out to the garden. Her spaniel Sofia follows us through the garage past a canoe and Lisa’s elaborate tomato-canning equipment, to the verdant rows in the backyard. Though the garden and her apple and pear tree take up the better part of the postage stamp–sized yard, she admits that she and her brother Sandro have let it shrink a little since the days her grandparents kept it.

“This was my grandma’s,” Lisa says, back inside now, pulling a hulking, heavy board from the broom closet. “Her pasta board.” She shows me how the pasta dough starts by making a well in the flour. “We had a system—we could crank out about a thousand ravioli in four hours. One would work on the board, one would roll it, one would cut squares. You had to be very organized, with three or four women, usually a neighbor. My mother was really strong. I don’t have the hands and the strength, but they’d make their pasta super thin. You could pick it up and see through it.” For most of us, even pasta machines sound like too much trouble, yet these women rolled their ravioli by hand.

For lunch, there’s pasta Bolognese, made with homemade sausage, bruschetta and bandiana, a dish from the Marche made with tomatoes, peppers and onions. Lisa hands me a Kraft Parmesan shaker for the pasta, telling me the contents are actually grated from a big block she got from her Italian relatives in Monterossa.

As we talk, she trails her sentences with an unconscious, “Eat, eat, eat.”

As we clink our little gold espresso spoons in our coffee cups, she tells me how back in Monterosso they bake lasagna in communal ovens. She loves the family recipe for white lasagna (See recipe p.77) with sausage, fresh asparagus and besciamella.

After the first bite of lemony chomboloni, with its crisp, sugar-speckled crust, I ask her how to make it. “I have recipes,” she says, “but they’re in my head and my heart.” She looks up the chomboloni in her mom’s recipe book. Everything’s handwritten—mostly in Italian—and she finds an index card that reads, 4 cups of flour, 4 eggs, 11/4 cup sugar, 1 cup butter, 1/2 cup milk, 31/2 teaspoons baking powder, one lemon and its zest, a teaspoon vanilla. That’s all. “You just know you cream your eggs and sugar,” she explains.

Down Sixth Street, sisters Jeanette Moreau and Irene Secinaro, from the Capra family, make their chomboloni with anise. The original recipe called for anise seed, but Jeanette lets herself off the hook a little now by using anise flavoring. The sisters are making chomboloni and homemade pizelle for Irene’s grandson’s wedding on Drummond Island. Their baby sister, Carol “Coco” Brodie, lives in Marquette now, but at the moment she is down in Iron Mountain for a visit.

Coco tells how every night the sisters helped their dad Carlo take off his boots, and they had a nice glass of dark, cloudy homemade wine ready for him on the corner of the table. And every Sunday her mother—her name was Secondina, but they called her Dina—welcomed all of her children and their spouses and their children to the house for dinner. She made meat ravioli, plus polenta, Italian roast chickens, meatballs. Carlo plucked the dandelion leaves from the back yard for the salad, made with oil and vinegar and hardboiled eggs. “You could bring as many people as you wanted, you never had to let her know ahead of time,” Coco says. “It was amazing, really. Where did it come from?”

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