Today we welcome our first guest writer, Jerry Buccilli, a 2nd generation Italian from Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Growing up Italian
There are two very old proverbs, “La cucina piccolo fal la casa grande,” which means, “A small kitchen makes the house big,” and the second, “una buona mamma vale cento maestre,” which translates to “a good mother is worth a hundred teachers.”
I wanted to quote these sayings because they hold a particular meaning to me. We immigrated to Canada when I was seven and after moving from one apartment to another we finally found a house to settle in. It was small 1,100 square foot bungalow tucked away in an old Italian neighborhood in Welland, Ontario, but it was warm, cozy and it was home. It also had the tiniest kitchen you ever saw. But my mamma, who ranks amongst some of the best cooks I’ve ever known, would always be cooking up a storm in there. Using the little resources she had, she made due and created her little feasts. The food, the music and the good laughter and conversation that emanated from our kitchen was the focal point of our lives. It was like mamma was showing her love as only she could. Through food. It’s a romantic notion to be sure, but that’s exactly what it was. A love story.
For us Italians growing our own fruits and vegetables, making fresh bread and our own home-made pasta, making wine, sausages and canning our own preserves….or waking up to home-made Sunday sauce (the smells of garlic, tomatoes and braised meat were oh, so intoxicating)…this was about carrying on a love story with tradition. Handing down recipe after recipe, generation after generation. Each family had its own time-honoured secrets to share.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized how much mamma’s influence, and my father’s as well, left an indelible impression on us (myself and my two sisters). Today we try to honor our mother’s memory by continuing to maintain tradition and following the old ways, “vecchi modi.”
Zeppoli – Tradition around Le Feste
I continued that idea of honouring tradition by making zeppoli, an Italian doughnut, part of my life and future. I named my business after it! People, often ask me, what is Zeppoli’s – Italian Comfort Food. What does the word zeppoli mean and why name a business after it?
First of all we need to clear the record. It’s zeppole (singular) and zeppoli (plural), plain and simple. The French have the bigne. Canadians have beaver-tails or funnel-cake. But the Italians have, well, what we really like to call them are “little bites of heaven.” Traditionally, these light, deep-fried dough balls or fritters are found in central Italy but arguably the very best zeppoli come from Sicily.
My mother, who is Sicilian as they come, used to make these every major holiday. Usually at midnight as a snack, after devouring a huge Thanksgiving (La Festa di Ringraziamento) or Easter or Christmas feast, we ate and ate these balls when we all gathered in la cucina.
We couldn’t eat just one. By the time we had our fill of these delightful treats we were ready for a nice “riposada” (rest) as the men sat around the TV and told stories or discussed Serie A calcio (forza Milan!) or fought about whose home-made wine tasted better. The women played “tombola” or bingo at the kitchen table. I remember the women using raw corn kernels as extra pieces for their tombola games. Sometimes the kids got bored so we started munching on zeppoli again. Until one of our mothers noticed and then we’d get the old, back-hand across the head.
The act of eating zeppoli for midnight snack for us was a tradition. No matter how stuffed we were. No matter how much we’d eaten, mamma would always make these. It was her way of honouring tradition and it also gave us a reason to stay together until the wee hours of the morning. No one could leave or go to bed until the zeppoli came out. That would be…unheard of. Mamma making Zeppoli for us was about keeping the conversation going, keeping the joy alive. It was more an excuse than anything else. “Domani e festa e sta serra si va letto tardi.” Tomorrow’s a holiday; tonight we celebrate and go to sleep late.
Maintaining “la tradizione.” Today we try to do the same though it’s getting harder to carry on tradition. The younger generation is all about progress and modernization. But it’s up to us to try….if not who will?
Jerry Buccilli is the owner of Zeppoli’s – Italian Comfort Food based in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He is a 2nd-generation Italian. This article is dedicated to Paola Antonina Buccilli (1945-2009). Riposa in Pace.