I Remember The Table

I can still visualize the food.

Simple. Complicated. Delicious.

If ever an American family was characterized by a certain, meal...Christmas Eve Dinner at the Giraldi's, which I've attended most of my life, and which unfortunately has become history, is that gathering.

For the longest time, every Night Before Christmas was celebrated by my parents, friends, and relatives around Minnie's large oval table, the one with just enough room for 20 chairs in a small living room at 364 Knickerbocker Avenue in Paterson, New Jersey. And for as long as I can remember, I can see my parents…Minnie and Armand, acting as executive chef, sous chef, host, hostess, sommelier, wait staff, and head porters.

I miss my father.

I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old, insisting on spending most of my time under that table; then, years later, nobody could remove me from my seat.

And clearly I can recall my grandparents, Nick, Ida, Bob, and Mamie, lovely Aunt Josie, my parents' best friends: Rae and Lou, Sylvia and Mike…cousins, aunts, uncles…especially Silver Fox…all gone now.

I watched my brother Frank and my sister Armyn grow up at that table, and then one day they had a husband and a wife, and then one day Maria, Tia, and Adam appeared.

I remember the table where, for most of my adult life, my former wife Marian was laughing with our children Theresa, Maria, and Bobby.

I remember trying to keep from filling up on the opening act, which was steaming hot escarole/minestrone, sitting on the stove for hours and filling the house with the smell of greens and pork, varied sausages, pig's knuckles and prosciutto. Right afterward we always ate fried smelts, stuffed calamari, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichokes, spaghetti with clams in white sauce, the baccala salads…the wines, the desserts, especially coconut custard pie…and the strufela, which are little honey balls, maybe Naples' greatest gift, and then the fruit and then…we would talk.

The memory is as fresh as the spaghetti and clams. Large, fresh, al dente clams back then, not the very small delicate European kind, a product of the New Jersey/Neapolitan neighborhoods that we were all raised in.

Nobody since has ever made a dish of spaghetti and clams like my mother…except maybe the chef, Luigi Celentano, who comes close.

I remember never wanting to get up from that table. We ate, we talked, we cracked walnuts, we drank wine, we complained, but generally life was happy.

Today, life is still happy, with the addition of Leta and Douglas and Paul, and the wonderful Alanna, Grant, Tyler, Alexander, and Jack, and my own new, special Patti and Sienna, all of whom have heard more than enough about the table. I suspect that secretly they're all sorry they never got a chance to sit at it.

Now Minnie sits at her sons' and daughters' and grandchildren's tables. I hope, with all my heart, she enjoys it as much as we enjoyed sitting at her table.

I remember the love and the passion and the taste of that table. It still best describes Minnie.

- Bob Giraldi

Three Matches Means "I love you"

Dreaming of perfect love is an eternal pastime: the youth (and elderly) of today are as likely to engage in it as their grandparents were, as their one-day grandchildren will be. Finding true love is as universal endeavor.

Imagine the delight of having found it, the crush of having lost it. The daily joy of living in the papery package of love found.

When Minnie and Armand were first engaged, he found many ways to remind her daily and creatively of his love for her. Today, nearly fifty years later, she recalls fondly just one of those ways.

Her home was on a hill, away from the road. When he would leave for the evening, after dropping her off from a date, or more likely, from having dinner at her table, he would walk slowly away from the house. Minnie would dash upstairs to her window and watch his retreating figure. As he walked away in the darkness, he began to light matches one by one, three in all, all the flames growing fainter as he drew further and yet further away. But Minnie remained at the window, watching them grow dim until she couldn't see them, or him, any more. Three flames, he told her, meant, "I love you."

It has been more than fifty years since Minnie watched from her window for the flames, but it is tenderly apparent that even now, the last one hasn't faded completely from her view.

Mezzaluna Versus Scissors

Minnie's approach to cooking combines a charming blend of the sentimental and the practical. On her trip to Italy, a trip inspired so that she could explore and solidify her relationship with her heritage, she found and brought back with her a gorgeous mezzaluna. The mezzaluna - a traditional Italian cooking tool shaped like a half moon used for chopping - now occupies a place of honor in her kitchen. She speaks of it fondly, even reverently. It is apparent she draws inspiration and comfort from its presence in her kitchen, even naming the cooking school she created and taught there after it.

However, when absorbed in the serious business of cooking, the mezzaluna remains in its place, untouched. Instead Minnie wields a pair of modern, blue-handled scissors that possess none of the Old World spirit of the mezzaluna. She approaches the task at hand functionally, easily. She laughs; the irony is not lost on her at all. "It's a difficult tool to use," she explains with a grin. "No sense making it harder than it has to be, is there? That's not what cooking is about." In a moment her herbs are chopped, perfectly, beautifully, and quickly. And then she is on another task in he complicated art of cooking. She betrays no feeling of having "cheated," as if she realizes that her ancestors would have used - preferred, even - her easy, if unromantic, approach, had they had the opportunity.

Minnie's eyes rest for a moment on the mezzaluna, a reminder of where she comes from. Then she appraises the spread in front of her, her contribution to the legacy: creations inspired by that heritage, and flavored, modified, and improved by her presence in the present.

Fine Art Versus Fine Dining

Artists constantly struggle between the ideal of perfection and the limitation of reality. Shadowed by this conflict but not plagued by it, Minnie's approach to living appears to be now rather a hearty balance of the ideal reality and the limitations of perfection.

Inspired once by a gorgeous photo of a stuffed cabbage in a cooking magazine. Minnie set out to recreate the dish for her own deserving family. She traversed the town to gather all the necessary but obscure seasonings, tied herself to the kitchen for hours preparing and slicing and getting the thing "just right." When it made its way to the family table, as the piece de resistance, they were appropriately thrilled by its presentation and delivery.

Such enthusiasm did not make its way to their consumption of it. "First, they were all too scared to eat it," she recalls. "'It's way too pretty,' they told me." Then, when she finally persuaded them that the thing was meant to be eaten, they were not as thrilled as she had hoped. "I think they wanted pasta, with one of my sauces, which they'd had a thousand times. Ah. Why mess with a good thing? They like my sauces. I like my sauces."