I love your mom’s lumpy mashed potatoes and half warm microwaved day old Crisco fried chicken. I love that your dad thinks he’s a master on the grill but hasn’t actually cleaned said grill in ten to twelve months and therefore each of these hamburgers piled on this plastic plate that tastes vaguely like last month’s BBQ ribs. Topped of course with America’s best half-melted half fridge burned Kraft Cheese Single. I love when your mom says ‘it’s just leftovers.’ Or when she puts out a bowl of Tostitos scoops with her hodge podge seven layer dip inspired from the packaged Costco version right next to a plate of slightly soggy cheese quesadillas — stuck to paper towels.
I digress. Let me explain myself — I grew up with a chef as a father. Every meal was gourmet, my palate was fully developed by age seven. My brothers and I ate as though we were pint sized ten year old Italian grandmothers who attended extensive culinary school in Via Giusti, Florence, Italy at Cordon Bleu and thanks to my mom, were also organic. My family is filled with blustery, passionate Italian cooks who value l’ingrediente primo, the prime ingredients necessary for a dish. But in being served bowls of amatriciana pasta drizzled with grassy olive oil and clustered with pockets of sweet onion and salty pancetta — quivering with the heat of the stove, quieting as it cooled under my chin — I secretly dreamt of boiled corn on the cob and an Oscar Meyer hot dog with Heinz ketchup nestled between a bun.
Remember when we used to call our moms on our friend’s home phone to ask if we could stay at their house for dinner? To most kids, this was just a way out of going home to start their homework, but for me, it was an excuse to eat frozen chicken nuggets and white rice. Is it nonsensical that I spent my childhood longing for what every commonplace American family was serving Monday-Thursday (stay at a friend’s house for dinner Friday, half of America orders pizza on Friday) when my father was armed with leek bruschetta and slabs of steak that cut like butter? Yes. But, I was obsessed with normal food. Call it hyperbole, but when I was a kid, I wanted to eat like a regular kid.
Isn’t that what we all want when we’re ten, eleven, twelve? To be just like everyone else.
The obsession didn’t stop with me. My brothers begged my mother for Digiorno pizzas when we were at the grocery store just to get eggs and almond milk, quoting the ‘Digiorno or Delivery!’ slogan as she shot down their wishes. I tried to sneak boxes of Reese’s Puff cereal and frozen french toast sticks into the cart when my dad had already made a prosciutto frittata for the morning. Jake tried frozen egg rolls at someone’s house, Jack had pizza bagels and smiley fries at a birthday party. My cousins always had stale cheez-its and boxes of pops cereal in their pantry and Jake beelined for their kitchen everytime we stopped by their house.
Think of it on the other end. For show and tell in elementary school my dad came in and brought little cups of fregola with fresh jersey tomato sauce, sprinkled with parmigano reggiano and tiny chocolate dipped cannolis. Every kid at Viola L. Sickles school heard that Eli Rallo’s dad brought in an Italian feast and were all rubbernecking on the other end of the closed door of Mrs. Angelino’s 2nd grade classroom. Staying over for dinner at my house meant a trip to one of two restaurants, it meant gelato and warm homemade rolls with Partanna Olive Oil when most kids only knew butter and Breyer’s. I felt that my blessings were stark differences between me and my adolescent peers, and I wondered what life would be like if dad worked a 9-5 and didn’t come home smelling of red wine, rosemary bread and olive oil.
After growing old enough to look back on the places my dad calls work as though they are seconds homes — a childhood without them is one I never wish to know.
For eighteen years I took everything my family taught me about food and ingredients and culture for granted, willing to forfeit my Italian roots for a toaster strudel and a glass of chocolate milk at any time. I longed for the 6:30 PM sit down family dinner — the epicenter of American culture, the epitome of American family life. I was so caught up in the idea of the crappy taco Tuesdays and delivery pizza Fridays that all my friends had, that I took for granted how lucky I am that good food is the backbone of my existence.
Once I was headed to Michigan, I was met with the realization that home, my home, and its foundation of real food, culture and fresh ingredients is a special idiosyncrasy, and makes me who I am. There is no casserole or frozen pizza that comes near pizza made by someone with the last name Rallo. The way you can taste the passion nestled between melted mozzarella di bufala and tangy tomato sauce — all asleep in a dream-like state on a chewy pillow of pizza dough, made from my dad’s hands and heart, is something that means coming home. It took being surrounded by dining hall food and fast food and eating snacks for dinner because there aren’t enough hours in a day to realize that I should’ve stopped to smell the roses, or the fresh basil adorned on a white hot crackling pizza, when I still had the chance.
I am lucky to have traditions, to have culture and a foundation of love and support through pizza and pasta and wine. These traditions may not be typical or standard, but they’re the very scripture my family lives and breathes by. For me, coming home means Sunday dinners, meals we cook without recipes, l’ingrediente primo, the way my grandfather taught my father to make meatballs — with chunks of crusted bread as a secret ingredient, and the palate of a pint sized Italian grandmother, (who is also organic). I’d never call my mother, or text her rather, to tell her I’m not coming home for dinner when I do get the chance to be back home in New Jersey. Currently, I’m surrounded by a lot of frozen food, and a lot of cooking that makes me long for my childhood kitchen table’s inviting glow. So when I do get the chance to be back with the people I love, I always make sure I’m sharing the table with them. I thank the places I’ve been for making me realize how remarkable a Rallo dinnertime is, no matter how atypical; but more importantly, how wonderful the people I share it with are. I am lucky that my father taught me that no matter what we eat not just to nourish, but to share, celebrate and love.
Where am I headed on August 6th, when my current adventure wraps up? Not to the frozen section of the grocery store, or for microwave quesadillas.
It’s an easy answer: I’m headed toward l’ingrediente primo, I’m headed home.