Within my own family, my Queens-born appetite is world-famous. The mythology’s narrative arc stretches to infancy, dark days filled with ceaseless crying after relentless nursing, to the point when my incredulous mother had to bring me to a doctor.
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” he told her. “He’s just hungry. Feed that baby solid food!”
If screen-printing had been clicks away in the ‘70s, #feedthatbaby baseball T-shirts would be visible on my family members in grainy VCR tapes to this day.
But there was justification for the proud, repeated bestowing of the title Good Eater on me as the first grandchild by approving members of my Italian-American family. And if you’re Italian, you know Good Eater as a million-dollar appellation whose significance (along with Growing Boy) implies predestined greatness and accompanying riches. Given this fame, I trained at my grandparents’ table where finishing everything set in front of me just meant being served it again.
By the time I was 8, The Family Crier had already declared me Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the Clean Plate Club.
Unable to choose between dishes during our family Sunday morning tradition at the Mandarin Oriental Café in Hong Kong (where I grew up, in addition to on Long Island), I rose to all international challengers weekly, unifying the IBF, WBA, and WBO breakfast belts by finishing off full servings of French toast, waffles, and eggs Benedict in succession, calmly ordering one midway through another. I’d finish all three before my sister Emily, controversially anointed by breakfast governing bodies Slowest Eater in the World, could get halfway through an omelet.
In Italian-American parlance, I was not overweight, but “solid” and “thick” (an adjective whose one-consonant switch at the end would garner me more cache today than the former did in the ‘80s), with an appetite that did not dissipate as a teenager. I’d bike to the local sandwich shop, eat a sub, then polish off dinner two hours later.
Wednesday mornings were for bakery-warm pain au chocolat sold on the playground, underground, at the French International School. I’d draw intricate plans to escape lunchroom prefects so I could sneak out of school with Mission Impossible fastidiousness to be first in line at the ice cream truck.
There was that time we went to Il Vero Alfredo in Rome for the “original” fettuccine Alfredo, and the time a chicken was drowned in front of us at an open car garage restaurant in China. It’s not that all of my memories are food-related, just most of them.
My recollection of my 5th birthday centers around me telling the bus driver it wasn’t a good idea to put my mother’s homemade cupcakes on the seat by themselves, telling her I’d prefer to hold them, watching them fall all over the floor when she refused and then had to break unexpectedly — and purposely making eye contact with her in her rear-view mirror after, not saying a word.
Even the memory of my mother being robbed in Venice when I was 6 replays in slow motion — my coffee gelato splattering before I took off after the mugger (I was ordered in no uncertain terms to stop and come right back before I could take five steps).
This is a long way of explaining, just a little, my love for family and food. Becoming a dad over the past two years since our son Gus was born has resurfaced many of these memories — ravioli and red sauce bubbling for Sunday supper, my divorced grandfather bringing over fresh sesame-studded loaves to mop it up, learning how to balance an egg on its end using salt, eating Ronzoni pastina tossed in butter and a whole egg, the sequin fruit centerpiece at my grandparents’ house before they split up (whose grandparents got divorced in the ‘80s anyway?), being taught how to make a Dagwood by Uncle Paul, helping to feed the steers on my father’s parents’ land in Western Massachusetts, then seeing “Din-Din” and “Elmer” show up between hamburger buns weeks later.
The scenes come suddenly — pure emotion and sensation — at turns fraught with laughter and sadness. A single taste memory oscillates between past and present.
I hand Gus a pair of training chopsticks and suddenly I’m teaching myself to pluck roasted peanuts with chopsticks at a Szechuan restaurant when I’m 8. My wife Angela and I take him to Gruppo for our weekly pizza night and I’m suddenly eating the grandma pizza at Umberto’s in New Hyde Park with my Grandpa John. Gus refuses foods that are mixed together and I recall a long-forgotten fondness for dipping pickles in tomato sauce. Gus shouts “Tomatoes are growing!” while we’re in the garden and suddenly Grandma Helen, who passed away years ago, is explaining that my Uncle Sam eats tomatoes off the vine like apples, and I’m eating slices out of the salad bowl with Grandpa Arthur in the dining room of the house he built himself.
Other scenes I seem to conjure with some deliberation. Conscious of wanting to ensure my wife’s seventh-generation Texan culinary roots are firmly ensconced in Gus’s own taste memories, we make Tex-Mex and smoke turkey and brisket—foods that were not a part of my childhood but certainly are now. I make enchiladas and hear echoes of my mother making lasagna on a Tuesday night.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the everyday meals my mother, the primary force in our nuclear family’s kitchen, would prepare most every night after her full-time job as a teacher, then later as a tireless school administrator, superintendent, and professor. You have to understand: One of the larger family jokes about my mother centers around her telling her father John, a New York City police detective, that she wanted to marry my father (her brother Nick’s best friend who started showing up when he wasn’t there). It was the early ‘70s and she hadn’t finished college yet.
“You need to finish school first,” Grandpa John told her.
“Dad, I’m going to finish school. Don’t worry.”
My parents were married before my mother finished school (she was in one of the first coed classes at Williams, graduated from Columbia, and went to work at Goldman Sachs for a time). She then went on to get four masters degrees and a doctorate over the course of the next 20 years.
“Another degree? What the hell is wrong with you? When are you going to finish school?!” Grandpa John would ask one after the next.
Dr. Mom never stopped going to school.
But with papers to grade, lessons to plan, and papers to write, there it still was every night: dinner. Not out of the freezer, mixed from a box, or ordered in (those kinds of options back then were as laughably limited as a phone extension cord wrapped around your finger) and almost always with a fresh salad and homemade dressing. There was escarole and cannellini bean soup. Corned beef and cabbage. Linguine with clam sauce. Scrod or cod and tomato sauce with capers and onions. Roasted flank steak rolled up into pinwheels around stuffing. Or, close to my number-one favorite, homemade meatballs.
But my all-time favorite dish is her gorgonzola cream sauce with farfalle, apples, and pecans. She’s been perfecting it for 30 years. We’d have it once a month while I was in high school; I figure I’ve eaten it at least 50 times. It’s a funny dish for a kid to like, funky — gorgonzola is, after all, a moldy blue cheese. But love it I did.
“It has to be a Granny Smith apple,” she'd tell me, years later. “One time I tried to make it with another apple because I forgot to buy the Granny Smith, and you were like, ‘Mom, this doesn't work.’ You were 7. You said the Red Delicious or McIntosh apple I tried to use wasn’t tart enough. Too mealy. Which was true,” she chuckled. “It made sense because you have the sweetness of the cheese, then you have the tartness of the apple, which is a nice complement.”
Her version is a fairly thin sauce, partially because she doesn’t go straight cream.
“It'd be too rich,” she explained when I started asking questions about the recipe. “Much too rich. With the half-and-half, it tastes just as good, if not better. And it's not as heavy. If it's for two people, I use a pint of half-and-half. If it's for four people, I use a quart.”
The result is this light, thin, cheese-laced cream that’s not quite nappant. She doesn’t salt the dish either, but gives it an umami-salt boost by adding Pecorino Romano. A sparse scattering of golden raisins, which plump up while sitting in the finished sauce as everything comes together, add soft little bursts of sweetness in between sips of gently funky cream. Along with the al dente farfalle, you get occasional crunches of barely toasted crushed pecans and slightly cool crisps of sweet-tart Granny Smith apple. Some bites are sweet and lightly gorgonzola-y, some are nutty, some are both, accented by an additional scattering of finely shredded Romano.
Cheesy, cheesy-salty, cheesy-sweet. What’s not to like?
But it’s a mystery where my mother got the inspiration for this dish.
“Oh my God, it was a long time ago,” she says. “Papa and I went to a restaurant in Manhattan, where they served a gorgonzola sauce, but it was just the cheese and cream.”
“It was on the West Side,” my dad pipes in, “a very rustic sort of Tuscan place on 8th or 9th Avenue in the ‘50s. There were glass jars of pasta all across the walls. I don't remember the name.”
“It’s lost, in other words,” I say.
“Maybe, maybe not," she tells me. “The thing I liked was the texture. It was very smooth. It could have been that they used small shells, but I like the farfalle because it holds the cheese in the little folds of the bow ties, and it kind of perks up the dish. Besides, you don't see a lot of dishes with farfalle. But it wasn’t really complete. There was more potential for the sauce.”
“So where did the rest come from?”
“I always liked Waldorf salad,” she says. “And Waldorf salad has apples.”
“Waldorf salad is apples, celery, mayonnaise, and lettuce.”
“Right, so that was my inspiration. Except there obviously wouldn’t be any mayonnaise in the sauce.”
“Yeah, it’s just like a Waldorf salad except there's no salad, no celery, and no mayonnaise. It doesn’t have the same ingredients; it’s a pasta from an entirely different section of the menu. Besides that, it’s the same,” I say, laughing.
The thing is, she’s actually right. As The Times notes, the original Waldorf salad was simple when invented in 1893, but later variations have added raisins, walnuts, grapes, and … blue cheese.
The dish works well all year long. It’s light enough to work for spring and summer, but creamy and heartening enough to be satisfying during cooler months. In our house it was always served with fresh garlic bread made under the broiler in foil, using an Italian loaf with butter softened on the counter (microwaves were rarer back then) and freshly pressed garlic nestled under a dish towel in a basket, and a light salad with an Italian herb–seasoned homemade dressing.
It’s just as satisfying on its own, too, and actually very quick and simple to make — in under 35 minutes, easily. Less if you have decent knife skills.
You just have to keep the sauce on a very low temperature, you must pay attention and you can’t rush. If there’s too much heat, the sauce separates. It curdles and can’t be brought back.
But that’s another reason I think I like this dish so much. The time I remember it most vividly was the one time it didn’t work out. My mother was doing the fifty other things a mother does while balancing a full-time job and making it all seem somehow within the realm of sanity (something my wife Angela is amazingly good at). She looked away for a millisecond when the sauce curdled.
In one rare instant, there was a gasp, one self-permitted quiet sob of frustration — and then the pasta was tossed and a new dinner was started. The next time and every other since, my mother made that gorgonzola farfalle seamlessly.
“I was rushing,” she explain, later. “That was when I learned how careful you have to be with it. You just can't cheat with the time it takes to melt the cheese and skim the sauce. You’ve got to nurse it like a newborn.”
Creamy Gorgonzola Farfalle With Apples & Pecans
Cook time: 35 minutes
1 pound farfalle
1 quart half-and-half
1/2 pound gorgonzola dolce
1 cup Locatelli Pecorino Romano
1 pinch white pepper
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tart apple (such as Granny Smith or Honeycrisp)
1/2 cup crushed pecans
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season with about a tablespoon of salt. Drop the farfalle into the boiling water and cook per package instructions to al dente.
2. Meanwhile, make the sauce: Add the half-and-half to another pot or saucepan and set it to a low simmer. Tear off small, easily dissolvable chunks of gorgonzola and add to the half-and-half. Stir softly and occasionally until the cheese melts into the cream completely. (Keep an eye on the sauce throughout the process to make sure it does not get too hot!) Use a slotted spoon or small strainer to skim any undesired bits of blue mold from the cream sauce and discard them.
3. Add 3/4 cup of Pecorino Romano to the cream sauce and stir to combine. Season with a pinch of white pepper if desired. Add the raisins to the sauce and allow them to plump up while you cut the apple into cubes about the size of the raisins. Strain the pasta and add to the cream sauce and raisins and toss until covered.
4. Set a dry skillet or saucepan over medium heat, add the pecans, and gently toast them 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Ladle the pasta into shallow bowls, making sure to distribute the raisins as equally as possible. Evenly scatter the top of each bowl of pasta with the pecans and apples, then garnish with parsley and serve.