Emily Monaco

What I Didn't Learn from My Italian-American Family

My last name is Monaco.

“Like Stephanie and Caroline?”

Pretty much everyone who has ever heard my name has had something to say about it.

“Like the city?”

“It’s a principality,” I say, in guise of a response, though we don’t get our name from that little portion of the French Riviera. Monaco means monk in Italian; it’s one of the paisan names that end in –a or –o, the ones my dad liked to hear when I was listing the names of the kids in my class or the new priest at my Catholic school. More than casinos or car races, Monaco is indicative of my Italian-American identity.

In some respects, we conform to the stereotype. We talk loudly. We exaggerate. We still complain about things that happened to our ancestors in Sicily, though I'm not sure whether I believe the story of an ancestor who, in 1923, had their goat stolen by a band of masked men in the middle of the night along a craggy road in Gibbelina.

But my father isn’t called Tony; he’s called Bruce. He slipped out of his Long Island Italian accent like a snake shedding its skin to move to Manhattan and make it big on Wall Street. The Scarpullas and Recchias and di Fabrizios we grew up with had Italian mammas (or at least nonnas) who made seven fishes on Christmas Eve, ever putting “just one more” manicotto on their plates. On December 24, we ate turkey. Manicotti was an unfamiliar word on the menu at a red-sauce restaurant, where I would always opt for Bolognese instead.

The person putting dinner on the table in our family of four dark-haired dark-eyed Monaco children was a pale, German-Irish Zielinski: my mother. She dutifully made – even perfected – my Italian-American father’s favorites: chicken parm, lasagna, marinara sauce; served them randomly interspersed amongst paella and chicken paillards and grilled steak with roasted vegetables. My father had two recipes – English muffins with American cheese and fried eggs, and an admittedly delicious spaghetti and meatball concoction that somehow managed to use every pot and pan in the kitchen and spatter the tiled walls of the kitchen orangey red.

He wasn’t allowed to make it very often.

Monaco misadventures in Italian-American cuisine didn’t end with my father. My paternal grandmother cooked the life out of scrambled eggs for Easter brunch and made boiled escarole so limp and gray that my father still won't touch the vegetable, even raw. My grandfather, who passed away when I was still in utero, famously subsided almost entirely on a diet of low-fat cottage cheese and marmalade sandwiches on protein bread. My aunt, the only woman in a family with three brothers, will take one bite of anything, from pizza to mac and cheese to chocolate cake, but no more – not the ideal source for seeking out mascarpone and ricotta-laden Sicilian specialties. They love them -- particularly my father -- but they don't make them. And I had never heard of most of those dishes until, on a bus from my boarding school in Massachusetts home to Manhattan for the holidays, I saw Goodfellas.

Strange, I’ll admit, but as I let my ear become attuned to the language and expressions that were familiar but not familiar enough, I started to contemplate that name I’d always taken for granted, that heritage I’d never really considered before. I’d heard niente and capisci slip over my father’s tongue, but he said mozzarella, not mozzarell, and I’d never seen anyone cut garlic with a razor blade.

I wanted to, and up close this time, not 10 rows back from a 12-inch screen.

That night, after hugs and an Irish pot roast dinner, I mentioned the film to my father. A few hours later, I, a 17-year-old American with a French first name, was sitting next to a nostalgic 40-something eye-tie trying to figure out what gabbagool was. I watched as Clemenza – a man who oddly resembled my father – made “gravy” for a roomful of guys, and while the screen was better than the tiny one on the bus, my desire to be closer, to smell the garlic and herbs, to taste the spaghetti, was only getting stronger.

My mother knew the recipes by heart, but I knew that she wasn’t the person to go to for what I was looking for. I wanted the accents, the room steeped in history, the recipes so old and used that they were memorized, written into the joints of your fingers and the crevices of your favorite wooden spoon. The closest thing I had was a blond boyfriend who claimed to have Venetian ancestry and had spent several months in the north of Italy and the years after that finding all of the best salumerias in New York.

He took me to Arthur Avenue, and as we crossed into the “real” little Italy, I wanted so badly to feel that I was coming home that I felt it. I tasted Parmesan and Provolone. I ate prosciutto and mortadella and salami. The men at the butcher counters called me bella, and I brought back bags upon bags of Italian deli meats for my family to sample.

And then the bar was raised: I got my own kitchen.

One of the first things I did when I got to the University of Toronto was unpack my new lasagna pan. The second was to find Little Italy.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but while Toronto is a city filled with Italians, they’re not the same kind of Italians you find in the Bronx or Boston’s North End. The red-sauce joints that dot all of New York’s streets are nowhere to be found in a city where Italian immigration happened later and from the northern regions. Still, it seemed as good a place as any to finally delve into the recipes websites I had found, promising me that I would soon be recreating all those classic Sicilian recipes I was supposed to remember but had never actually tasted.

It didn’t go quite as I had planned.

I bought olives, anchovies, capers and San Marzano tomatoes, and after stirring for what felt like hours and finally sitting down to dinner, choking down half of what I had made and checking the recipe twice, I realized I hated puttanesca. I made chocolate wheatberry pudding, an apparent Sicilian specialty, and realized that wheatberries expand when cooked. I forced myself to eat it for a week, barely digging a small crater in the mountain that lived in a giant red plastic bowl on the bottom shelf of my fridge, before conceding defeat and throwing it away.

I watched episode upon episode of The Sopranos and wondered why it wasn’t easy. Why didn’t I have childhood memories of making tomato sauce with garden tomatoes or rolling ravioli with zias and nonnas? I was majoring in Italian, and the words rolled off my tongue like Chianti, but the food wasn’t becoming mine. Not the way I wanted it to.

So I abandoned ship. I had no cafeteria and nothing good to eat, so I stopped worrying so much about cooking Italian and started cooking delicious instead. I made a vegetarian spinach lasagna recipe I found in Giada di Laurentiis’ cookbook. I set off the fire alarm trying to sear scallops perfectly. I dolloped crème fraiche on a bowl of strawberries and ate it for dinner.

But while my frustration had caused my interest to wane, my family had noticed. My aunt passed me a book of Sicilian poetry falling apart at the seams that had belonged to my grandmother and whispered her secret – a family secret – of frying a pork chop in a pot before making tomato sauce and eating the pork chop when no one was looking. My mother started volunteering me to go to Arthur Avenue to pick up meats and cheeses for an antipasto platter for family events.

And one weekend when my mother was gone, I don’t remember where, my father asked me to make hot antipasto.

I didn’t follow a recipe, didn’t look online for the correct way to do things. I just listened as he told me what he remembered – eggplant rolled around ricotta cheese, peppers stuffed with beef mince, everything topped with tomato sauce and baked so that the juices from clams and shrimp and tomato could blend in the bottom of the baking dish and make something soupy and flavorful that you could soak up with Sullivan Street bread. I did as I was told. I tried to make it delicious.

When I slid the plate in front of my father, watched him as he took his first bite, I understood.

The recipes I was looking for were the recipes of his childhood. No matter how far I delved into them, they would never be nostalgic for me. A food culture isn’t something you can just claim for yourself, even with a paisan last name and unruly Sicilian hair.

All I could hope for would be to create something tasty, something I loved now, even if I hadn’t loved it – hadn’t known it – in the past. To make something that would evoke that feeling of family and childhood, I would have to dip into my own childhood recipes, the beef stews and roast chickens my mother made when I was small. The Sicilian dishes would never make me feel that way.

I stopped making tomato sauce every week. I stopped trying to make my father’s childhood my own. When I need to remember my childhood, I make home fries and fried eggs, or pork chops and applesauce.

And yes, sometimes, I make chicken parm. My recipe is my own, cobbled together through trial and error. It doesn’t taste like childhood, or nostalgia, or family, but it does taste delicious, and it’s mine.

Emily Monaco is a native New Yorker living and writing in Paris since 2007. She loves caffeinated nighttime wanders, places bathed in layers of history, and nineteenth century French novelists. Emily is the author of, a blog about food, Paris and culture shock. You can also find her at and on Twitter @emiglia.

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