My great grandmother (Grandma to everyone) was the matriarch of the family, the mother of my grandfather. “Josie Red” as she was known in downtown Jersey City was way ahead of her time, as a bootlegger during Prohibition, a real estate tycoon, a small-time loan shark, and according to legend, Mayor Hague’s mistress.
Every Christmas Eve, her daughter, my great aunt Lucretia, a gourmet cook, invited everyone to her basement for an Italian feast. Grandma’s four children were grown with children and grandchildren of their own. Of course this necessitated a ‘kiddie table’ at which I sat until I was tall enough to sit with the grown-ups. Aunt Lucretia always made two types of spaghetti sauce—regular marinara sauce and aglio e olio—but what I remember is it always contained clam sauce, which I wouldn’t touch, so I went for the plain and safe marinara. Her finished basement had a small kitchen so she was able to do all the cooking right there. Kiddies weren’t allowed to, but several adults helped her carry the steaming plates to the long tables set up and covered with holiday-themed tablecloths. She served all the traditional Italian dishes—after the pasta came the ham, then the fruit and nuts, and of course, an array of desserts, always including her famous struffoli (honey balls) and Italian rum cake. My Uncle Eddie tended bar at the other end of the room.
After dinner, Santa always showed up. My cousin Mike’s father played the part very convincingly—the kiddies scrambled onto his lap for their chance to gush about how good they behaved all year and how deserving they were of his visit later that night to surround their Christmas trees with presents to be torn open the next morning. Someone always had a home movie camera to capture these special moments on film. I remember the lights always blazing like the noonday sun when the camera started rolling.
After leaving the party, I always went to Midnight Mass with my friends and someone always threw a party after that.
Christmas Eves in the basement ended after Grandma left us, but the memories live on!
Vita Caputo, the heroine of my 1894 New York City romance FROM HERE TO FOURTEENTH STREET, is based on my great grandmother. It’s now on audio with the expressive animated New York native Nina Price.
Recipe for Spaghetti Aglio e Olio
One pound uncooked spaghetti
6 cloves minced garlic
½ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook spaghetti in the boiling water, stirring occasionally until cooked through but firm to the bite, about 12 minutes. Drain and transfer to a pasta bowl.
- Combine garlic and olive oil in a cold skillet. Cook over medium heat to slowly toast garlic, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low when olive oil begins to bubble. Cook and stir until garlic is golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Stir red pepper flakes, black pepper, and salt into the pasta. Pour in olive oil and garlic, and sprinkle on Italian parsley and half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; stir until combined.
- Serve pasta topped with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.