"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Cooking Odyssey–From Pasta Fazool To Pork Belly

Dickie Palumbo grew up in an Italian American home in the Fifties.  He, his parents, and his sister lived with the elder Palumbos who reluctantly left Wooster Square for the white picket fences of New Brighton.  Luigi and Anna moved in with Dickie’s parents, not the other way around as was the custom because Dickie’s family had money.  Not a lot of money, granted, but a very good living nevertheless from the Southern New England Rock and Gravel Company started by Dickie’s father and uncle.

Dickie’s was the first Italian family to ‘integrate’ the West End, and although the old line WASPs from Newburyport and Martha’s Vineyard didn’t like it, they built a brick and finished stone rambler on the same street as the white frame late 18th century colonial homes of the captains of industry whose wealth built New Brighton. Although none of the landed gentry would ever even hint at their displeasure to either Mr. or Mrs. Palumbo, the talk around the country club pool was of the ‘guineas’ who, one hoped, were not the first wave of an inundation of Italians and Jews.

Admittedly the Palumbos’ house didn’t belong on Washington Road, one of the oldest streets of the town.  The Lansdownes, one of the oldest families in New Brighton had made their money from the slave trade, but had moved from New Bedford to New Brighton after the commerce in human cargo was outlawed in 1808.   The family invested in small-scale industry, then expanded to meet the demands of the Union Army during the Civil War.  The century following the conflict was equally felicitous for the Lansdowne family who went on to invest in hardware manufacturing.  In a short few decades New Brighton became the Hardware Capital of the World.  The Landsdownes lived in a fine 1770 example of colonial residential architecture which had just moved out of  Hester Prynne severe into the more open and slightly more welcoming styles of what we imagine when we think of New England.

The Landsdownes were known for their garden parties which were held in their garden which overlooked the Shepherd Hill Country Club.  The tea service was exclusively British with antique Reed & Barton silver and Thomas Minton ceramics.

The Palumbos, on the other hand, had no use for old houses nor, to be fair, any connection to New England.  Luigi and Anna had landed at Ellis Island in 1880, lived for ten years on the Lower East Side, and then made their way to New Haven where their cousins from Sorrento lived.  New Haven had become a center for immigrants from Sorrento, and the Palumbos were anxious to rejoin their community.

The house that Dickie’s father built had all the most modern facilities and was designed for comfort – no creaky staircases, pocket doors, music rooms, and conservatories; just bay windows, up-to-date appliances, and a two-car garage with an electric door.

The Palumbos were blissfully unaware of the catty gossip dealt their way.  They had made it big time; and anyone who ever visited Wooster Square in the old days – three story walk up tenements smelling of coal oil, garlic, and moth balls – would know how far the Palumbos had come. 

Most importantly, while Mrs. Lansdowne was preparing flank steak, green beans, and mashed potatoes, Dickie’s mother was cooking up squid in hot tomato sauce, eels, Rigatoni al Sugo de Vitello, Manzo, e Maiale; pasta fagiole; and Pasta al olio, aglio, e peperoncino.  When invited to a friend’s house for dinner, he didn’t know what to make of the boiled meat, marble peas, overcooked vegetables, and gluey potatoes.  He ate what he could, pushed the gristle and glutinous carbohydrates aside, and picked at the trifle.  He thought only of the dinner he had missed – antipasto with marinated octopus, grilled red peppers, and Genoa salami; grilled bronzino with fennel; and chocolate boca notte.

Dickie never cooked in his mother’s kitchen which was her domain; but he watched and tasted, and remembered.  As an adult he recreated his mother’s favorite dishes, modified others, and created his own recipes based on his knowledge of Italian ingredients.  He was an instinctive cook – the best kind – and could imagine what dishes would taste like well before he assembled them.  Although few of his mother’s dishes featured in his repertoire, he always thanked her for her inspiration.  Without the Friday fish, Sunday roasts, Easter ham pies, Christmas Eve sette pesce, and Christmas lasagna, he never would have become a cook.

Dickie always said that he was a cook, not a chef; for when he went to restaurants like Palena, La Grenouille, or Barcelona Night and treated himself to the tasting menu, he knew that his concoctions were innovative, unusual, but simple.  The creations of Jean-Michelle, Pedro, and Balthazar were beyond cooking.  They prepared their dishes from an international food palette.  They were unafraid to combine fruit with foraged grain; cockles with Virginia ham; or dorado with currants.

Dickie never ventured into cuisine-land, although with his good instincts and grounding in his mother’s Napolitano cooking he could have.  He parted ways with food architecture and presentation. He would always add a few springs of parsley to his vermicelli con acciughe and garnish roasts with basil or fennel sprays; but little more.  A bit of color – something as simple as a few slices of red pepper or a small stem of rosemary – was enough; and a simple presentation on Delft or Thompson bone china would be more than enough.

Dickie’s kitchen is famous in Washington, DC where he lives, although his recipes are far less unusual than the chefs of California and Seattle. Haute cuisine or its American incarnation is all the rage today; and chefs on both coasts are more adventurous and creative than ever before.  No Boston chef would ever steam a Maine lobster and sling it on the plate, red, ugly, and dead; but would extract the delicate flesh and prepare it with Amontillado sherry and a mild Emmental in a cream sauce.  Sonoma chefs forage the river banks for fiddlehead ferns, pick fresh loquats and mulberries, and buy the freshest sea urchins from Oregon waters. 

Dickie sticks to fusion fried rice (Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese), Indian (alu gobi with Thai basil), and Middle Eastern (Moroccan tagine and Cuban masitas de puerco). His homemade fish marinades, lamb rubs (a lamb burra kebab better than that served at Moti Mahal in Old Delhi).

His dishes are all based on the Italian principle of simple ingredients combined so that none are lost in combination.  French cuisine is just the opposite – hours of reduction, blending, and fusion to produce the perfect sauce; and Dickie wants no part of the hours of preparation and the loss of ingredient integrity.

Although few of his recipes are clones from his mother’s kitchen, he always credits her for his dexterity in the kitchen.  No architecture, no drizzled coulis, no twistedly weird combinations, just classic, proven blends of fragrance, texture, and spice.

Dickie met Fergie Lansdowne not long ago and was invited to his house for dinner. Although he and Fergie never had much contact since their old New Brighton day, Fergie was the best of the crusty West End lot.  Dickie had predictably gone on to Wall Street, Nantucket, and Gstaad after graduation.  He married well but also predictably, and settled in an established and historic neighborhood of Washington. 

Despite decades of American Alice Waters nouvelle cuisine, Asian fusion, and the forage cuisine of Rene Redzepi, Fergie Lansdowne had been unaffected.  Our meal was overcooked roast beef, marbly peas, and gluey mashed potatoes.  He had not budged an inch from Washington Road, New Brighton, and the Shepherd Hill Country Club.  He and his wife, Fiona, were perfect hosts.  We chatted about Groton and Yale where we had been classmates, the price of platinum, and the proposed wind farms in Block Island Sound which would obstruct the pristine view from Gay Head.

I don’t consider myself a foodie.  I, like Dickie, have never had much patience with food architecture, food pix, or trendy restaurants. However both of us share a love of food that we learned from our mothers and have passed on to our children.  Dickie’s oldest, Maeve, has her own garden in Berkeley, and her husband line fishes in Humboldt County; but neither one talk much about the simple, elegant, and always innovative dishes they have every night. The tradition goes on.


  1. I have read many articles about recipes on your blog, it's really useful and interesting.

  2. Nice post ! thank you for your share!

  3. I think cooking is very interesting, and I like the pictures you provide, thanks

  4. Thanks. I love your post, it really good and interesting.

  5. Nice pics, and very informative blog!

  6. Nice post! Keep writing! I always following your blog

  7. Excelent post!, loved the way you solved one of the greatest puzzles in the world!


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