Laura Schenone calls her search for her great-grandmother's ravioli recipe an obsession. Estranged from her extended family by 'feuds' she didn't understand, the award-winning food writer decided to connect with her ancestors through—what else?—their ravioli, "the dish of happy times."
"A little square of ravioli is like a secret," she writes, "...an envelope with a message." As a young woman, Schenone was not so interested in her Italian roots. She speculates this may have been a reaction to her strict Italian father and the machismo of the neighborhood Italian men who went out at night and left their wives home to cook and clean. Twenty years later, at home with two young sons, she realized how intimately the cooking of pasta was woven into her family history and began the search for the authentic ravioli recipe. She stocked the freezer with frozen meals for her husband and sons and left for Italy, first for a week and the second time longer. Eventually, the whole family went to Italy. Everyone, including the kids, loved it. Schenone's husband was inspired by the beauty and slower pace to want a smaller house with 'less stress' back home.
On her travels to Liguria, the area in Italy where her ancestors came from, Schenone studied old cookbooks and talked to the relatives who knew Adalgiza, her great-grandmother. This was the woman she never met, who followed her young husband Salvatore across the ocean and began the family history in Hoboken, New Jersey. Schenone's story also takes us to Recco, where Adalgiza and Salvatore came from, and to the nearby town of Lumarzo, where "everyone is Schenone." In private homes and trattorias, we get vicarious lessons on rolling, flipping, turning, cutting, filling and pressing ravioli. Finally, Schenone brought her video camera and filmed the ravioli making so she could practice at home.
Back in New Jersey, Schenone's neighbor Lou Palma, who hangs smoked meats in his garage, encouraged her quest. Throughout the book, we watch them work in Palma's kitchen, using an electric pasta machine to turn out hundreds of ravioli, working to get it just right. I learned that there are many types of ravioli, and many types of ripieno (filling.) The author researched the history of pasta in the New York Public Library back to the 13th century. There are many different ways to roll the dough, and various styles of pins and presses and cutters. Schenone folds all this information into her story as easily as we imagine Adalgiza folded her fresh pasta dough.
Reading about the author's efforts to make ravioli as her Genoese relatives did, I admired her perseverance. So much of the secret is in the technique, the rolling and flipping and pressing. In the end, she had to acknowledge that she could never be sure she had found Adalgiza's recipe. Indeed, there are many recipes and many family stories. The book includes includes recipes for ravioli as well as other Italian dishes, photographs to illustrate the recipes, resources for buying cookware and ingredients, and for travel in Liguria.
As an ethnic writer myself, I thoroughly understood and enjoyed the author's obsession with tracking down the details of her family history. Her words took me to the places she visited, and made me want to got here myself. All in all, a delightful and engaging book.
Laura Schenone is the author of the James Beard Award-winning work, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, where she writes about food and other topics for major newspapers and magazines. Visit her website.
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