Thursday, May 23, 2013

“Mafia Meals”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.” – Thomas Jefferson

For this writer, since the beginning of my own career, there has been no greater gift than an interesting book. Each square of printed matter has yielded the opportunity not only for entertainment or enlightenment, but also for a good journalistic review.
Being in the habit of scribbling useful prose has attracted many such printed volumes from friends, family members and devoted readers. They also have appeared while visiting flea markets, yard sales and thrift stores. Frequently, these off-the-wall collections land on a shelf in my office library, waiting to be revisited. But a few demand instant attention.
Some, like the obscure and cryptic “Proceedings of the Rabble” by Mark Mirsky, appeared at a discount price through the kindness of a local retailer. As did “The Game Show King” by Chuck Barris, a thrill-ride through the world of broadcast television.
But one recent offering seemed to nearly burst from its postal mailer with a fanciful title, printed in gold: “The Mafia Cookbook.”
This venerable work was written by Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi.
According to text on the dust cover, the author was once a member of the Gambino crime family, but changed his loyalty in becoming an informant for the FBI. Before I even opened the book, a taste of surreal prose dripped from the cover with the promise of much more to follow:

“I met my first marshal in Daytona Beach, Florida, that morning, and he handed me $500 and said it was ‘walking around money.’ He put me on a plane to somewhere near the end of the world... after bouncing around... I finally settled down in Memphis, Tennessee. When I got off the plane, the marshal who picked me up said ‘Joe Dogs! It’s good to meet you! I hear you’re a very good cook! After you’re settled, how about cooking something up and we’ll chow down.’ Naturally, I complied.”

There was something quite ironic about a federal agent seeking good cuisine from a former criminal in protective custody. It was an indication that this dietary voyage would be unlike any other in my personal collection.
Reading with anticipation, I discovered that Iannuzzi had created a literary-culinary adventure by grouping his recipes with vignettes of mob activity. Each chapter provided a tale of intrigue, and fine dining.
One particular dish caught my attention while reading:

Orecchietti with Peas and Prosciutto


½ pound thick cut prosciutto, diced
½ cup olive oil (extra virgin or virgin preferred)
1 tablespoon chopped onion
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen peas
1 pound orecchietti
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Brown diced prosciutto in olive oil in a frying pan until crisp. Remove prosciutto with slotted spoon and set aside. Add onion to oil and cook until translucent. Add peas and cooked prosciutto and allow to simmer over extremely low heat while preparing pasta. Boil orecchietti until al dente. Drain pasta and place in large bowl. Add butter and cheese, a little at a time, while tossing pasta. Add peas and prosciutto mixture. Toss and serve.

Iannuzzi paired this rich meal with a colorful story of violence and hunger:

“Later that night, I picked up Dominick, he handed me an address in the Keys and we drove south. I was packing two snub-nosed .38s and a little .22. Dom took one .38 and the .22 and stuffed them in his waistband... I dropped him off and... once he got inside I began to pull up the car. I heard about twelve shots. Dominick came walking out and hopped into the passenger seat. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘Take me to that safe apartment my famiglia keeps in Lake Worth and make me something good to eat. That prosciutto thing you made last time sounds good.’ Who was I to argue?”

An underlying theme in Iannuzzi’s book was the way in which European cultures mix food and life in equal measures. He demonstrated how cooking was more than simply providing nourishment. It was an indispensable part of the life experience.
After reading through his unique cookbook, I felt sure that it was a culinary resource I would visit again and again.

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“Baby Juanita”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

For this writer, childhood meant frequent moves from one state to another. After beginning in Columbus, Ohio, my family wandered across the map. Our household mobility meant that none of us had a true sense of being from anywhere. I looked at life like a journey by train, with stops along the way for rest and refreshment. In the summer of 1975, this rail-ride found us in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Our neighborhood by the three rivers was populated with a curious variety of everyday folk. It was an immigrant community, colorful and diverse. Each family seemingly had strong roots somewhere else. Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany, Croatia or dozens of other faraway nations. Kids in my junior-high class included one of Syrian descent, and another who was Lebanese.
We had come to the area after a year in Kentucky and five years in central Virginia. So almost immediately, local residents observed that we “talked funny.”  
America itself was in the midst of a great personal reassessment in those days. We had survived the Oil Embargo, Watergate and Vietnam. And the collapse of “hippie” culture into disco.
One of our neighbors was a kind, older woman, recently widowed. She lived next door in a rented yellow house that looked out of place, because it was one of the oldest in our neighborhood.
Mrs. Zeiler carried herself with the rough dignity of a blue-collar angel. Her cigarettes were ever-present. She made me think of stories about “Rosie the Riveter” from the era of World War II. Her son was nicknamed “Primo.” I often wondered if this was after the Hawaiian beer available in those days. He had a variety of jobs and seemed to drift from career to career. In October of that year, her daughter Sandy gave birth to a girl. They named her Juanita.
Health issues for the young mom followed, and Mrs. Zeiler ended up caring for the baby as Sandy struggled to recover. She was in and out of the hospital.
In my neighbor’s tiny household, a fragrance of baby powder joined tobacco smoke that hung in the air. We all became used to that odd combination.
Eventually, my own mother and sister began to help. Juanita grew quickly. She was cute and outgoing. Very bright for her age. A bubbly child with dark hair and bright eyes. We taught her to sing songs and tell stories. She went to church with us, in the neighborhood. Soon, it was like I had a second sister.
In 1978, the family train ride resumed. We moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Juanita was almost three years old. She came to stay with us in the Empire State, briefly. We actually thought of asking to adopt her into the Ice family. It would have balanced our generation, with two boys and two girls. Her name echoed that of my aunt from Gallia County. So everything about her was perfect for our brood.
But after sharing the holidays with us, she went home.
I visited Pittsburgh again, in the summer of 1980. Juanita had continued to grow. She was nearly five years old. Mrs. Zeiler welcomed my visit. We shared stories of the recent past and she made a picnic meal of zesty hamburgers.
Strangely, it was the last time I saw either of them in person.
My sister kept in touch as the years progressed. But I fell out of contact. With the train ride taking us to Chardon, in 1983, we were one more station-stop away from Juanita and her grandmother.
Years passed, and new memories were made. The capitol city of Geauga became our “hometown” in a way I had never experienced, before.
Once, when visiting the old neighborhood in Pittsburgh, I noticed that her yellow abode had been torn down by the landlord. She moved to the nearby community of Springdale. But I couldn’t find her address. Then, a few months ago, my sister mentioned discovering an obituary on the Internet. She was searching for old friends, and found the following entry with great sadness as a result:

Martin, Juanita
Springdale Township

Juanita D. Martin, 34, of Springdale Township, died Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010, in her home. She was born Oct. 18, 1975, in New Kensington, to Sandra E. Zeiler Martin, of Grove City, and the late Harold Martin. She had worked as a bookkeeper for Coral Ridge Estates in Butler. Juanita was of the Protestant faith and enjoyed sports, including football, basketball, billiards, bowling and especially enjoyed caring for her cats. Besides her mother, she is survived by her grandmother, Eileen Zeiler, with whom she made her home; a brother, Brian Martin, of Vandergrift; several nieces and nephews; and her longtime companion, Don Mikesell. Besides her father, she was preceded in death by her grandfather, Benjamin Zeiler. FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS HAVE BEEN CHANGED. Friends will be received from 11 a.m. Saturday until services at 1 p.m. in the RUSIEWICZ OF LOWER BURRELL FUNERAL HOME, 3124 Leechburg Road at Alder Street, Lower Burrell, with the Rev. Harold Mele. Burial will follow in Greenwood Cemetery, Lower Burrell.

Postscript: Our erstwhile neighbor, Eileen Zeiler, passed away on February 10, 2013 at the age of 89. But her memory, and that of her grandchild, will endure in our family, forever.

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