My Nonno Jim is one of the coolest people I know. Here’s why:
When he was only 14 years old he immigrated to the U.S from Calabria, Italy. On April 12, 1936 he boarded a boat (called Il Conte di Savoia) departing from Naples, Italy, bound for New York City.
The plan was that his father, who was already living in the U.S, would meet him at Ellis Island and bring him to Providence, Rhode Island, where he had his own store that sold Italian products like tomatoes and cheese. My nonno had been working for his uncle, who was a tailor, in their little town of Grotteria. The two of them didn’t get along very well (apparently my nonno did most of the work and didn’t get much thanks for it) and so he jumped at the chance to go to the U.S to work with his father.
It took him nearly a year to get his papers and passport together, and then he was off. On the boat, my grandfather cried for the first time since he had decided to leave Italy. He remembers whispering “Oh bella patria mia! Chissa’ quando ti vedrò!“* under his breath as he watched his country getting farther and farther away. He still tears up, nearly 80 years later, when he recounts this. My great-grandmother was convinced that my nonno would go to the U.S for a few months and then come back to Italy.
The trip on the boat to America lasted 9 days. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was hungry and bought a banana from a fruit vendor. He had never seen or tried one before, and said it was good, though unlike anything he had ever eaten in Italy. His father was late coming to pick him up, so he slept at Ellis Island that night. On the train ride from New York to Providence, my great-grandfather told his son that he had just received a few cases of canned tomatoes for the store. My grandfather remembers being confused, but pretended he knew what he was talking about – after all, he had never heard of tomatoes being in cans before. He was also slightly disappointed by the farm land and small houses he saw out of the train window.
It turns out my great-grandmother was wrong. My grandfather never returned to Calabria, at least not to live; in fact he didn’t return for a visit until many years later. In that time he began working in his father’s store, went to junior high school during the day, and took night classes to learn English. He was so smart that his teachers moved him quickly into classes with the other native English speakers. His favorite classes were his junior business classes, and he played piccolo in the school band. He still recalls with embarrassment how his father made him wear a suit and tie on the first day of school. His name, Vincenzo, became Vincent, and then later he was given the nickname Jim.
My nonno had a natural sense for business and had a few new ideas for his father’s store. He offered to help open and then run another store in Boston, which did well, and then a few others. When he was 24, he founded his own company, Supreme Dairy Farms, which specialized in making Italian cheeses, mostly ricotta and mozzarella. Given the many Italian restaurants and pizzerias in Rhode Island, there was a good market for these products, and the company took off. In the meantime, he married my grandmother, also from Grotteria (stay tuned for her guest post) in 1953, and had three sons. He owned and ran his business up until he was 85 years old.
As new and exciting as all of this was, however, I can’t imagine it was easy.
In a way I have done more or less what my grandfather did: I’ve decided to pick up and move to another country (strangely enough, the one that he chose to leave). But he faced far many more challenges: he was younger than me, did not speak the language, and had never visited the country
he was leaving home for. In a time where there were no cell phones, Facetime, or Skype, his family and life in Calabria must have felt very far away, at least initially. My grandfather would receive a letter from his mother with updates on his family every two weeks or so — unthinkable nowadays when we can send a message from the comfort of our own Smartphone. Despite all of the challenges he was initially faced with, he became extremely successful. I’m not so sure I could ever be as courageous as he was. He is one of the most inspiring people I know, and I am so proud of him.
Now that I am living in Rome, my grandparents and I Skype often using my grandfather’s tablet (something that I can’t help but think must seem incredible to him, and much better than letter writing). He is funny, intelligent, and quick as ever. On my last visit, I brought him panforte from a recent trip to Siena, and in exchange he gave me this cookbook, compiled to give to Supreme Dairy customers back in the 1960s. The recipes all use ricotta or mozzarella cheese as their main ingredient. In honor of my grandfather, I wanted to make and share one of these recipes with you: mozzarella in carrozza.
A recipe from the Campania region of Italy, mozzarella in carrozza is kind of cross between a grilled cheese and French toast – the sandwich is dipped in eggs, milk, and flour, and fried until it is crispy and golden on the outside, and the cheese is gooey and melt-y on the inside. Be sure to cut the mozzarella very thin to ensure it melts completely. This is super easy to make and requires only a few ingredients too. (Nonno Jim, thanks for giving me the inspiration to make this recipe –I’ll make this for you next time I’m home!)
“Oh bella patria mia! Chissa’ quando ti vedro’!”*: “Oh, my beautiful country! Who knows when I will see you again!”
- 6 slices white bread, crusts removed
- 1 large ball buffalo mozzarella, cut in to thin slices
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- Pinch of salt
- Olive oil, for frying
Make sandwiches out of the bread and mozzarella, leaving a little margin around the edges unfilled with cheese, and press the edges together with your fingers to seal them (this will make flipping the sandwiches easier).
Pour the milk in to a shallow bowl, the egg in to another, and the flour on to a plate. Add a little salt to the egg mixture.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Dip the sandwiches one at a time in to the milk, then
the flour, and then the egg. Fry each sandwich in the oil until crisp and golden on both sides. Cut in half and serve. Serves 2-3.