By Giulia Leo / Matthew staff
Homer narrates that the food of Gods was ambrosia and their drink nectar. The equivalent of that in the cuisine of Southern Italy would be panzerotti and a Peroni beer, preferably one that’s sudata, “sweaty.” Maybe both Nectar and Peroni were once touched by Midas, perhaps by accident. That would explain why the two drinks share that same distinctive golden hue. However, I bet they taste completely different. I’ve never dined with the Gods on the Olympus, but I always assumed that nectar tasted more like honey than malted barley. Panzerotti, too, are of a golden color. Contrary to nectar and beer, they didn’t fall victims of Midas’ touch. Their hue is the result of an attentive process of deep-frying, one that Italian grandmothers have learned to master. A panzerotto that’s well-done is crunchy on the surface, and soft on the inside, where the tomato sauce and melted mozzarella sit, waiting for your palate to taste them.
When I was little, I used to help my grandmother making panzerotti. Actually, “help” is a big word. I mainly sat on a chair and watched her skilled hands as she divided the dough into smaller pieces. Then, she used her mattarello to transform the little dough balls into circles. Sometimes, she would ask me to spread the mozzarella and tomato sauce filling in the center of the tiny circles. But she never let me seal the panzerotti. She explained there was a special technique to prevent the dough from breaking in the hot oil. “Così non si rompono,” nonna would say.
The uncooked panzerotti, placed one next to the other on the table of my grandparents’ big kitchen, looked like a multitude of half-moons. At least the ones nonna made. Grandma always made sure to save some dough for me to play with it, so I could make dinosaur-shaped and heart-shaped frittelle (that is the Italian name for plain fried dough). Once, I tried to make a self-portrait frittella. Nonna even dipped it in the boiling oil and served it with all the other panzerotti. I remember being very proud of my work of culinary art. That is why I got particularly upset when no one at the kitchen table volunteered to try it. My mom couldn’t even tell I had shaped the dough to my image and likeness. In the end, I ate it. I, like Kronos, committed the crime of eating my own creation. At least, in my case, it was tasty.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother was left with too many inquilines in the big Poggiofranco apartment. Nonna shared the place with the many ghosts that inhabited it: the ghosts of her past, of her husband, of her children, who were now all married and only visited on Sundays. But ghosts don’t pay rent, so she moved. She now lives in a smaller apartment that is less than five minutes away from my parents’ place. When she makes panzerotti in the new house, they don’t taste the same. They don’t even look the same. Those perfect half-moons now look more like my self-portrait frittella. Somehow my grandma’s sealing technique has failed her, because now the stuffing always leaks from the dough when she fries it. The tomato sauce and mozzarella get burned and become black polka dots on the golden surface of panzerotti. Here’s a tip: if you ever try nonna’s panzerotti, mind to swipe each of them with a tissue before eating it, like you would do with the floor after the wood in the fireplace stops burning. Ashes to ashes.
There’s one thing my grandmother always forgets: my mom cannot stand cheese. For some reason, she is fine with mozzarella or bufala, but everything from parmigiano to gorgonzola is off-limits. Among the different cheeses my mom despises is ricotta forte. Being a Foggiana, my nonna is as devoted to ricotta forte as much as she is to Jesus. This translates into her almost physiological need to make a couple of ricotta-forte-filled panzerotti together with the traditional mozzarella and tomato sauce ones. Of course, she forgets to mark the ricotta forte ones with stuzzicadenti, toothpicks, to distinguish them from the normal panzerotti. Now, imagine the face my mom made when she bit into what she thought was a mozzarella-filled panzerotto.
In any Italian family, the lunch table serves two main purposes: to host people while they eat, and while they shout at each other, with food still in their mouth. Every Sunday since I can remember, our family lunches proceeded in the same way. Sit, eat, make conversation, disagree, fight, eat, nap either on the sofa or in the guest room, collect pocket money and leave. To many it may not sound like the best way to spend the day, but, somehow, I always look forward to Sundays. Yes, my grandma will probably say something slightly racist or homophobic, or she will give my dog some pasta, even though she knows very well Ophelia cannot eat it, or she will accidentally drop her heart pills and I would have to put my hands in Ophelia’s mouth to get them out. And, yes, her panzerotti might be burned because she, too, is slowly burning out, but I’d do it all again. And again. And again, every Sunday until there’s none left.