One in a series of essays celebrating the cooking of our fathers.


Arthur Vita was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler who knew his way around a kitchen. (Family photo)

Eggplants, artichokes, corn, tomatoes, peaches, apples, melons. Boxes of them lined the wall of my parents’ garage in northern New Jersey. On warm summer afternoons in the 1960s, their rich, sweet aroma wafted out to the driveway, where I’d be playing stickball or drawing hopscotch courts with chalk on the hot blacktop. My dad was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler in lower Manhattan and then the Bronx, the business founded by my grandfather and one typical for many Italian Americans in the New York area in the first half of the 20th century. Selling food was my father’s work, and cooking it was his passion.

My dad would run his tongue across his lips as he cooked, standing in the corner of our kitchen, chopping parsley or garlic, or ladling sauce across steaming ravioli. You could see he was imagining the dish as it came together before him. I would stand there and watch, marveling at how he could chop parsley into such a fine mountain of flakes, the knife rapping in a quick rhythm on the wooden cutting board. Years later, when I’d call him for a recipe, we would invariably get to laughing about how you can throw together — I can still hear his voice — “a little oil, a little garlic, a little parsley” and have the simple foundation for any number of dishes. Stuffed clams, stuffed artichokes, broiled tomatoes, each topped by the unbeatable combination.

My dad was neither a gourmet nor a food snob. He hated the pretensions of nouvelle cuisine and would not understand the small-plates craze of today. When there was still a Little Italy in New York, my parents would drive downtown to Mulberry Street and go to a subterranean place called the Grotta Azzurra. My grandparents had eaten there, and thus so did my mom and dad, and their friends, and their kids, when we were old enough to be allowed to go. My dad knew the family that owned the restaurant, and I still have the Grotta Azzurra cookbook, a little paperback now falling apart at the seams, signed by owner John Davino.

It was simple food, rich with oil, butter, garlic and tomato sauce — southern Italian, as my dad would say, as if there was nothing else. (And while my grandfather was born in Naples, my grandmother’s family came from Rimini on the Adriatic Coast, where the cuisine was much different. My grandmother was the real chef in the family; my contribution to her efforts was being the one chosen to grate the Parmesan cheese from a giant wheel before dinner.) But my dad grew up outside New York, where the cooking of southern Italy and Sicily dominated.


Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce III. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

At the Grotta Azzurra, only my father would be handed a menu, and he would order the food for the table: stuffed artichokes, clams oreganata, linguini with clam sauce, veal or chicken picatta. The adults would drink pitchers of wine with peaches, or bottles of Corvo, a hearty Sicilian red. Those were the kinds of dishes my dad would cook at home or that we would eat at my grandparents’ house in Sea Bright on the Jersey Shore or, in later years, in a house at Barnegat Light on the northern tip of Long Beach Island.

Each Christmas, my father would make lasagna. It was our family’s tradition, and his lasagna was like no other. He would first make a huge pot of marinara sauce. He would boil eggs and broil sweet Italian sausage, then slice them thin. He’d combine ground beef, an egg, some breadcrumbs — and, of course, a little garlic and a little parsley — and shape the mixture into little spheres about the circumference of a nickel before cooking them. Helping to form the tiny meatballs would be my job when I was little; I graduated to chopping the parsley and garlic at about the time I turned 12. He would boil the water, add a little olive oil, and cook five or six sheets of the pasta at a time.

Each layer of the lasagna — and there must have been at least seven of them — had its own ingredient: egg, sausage, meatball, ricotta or Parmesan, along with the sauce. Then the process would repeat itself until the last layer of pasta.


Arthur Vita passed along his love of food to his children and grandchldren. (Family photo)

Sometimes he would make the lasagna a week or so in advance and freeze it before getting it out on Christmas Eve. His foresight taught me two things: It’s good to plan ahead when having a big crowd, because the last thing you want is to be assembling a dish in a messy kitchen while a pack of well-meaning, hungry guests look over your shoulder. And it’s good to take the lasagna out of the freezer early enough so that it thaws in time to be cooked. I have memories of drawn-out Christmas Eves as we waited while a half-frozen tray of lasagna refused to get warm in the oven. In our house, that usually just meant more time for cocktails, so all was not lost.

When I was home from college one December, I decided to make gnocchi with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce. I looked up a recipe and made the gnocchi from scratch, boiling and chopping the potatoes, adding the flour and egg, and forming the little dumplings with a fork. Then I made the sauce. Looking back, I think the sauce was way too rich. But the gnocchi held form. My father loved it. In fact, in the years that followed, he would often say proudly that he had never eaten gnocchi as good as the ones I made.

My dad died a year ago next month at the age of 93. He did so after tirelessly and often silently — too silently — caring for and protecting my mom, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They had been married for 71 years and died within five weeks of each other. He left me, my brother and sister, and their children with many gifts, perhaps none greater than a love of and appreciation for food, because food in our households has always been about family and love.

My brother and sister are wonderful cooks. My wife says we’re all “kitchen dominant” personalities, and I’m sure she means me most of all.

A couple of weeks ago, my son, who’s 24 now and lives in Los Angeles, called and said he was recalling a tomato sauce we had made at home but couldn’t put his finger on what it was, except that it had butter and an onion in it. I knew immediately he was referring to a Marcella Hazan recipe we’ve made in our household for years for an uncomplicated sauce that has, indeed, chopped canned San Marzano tomatoes, butter and an onion. That’s all. Cooked at a slow bubble, the result is creamy and rich, and does justice to the tomatoes. I texted the recipe to my son, and a couple of hours later, he texted me a photo of a plate of pasta, topped with the sauce. And he said it was delicious.

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Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce III

6 servings; makes 2 cups, enough for 1 pound of dried pasta

Adapted from Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (MacMillan London Ltd., 1987).

Ingredients

Scant 2 pounds fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes (may substitute 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes; see NOTE)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 medium onion, cut lengthwise in half

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Steps

Cut the fresh tomatoes in half lengthwise. Place them cut side down in a wide saucepan; cover and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until slightly softened.

Working in batches as needed, transfer the tomatoes to a hand-cranked food mill set over a mixing bowl. Puree until the solids are completely broken down, with tomato seeds and skins left in the mill. Discard the solids; pour the pureed tomatoes and juices back into the saucepan, then add the butter and onion halves, cut side down. Cook over medium heat until the butter has melted, then season lightly with salt and add the sugar, if using.

Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook (uncovered) for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a smooth, brightly colored sauce that has thickened a bit.

Taste and add salt, as needed. Discard the onion before serving or storing.

NOTE: If you use canned tomatoes, coarsely chop; add them and their juices to the saucepan and cook as directed with the other ingredients.

Nutrition | Per serving: 160 calories, 1 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; e-mail questions to food@washpost.com

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