Peter's Blog and Boston's North End
It's Only Bread
Baseball, It's Only a Game!
Breaking the Language Code
Exactly what is Authentic Italian Cuisine?
Mother's Day 2016
Thank you Mr. Risman, with Grateful Hearts
Mom Always Held My Hand
Soon after we became a couple, Nancy, not shy about anything, asked if I had germ phobia, a pathological fear of contamination and germs. I curiously asked why; "because you take the longest showers!" Although I never thought much about it, I realized she probably was right but it wasn't because of an obsession with dirt.
Growing up, many if not most apartments simply didn't have bath tubs or showers. As a child, I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the kitchen sink, being washed by mom. She used a pan with heated water to remove Ivory soap from my hair. Adolescence wasn't defined by age or maturity but when the sink could no longer accommodate us. That's when we graduated to self-bathing with a washcloth while standing.
Weekends were special. Every Saturday my friends and I would meet at the bath house on North Bennet street. A nickel got you a bar of soap, a towel and a shower. It became social and we made it fun, being mischievous, snapping towels, swapping stories; boys simply being boys.
Best of all, we didn't see it as a hardship. It was simply the way it was and we did what we needed to do. I guess the real test came with time. Looking back always brings big smiles.
I always take long and frequent showers, because I can.
Many of the neighborhood men belonged to a social club on Margaret Street. They paid monthly dues to have a place to play cards or simply socialize with their friends over beer and wine.
Sundays were especially popular. Men would arrive in their Sunday best shortly after attending services at one of the neighborhood Catholic churches, St. Leonard's, St. Mary's, or Sacred Heart.
I was about 11 when I decided to try and earn spending money shining shoes at the club. I was there every Sunday with my shoe shine box.
I was rarely asked how much for a shine. Most gave 25 cents and agreed to a shine whether or not they even needed one. Dress shoes were only worn to church, weddings and funerals. Think about it. How scuffed could any of those shoes be?
I've kept my hand made shoe box and all of my original brushes and polishing cloths. This shoe box is pretty special to me. It facilitated my proudest moment and the first time I earned my own money.
Christmas was approaching. I really wanted to buy mom something really special, her first electric toaster. She got pretty good using the contraption that held slices over a stove top burner. Occasionally one would burst into flames.
I saved as much as I could but it wasn't fast enough. Mom's friend Christy stepped in. She agreed to buy the toaster for me and I'd pay her back over time. Every Sunday after shining shoes, I proudly make a payment. She kept the money in a coffee can along with a written tally and balance. I still remember how much I loved seeing it shrink and guessing how many more Sundays it would take. That day finally came. Her family gathered together when they heard me climbing the steps to her second floor apartment on Snow Hill Street. After handing it to her, she entered the final payment and signed the paper paid in full. Everyone hugged me.
That Christmas was the very best ever.
It's only bread!
Residents of any community would be elated to have a short drive to a bakery that mastered the art of making quality crafted artisan breads. Within a 10-minute walk from our apartment on Cleveland Place in the North End, we had three. We even knew their baking schedules and timed purchases just as they were harvesting our favorite type from their coal or wood fired ovens. Is there anything more comforting than piping hot bread baked to perfection especially on a nippy New England night? All three are still there making great bread.
Parziale's Bakery is on 80 Prince Street. Bova's Bakery is virtually next door at the intersection of Prince and Salem Streets. Bova's also is kitty corner to where the Roma Pharmacy was located where I worked their soda fountain and counters in my early teens.
Boschetto Bakery was further up, 134 Salem Street. Many Sundays, me and my friend Bruno would deliver Boschetto's bread to restaurants in the Back Bay section of Boston. Our only reward was having access to his Ford for a couple of hours, mostly spent checking out neighboring college co-eds. We were about 17.
Parziale's website almost brought me to tears reading their menu of breads that are still available; scala, bastone, round Tuscan, spucadella and "spukie" twins, braided and knotted rolls.
Most afternoons, mom would send me to buy bread. We were partial to Boschetto's crispy bastone and the lighter scala on occasion. Bostone only cost 27 cents. We always had bread with dinner and enough left over to have in our lunch bag the next day. Mom would also make homemade bread crumbs with any remaining bread.
I never realized Italian lunches were very different until I attended Boston Technical High School. It was well outside our neighborhood and students were from all the different sections and cultures throughout Boston. I watched as other students unraveled their lunches. Many were made with peanut butter and jelly, skimpy portions of baloney and cheese, tuna or egg salad, or an unrecognizable meat sandwich between slices of white Wonder bread.
If leftovers from dinner could fit between thick slices of Italian bread, it passed mom's lunch test. There weren't any boundaries! Typical lunches included whole stuffed peppers; four-inch-thick sandwiches of eggplant parmigiana or stuffed squid, meatballs, sausages and braciole. Only their size was consistent. They were always massive and obviously delicious. I felt bad for all the other students. In retrospect, weren't we the poor kids from the North End? Go figure!
Baseball, It's Only a Game!
A couple of times a month when school was out for summer vacation, mom would call out for me to come home from the small vacant lot turned playground across the street from our apartment in the middle of Cleveland Place. Too early for lunch, I ran for home smiling. I knew why she called.
Mom loved baseball. I don't think she ever missed a game broadcasted on our small black and white television or listening on radio. "Wash up and change your cloth". We were going to Fenway to see the Red Sox. It was always just mom and me, our own very special thing to do.
With a bag carrying lunch, peanuts, sweaters, and something mom baked. We walked to the Haymarket Square subway station on the then MTA system. We were on our way to Kenmore station a short walk to the stadium.
Although we always had clean cloths and were neatly dressed, we certainly didn't look like we had a driver deliver us from Wellesley or Newton. There was a bank of ticket booths. A couple of attendants always recognized mom and me. They were especially kind to mom. One would wave us over to his booth. Mom paid for the cheapest seats available. However, he would tell us where there were two great grandstand seats available that we could occupy. For us, it was like hitting a lottery. Mom thanked him while reaching into her bag to hand him a loaf of banana or date nut bread. For reasons beyond the baked goods, I'm sure he felt as good as we did.
I never forgot the feeling I had walking through the dark corridors of the park leading to the bright sunshine bursting onto the field from the ramp opening. To this day, I still get a chill reliving that site, especially at Fenway.
Like all other fans, we had our favorite players; Frankie Malzone on third, Harry Agganis, the huge catcher, Haywood Sullivan, the antics of the right fielder, Jimmy Piersall. Of course there was the "Splendid Splinter", Ted Williams. He would make mom and I laugh every time at bat. He wiggled his rear end as every pitch was released. I am so blessed with memories. Thank you mom.
One of my biggest regrets, as a young adult I never knocked on mom's apartment door, waving two Red Sox tickets telling mom we're going to Fenway!
Breaking the Language Code
Nancy and I jumped at the business opportunity to move to Chicago's western suburbs in 1997 to be close to family and grandchildren. We lived in a wonderful community, Stonebridge Country Club, within a mile of them. Other than the bone chilling winters and exorbitant taxes, it was a wonderful place to live. We assumed our Italian traditions, elaborate Sunday dinners, giving advice and tips whether or not solicited, and falsely assuming unchallenged wisdom. However, Nancy was far too young (and pretty) to earn the matronly connotation of family matriarch and I was a better drinking buddy than elder statesman for the family. Getting together with everyone was nothing but fun.
Although our neighborhood was mostly diverse, we didn't need to go very far to find hard core native Chicagoans! Since we were the outsiders, we generally were respectful of their funny dialects. That simply means we didn't openly criticize them. You know it's those exaggerated accent made famous by the Chicago sports fan on SNL; "th" pronounced as "DA", "FUR" instead of "for". What about those "A"s? Just listen to old Mike Ditka interviews! Again, I was accepting of the way they spoke. In fact, Nancy even though it was, well, cute.
However, our kind gesture and tolerance wasn't reciprocated. Everyone there thought "our" accent was strange and wanted to know where it sprouted from. In fact, more than one rug rat including my own grandchildren told me I talk funny! How about those that pretended they couldn't understand what I was saying, or the most annoying' those that responded with "pak the ca in Havard yd".
It's a simple argument! I reminded everyone in Chicago land the Pilgrims didn't land anywhere near Skokie, Illinois. Plymouth Massachusetts was ground zero, proof positive Bostonians aren't the ones with the accents. We represented the original American dialect, period!
Ok, the way we pronounce some words might be considered a little quirky. The language code is actually quite simple, plus and minus "R"s. We take "R"s away from where they belong and add them where they don't. September becomes Septemba, car/ca, park/pak, wonderful/wondaful, remember/rememba.
On the plus "R" side, Linda is pronounced Linder, Wanda/Wander, Nebraska/Nebrasker, granola/granoler, simple enough?
In conclusion, I'm sure when pilgrim ranchers gathered their herds, they asked their ranch hands to round up the hosses.
p.s. We loved living in Illinois, especially all its wonderful residents and the many friends we made; but some of you do talk a little funny! We go back on holidays and as often as we can.
Exactly what is Authentic Italian Cuisine?
Unfortunately, Americans' appreciation of Italian foods is mostly limited to the dozens of commercialized dishes exposed at local Italian restaurants. That's like reading cliff notes without experiencing the debt and eloquence of Shakespeare love passages. This doesn't suggest Italian cuisine needs to be elaborate, but inclusive, with diversity of flavors, simply preparations, often with few ingredients, with a focus of superior quality. Try foods beyond the confinement of perception and experience the unexpected.
Generalizing the character of Italian foods is difficult. Italian cooking and ingredients are regional and are remarkably different, mostly based on the availabilities and abundances of ingredients throughout Italy's twenty major regions and their provinces. However, through years of conflicts and occupation, and proximity to neighboring countries, foods of other nationalities also influenced Italian cooking. Even the discovery of the New World is credited with their introduction of potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers.
Some like to separate Italy into two broad cuisines, Northern and Southern. Another suggests a divide based on regions with whine and oil, the others with butter and milk. The foods of Italy are much more diverse over many more areas. The point, Italian cuisine isn't limited to spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmigiana, chicken cacciatora, pizza and cannoli and all other early restaurant adopted Italian "foods".
Growing up in the North end among Italian immigrants from diverse regions, we experienced many of their natural cuisines. Families were mostly thrifty. Common meats like beef, pork, lamb and veal were not served daily. However, the community wasted not; every edible animal part was eaten. Mom made "capuzzelle", lamb heads. They were spiced, halved, and baked with carrots and potatoes. Lamb was an Easter tradition and local butcher shops seasonally hung whole lamb near windows visible to shoppers. I still remember the butcher shop on Salem street where mom sent me to buy lamb's head. They were 50 cents each and sawed in half. If the incredibly tender and flavorful cheeks were presented at the finest restaurant, perhaps served with a dollop of lightly cheesed polenta garnished with mint and plated on fine china, the restaurant would be celebrated for this gourmet delight.
Another of mom's specialty was tripe, stomach muscles cooked in a light tomato sauce.
Other welcomed meals were so simplistic. Neighborhood specialty stores sold dried cherry peppers looped on string. Mom kept ours in our shaded pantry. She would section a whole chicken (or rabbit) and lightly season with salt. She crisped the pieces along with their skin in an abundant amount of olive oil. When cooked through, she removed the chicken and lowered the heat. Next mom crushed a whole dried pepper into the oil. When the pepper started to darken, she stirred the chicken or rabbit back in the spicy oil and adjusted for salt. Her cast iron skillet sat in the middle of our table throughout the meal. We ate the chicken in our plates and dipped hunks of fresh crusty bastone bread into the peppered oil. It was a family favorite! Mom would alternate and sometimes make the same dish with fried meatballs.
Fridays were traditionally meatless days in Catholic communities. Mom cooked seafood like stuffed razor clams or Zuppa di Cozze, Mussel soup. When times were tight, a familiar saying was if you can't afford steak, you could always afford pasta e fagioli, beans and macaroni soup. If this was the meal served while sacrificing, imagine how well we ate during the best of times!
Lucia prepared a delicious hot meal every night and dad always seemed to arrive just in time. I remember how excited I was to see him. We were blessed.
.... Just turned onto North Bennet Street
My last 2 years of high school and a few years beyond as a second job, I worked as a busboy at Giro's Restaurant at the corner of Hanover and Commercial Streets. Weekdays I traveled home from Boston Technical high school in Roxbury by subway to Haymarket station. I usually got home between 3:15 and 3:30. That gave me enough time to have a snack mom always had ready, change cloths, and walk to the restaurant for my 4:30 start time to help prepare for dinner guests. We made sure tablecloths, silverware, plates, glasses and napkins were perfectly positioned; chairs and booths were wiped of all crumbs.
In the kitchen, both busboys made sure bread loaves were ready to be cut and served, chilled pats of butter and their pewter serving bowls were plentiful, and bread baskets lined with clean napkins were piled high. It wasn't long after 5 pm that the mad dinner rush started especially on weekend nights. We were always prepared. I usually worked five nights each week, more if needed as a fill in.
During dinner service we made sure water glasses were full, used plates removed and crumbs were cleaned. When guests left, we would quickly clean tables and prepare them for the next dinner guests, patiently or otherwise waiting. By 9 pm, later on Friday and Saturday, as the restaurant quieted down, we could leave once we prepared tables for the next day's lunch crowd.
Sometimes getting homework completed was a challenge but I managed and still got decent grades. It was all worth it. I was able to help mom and from my first paycheck forward and with tips earned, I was forever independent.
Through late evening hours especially on summer nights with light ocean breezes finding their way through the tight streets of the North End, residents gather on their doorsteps with neighbors. Others could be seen relaxing, leaning on pillows, quietly looking out their windows, enjoying life seemingly without any special aspirations in mind.
Years later I remember leaving another restaurant on Hanover Street with friends. I ran into one of mom's oldest friends. After many pleasantries and precious family updates, she let me in on a very special secret. Every night on my way home to Cleveland Place after work at Giro's, all the way home mom's telephone would ring and one after another, looking out their windows or hanging around their doorsteps, friends would call to let Lucia know her son passed their "spotter station". "Peter Boy just turned onto North Bennet Street". Mom knew I was safe. I would never have known! It makes you wonder about other blessings yet to be realized.
Mother's Day 2016
Ti amo mamma...
e manchi tutti i giorni
Thank You Mr. Risman, with Grateful Hearts
Dad was a warehouse worker at Mystic Automatic Sales in Medford MA. The company distributed and supported vending machines throughout New England. Dad’s job was to help organize cartons of vending products for delivery trucks.
Mr. Louis Risman was the company’s owner. Not only compassionate but foundational in our lives and his kindness always remembered. He ran his company as a not so typical family business, a community. Turnovers were rare. In that culture, Mom and Dad developed great friendships throughout. I still have vivid memories vacationing with one of Dad’s co-workers for two weeks one summer. It was my first experience with country living. I was accepted buy their older boys, even rode their horses most days; greatest memories for a city kid!
Leading up to Christmas, everyone at the company began buzzing about their annual Holiday bash. It was Mr. Risman’s thanks to everyone. Men were dressed in suits and ties, women in their best cocktail wears. All employees and their spouses laughed, drank, ate, and danced till late in the night. A professional photographer documented the event, many pictures distributed to all as a remembrance of each annual gala. For the next several months, that’s all everyone talked about. Those were the happiest of times for Mom and Dad.
Mr. Risman understood Dad’s health was compromised and was unable to perform strenuous labor. He even encouraged him to take afternoon naps. Mr. Risman did his very best to compensate for dad’s faulty heart with his own. That alone was very special. I remember the day Mom said someone at work was driving Dad home. Through our Cleveland Place alley, I could see a station wagon driving down Snow Hill Street. I ran towards the car as dad walked around its back. He was wheeling a bicycle, a brown Shelby 2-wheeler. Mr. Risman bought my first bicycle.
His kindness didn’t stop there.
After Dad’s passing, Mr. Riesman frequently kept in touch to make sure Mom and I were OK. Occasionally he also came to visit us. When old enough to better understand, Mom also shared something remarkable. Mr. Riesman kept Dad on his payroll for an extended time after he died to help us get back on our feet; one less burden to deal with. WOW!
I received a Associates Degree and BS from Northeastern University, after about 10-years nights. I went onto Babson College’s evening MBA program.
I also followed a passion and applied to Paine Webber (then Paine Webber, Jackson and Curtis) stock broker training program. To my surprise I was accepted. I always wondered what they saw in me. I had some rough edges and certainly didn’t fit the narrative.
Soon after completion of their program, having passed all license tests, I was spending my days prospecting for customers. One day I remember sitting at my desk with all other retail brokers on the 30th floor at 100 Federal Street downtown Boston. I was thinking about where I came from and how I landed here. I needed to visit Mr. Risman.
I called to make sure he was in. After letting the receptionist know who was calling, she gasped and said, “you’re Pete Steriti’s son”. When I arrived, there was a procession of Dad’s former co-workers still there. Each told me how they loved and remembered Dad.
The whole time I could see Mr. Risman. I glanced and smiled at him several times. Now an adult in a business suit, I was far from the fractured child he remembered years earlier. His first words from his engaging smile was how happy he was seeing me. I felt overwhelmingly challenged, knowing whatever I said wouldn’t adequately express Mom’s and my gratefulness.
Although compelled to fill in the many years gone by, I wanted him to know Mom and I frequently thought about him. Yet all he wanted to know was that Mom and I were all right. When it was time to go, I clutched his hand with both of mine, we are because of you. With our most grateful hearts, thank you Mr. Risman.
Once out of the parking lot, I pulled over and dialed. Mom, guess who I just visited? Her silence said it all.
Mom Always Held My Hand
Another wonderful childhood memory of the North End was shopping with Mom. As I was posting new recipes, I remembered her favorite butcher shop on Prince Street.
Besides their wonderful hand carved meats and poultry, they had a section specializing in Italian cold cuts sliced to order. Whenever butchers reached "ends", remaining hunks of cold cuts too small to slice, they were placed in a tray in their refrigerated showcases and were offered deeply discounted. Mom always frugal checked those available "ends" for valuables. I would help cube them as Mom added them to her Pizzagaina. "Easter pie" that was made with a variety of Italian cheeses, cured meats (cold cuts) and ricotta.
What I remember most, while waiting our turn, even while she was being served, Mom always held my hand.
Sandwiches were also offered there. They were uncluttered and customized on demand. Local fresh breads were stuffed with an array of specialty Italian cured meats and cheeses. The only condiment offered was mustard. One day in particular I remember watching as the worker was crafting sandwiches. After handing them off he reached back and surprised me by handing an extra one made just for me. Sixty years later I still remember that act of kindness. Lots of small things were cumulative. That was the North End.