(Grandpa Dominick Maio and Grandma Anna Maio)
Recently, I wrote about my other grandmother – the Sicilian one. This time I’d like to tell you about my Neapolitan grandmother. We called her Grandma Maio.
Like my Grandma Puglisi, Grandma Maio was a widow. Grandpa Maio died from colon cancer when my mother was pregnant with me. I vaguely remember Grandpa Puglisi, who passed away when I was very young.
Grandma Anna Maio took care of me for several years while my parents worked. It was probably from around two years old to about four. We lived in Staten Island, New York, at the time. We moved to Corona, Queens, before I turned five. That’s when my grandmother stopped taking care of me, and my mother didn’t go to work anymore. My mom ran the candy store that my Puglisi Grandparents owned.
I missed Grandma Maio. She was my whole world during those years. She was so sweet and had a cherub face with soft cheeks that I liked to kiss. Grandma lived in a big two-story white stucco house with red brick trim on its corners and a wide brick stoop in front. She lived upstairs with my Uncle Dan, her youngest son, who was still a bachelor. I remember how Grandma made Uncle Dan eggnog every morning. I was happy when he married my Aunt Marge. She was so beautiful. They lived with Grandma until they bought a house.
Like my other Grandmother, Grandma Maio was also a good cook. Although when I got older, I liked my mother’s pasta sauce better. In those days, we called it gravy or the Sunday gravy. Grandma’s gravy was thin, not thick like my mom’s. I used to say to my mother, “Please don’t let Grandma make the gravy on Sunday.”
Mom said, “Grandma’s gravy is thin because when times were tough, she had to stretch what she had.” We were more affluent in those days, so my mother made a thicker, heavier pasta sauce. For clarity, we never said pasta—it was spaghetti or macaroni.
So, I’ll tell you about making macaroni with Grandma. She always made it on a wide table with a white porcelain top, smaller than the kitchen table. The top of that small table would be covered with flour. Grandma used flour and eggs to make the pasta dough and kneaded it with her flour-covered hands. When she rolled it out, she used a long wooden stick the thickness of a fat broom handle.
There were several different kinds of macaroni that she would make. She rolled the dough very thin. One, she cut into long strips like a Pappardelle. Sometimes she would cut those same strips into squares; that was another type of pasta. My favorite was Cavatelli, which I got to help with. They were about an inch wide. Grandma would show me how to make them. You had a little round piece of dough to push down with your thumb and then push forward. The edges would curl under and look like a little hot dog bun. Grandma could do it with one thumb; I had to use both of my little thumbs.
When she was all done, she put the finished pasta all over the house until she was ready to cook it. There was macaroni on the two kitchen tables, the dining room table, and even the beds. She covered them with tablecloths and sheets sprinkled with flour, and the fresh macaroni sat on top. When it was time for dinner, she gathered it and put it in a tall metal pot. It cooked quickly and practically melted in your mouth when you ate it. We would eat it for our Sunday or holiday dinners.
Grandma eventually came to live with us when I was a teenager. Besides her homemade pasta, I loved her spaghetti with crab sauce which worked well as a thin sauce. The other dish she made that I loved was mussels. She steamed the mussels open, removed the top shell, then placed the shell with meat on a large platter and covered it with a rich marinara sauce. This sauce was not her usual thin sauce. We used to sop up the tomato sauce with crusty Italian bread. Thinking about it still makes my mouth water.
Whenever I asked my mother about having spaghetti with crabs or mussels, she would say, “Go ask your grandmother.”
So that’s what I would do. I would ask Grandma, “Can you make crab sauce (or mussels)?”
She would light up with a big smile and say, “Robby (she always called me Robby), you want me to make that?” I would say yes, and a few days later, we would be eating one of those delicious dishes.
I have fond memories of those days and those big family dinners at Grandma’s.