Ace, and Nonna Lucia's Phantom Strufoli
very Christmas, our humble apartment at 615 Pelham Parkway was filled with thefragrances of a Bronx Italian Christmas. "Buon Natale", the walls seemed to say, as they enclosed a dizzying array of sights, sounds and smells that gladdened the heart. With its fragrant green branches crisply attired and festooned with garlands, glass Christmas balls from Kresge's, Woolworth's and Macy's, a freshly cut REAL Christmas tree ($3.00!) stood in one corner of the living room, warily eyeing wide-eyed PeeWee kitty. Bon-Ami liquid, 'artfully' applied by eager kiddie hands, graced the glass window panes of Nonna's living room, and a special set of ancient (1930's) Christmas lights festooned Ace and Sis's bedroom. Those lights were so old and so hard to keep lit (when one went out, so did all the others) that they were usually never plugged in.
Fancy, die-cut Christmas cards from Italy, displaying rosy-cheeked cherubs (definitely not Ace and her sis!) came in the mail from our overseas relatives, Great Aunt Zia, Maria, and Carla and Paola, our Italian cousins. Little Ace and sis loved sitting on Nonna's lap to hear her tell the always-fascinating story of 'La Befana', Italy's female version of Father Christmas, while the whistling radiators filled the apartment with warmth and accompanied Nat King Cole as he sang from our Victrola. Mom Sylvia could sometimes be entreated upon to make Old Fashioned Hot Cocoa - which, when she didn't burn it, was a warm, luscious and wonderful treat to two kiddies coming back from playing in the snow.
But the prize of all Christmases - the longed for culinary moment - was not Nonna's roast chicken, nor was it her hand-made spaghetti, Chicken Cacciatore or Eggplant Parmegianna - neither was it her Pizza, Ciambelle or White Wine Wedding Cookies. Her Ricotta Cheesecake, although light, luscious and wonderfully melt-in-your-mouth was still not the highlight. The culinary highlight of all Italian Christmases at 615 Pelham Parkway was...the food of the gods: Nonna's Strufoli.
Rarely did we kids ever ask Nonna to make it - such a request would be akin to asking the gods to come down from Mount Olympus. No, we all knew that at a secret moment, known only to Nonna, she would produce two prodigiously huge jars of honey, get out her rolling pin, huge wooden board, mixing bowls, and matter-of-factly tie on her apron. Our hearts would jump with glee - for we knew what was about to take place. We kids then took action -- Rita Pitt, across the hall from us would be notified. A hush of cathedral proportions fell upon Ace, and Sis as they nervously tapped feet, cleared throats, paced and tried to make themselves invisible as they watched Nonna create this masterpiece.
We knew the routine by heart. With a flourish, Nonna would dump out a mountain of flour - making a little well atop the mound reminding Ace of a flamingo's nest, and then in rapid succession would break one, two three, five eggs which nestled happily and safely in that little flour well. Hands that gently held little bambina Ace now stridently plowed through the flour and eggs - confidently mixing everything and not spilling even one egg! Sugar, vanilla, baking powder - all found their way into that fragrant mass. Then, flouring the board, Nonna kneaded and thumped and rolled until the huge mass of dough was reduced to long ribbons. Nonna produced a big knife - dexterously cutting these dough ribbons into tiny little dumplings. By this time, rosy-cheeked Rita stood smiling, at our door, saying "Is it ready yet?" Speaking softly, as though we were in church, we would tell her "no...not yet..."
A big pot was conjured up from under the oven - in it went cooking oil - lots of it. Remember, in those days, there was no cholesterol, because everything was made with love and eaten with joy. Nonna's hands, filled to the brim with Strufoli dough pieces, gently dumped these little nubbins into the now boiling oil. While she did that, Ace and sis would steal and eat some of the uncooked dough remaining on the board- yummy! The air in the kitchen was transformed into a Pasticcieria (Italian Pastry Shop)! Colavolpe's - watch out! Strufoli rules today in the Attura household!
Fried strufoli dumplings (they too tasted great!), light and airy, drained on linen kitchen towels (who could afford Scott towels?) while more were cooking in the big pot. By this time, Nonna could be heard saying "geddoudahere!" to us. Ace, sis and Rita retreated to the living room. But one of us would eventually sneak back into the kitchen to see the now-cooked Strufoli all piled up on a huge platter, receiving the benediction of honey (lots of it!) confectioner's sugar, and confetti sprinkles.
"It's ready!" we yelled, and zoom, into the kitchen we ran, and - pluck pluck pluck! --we ate the Strufoli with great enjoyment! Ah! Better morsels such as these would be hard to find, even on Olympus!
Nonna would say in (mock?) horror, "I spent all-a the day making-a this, and now you are eating it all!" We usually did! And it was good! "Grazie tante, la mia bella Nonna Lucia!"
Years later, when I lived by myself, Nonna would always send me a box of strufoli; it never lasted longer than a few hours on Ace's table! One year, however, Nonna declared that at age 85, she was not cooking anymore. Ace was quite saddened by the realization that Nonna too was mortal...
The packages of strufoli of course stopped coming. But one December, years ago, Ace suddenly had a craving for Strufoli that bordered on addiction. Nothing could satisfy her sweet tooth! Every day that came closer to Christmas found Ace obsessing about Strufoli! Then it happened....Ace came home one day and could have sworn that she smelled Strufoli in the lobby of her building. "Going nuts, you are!" said Ace to herself. On the elevator she espied a note that said "Mr and Mrs. ____ will give a slide show on their trip to Florence tonight in the party room". Why not - Ace went. Good slides, by the way. At the end of the program, the lady said, "And now I want to share with you an Italian delicacy that I made - Strufoli!" Although sitting in the back of the room (a habit learned at JHS 135), Ace shot off her chair and immediately found herself at the Strufoli plate, and except for the addition of chocolate chips, it was almost as good as Nonna Lucia's. Ah JOY! One can only imagine how many parts per million of Strufoli were in the lobby's air, but Ace believes in miracles, and this certainly was one!