By Jerry Zezima
If I were to write a book about my adventures in Italian cooking — the highlight being a dish called Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, which did not, I will say for legal purposes, kill legendary actor Paul Newman — I would title it “Remembrance of Things Pasta.”
And the pièce de résistance (a French phrase meaning “resist a piece of anything I make”) would be my delicious homemade linguine.
Actually, I only had a hand — and a messy one at that — in a macaroni marathon that included my mother, Rosina; my sister Susan; and Susan’s adult children, Taylor, Blair and Whitney.
All of us contributed to a meal for the ages, the greatest age being 96, which is how old my mother is. Even now, she’s a kitchen magician who was inspired by her late mother, affectionately known as Nana, who began the family tradition of making pasta from scratch.
One of my remembrances was when my sister Elizabeth, then just a kid, sneaked into my bedroom and scrunched up strips of uncooked macaroni that Nana had carefully laid out on a large cloth on the bed.
Elizabeth wasn’t sent to bed without dinner, which I also remember as being delicious, but she must have learned her lesson because she resisted the urge to scrunch up strips of uncooked macaroni at the recent culinary confab.
One family member who was not known for his pasta prowess — or his cooking skill at all, unless you count toast or boiled water — was my late father, the original and best Jerry Zezima, who nonetheless was famous for his salads and often made a great dish of macaroni (from a box) with oil and garlic.
I got my skill (or lack thereof) from him — with the exception of my one gastronomic triumph: About 20 years ago, I created Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, for which I was first runner-up in the pasta sauce division of the Newman’s Own and Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest, a national competition that featured thousands of entries.
Before I brought a dish of the stuff to New York City for Paul Newman to try, I fed some to my dog, Lizzie, who wolfed it down and begged for more.
When I told Newman about the canine taste test, he asked, “Is your dog still alive?”
“Woof!” I replied, at which point his blue eyes sparkled. Then he dug in and wolfed the stuff down himself.
On the advice of my attorney, I am obligated to say that Newman’s death several years later cannot be attributed to food poisoning.
And I am happy to report that everyone survived my admittedly modest contribution to the homemade pasta dinner that was created in my mother’s kitchen.
The enthusiastic eaters included Taylor’s wife, Carlin; Elizabeth, an excellent cook who sat this one out, and her sweet pooch, Lucie, who was more than willing to wolf down a dish but had to settle for a bowl of dog food.
My mother started the macaroni making by pouring flour onto a large board on the counter and creating a powdery circle. Then she cracked two eggs, plopped the yolks and whites into the center, added a pinch each of black pepper and nutmeg, and used her fingers to slowly and carefully mix it all together until it was a softball-sized mound that she continued to knead until the consistency was just right.
Next it was Whitney’s turn and she did a terrific job.
“I need to knead,” I declared.
So I stepped up to the counter and, with all eyes on me, poured the flour, cracked the eggs, added the pepper and nutmeg, and proceeded to make a gooey lump that looked like spackle.
With the help of Whitney, who was Julia Child by comparison, and Susan, a wonderful cook who had made the sauce (we call it gravy) and fried up a bunch of meatballs and sausages, I finally got my dough ball mixed well enough that it didn’t have to be used in a bocce tournament.
Taylor and Blair, the Boyz n the Range Hood, showed brotherly love by running all the dough balls through an attachment on my mother’s Mixmaster to make the strips of linguine that Susan and Blair boiled and we all avidly consumed.
Afterward, my mother said to me, “You did a good job.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Nana — and Paul Newman — would be proud.”
Copyright 2021 by Jerry Zezima