The Taste of Thanksgiving
Turkey’s fine, but ravioli gives this Italian family reason for thanks
by Michelle Steel
Nana turns 88 this December. The Pessagno family has been fighting over her ravioli at Thanksgiving for 70 years. It was, and still is, the first dish emptied at the table. Arguments flare over who gets to lick the Pyrex clean. Heated discussions about fennel seed and garlic cloves are commonplace in a room full of Italian relatives.
The ravioli an old family recipe outshines even the plumpest Tom turkey, spicy sausage stuffing and sweetest pumpkin pie served alongside Nana’s Blue Willow China.
Nana spends the week before Thanksgiving’s festivities preparing Papa’s (her late husband) great-grandfather’s secret recipe. Ravioli preparations turn Nana’s one-bedroom apartment into a war-zone of sauce-covered surfaces, strewn cooking utensils, eggshells and pans filled with rising dough. Her dining room table is covered in flour and wax paper. Flecks of dough stick to unprotected surfaces like glue. The flour dust on Nana’s face matches the color of her hair. She hums as she works with her trademark red-and-white-checkered dishtowel draped across her left shoulder.
Pasta rounds, spinach and white rice boil, while sauce simmers on the stove, occupying all four gas burners. Nana still rolls out the dough with a vintage rolling pin. Small rust spots dot the handles on the wooden roller. It squeaks as she rolls, but serves its purpose. Nana refuses to give it up. It’s a key player in her ravioli preparation; it’s her good luck charm.
She still cuts the pasta with a round juice glass the size of an empty toilet paper roll just as she and Papa used to when I was a young girl. I would sit and watch them work together like a team on an assembly line, my mouth watering as I munched on a kosher dill pickle as big as my pint-size hand, to keep me occupied during the hours of preparation. He cut, she stuffed.
Papa was the first to taste-test the sauce, tearing off a chunk of bread from a two-foot-long loaf, dipping it slowly into the sauce with the expertise of a surgeon and giving his approval or suggestions on how to improve it so it tasted more like his grandfather’s.
The recipe has remained the same over the years except for one ingredient: The calf brain filling has been replaced with spinach.
“Calf brains were a great source of protein back in the olden days,” Nana told me. “Spinach is the healthier alternative today.”
My cousin Tommy attempted his own version of the Pessagno ravioli one year, using fresh oysters instead of calf brains. The result yielded a salty, chewy mess. That year, the ravioli dish stayed full. No one argued who would get to lick the bowl.
Back when calf brains were used and special guests came to dinner, the Pessagnos never told them the secret ravioli ingredient until afterward. Tasty as the ravioli were, most people didn’t mind eating brains, except for two cousins who refused after the secret ingredient was revealed. That just left more of the round delicacies for my sisters and me.
The kids shared a small table, tucked away in a corner, within earshot of the adults. When the ravioli supply ran low, we’d shout we need more rav, and within minutes, Nana would set down a steaming batch on our table. If we were lucky, a pan would be put aside so we could enjoy them after the holiday feast. I’d eat them straight out of the refrigerator the next morning for breakfast.
Thanksgiving traditions continued through my teenage years. I graduated to the adult table. And to dinners with boyfriends at local Italian restaurants. Ordering restaurant ravioli, I found out that none even in Little Italy compared to Nana’s family recipe.
Today, my mother is struggling to perfect Nana and Papa’s unique family Thanksgiving tradition. She’s having a heck of a time with the pasta falling apart when she boils it. And the sauce doesn’t have the same kick to it as Nana’s. One of my mom’s sisters has almost perfected it. Almost.
Our family is not worried. Nana’s 87-year old hands still work fine. She’s a spry senior whose side-splitting jokes still make us laugh. Her ravioli tastes as good today as when I was a young girl.