During the early 1980’s, I lived in an Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn called Carroll Gardens. My home was a railroad apartment on the top floor of a turn of the century brownstone. My kitchen was so tiny that my refrigerator was kept in the living room and my pots and pans sat outside on the fire escape!
The house was owned by an Italian patriarch. His name was Rocco Ferrigno.
Rocco was retired and in poor health by the time that I met him. He had immigrated to the United States during the Great Depression and found work as a long shoreman. He married the love of his life, Concetta, and together they had 6 children. I was the first tenant in his beloved family home.
At that time, I was running an aerobic exercise studio in lower Manhattan. I would leave for work early in the morning and return late in the evening. The only time that I had any interaction with Rocco was on rent day. He would be standing on the sidewalk outside of his home, waiting for me to leave for work, making sure that he got his rent on time. This went on for several months…
Early one Sunday morning, when Rocco went out for his morning smoke, he found me sitting on the front steps. It was Father’s Day. It’s difficult to even think about how lonely I felt that morning. The reality of my being an adult and wanting to carve out my own life somehow appeared incredibly stark that day. I missed my family. I missed the familiarity of family routine and conversation.
Rocco spoke with a broken Italian/American accent. He was not eloquent but he was intuitive and he was a father. He sat down beside me and started to ask about my life. We sat for several hours chatting about family, the difference between Canada and the United States and food!
Rocco loved to cook. He told me, that after he had retired he started to go into the kitchen with his wife, Connie and prepare meals for the “family”. He was delighted that I had such a curiosity about Italian food and offered to teach me what he could. We made a date to cook together the following Friday evening.
I went to his kitchen, as mine was not big enough for both of us to fit into! When I arrived I found that Rocco had set out a large wooden board with a huge bunch of leaves, some garlic, a pile of tiny nuts and a peculiar looking two-handled knife. He was going to teach me to make pesto with a mezzaluna.
A mezzaluna is a two-handled knife with a crescent-shaped blade. Mezzaluna means half-moon.
He started by placing some coarse sea salt, a couple of cloves of peeled garlic and a tablespoon of the tiny nuts pignoli or pine nuts on the board. He took the mezzaluna and started to rock the blade from side to side, through the pile of ingredients, until it was chopped quite fine. As he chopped, my job was to pick the leaves from their stems. The leaves turned out to be basil and Italian flat leaf parsley. It was the first time that I had ever worked with fresh herbs. It rocked my world! I could not get over the aroma of freshly chopped garlic mingled with ripped basil.
When the garlic/nut mixture had reached the perfect consistency, Rocco started to add the herbs. A little at a time, until all of the leaves were chopped into the garlic. The smell was unbelievable. He then scraped all of the green paste into a well used wooden bowl and started dribbling extra virgin olive oil. He stirred with almost a pounding like motion. In less than a minute, the oil was incorporated and we had PESTO!
Rocco said, “Mikella…you lika the smell…you wait til we eat” Not only had I never made pesto, I had never eaten it. We boiled up a pot of linguine, cooked some new potatoes, set the table, poured some wine, tossed the pesto with the cooked linguine and potatoes and sat down to what remains one of the most delicious meals of my life.
After that evening, I would find Rocco sitting outside on his step having his morning smoke, every day as I headed off to work. We would have a brief chat and then he would say, Mikella…I know that you were Italian in another life!
I will always cherish the kindest he showed me during that time in my life.
You can make pesto in a food processor if you do not own a mezzaluna.
1 large bunch basil, leaves picked
½ bunch flat parsley, leaves picked
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Place garlic, pine nuts and salt in food processor…pulse til coarse
Add herbs…pulse til chopped
Slowly drizzle oil through feed tube til a thick puree is formed
Transfer to bowl…stir in cheese…keep well covered
Thanks for reading!