Sunday was always a busy day for us at Di Palo’s, the store my family opened as a latteria, or dairy shop, in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1925. Still, we closed early, because by three o’clock we had somewhere to be: around the table, eating my grandmother’s spaghetti and meatballs. She’d start the meatballs early in the morning, and they’d simmer for a long, long time in the sauce, along with beef bones she’d roasted in the oven, and the house would fill with the most incredible aroma. She’d give me one meatball to try before the meal was ready, but that’s it; after that, she’d shoo me away when I asked for more, maybe put some sauce on a plate to sop up with bread, which kept me happy.
Sure, spaghetti and meatballs isn’t Italian-Italian (they have meatballs in Italy, but they’re not cooked in sauce), but for me, they’re the single most important dish in my cultural heritage. You have to remember, most Italian-Americans came here with just a few dollars in their pocket. They’d go to the butcher and buy cheap cuts, and they got really good at seasoning and stretching them with bread crumbs, cheese, eggs. They used a lot of garlic, not just for the flavor but because it was considered good for you. So from these simple ingredients you get these beautiful meatballs and delicious sauce served in a big bowl of inexpensive dried pasta. Nowadays, when we make grandma’s meatballs at the store, I can’t help thinking about how special they are.