Last updated on February 9th, 2015
I know that discussing the merits of The Sopranos is soooo 2005, but indulge me for a moment as I build up to something here.
The great genius of The Sopranos was that it played to so many audiences simultaneously, each one thinking the show was made just for them. Those in the cheap seats watched it for the violence and drama, while the essential theme was not the mafia, but an exploration of a sociopath in therapy. (That’s why the controversial black screen ending was so poetic. Once Dr. Melfi had her last session with Tony, the story of The Sopranos was over.)
Behind all the goodfella pathos was a perfectly crafted backdrop of Italian-American culture, so specific to the slang and culture of New York-area Italians of Neapolitan heritage that I’m sure more than half of Sopranos fans missed the nuances given to each character.
Like Christopher’s apology to Tony for not doing well on a hit because he felt “moosha moosh,” or Carmela offering to help Meadow feel better by making her a dish of “pasteen.” This monkish authenticity is the reason that Entertaining with the Sopranos is a shockingly fantastic cookbook.
My mother found it on a bargain rack and gave to me with the disclaimer, “Don’t laugh. It’s really good.” Sure enough, it is really good, though layered with cringe-worthy sidebars like “How to Give a Toast” by Paulie Walnuts or “”Uncle Junior on Wakes.” The recipes are for dishes pulled straight from the tables of Christmas Eves, christenings and backyard celebrations of Neapolitan families.
If you have ever attended an Italian wedding and wondered about that tray of rainbow cookies called Venetians, they’re in this book. Or if you remember your Italian roommate from college talking about Christmas Eve dinner, his mother’s recipe for Spaghetti with Red Clam Sauce is also here. And if you happen to be Italian-American, specifically of Neapolitan descent, this book is a time capsule of all the dishes you grew up eating every time the family came over.
It’s ironic that my mother also owns this book because all of these dishes are things she could make in her sleep. Like the sfingi (cream puffs) for the Feast of Saint Joseph or La Pastiera, the Easter pie made with wheat, ricotta and orange zest. There’s also a similar recipe for the spaghetti pie I told you about last fall.
The recipes were authored by Michelle Scicolone, a well-known Italian cookbook author as well as a nice New York-area Italian girl with family from Naples. She’s written a pile of cookbooks, contributed to nearly every esteemed food magazine out there, developed recipes for restaurants around the country, and with her husband, wine expert Charles Scicolone, led gastronomic tours of Italy.
Clearly, she’s an expert, which is why I love her all the more for calling her zucchini stew “Googootz Giambotta,” googootz being a Neapolitan word for squash or anyone who might be acting with the intelligence of one.
For non-Italians or even non-Sopranos fans, there are also quite a few crowd-pleasing recipes that are perfect for entertaining large groups. Who doesn’t love a good tray of baked ziti, cheesy stuffed mushrooms, or a dripping saucy sandwich of sausage and peppers? Why not, on a hot summer day, sit on the deck with a glass of peaches in red wine? If you can look past the page of advice from Dr. Melfi on “The Fear of Hostessing,” Entertaining with the Sopranos is a worthy addition to the library of anyone who loves Italian food.