When I was a child, I did not understand that Sicily was part of Italy. “My grandmother is from Sicily” was equivalent to “My grandmother is from Mobile.” I knew that it was far away, but that was all. In the 1950s and 60s there were still the lingering vestiges of close-knit Sicilian families who spoke the Sicilian dialect with each other. I didn’t learn it, but it still seems comforting for me to hear it. It reminds me of the warmth of family and belonging.
Those times also gave me a set of comfort foods that are firmly fixed in my taste memories. I remember daily doses of garlic, fragrant Parmesan cheese in hunks, black olives and salami. These things were always at the ready when a snack was called for. But there were also slow-cooked meals and dishes that are etched in memory. And one of those present-at-every-big-event dishes is bruccialuna. I can remember standing on the stool that my Nana kept by the counter just for me to stand on as we cooked together. She would butterfly the veal and place it between two pieces of waxed paper. I would use an empty wine bottle to pound it out to an even thickness.
As I recall those simple tasks with my Nana, I am reminded of how the stories of the family, the values of life and the cautionary tales are transmitted effortlessly in the course of cooking together. Nana’s frugality was loudly unspoken, but I watched her save everything for stock, save jars for reuse and even make note paper of opened up used envelopes. And always there were bits of leftover, stale bread.
Nana always kept stale bread. When there were not breadcrumbs, I would grate the stale bread into a big bowl until she thought that we had enough. My uncle had made a grater out of a piece of sheet metal that he punctured with a nail. The metal was sized to slide into a groove onto a box. By grating on the sharp side of the erupted punctures, the breadcrumbs would fall into the box to be collected. (I wasn’t allowed to use this tool — it was thought to be too dangerous for me — but I longed to be big enough to use it.) Nana would add grated Parmesan cheese, dried oregano and garlic powder, and I would get to stir it all up. She would add eggs until we had a good paste. I would get to pat the breadcrumb mixture onto the flattened meat. And then we became artistic.
I came to understand that we would be rolling up this meat, and slicing it for serving, so the cross-section had to look really appealing on the plate and on the platter. This meant hard-boiled eggs, strips of carrots and sometimes basic leaves placed in a manner that would make an interesting pattern after the bruccialuna was cooked. We would roll up the meat and then tie it with string. Nana would salt and pepper the outside, then brown it in olive oil in a heavy pot.
After it was browned in olive oil she would put the roll on a plate. We would take tomato sauce from the freezer where there was always an ample supply. Nana’s tomato sauce was always made in huge batches and then frozen in more manageable portions, ready for a quick meal or for something for Sunday dinner, like bruccialuna.
To deepen the flavor of the sauce, in the pot that had the olive oil in it, now with the goodness of the browned meat sticking to the bottom of the pan, Nana added an anchovy that she melted into the oil. Then she would add chopped onions, a bit of chopped celery, a grated carrot, the zest of half of a lemon and the zest of an orange. Then she added the tomato sauce. After it was simmering she would add the browned bruccialuna. I would watch the tomato sauce just cover the roll. Then it cooked down, getting thicker, until the bruccialuna was exposed in the pot.
There was always pasta to accompany this lovely roll. A bit of sauce was tossed with the pasta and placed on the big platter. On top of the pasta went the bruccialuna. Then it was sprinkled with cheese and then sprinkled with chopped fresh parsley before being set on the table. It was carried in to appropriate “ahs.” We all knew that we had to loudly appreciate the dish. It was sliced and served. We dug in and there was silence.