Throwing a dinner party for my Uncle Abe was an annual event that I was proud to host every year. He was 86 and not a blood uncle but a family friend whom I had known as long as my parents. He was of Italian descent and insisted I cook up something that celebrated his ancestry. Most of the guests at dinner were similar in age and served in various branches of the military in the Korean War.
“Hey Uncle Abe, it’s Sylvia and I’m wondering how many of your boys I can expect for dinner and what you want me to cook?
“I know it’s you Sylvia Sterling, I’m 86 but I still recognize you melodic voice.”
“Still a charmer Uncle Abe.”
“There are still eight or nine of us alive. They do wonders with teeth these days so we can all eat. How about Chicken Parmesan?”
“Is wine still an option for most of you?”
“No, it’s not an option but a requirement. Most of us know a thing or two about wine and drink a glass every day for heart health.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“You got it Chicken Parmesan paired with Merlot. I’ll expect you guys Saturday night at 6pm.”
“Sounds like a plan Sylvia.” Abe Cassamino hung up.
I was in NYC for three weeks while my friend Stuart was out of town. I was officially house sitting in his Village apartment but I was actually using his kitchen for work and entertaining. It was Italian night so I headed to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for ingredients. It was also one of my favorite places in the US to shop for food. The smells and sounds were like no other. Many of the vendors spoke in broken English and the smell of fresh baked bread wafted through the air. Every merchant had a story about how their relatives immigrated the states with nothing to their name but the recipes from home. I entered the Belmont section of New York with the intention of picking up mozzarella and a loaf of bread and ended up with more food than I knew what to do with. I had the option of picking up a good bottle of Italian wine but I was pouring Merlot and one of my favorites was from Washington State.
I got home and unwrapped a dozen chicken cutlets, which I coated in fresh seasoned breadcrumbs. I was going with cutlets but at times, I made it with a variety of bone-on chicken. I met the woman who had pounded out the meat hours before, after she pulled it from the chicken. Making tomato sauce is one of my favorite pastimes so if I were anywhere but NYC, I would have made it myself. I knew I couldn’t beat an age old recipe from Italy, so I purchased it on Arthur Avenue. I had a pot going for the pasta, which was fresh made, and another for a mélange of mushrooms, onions and garlic. I made a simple green salad because I knew my guests were traditionalists. I served kale one year and it went uneaten. Next thing I knew it Uncle Abe was standing in my kitchen.
I ran to him and gave a welcoming embrace. “How the heck did you get in here?”
“Don’t worry Sylvia, I’m not a ghost. You left the door open which isn’t safe – what were you thinking?”
“I know my neighbors down South and there isn’t much crime to worry about. I didn’t think about locking the door.” Uncle Abe shook his head at my naïveté. “The wine I’m serving is on the counter. Tell me what you think.”
“L’Ecole 41 (2012) from the Columbia River Valley. I approve before even tasting it Sylvia. I spent a lot of time fishing in that part of the country and I’m aware that they produce some nice wine. The chicken cacciatore smells divine Sylvia but I would expect so less and thanks again for putting up with us old codgers.”
“I’d do anything for you Uncle Abe. All of your friends hit on me and I’ve come to expect it; it has even started flattering me.” I giggled.
The meal was served and the wine poured. It was amazing the men had time to eat because there conversation was constant. They told war stories, fish tales and talked about friends who had died.
I raised my hand as if I was in school in order to get in a word. “Tell me what you gentlemen think of the food and wine. I can take the good and the bad. It helps me get the pairing right next time if it doesn’t work.”
Stanley Sati spoke first. The sweet man never gave an unkind comment so I knew what to expect. “My dear Sylvia, I haven’t had cacciatore this good since my dear mother was alive. The wine is a perfect compliment.” Stanley was on his third glass of wine and his tolerance at 87 wasn’t what it once was.
“I detect a great deal of salinity which adds to the wine’s freshness. I’m aware that Merlot is more like a pinot noir and less like a cabernet. It’s just in the middle and I think it’s a satisfying swallow.” Marc Antonuci commented.
“I taste black plum and it finishes with the slightest hint of espresso. It’s mild enough to handle the robust flavors of the sauce. I know that you paid under $30 per bottle because I peeked at the receipt that you left on the counter. I think it’s a bargain at that price. What do you think Ziggy?”
“I never agree with Antonuci and I’m not about to start now. It’s no fault of yours Sylvia but I’m not a fan of the Merlot. It’s too flimsy to go with your powerful chicken cacciatore. I think a solid white would go well.”
“I appreciate the feedback guys and I don’t expect complaints when I serve dessert. We’re having tiramisu with espresso.”
My Uncle Abe spoke up. “Would you happen to have Sambuca?” He smiled because he knew I always had the Italian anisate liquor.
“Of course, I’ll serve it in snifters with three coffee beans for good luck.”
All had a good time. A few of them predicted they’d be six feet under by next year but it’s what they had been saying for 10 years.