mercoledì 7 agosto 2013

An interview with Robert Palizzolo

Tutto Italiano in Wellesley Square is undoubtedly the best known and best respected Italian market in the western suburbs of Boston. Owner Robert Palizzolo offers not only the authentic flavors of Italy but the authentic spirit of Italy – the Italy of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who washed their clothes in not-yet-polluted streams and who cooked only organic food, because they had no food that was not organic! Robert does not hide the fact that his grandmother was, and continues to be, his greatest influence and inspiration. For that reason, this interview was for me a profound joy.

LC: We both have something important in common: our maternal grandmothers were the strongest influence in our lives. Where was your grandmother from?

RP: My grandmother was born in Matera.

LC: Matera itself, or a small town near Matera?

RP: No, Matera itself.

Matera, Basilicata.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
LC: Did she talk often about her upbringing in Matera? When did she come to America? How old was she?

RP: My Nana, as I called her, came over as a young girl, 7 or 8 years old. She didnʼt often talk about Italy because she really didnʼt remember a whole lot, except they were very poor, without electricity. Iʼm familiar with the area now, having researched it many years ago when computers came into being. I can certainly see how rough a place that must have been back then. My mother visited Matera about ten years ago. Although it has a definite beauty to it, she quickly understood why the family left.

LC: Itʼs amazing how few of our grandparents and great-grandparents ever went back. Even when they lived into the era of air travel, the memories of their incredibly hard voyage, and all the poverty that preceded it, were too much.

RP: Exactly. She never returned. In fact, she never even learned to drive.  She never once drove a car in all of her 90 years. Pretty amazing.

LC: What are some of the dishes that you associate with your grandmother?

RP: The first dish that pops into my head is Nanaʼs squash patties. I loved them! Shredded zucchini, a little onion, grated cheese, egg, a little flour, and I believe baking powder, formed into patties and fried in olive oil. Boy, o boy, I could eat them by the dozen. Another one I loved was her spinach pie, made in a standard loaf pan. I could eat the whole loaf, and was encouraged to do so. She loved feeding my brother and me, and she made sure we finished whatever was on our plate, or we wouldnʼt be in the “clean plate club” and thus wouldnʼt be able to go to Hampton Beach that summer!

LC: Was the spinach pie like a calzone with spinach and ground meat?

RP: No, there was no dough at all. It was chopped spinach, egg, and cheeses, all mixed together, topped with mozzarella or provolone, and baked. Friday was fish day, and that meant breaded filet of sole, mashed potatoes, and corn or peas – not completely Italian, but just so comforting and delicious.

LC: Fabulous! Now, you were like her sous-chef, helping her chop things.

RP: Yes, I was the shredder and grater. Nana would hand me a big chunk of Romano and a cheese grater. That was the beginning of my culinary journey. I liked grating the cheese and also liked to nibble on it as I did. She caught onto that real quick. So she told me to whistle while I grated. Iʼm not sure if she was kidding or not, but I whistled!

LC: She also played store with you.

RP: Yes, she did. I would take the cans from her pantry and sell them to her for a penny. A precursor to my future!

LC: My grandmother had lots of sayings – little proverbs. Was your grandmother that way?

RP: Not really. She was more of a singer, always singing while she cooked, cleaned, etc.

LC: Do any specific songs come to mind?

RP: I can hear her voice, but I canʼt remember many specific songs. All I remember is, “Donʼt Sit Under the Apple Tree” and Patsy Cline!

LC: Later, you met Angelo Locilento, owner of Tutto Italiano in Hyde Park. How did you discover his store? Did you live in or near Hyde Park?

RP: Yes, I grew up in Roslindale and was a regular customer of his. I really loved his store and got to be friendly with him and his family. At the time I was a tile setter, and I didnʼt exactly love the job. I asked Angelo if he would consider franchising a store for me to own. To make a long story short, I worked with him for almost three years. In that time he taught me to make sausages, mozzarella, the proper way to slice cold cuts, and so much more.
Photo courtesy of Robert Palizzolo.
In addition to the Hyde Park store, he had another store in Wellesley that was mismanaged and losing money. I knew I could make it successful. At the time, the store bore no resemblance to what it is today. I remodeled the interior, added the awnings outside, changed the signage, put flowers out front – really, anything to grab peopleʼs attention. In the beginning, I would stand out front passing out samples of our food, so people would know what we offered. Many people had no idea what the store was. There was only a painted sign that said “Tutto Italiano.” Most people didnʼt know what that meant. Did we sell furniture? Or clothing? It was very confusing for the people of Wellesley. I knew I would change that, and I did.

LC: What a story! I canʼt say how much I admire that! To take a business thatʼs a shambles and rebuild it into a success – and in an area where there arenʼt too many Italians. I donʼt know how you did it! When you started working for Angelo, did you have in mind from the outset that you wanted to own a store? Or did you work for him first and then get entrepreneurial aspirations?

RP: No, I worked for him practically for free, with the promise of his helping me find my own location – that is, if he thought I had what it takes! So it was a leap of faith in a sense. He was not an easy man to work for, but I kept my eye on the prize.

Photo courtesy of Robert Palizzolo.
LC: In what way was he not easy?

RP: He was like the high school teacher that you couldnʼt stand, but years later thatʼs the teacher you remember most, and you realize how much he truly helped you.

LC: Now, the most important question of all: did your grandmother live to see your resurrection of the Wellesley store?

RP: Yes, she did!! One of the proudest moments of my life was when she ambled through that front door...
a recipe by Leonardo Ciampa

Note: This recipe is very simple and quick.  However, the ingredients are very particular.  Each one requires a little explanation. It takes more time to read the recipe than to prepare it!


All of these ingredients can be purchased at Tutto Italiano in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

500 g Sabrinette (Divella #99)

Divella and Poiatti are the two best producers of industrial (i.e., machine-made) pasta in the whole world.  Divella is a heavenly pasta, superior even to DeCecco.  The only danger with Divella comes when you test the pasta while it's cooking, to see if it's done. You test it and you test it, and when the pasta is ready only half of it is left!  Divella is the only pasta producer that I know that makes the cut called “sabrinette.”

extra-virgin olive oil

San Comaio is undoubtedly the best olive oil producer in the province of Avellino, and one of the best in all of Campania.  In particular, their organic oil is admired throughout Italy; it has won several prizes in national competitions.  (Click here to read an interview with Pasquale Caruso, director of San Comaio.)

180 g (about 25) caperberries, rinsed well, the stems removed

Caperberries are a marvel!  The caper plant is a shrub that grows in the most arid terrains, and in the most improbable places.  (See the photo below!) The buds of this plant are called capers.  However the fruit of the same plant are called caperberries.  Caperberries are of the size and texture of olives, but the taste is a lighter version of capers.  The company Villa Reale is located in Sciacca (province of Agrigento).  They produce rustic preserves, condiments, pâtés — truly exquisite things.  For ten years now I have been eating Villa Reale products, including their caperberries. 
The Palazzo Risolo in Specchia (province of Lecce).  Look at the capers!
400 g cherry tomatoes
La Valle, a company in New Jersey, was founded in 1949 by a farmer from the Valle del Sarno, named Alfonso Selletti (in the photo above, second from the left). Even today, the tomatoes are imported from this marvelous valley, homeland of the famous San Marzano (DOP) tomatoes.  The cherry tomatoes are sweet as sugar.  And when you look at the label, you see that there is no calcium chloride.  Permit me a brief tirade.  When you empty a can of tomatoes into the pan, what do you want the tomatoes to do?  You want them to fall apart nicely.  And what does calcium chloride do?  Prevents them from falling apart!  But in America 99% of canned tomatoes contain this chemical.  How is such a stupid thing possible?  (Tirade not yet finished.)  The inhalation of calcium chloride is harmful to the respiratory airways.  The Russian national army used it in the Chechen war as a means of torture.  In the year 2002, North America consumed 1,687,000 tons of calcium chloride.  (Tirade finished.) 

200 g solid tuna, in olive oil

Canned tuna in water will not work for this dish; it has to be canned tuna in olive oil.  In America, it isn't an automatic thing that tuna comes in a solid piece; if it doesn't specifically say, "solid tuna," it could be shredded tuna. (An analogy would be chicken nuggets from a fast food restaurant, which are not whole pieces of chicken.)  Àsdomar is a Genoese brand of tuna.  It is phenomenal.
fresh basil
fresh oregano
1 clove garlic, chopped
freshly-ground black pepper
(Note: grated cheese is not called for in this recipe. You shouldn't put grated cheese with fish.) 


While the sabrinette are cooking in abundant salted water (4 or 5 quarts), heat a frying pan and add oil.  Add the chopped garlic and cook it for a few seconds, until is it golden (not brown).
Add the cherry tomatoes.
All you need is one light tap of a potato masher, and the cherry tomatoes will dissolve into a beautiful sauce.
Add salt and pepper, and cook on medium heat for 15 minutes.  If during the cooking the tomatoes become dry, add a few ounces of water from the pasta.  After 15 minutes, the sauce will be so sweet that your family will think that you added a cup of sugar!  But in fact you will not have added even a grain of sugar.

4 or 5 minutes before the end, add the caperberries.  (You can add the oregano at this point, if you want.)
One minute before the end, add the tuna.  Stir to break it up a little (only a little – don't shred it). Add the oregano if it wasn't already added.
After the 15 minutes are up, shut the heat, add the basil (don't cook the basil!), and Buon Appetito!

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