Tag Archives: uncle dominic

Love smells

14 Jun

I’m like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe
From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.
After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn’t made it in to work.
“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”
I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother’s bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy’s view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.
It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Good men and their sausage

24 Apr

You can’t see it here but the stamp on the back of this old photograph reads “July 1969.”

A lot happened that month. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and the first U.S. troops left Vietnam. New York Mets ace Tom Seaver lost his bid for a no hitter with only two outs left in the ninth. Brian Jones, the original leader of The Rolling Stones, drowned in his swimming pool. And, in a tragedy that would haunt him the rest of his days, Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, an accident where a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne had died.

Very early that month, July 4th to be precise, something a bit less noteworthy occurred: I learned that if ever I was to grow up and become a man I would need to learn how to build a fire, drink a cold beer, and cook an enormous amount of sausage, peppers and onions for the people I love.

Please don’t ask me why. It’s just what we’re supposed to do. And you know it.

I could look at this picture a thousand more times and every time the tastes inside my head will be the same. Not a red pepper or garlic clove or onion slice or fennel seed’s bit of difference.

It’s the way I like it. The same. Every time.

Uncle Joe does the cooking because it is his backyard, his makeshift brick-and-cinder block fire pit, and his party. Uncle Dominic consults with his brother and drinks his cold beer. The rest of the family, thirty of us perhaps, wait for my uncles to announce that it’s time to eat.

Somewhere nearby I am watching and learning.

Summer is coming. Time to man up.

Uncle Dominic

26 Jul

He is the finest gentleman that I have ever known. The highest compliment ever paid me was by way of comparison to him.

“I see so much of Dominic in you when you do a thing like that,” was the approximate wording as I recall.

The “thing” that I had done was simply to be exceptionally kind and respectful of another. I cannot consistently be relied upon to do this, but Dominic could be. Always.

My uncle died last night. I am on my way to his funeral just now. This will be a hard one for our family. Dominic was beloved profoundly and by many. He was decent and honorable and funny and able, and we will miss him very badly.

Many of you got to know my uncle a little bit through this blog. He seemed often to be on my mind, and so I wrote about him on several occasions. Like the time we tried to unravel the mystery of his famous Scottish scones or his appreciation for Gallo Hearty Burgundy wine. Once he assisted Laura, his wife of 67 years, as she prepared a batch of her delicious doughnuts one very happy afternoon we all spent together last year.

Mister Meatball will not be nearly as rewarding to author without a subject like Dominic around to inspire.

Several readers, some of them complete strangers, others dear friends, have asked about Dominic these last few months and weeks. I can’t possibly describe what that has meant to me, and so I won’t begin to try. Thank you all, though. Thanks very much.

In early spring, over a pot roast lunch at one of Dominic’s go-to hospital cafeterias, I told my uncle that he had a lot of fans who were asking after him, wishing him well, and from far away places he had never been. He seemed genuinely touched, if a bit bemused by this news, and asked that I convey his deepest appreciation and affection.

I thought that you all should know.

"H" marks the spot

1 Apr
If you have never followed this sign in search of a bite to eat, then you have not been in the company of my uncle Dominic around lunchtime.
Dom likes hospital food. A lot.
Just why he likes hospital food so much is, in my view, one of the great mysteries of our time. Like the pyramids. Or maybe the Kardashians. 
My uncle, you see, knows about good food. His favorite restaurant is my favorite restaurant; his go-to dishes closely mirror my own. Laura, Dominic’s devoted wife of 67 years, is a damn fine cook, I’ll have you know. So are a lot of the people who surround my uncle on a daily basis.
Nobody in the family has been able to get to the bottom of Dom’s peculiar affinity for this dreadful cuisine. Believe me, we’ve tried. Plenty.
For many years, usually as we sat together in one drab hospital canteen or another, I would ask my uncle the origin of this preposterous preference of his. But I stopped asking him about it a very long time ago. Because nothing the man ever said made the slightest bit of sense to me whatever.
Which should explain my utter lack of surprise when, on an unexpected visit last week, I offered to take Dom to lunch and he chose not one of the many restaurants minutes from his home in Queens but, rather, the below-ground cafeteria in Building 3 at the North Shore University Hospital, many miles away on Long Island.
It is true that we were scheduled to be at the hospital later that day, for what can only be described as some very unpleasant and sad business. But that isn’t why my uncle chose to have lunch there. Convenience had nothing to do with it, trust me. He wanted to have lunch in the cafeteria at North Shore because he actually likes the food at every single hospital he has ever stepped foot inside.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to La Villa for some pizza?” I asked as gently as I could manage without appearing to judge. “Or Don Peppe even? You haven’t been there in a while, I’ll bet. We’ve got plenty of time, you know. Hours, actually.”
Dom thought it over, but only for around eight and a half seconds.
“I think I’d rather see what they’re serving over there today,” he said, meaning North Shore. “They have very good food there, you know. You’ll like it, I’m pretty sure.”
And so later on that afternoon Dominic and I sat together and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes, surrounded by hundreds of young hospital staffers who barely noticed the strange culinary visitors in their midst.
When I asked Dominic whether he was enjoying his lunch he pointed to the pot roast and said that it was about as good as any he had ever had.
Which is always and forever good enough for me.

Dominic’s famous scones

8 Jan
Some time ago, decades actually, my uncle Dominic did an uncharacteristic thing. He tore a free-offer coupon from one of his wife Laura’s collectible supermarket cookbooks, scribbled his name and address in the appropriate areas, and mailed it off to the company whose promotion so captured his attention.
Weeks later The Quaker Oats Wholegrain Cookbook arrived in the mail. Just 64 pages long, a pamphlet really, it was crammed with all sorts of recipes employing both original and quick-cook Quaker Oats. Some of the recipes seemed innocent enough — Honey Oatmeal Muffins, Toasty Oat Pie Crust — while others may have stretched things just a bit too far — Corn and Frank Chowder, Mexicali Meat Loaves… Saucy Meatballs?
Of the 68 recipes printed between the covers of the little pamphlet, this is the one that caught my uncle’s eye. It is found on page 20 and takes up barely half of the 5-by-8-inch space. So far as I know it is the only recipe my uncle showed any interest in. I have asked him many times about his cookbook and its Scottish Oat Scones — his Scottish Oat Scones — but I can’t say that I have ever gotten to the bottom of Dominic’s fascination with either.
My uncle has made these scones perhaps hundreds of times. Last year I went to visit him the day after a grueling session of chemotherapy had left him quite weakened, and there on the kitchen table was a pile of his freshly made scones. He had baked them at 2 a.m. because he was unable to sleep. And because, I would imagine, doing so made him feel more like himself than his sickness.
“It was free,” he has said of the pamphlet he mailed away for, possibly as far back as 1979, when it was published. “What can I tell you. For some reason it interested me.”
And the scones?
“They looked so simple to make,” he tells me every time I probe the deeper meaning of the mysterious “Scottish” baked good that my Italian-American uncle decided to master. “I’m sorry, me lad. I wish I could be more help to you.”
I love it when he calls me me lad.
Lately Dominic has not been feeling so well. We’re all quite concerned about him. Just before the holidays he spent time in the hospital, and when he came out it was clear that he had weakened. The day before I drove down to visit I decided to try and whip up a batch of his scones and bring them to my uncle. I had never baked a scone before in my entire life and yet the idea of making them for the master did not concern me in the least.
If you knew my uncle you might understand why the thought of possibly botching his “world-famous” scones could not possibly have rattled me. Dominic has never practiced the art of being unkind. He is what was envisioned when the term gentleman was coined. I would be very happy to be half the man that he is. Or to display the tiniest portion of his warmth, generosity or humanity.
Which is a syrupy way of saying that I knew my uncle and I would have a fine laugh over my taking a crack at his scones. No matter how good or how bad they turned out to be.
The first thing Dominic said after laying eyes on the scones was that they looked beautiful, if a bit overdone.
“Aunt Laura won’t let me cook them this way,” he confided to me. “She doesn’t like these dark spots, the crispy edges, you know? The color has to be very light, not dark like these here, otherwise she won’t eat them.”
Laura is the woman my uncle has slept beside for more than 66 years, and his careful attention to her comfort and pleasure in all matters is inspiring.
Dominic only managed a couple bites of a scone. He assured me that I had done a “very nice job,” but that his appetite just wasn’t very good. He apologized for not eating more, and I told him not to worry, they would keep for a few days. Still, I wondered if I had erred in forcing them upon him.
No man should be made to apologize for his affliction. Certainly not this man.
Last spring, on a routine visit to see how he was doing, Dominic handed me this note (click the pic to enlarge), accompanied by a 50-year-old gold wristwatch. The watch, a very fine Longines, had a brand new leather band. It was also just out of the shop for a complete cleaning and a minor repair, things my uncle had gotten done specifically in order to present the watch to me.
It was Dominic’s own wristwatch. And now it is mine.
Like the man himself, an extraordinary gift that I will carry proudly until I am gone.
Oh, and here’s the scone recipe. My uncle is right, they’re a snap. 
Just watch out for Aunt Laura’s dark spots.

Pairing wines with meatballs

21 Sep

I would much prefer to be boiled in hot oil or eaten by hungry lions than to disagree with my dear uncle Dominic, but I am forced to admit that Gallo Hearty Burgundy is not the only wine worth drinking alongside a good meatball.

Sorry, Unc.

Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed many a bottle of the Gallo with my uncle. Hearty Burgundy is the only wine that you will find in Dominic’s home. Like his son, John, I gave up bringing other bottles for my uncle to sample long ago.

“That’s crap,” I once heard Dominic say about a more-than-respectable Barolo that my cousin had cracked open for his father’s enjoyment. “What do you want to drink that for when this (the HB now in his hand) is so much better?”

I respect a man with strong opinions, don’t you?

I hope so. Because you are about to become acquainted with just such a man. He is a friend of mine. Goes by a number of aliases (that’s him on the left), but Scott Tyree is the name that would likely appear on an official document; a denied parole request, for instance, or perhaps a bench warrant.

Scott knows his wine. He’d better. The guy’s a sommelier ferchrissakes. A James Beard Award-nominated sommelier, thank you very much. He lives just a bottle’s roll away from me these days, but last he was seen as the wine dude-in-chief at such notable Chicago dining establishments as Tru and Sepia. (He claims not to have fled that town in a high-speed motorcycle chase involving a somewhat agitated band of dockworkers, and out of respect I will accept my friend’s story without further comment or review.)

The point here is that, a) the dude is a bona fide wine professional, and b) he likes my meatballs. So I decided to put the arm on him (people from Chicago are used to being manhandled) and get him to tell us all about matching the right wine with the right meatball.

Actually, he is matching the wine with my meatball. Therefore, it is possible that this exercise will only be of benefit to you personally should you prepare my meatball recipe and, for that matter, the Sunday Gravy that they were cooked in. Alternatively you could invite Mr. Tyree, if he still calls himself that, to pair wines with your own recipes, but that is entirely between you and the sommelier.

I ain’t running no social network here, you know.

Anyway, so here is how it all was designed to go down: Me and the sommelier would get together over (what turned out to be a liquid) lunch and map out a few reasonable parameters for a (first ever?) meatball-and-wine tasting. As we both pine for the bustle and noise of a big city we grabbed an outdoor table at a restaurant here in town where the traffic comes so close that you could share a pork bun with the passenger of any vehicle that goes by.

My own view of the task at hand was quite simple: I make the meatballs and supply the wines, he writes about the wines once we have completed our little experiment. I explained this formula to my friend while gulping down the first cold beer of the warm late-August afternoon, then motioned to our waitress that it would be splendid if she might please go ahead and collect me another.

The sommelier, who had barely touched his own frosty beverage, quickly displayed a far more complex understanding of our mission. I became hip to this when he brought out a crisp pad of paper, a pen and a pair of what I would describe as handsome yet rather stern-looking reading glasses. This must have rattled me more than I was aware because as our waitress delivered my newly opened beer I instructed her to please go ahead and bring me another at her earliest convenience.

For the next hour I sat and I drank, but mostly I answered my friend Scott’s many questions about what exact flavor profiles he was being asked to pair the wines with: “You use carrots in your sauce; that’s interesting, but why?” “How much anchovy did you say is in there?” “So, then, it’s mostly veal and a little beef; there’s no pork in the meatballs, none at all?” “Butter and pork fat, really?” “Can you taste the heat of the pepper?” “Are you sure there isn’t anything else in these recipes that you haven’t told me about; I’ve got all the ingredients, every one, listed here?”

I studied his copious notes and assured my friend that, yes, he had all the necessary information to move forward. “You should be all set, yeah,” I said grabbing the check before he could put his filthy paws on it. “Sure you’re not gonna finish that beer?”

The meatball-and-wine-pairing event was held two days later, at a lovely spot overlooking Casco Bay that Scott shares with his partner, the insane South African hot yoga practitioner (though otherwise quite level-headed chap) Giovani.

And an event it was. Look at this place setting, would you? My meatballs hadn’t been given this kind of high-class treatment since… okay, they’ve never gotten it. We’re talking white linens and fine china, freshly cut flowers and enough Riedel wine glasses to cater an event for 30-plus people (we were only four in our party). There were even printouts at each place setting, containing a numbered list of all the wines we would be sampling and ample white space to scribble our impressions. Hell, we even got our own Sharpie!

Before I hand things over to Scott, just a couple of things. First, I want to thank him for taking the time to do this. I don’t know what I was expecting when I showed up at his door with a big pot of meatballs, loaves of bread, and the associate who had dreamed up the event in the first place (thanks, associate), but I got way more than I had bargained for. This was a professional-grade wine tasting, folks. And even though I was already familiar with many of the wines, I learned things from Scott that I had not known before. If you’re ever in the market for a wine consultant, trust me, this is your man.
Second, never trust a wine geek to do things the way you want. I had delivered fifteen wines to my friend the day before the tasting, plus offered several more, specifically a few Barolos I thought might be fun to try. And how many wound up on the sheet? Just eight. Oh, plus the gallon of Carlo Rossi Burgundy (no HB to be found here in Maine) that the crazy South African had picked up on his way home from the torture chamber he frequents, the chamber that he naively refers to as a yoga studio.

No wine event can ever top sipping the Gallo with my uncle Dominic while sitting beneath his grapevine on a late-summer afternoon.
Still, this Tyree fellow hosted one hell of a party, and so, without further ado, I give you the man himself. (He’s the one in the green t-shirt, but keep that to yourself, would you. Should a member of particular band of Chicago dockworkers happen upon this blog post, well, things could become rather ugly here in our little corner of paradise. And in a hurry.)

Scott Tyree:
On wine and balls
They were delivered to the house on a cool Sunday morning in spring by a courier riding a gleaming red and black Moto Guzzi. Plump, silky and perfectly golfball sized, the juicy veal and beef nuggets were accompanied by a generous portion of rich, tomatoey sauce (carrots in the sauce?!) and crusty country bread from a local bakery. G had the sauce, balls and pasta simmering on the stove faster than you can say spaghetti alla chitarra. After a few silent minutes at the table, we declared Mister Meatball’s personally delivered meatballs the most delicious we had ever tasted.  
So, when MM suggested that we do this meatball-and-wine-pairing experiment, I responded enthusiastically and without hesitation. “Screw the wine,” I secretly said to myself. “Any excuse to enjoy copious amounts of the succulent meatballs and flavorful sauce again is fine by me!”
We had rules for this wine tasting. All the wines must be of Italian origin (che sopresa!) covering the country from north to south, including Sicily. All colors and styles of wine should be included: white, pink, red, still and sparkling; dry, off-dry, youthful and mature. A rendezvous with MM to purchase the wines yielded, as he has mentioned, a great number of bottles. I am indeed guilty of editing this selection, and for this I make no apologies. Even a Meatball must succumb to reason occasionally. If we had tasted all fifteen wines, we surely would have ended up rolling on the floor covered in tomato sauce. (Besides, the event took place in my house, not his. Our friend Meatball may be highly opinionated, but he is also adept at social interaction and I was fairly certain he would not make too much of a scene upon spying my eight-wine final list.) 
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon we ladled up sauce, balls and pasta and commenced with the down and dirty work of finding the perfect wine for the perfect meatball. We found that there was consensus about most of the wines, which I find common in these settings; it is very much worth trying at home, especially with like-minded friends. Speaking of which, my impressions of our own group are as such: I found MM’s associate to be inquisitive, direct and focused. Giovani was somewhat poetic (though he does mutter naughty things when he is drunk). The Meatball was just a wiseass, as usual.
All in all, a successful tasting. Here is what we discovered.
1. Zardetto Spumante Rosé NV, Veneto
Pity the poor frizzante wines. So often, they are unjustly relegated to aperitif status and rarely taken seriously as worthy of pairing with food. Happily, this dry and fruity raboso veronese-based sparkler, so surprisingly rich and creamy, proved a worthy partner with the prized meatballs. This simple wine actually elevated the sumptuous meatballs to even dizzier heights. The most pleasant surprise of the tasting.
2. Falanghina dei Feudi di San Gregorio Sannio, Campania 2009
Many of my sommelier colleagues swear that a mythical wine pairing love affair exists between the falanghina grape and tomatoes. Lemming that I am, I chose this delicious savory wine with the fennel-y nose believing that, theoretically, it would provide an interesting herbal counterpoint while taming the acidity of the sauce. Unfortunately, the dish obliterated the wine. No love affair here. Myth busted.
3. Offida Pecorino Villa Angela Velenosi, Marche 2009
Despite the cheese-associated name, pecorino is actually an indigenous grape variety to the Marche region of southern Italy. This particular bottling showed aromas of wet stones, honey and citrus. The palate of bitter almond and ripe tropical fruit was worrisomely low in acid and blessedly oak free. On paper, this wine should have been outmatched by the assertive balls. But this was the most interesting and thought-provoking pairing of the day. With the balls, the mineral streak and aromatic qualities of the wine soared. I’ve developed a little school boy crush on this wine.
4. Soave Classico Inama, Veneto 2009
Yes, there are oceans of characterless plonk from the Soave wine zone. Thanks to Bolla (the Blue Nun of Soave), quality wines from the superior Soave Classico zone of the Veneto have been maligned by association for years. Here’s a really interesting version from an excellent producer called Inama, a winery which has been pushing the garganega grape to greater heights in recent years. Round, ripe and enriched with a little dollop of oaked chardonnay, we were concerned this wine might be too big for an already rich dish. Though perfectly pleasurable for sipping alone, the wine became a bit disjointed when paired with the meatballs. Alcohol burned the palate and all that ripe fruitiness disappeared. Ixnay the Inama.
5. Dolcetto d’Alba Paolo Scavino, Piemonte 2008
Paolo Scavino is a modernist who makes wines in an opulent, sexy style. While much of the Piemonte region often produces dolcetto that can be thin and diluted, this guy consistently gives us weighty, silky wines with great structure and layers of flavor. We all loved the vibrant acidity, rose petal and violet aromas and bright cherry and earth palate. In particular, this wine stood up to the acidic tomatoes better than any other wine in the tasting.
6. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Quattro Mani, Abruzzo 2009
Attilio Pagli’s montepulciano has a texture as sleek and smooth as Mister Meatball’s red Moto Guzzi. The nose is earthy, dusky and meaty. The palate is a spice rack of savory elements: think blackberries spiked with white pepper and oregano. For me, this pairing elicited the most visceral reaction of any of the others. This was complete wine/meatball symbiosis. These two should just move in with each other and live happily ever after.
7. Colosi Nero d’Avola IGT, Sicilia 2009
Sad. Overly extracted, high in alcohol, lacking in structure, cloying and sweet (no, I’m not talking about Mister Meatball himself). If you’re looking for a good wine to spread on your toast in the morning, this is it. I half expected that a nero d’avola might overwhelm the meatballs and clash with the sauce, but none of us were prepared for the train wreck of this pairing. Avoid.
8. Fèlsina Fontalloro, Toscana 1995
For those who find it unfair that we included a mature wine of class and elegance in a tasting of mostly value wines, I agree. But Mister Meatball insisted we open this bottle that he had been cellaring for quite some time. Who am I to argue? The Fontalloro was a classic example of mature sangiovese – all cherry, leather and cocoa powder with fine grained tannins and refreshing acidity. Not only was the wine a pleasure to drink, it elevated the humble meatballs to a thing of shimmering beauty and elegance. Unfair, yes. But at that point, nobody cared.
As for the Carlo Rossi Burgundy, well, let me put it this way: I would much prefer an opportunity to while away an afternoon with Meatball and his sweet uncle under that grapevine of his.
One day, perhaps.