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Uncorking Memories

Martino family celebrates rich heritage

Grandpa circa 1960
An old kitchen table was the only canvas Grandpa Martino needed to create his signature masterpiece – cuyettas, a staple dish he grew up with in Italy. Today, it’s this simple potato dumpling that holds the warmest childhood memories for his grandchildren who grew up next door.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Grandpa Martino spent Sunday mornings making cuyettas (pronounced que-ettas), an old-world favorite his wife Catterina often served before she died in 1943. He mixed boiled garden potatoes with flour and rolled the dough into snakes. Then he sliced them into one-inch dumplings and indented them with a fork to hold the sauce. After they dried a bit, he boiled them on an old cook stove, so they’d be ready to serve when his son Mike, daughter-in-law Irene, and their three children Sandra, Diana, and Dan returned from church.

Dan, Diana and Sandra with the old cuyetta bowl
My husband Dan’s earliest memory is standing on tip toes at the kitchen window waiting for his grandpa to walk across the lawn with a huge bowl of cuyettas. He’d holler, “He’s coming!” and race to the table with his sisters. Today, it’s Grandpa Martino’s cuyettas and other time-honored dishes that bring four generations together to embrace their heritage and celebrate the life of a great man and his love for family, good food and wine.

Anton Martino died in 1969, but his legacy lives on in Grandpa Martino memorial dinners hosted by his grandchildren. The siblings began the tradition in early 2000 and have since gathered often with their parents, spouses, children, and grandchildren.

It started at a Peoria restaurant when a roasted head of garlic unleashed Dan’s childhood memories, reminding him of laia (pronounced lie-ay), a garlic-laden dish his grandpa made and served with garden vegetables. He called Sandra to see if she had a recipe. They began reminiscing about other foods they grew up with, such as cuyettas, bruchetta, bagna calda, polenta, and chicken cacciatore. A few days later, Sandra found a laia recipe and suggested a family get-together to pay homage to Grandpa Martino by fixing his favorite foods.

Dan making cuyettas
Preparing the first memorial dinner was absolutely magical. The siblings gathered at Sandra’s home that afternoon to try duplicating their grandpa’s dishes. Dan made the cuyettas which was quite a challenge. Getting the potato-flour mix to the right consistency and muscle-kneading it into dumplings is a tricky business. Adding an egg would have made the process easier, but that’s not the way his grandpa did it. The chicken cacciatore simmered all afternoon and was magnificent, and the polenta was a golden success. For the laia, Sandra mashed eight garlic cloves into a boiled potato, added eggs, a smidgen of olive oil and salt, and then threw a piece of water-soaked (and squeezed) bread into the mix. This warm appetizer was served with room-temperature vegetables for dipping.

Each cuyetta has a fork indent to hold the sauce.
The aromatic mixture of garlic, olive oil, basil, oregano, and tomato sauce transported Dan and his sisters to their grandpa’s kitchen where a bottle of wine always sat on the table like an old friend. As a tribute, they raised their wine glasses, saluted their grandpa, and uncorked memories, mixing laughter and tears, as they shared yesteryear with the younger generations. Recollections varied, but they all remembered waiting for their grandpa to bring cuyettas for Sunday dinner -- and how their mother caramelized butter to a golden brown and poured it over the dumplings along with a smothering of catsup, cream, and parmesan cheese. That night, when Sandra poured the dumplings into Grandpa Martino’s revered cuyetta bowl, which hadn’t been used for years, emotions ran high.

Following tradition, the polenta was sliced with thread, and dishes were passed. Stories continued to flow along with wine. The siblings revisited hot summer days when they watched their grandpa work in his garden. In memory, they once again pumped ice cold water from the well, drinking it from a rusty can that hung on the pump handle. Their senses were invigorated as they recalled the September scent of grapes and how the amethyst clusters hung in their grandpa’s backyard arbor, how he dumped them into a vat, slipped on a hip boot, and stomped the fruit into wine. And they remembered the dark, musty basement where wine fermented in oak barrels.

The conversation soon turned to tartinas, a Saturday morning treat their grandpa made by melting brick cheese over thick slices of crusty bread and sprinkling it with pepper. He’d put them in the cook stove for a few minutes and then touch the cheese to see if it was melted to perfection. They can still visualize the indent of his finger in the cheese and hear him say, “Nope, not yet.”

Before the night ended, they were already planning more family gatherings. The siblings recently hosted their 22nd memorial dinner. Sometimes, their 87-year-old father, Mike, shares his memories of growing up in a home where an Italian influence was strong. He talks about his father who was born in Venasca, Italy in 1882. As a young man, Anton took the SS LaLorraine to America, arriving at Ellis Island in 1904. He made his way to the Midwest, finally settling in Roanoke, IL where he and Catterina raised their family. Anton labored in the coal mines for 50 years, waiting each day for the final whistle to blow so he could return home to his family, his garden, the grape arbor, the smell of cuyettas wafting from the kitchen, and a glass of wine that reflected the fruits of his labor.

During the dinners, Dan and his sisters have learned that zinfandel grapes grew on their grandpa’s arbor and fox grapes grew on his chicken shed. Mike said the fox grapes were “too big to be wild and too small to be tame, but they gave the wine a nice color.” In the old days, some of the Italians got together and ordered train loads of grapes from California to add to their own harvest.

Martino family, four generations
Dan documents each dinner, with pictures, journaling, and labels from the wines they’ve shared, so future generations will have access to their rich heritage. Through the memorial dinners, the siblings hope to keep the Italian traditions alive. They’re quite proud of the younger generations who have been willing to try new foods with strange names. Tartinas have been a favorite. Dan said, “Sometimes, we get busy in life and tend to go our own ways except for the holidays. I see bonds between generations fading. We’ve been blessed to be able to get together and share our memories and create new ones as we go along. There’s no better gift to give a child than good memories.”

I guess Grandpa Martino proved that.

This feature first appeared in Primo Magazine, Washington D.C., May-June 2006

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