Italian food is love

Growing up in western NY most of the neighbors were Italian. Italian food was just food, it was what you ate. When I moved to Alaska, it was a shock to find that there was no good Italian food. None. No sauce, no sausage, no real pizza. There were attempts at making these things, but really? No. I love Norwegians, but they just don’t make the best pizza. Meatballs? Beans and greens? Cannoli? No. Pasta fagioli? Oh hell no.

So when I moved New York’s capital region, Italian food became a quest; particularly after I missed the on-ramp to 787 in Troy, and found myself in front of Bella Napoli. It was love at first sight. A most wonderful, old-school Italian bakery with cases jammed full of classic Italian bread, pastries, cannoli, cookies, and the impossible sfogliatelle. The women behind the counter are not exactly surly, just classically gruff. The place is crowded, they are working fast. They fill cardboard boxes and tie them securely with cotton string from a dispenser overhead. They do not smile, do not chit-chat. They don’t care that you are in love with what they are selling. Just pay and get out of the way. I love this, not because I like grumpiness, but because there is no rancor involved. They are part of a culture that I can’t understand. A bakery secret society and I am not important. Even more intriguing are the men, who are kept in the back, with their five o’clock shadows, baking amazing things with white flour and white sugar, wearing white shirts stretched over muscles or flab. They offer nothing for vegans.

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DeFazio’s in Troy is another food mecca, the best pizza around. They also make great sandwiches, in such an amusing way. There are two shops next door to each other, the groceria and the pizzeria. If you want a sandwich, you go in to the groceria, where there is a sandwich menu on the wall. After you choose, the guy behind the counter slices the appropriate meat on to a piece of waxed paper, and hands it to you. You take your handful of meat and go next door to the pizzeria, where they have the rest of the ingredients. When you arrive next door with your meat, it seems like you are expected, even though no obvious communication has occurred between the slicer guy and the guy with the keys to the bread and veggies. It is weirdly wonderful to take that hand full of meat for a walk. If you want pizza, it is best to call around noon for pickup at 5. Again it seems like a secret society. Floury guys run around the tiny warm kitchen doing their alchemy. They are close enough to touch, but you can’t really touch them because their world is a mysterious other dimension. They are cheerful. They have energy, they bounce when they walk, as if there were springs in their feet.

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Andy’s and Sons, AKA Andy’s Italian Food and Deli, on Delaware Avenue in Albany, is my ultimate Italian deli. It is a tiny place, packed to the ceiling with food. Always full of people, some who know exactly what they want, and usually a few who wander in bewildered wonderment. The guys make great sandwiches, and seem so pleased when you order one. There are beautiful cheeses, homemade pasta, sauce and sausages, bountiful quantities of imported olive oils and such. The best thing, however, is the joy. You can feel it when you walk in the door. The air is charged with joy, and humor, and noise. There is yelling, the good kind, the kind about food, what you want on your sandwich. Big round men behind the counter have loud voices. They obviously have the kind of love for each other that is expressed through humor and mild abuse. One day a bunch of cops were waiting for sandwiches. Big sandwich guys yelling at big cops about sandwiches, it was wonderful. The counter guys can call women “hon” without being creepy or sexist. It is what you call a nice lady. I eavesdrop on their conversations. They are talking about food. The food they make, other people’s food, good food. It is slow food, worth the hours of bubbling, worth the wait. Their homemade salami is rich and flavorful, the gooey gorgonzola a rhapsody. Beans and greens, meatballs, why is this so good? This food is full of love. The room is warm and happy. I want them to adopt me, to share their adventure in flavor, to learn the secrets of sauce and spicy meats.

 

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