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Tony reminisces about cooking with Nonna Maria

During our weekly chiacchierata (as we like to call it, Italian for kibbitz), I was reminded of this vintage photograph, which appeared in a recent Paris Review article about the lost language of the Piedmontese umbrella makers (the photo is taken, btw, from a wonderful collection of photographs posted by Me Piemont, a site devoted to the history and culture of Piedmont).

As Tony sent a devoted young chef back into the kitchen at least five times (until the lasagnette were perfectly fired, sauced, and finished), we talked about the “attention to detail” to which he often points as the secret behind his decades of success.

“It’s either my attention to detail or the fact that I’m nuts,” he joked as he sipped espresso and I sampled the long broad noodles stuffed with fresh mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella flown in weekly from Naples) and pesto, served over a spalmata (Italian for schmear) of delightfully ethereal tomato coulis.

I asked Tony about the origins of this obsessive quest for perfection that has served him so well.

“It comes from my [maternal] grandmother,” he said, “Maria Aiello, from Sorrento.”

“She was a fantastic cook,” he told me. “She could bone a whole chicken without splitting it: her hand was small enough that she could reach into the cavity with a carving knife and remove all the bones.”

Nonna Maria would often come to visit Tony and his family in Houston. When it came to cooking and their time spent together in the kitchen, “there were no two ways to do something.”

“When I was child, she would say to me, in Italia si fa così, in other words, this is how we do things in Italy. In my home, to this day, we’re still purists.”

Driving back to Austin later that day, I thought about how this profound connection to tradition and a purist attention to detail are part of what has made Italy’s contribution to western civilization so great — from Ghiberti and Brunelleschi to the humble umbrella makers of Piedmont.

In Italia si fa così…

—Jeremy Parzen

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