I like to cook. I've always liked to cook. That is, as long as I didn't have to cook, I liked it. It was when I was made to cook that I hated it, because if I didn't do it they'd either fire me or, later, fire at me.
I learned the hard way. How to cook, that is. When I was a kid my stepfather kicked me out of the house. He was an Irish bastard. So I had to learn quick. You follow me? I think I was thirty-eight or thirty-nine years old when that Irish __ told me to cop a walk. Just kidding. I was fifteen years old. So I bounced around the pool halls until I was old enough to join the army. I was a GFU (General Flake-Up), so I was constantly on KP. The mess sergeant went out of his way to show me different recipes to cook and bake. Not because he was such a nice and generous guy. Because he was a fat, lazy SOB who wanted me to learn so he could laze around on his fat ass all day.
After the army I got married and divorced and married and divorced and, in the early fifties, somehow found myself in Cleveland, Ohio. I needed a job, so I applied for work in one of the classiest restaurants in Cleveland. The chef who interviewed me laughed like hell when I told him my references and experiences. "Joey," the chef said, "if you promise me to forget everything you've learned about cooking I'll give you a job." Voilà! I was in. The kitchen. As a saucier.
I learned how to make soups and sauces, and I experimented cooking with brandies and different wines. After six months I figured I had the experience to cook anywhere, even the Big Apple, my hometown. So I stole another car and drove back to New York. (I couldn't very well drive the stolen car that had taken me to Ohio back to New York.) Back in New York: another marriage, another divorce. Oh-for-three.
Anyway, I worked in different diners and restaurants around New York, cooking food and making book. Through my bookmaking partners I got an application to join a very exclusive club: the Mothers And Fathers Italian Association -- MAFIA, for short. Normally you needed a college degree to be accepted, as there were some very intelligent guys in this club. Some could almost read and write. But they let me slide into their club because of my cooking. They said they would "learn" me the rules and regulations as time went on.
Now, mobsters love to eat. They eat while planning crimes and they eat after committing crimes, and when there are no crimes, they eat while waiting for them to happen. And mobsters are very picky. They know what they like, and when they like it they eat all of it. And then more. Look at the stomachs on these guys the next time television shows one of them being escorted into court in handcuffs. These are some very serious eaters.
Which is why some of these recipes call for such heavy sauces. Remember the crowd I was feeding -- any meal may be their last, so it better be a good one. Crime may not pay, but it sure gives you a hell of an appetite.
So don't be scared off by the butter and cream. Just serve the richer sauces on the side instead of dumping them on top of the food.
My cooking for my mentor, my rabbi, my compare, Tommy Agro, came in very handy, as "T.A." was constantly on the lam. Tommy A. and his crew were forever traveling to different apartments in different states to lay low, and we'd always leave in a rush and I wouldn't even get to pack up my pots and pans and knives. "Leave them, Joey" was T.A.'s familiar refrain. "We'll buy new ones." Despite these culinary hardships, lamming it was a good experience. I was perfecting my craft.
The members of my new club ate a lot of veal and an awful lot of pasta. But that didn't stop me from experimenting with dishes. I'd never tell the crew what I was cooking if it wasn't a recipe from the old country. They wouldn't have eaten it (and they might have shot me). But once they were licking their chops, I'd let them in on the fact that they were wolfing down Mandarin Pork Roast, or Steak au Poivre, and I never received a complaint.
I cooked for the club -- among other jobs -- for about ten years. Then I had a terrible accident. I kept walking into this baseball bat and this iron pipe. Some of my pals were trying to see if my head was harder than those two instruments. It was, just barely. But because of this experience I was enticed to join another club on a sort of double-secret probation. This club was called the Full-Blooded Italians, or FBI, for short. The guys in my new club asked me to spy on the guys in my old club who had tried to kill me. I had no problem with that. Revenge, like my Cicoria Insalata, is best eaten cold.
When it came to food, the members of my new club were no different from the members of my old club. They all ate like they were going to the chair. You don't have to eat that way with the recipes in this book. You just have to enjoy them. Because they've been tested on the worst of the worst and the best of the best. And they've all passed with flying colors.
Copyright © 1993, 2001 by Joseph Iannuzzi