Growing up as a young child in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, I always envied the neighbors who lived next door to our 1950s ranch house. My parents had an unhappy marriage. My father always liked to say, "When I took the vows, it was for better or for worse," and he wore it like a badge of honor, remaining married to my mother despite their animosity toward each other.
When my parents had one of their long-winded shouting matches, I'd escape to the neighbors' house to find comfort and solace. My neighbors, unable to shut out the drama next door, were more than willing to offer me sanctuary. They were an Italian-Catholic family, complete with a picture of the Pope next to a picture of Jesus and wall-mounted receptacles of holy water which I always enjoyed sprinkling atop my head. Every Sunday after Mass their house was filled with all sorts of friends and family. It was there that I found warmth and security.
Last December I received an invitation to join the Venturini family for their annual Ravioli Day. "Everybody brings a dish to share and we all make ravioli together." This brought back a rush of happy childhood memories and I enthusiastically accepted. Getting to spend a Saturday afternoon hanging out with an extended Italian-American family making ravioli. How fun!
The event was hosted at the Rochester home of Jeremy Venturini. In a family tradition that goes back several generations, Jeremy represents the fourth generation. I walked in holding my bowl of curried cauliflower and onion hummus and surveyed the crowd. Holding court in the middle of Jeremy's kitchen was his father, John Venturini, surrounded by his siblings, his children, nieces and nephews. John was spreading flour atop a well-worn cutting board and rolling out balls of dough with his mother's special white marble rolling pin. The multi-generational assemblage of ravioli apprentices were eager to learn the craft and carry on the family tradition.
John's sister, Mary Venturini, explained to me that this tradition goes back many generations to her grandmother, Rose. "Back then they made ravioli on Christmas morning. Now we make them ahead and freeze them." Rose Venturini emigrated from Bologna to Pennsylvania where she ran a boarding house. It was there she met her future husband, Pietro (Pete), who had emigrated from Tuscany. He worked the Pennsylvania coal mines.
Rose passed the ravioli-making torch to Mary's father, Bruno Venturini. He was the ravioli patriarch until he got too old. He then passed the torch to his son, John. "John is a perfectionist like our Dad," Mary explains. "Dad always made sure the seams were tight and didn't leak."
I asked Mary how many ravioli they typically make on Ravioli Day. "We make 500." I raise my eyebrows and ask: "So do you set aside what you need for Christmas and send everyone home with the rest?" She laughs. "There might be some left over, but on Christmas we go through over 350 raviolis."
Surrounded by a multigenerational group of his family and friends, John stares down at his rolled out dough and strategically places his knife and begins to cut out perfectly uniform squares of dough. The grandchildren place balls of filling in the center of each square and the older children and adults fold over the dough square and pinch off the edges. Mary tells me, "Bruno always used to inspect everybody's raviolis and make sure the seams were sealed so they didn't leak." Many hands make light work. I look around the kitchen at the entourage encircling John. I spot people wearing t-shirts proclaiming: "Will Work for Ravioli."
In the next room every horizontal surface was covered with a smorgasbord of bowls and plates of food for sharing. Those who weren't making ravioli were chatting and nibbling on Christmas cookies.
For a moment, I am part of a big happy Italian family. Perhaps my fondest childhood memory.
Bernadine Venturini's Ravioli Filling
3 lbs. veal meat or white meat of chicken
2 lbs. of pork chop
1 lb. of spinach, cooked and chopped
½ clove nutmeg, grated
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ bunch fresh parsley, chopped finely
3 lbs. ricotta cheese
1 loaf dried Italian bread, grated
Cook meat, cool and grind.
Cook spinach, chop finely or grind.
Mix all ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Using your favorite noodle dough, roll out, cut in circles or squares and fill each individual ravioli with the filling.
Cook in boiling water until done, approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Any remaining filling that may be left may be frozen and used at a later time.