My Nonna Titta raised me like a mother; like all grandmothers do in Italy–even before it was customary for working moms to leave home to bring income to the household.
Yet Giuditta–Titta for her friends and immediate family–was not your average granny. She told fairy tales, baked cakes and occasionally knitted; but in her youth she had been a talented, successful and beautiful theater actress. And with a childhood worthy of a novel.
Born into a theater family, she began touring around the world with the Ermete Zacconi theater company along with her parents and brothers from when she was old enough to stand (as a small child she was forced to play only boys' roles, a female child in theater was not happy news). The kids (four boys and one girl, Titta) were the younger thespians acting opposite turn of the century celebrities, while my great-grandfather was the "trovarobe," in charge of painting backdrops, collecting furniture, set dressing, props, etc. Nowadays this role is called Production Designer. His wife, my bisnonna Luigia, was a seamstress. She designed all the costumes for each production, and was in charge of cutting, stitching and fitting all.
This wild assortment of talent traveled away from Italy each summer, headed to South America, where the company performed mostly for immigrant patrons in theaters all over Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Italians didn't only land in Ellis Island…
My nonna Titta didn't speak a word of English, but thanks to these annual 6-month tours, she was fluent in Spanish and grasped the rudiments of Portuguese.
Once the season ended abroad, the company would pack the staging equipment and navigate the Atlantic on steamships back to Europe, just in time for winter in the northern hemisphere. Titta loved the summer, because for so many years of touring, she said, summer was not an option.
Later, as she grew into a teen and then into a young woman, her talent and sophisticated flair put her in the limelight. She soon became leading lady in many popular 1920s stage productions, and her repertoire spanned from the Greek classics, Shakespearean drama, to humorous, intelligent and ironic contemporary pieces. In 1930 she met my grandfather, whom she formed a company with, and eventually married seven years later. My mom was born the following year, and this gave Titta the chance to finally retire from the theater scene at age 42.
|Nonna and Nonno in Venice|
Despite her separation from my grandfather (divorce didn't exist in Italy at the time), the hardships of WWII Italy, and being a single mother in the 1950s, Nonna managed to keep it together, and star in 25 films between 1933 and 1966. One of the last roles she played was in 1962, as Marcello Matroianni's mother in the Fellini masterpiece 8 1/2.
As I said, like many nonnas, mine was a key figure during my childhood, she was there for me while my mom was working full time, adjusting to divorced life, and mourning my grandfather's premature death. Nonna Titta was great company, a playful, unconventional, tender and witty companion. She and I produced wonderful role games, during which I'd introduce her to my latest child (I owned many dolls at the time) and we'd chat and gossip like ladies over teacups of sugared tap water. Nonna spoiled me like only grandparents can (and are allowed to). And she taught me to appreciate good food through her virtuoso cooking skills.
|Me and Nonna, 1970|
My son didn't get a chance to meet his great-grandparents, one of my biggest regrets. It's important that he learn about his extended family, here in Italy and the one abroad. I can start by introducing him to his great-grandmother Titta, by telling him her wonderful stories, showing him photographs and paintings, reproduce her recipes and replicate those everyday gestures of love I grew with.
We don't celebrate Halloween in Italy. The related observance we do honor is on the other hand i Morti: an Italian two-day festivity bridging November 1st (All Soul's Day) and November 2nd (Day of the Dead). This is not a morbid or mournful holiday, rather a celebration of life. Ossa dei Morti, or "Bones of the Dead," are among the numerous traditional (and almost always almond-laced) Italian cookies commonly enjoyed on this occasion. There are many different regional recipes for Ossa dei Morti, these particular hard and crunchy meringue ones are from Piemonte, where nonna Titta was originally from.
She was very superstitious, so I hope she won’t mind if I associate her to this rather disturbing, sepulchral recipe name. If you hear thunder tomorrow, it’s probably her, complaining from heaven.
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) flour
100 gr (1/2 cup) hazelnuts (ideally from the Langhe region, in Piemonte),shelled and left whole
100 gr (1/2 cup) almonds, coarsely ground (I put them in a freezer bag and pound the heck out of them)
400 gr (2 cups) brown sugar
2 egg whites, beaten
Juice from 1/2 lemon
A pinch of ground cloves
A pinch of cinnamon
Butter and flour to grease and dredge the cookie sheet
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice. Work in the nuts and spices, and continue kneading until you have a fairly firm dough. Roll the ball of dough out with your hands forming it into a rope. Cut the rope into 2-inch sections.
Preheat oven to 180° C (360° F).
Butter your cookie sheet, dust with flour, and lay the 'bones' on it distanced form one another, and bake for about 20 minutes. Let the cookies cool to jaw-breaking hardness before serving with a glass of Moscato or Vin Santo. Amen.
|Image © Savoring Time in the Kitchen|