November is a difficult month for my family. My lovely mother-in-law died four years ago, my father twelve and it started back in 1991 when my darling mother, Irma Sconzo, passed away on Thanksgiving morning at the age of 74 one month shy of her 75th birthday. She was a sweet, sweet person, who affected the lives of all who knew her.
Never formally educated outside of H.S., she developed a strong practical knowledge, nowhere more apparent than in the kitchen. While I may have got my passion for food and dining from my father, I got my interest in cooking from my mother. To say that she was "the best " cook would be inviting arguments and fights from all those who feel that nobody is or was a better cook than their own mother. Since most of the people who are likely to read this tribute are my own siblings, I'm not too concerned about that argument though and can safely say that she was "the best." I know that they, at least, will agree.
Speaking of my siblings, we all seem to have specialized in specific dishes that my mother would make, although we all do most of them to some degree or another. My brother, Larry, is the master of her "meat in the gravy" with braciole, sausage and pork in a long, low simmered tomato sauce as well as her stuffed artichokes; Elizabeth is an expert in clams and mushrooms "oreganata"; Brother Greg is known for his shrimp cocktail sauce, though that was my father's concoction; Paul makes dynamite chicken and veal cutlets as well as "potatoes and eggs", otherwise known in some circles as Tortilla Española and my wife learned her way of making lasagne as well as fusilli with chopped meat sauce. I'm not sure of my eldest brother, Frank's use of our mother's dishes as he has lived far away since I was very young.The dish of my mother's that I do best is her linguine with white clam sauce. I open a couple dozen little neck clams, taking care to retain their juice, fry garlic and parsley in olive oil and add the clams, the juice and black pepper. It couldn't be simpler to cook, so long as the care is taken opening the clams. Variations include adding white wine and/or red pepper flakes. The recipe above specifically does not include exact measurements as my mother never used them nor do I for this dish.
As much as I love all the dishes above as well as others she made including pasta with a red tuna sauce using fresh tuna (bluefin when it was plentiful and relatively inexpensive), my all-time favorite dish, bar none, and the one I would always ask for on my birthday, is her "Perciatelli (or Bucatini) with Crab Sauce." This is one mess of a dish. Eastern blue crabs, purchased live, are split between the top and bottom halves of their shells and stuffed with an herbed bread crumb and grated pecorino cheese mixture, then tied back together before simmering for hours in a tomato sauce. The pasta with the sauce is so rich and sinfully delicious. It is my favorite flavor ever and is as good if not better the next day as it is served fresh. The pasta is followed by the crabs and this is where it gets messy. There is nothing to do but dig into the crabs with one's hands and a claw cracker and pick. By the time one is finished picking through all that sweet crab meat, the hands and face are wonderfully smeared with the crab sauce. The crabs are a lot of work for a small amount of meat, but the satisfaction is incredible. The only time I have ever had that particular flavor in a different dish was with a crab dish at el Bulli, the technoemotional restaurant in Catalunya, Spain. That taste memory alone would have been enough to make that a great meal for me. I have made my mother's dish myself with varying degrees of success, in some instances approaching that of my mother, but never quite reaching it. I doubt I ever will.