Every recipe in my family cookbook, Cooking With My Sisters, has a name, and not just the one to describe the food, but a name designated to the creator, the cook, or the person in the kitchen who took the age old instructions handed down on bits of paper and at long last, perfected the dish.
In my novel Tony’s Wife, The Donatelli family eats fresh food in their beach town, Sea Isle City, New Jersey. They eat vegetables they grow, pasta they make by hand and fish they catch. When Chi Chi Donatelli and her sisters were growing up, they cooked together and shared family meals at one table. You might find this sort of thing old fashioned or quaint, but where I come from, it’s essential. If you do a lot of cooking, you collect recipes. It helps to name them. You remember where you were, who you were with, and hopefully, how the cook made the dish.
When Chi Chi and her ex-husband Tony meet in Italy in the Veneto, I imagined their meals, as I do everything about the characters. I imagine the weather, what they’re wearing, how their shoes feel on their feet, and how the meal they will eat together in a particular scene came together. I figure out where the ingredients came from, imagining the kitchen, oven and pans, the spices, and the scent of the food as it’s cooking.
Mafalda is my mother’s first cousin, a lovely northern Italian woman, with a perfect complexion, sparkling eyes and a hearty laugh. When she cooks, she brings all of herself to the process, because every cook, like every writer is, at heart, a perfectionist. This recipe is basic, and never fails, which I imagined Chi Chi making for her children and husband—a foolproof dish in a household where everything but the cooking was unpredictable.
In true northern Italian style, it is adaptable: you can replace the veal with chicken or fish. Follow Mafalda’s instructions regardless and you won’t go wrong. It’s one of the most popular entrees we share in Cooking With My Sisters, co-written with Mary Trigiani and my sisters and mother, Ida. Don’t forget the lemon wedges. Details matter!