Monday Nights With the Gambinos

A restaurant family gathers weekly to share memories, cook and eat.

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For 40 years, Celestino and Josephine Gambino, owners of the classic Italian ristorante La Parmigiana in Southampton, have closed up shop on Monday nights and gathered their seven children, Frank, Maria, Anna, Jovanna, Patty, Rudy and Rosemary, plus their extended family, at their home for dinner.

The gathering not only crosses generations but lives. Patriarch Celestino, who passed away several years ago, is a presence still felt. His portrait, complete with wool cap and pipe, hangs on a half-wall in the center of the family’s cantinetta, just above his chair at the head of the dining table.

The cantinetta, divided into a kitchen and living area, is warmed by terra-cotta flooring, a 22-seat tiled table and a sandstone pizza oven. French doors lead out to the patio and double grill.

As the family trickles into the home, they pay their respects to Nona, as Josephine is called. The grandchildren spread outside to shoot hoops or to sit on their grandmother’s large yellow floral couch in the adjacent television room.

“Dad had a calming way about him,” says Jovanna as her siblings and their children arrive for dinner. “He looked stern, but he was easy and laid-back.”

“Be afraid of that one in there,” her sister chimes in, nodding toward their mother with a giggle.

Gambino1Josephine may have been the stricter of the two parents, but she’s holding down the fort now. Wearing a white apron over black pants, a green sweater, pearls and delicate gold earrings, she smiles when she hears her children’s laughter, even though the joke is about her pouring a bowl of spaghetti over someone’s head when they were younger because they did not finish their dinner.

That problem does not exist anymore. When the 22 grandchildren were smaller, they sat at the dining room table and ate first. “The adults would eat after the kids. Now that the kids are growing, they eat a lot more food,” Jovanna laughs. “We just add more tables and everyone squeezes in together.” No one misses a chance to eat, and everyone cleans his or her plate.

Tonight, Josephine has made 20 of her famous, perfectly round, rice balls. The centers are filled with either cheese or meat, but first, the rice is boiled in chicken and beef broth for 25 minutes “until it’s nice and dry,” she says, “and then you let it cool.”

For the meat mixture, she sautés onions and chopped meat in olive oil with a little tomato sauce and peas. While the meat cools, she shapes her masterpieces by hand, hiding the mixture inside. Then, one by one, the baseball-size rice balls are dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried until golden brown. “That’s it,” she says, as if the easiest thing in the world.

Gambino2Squid boils on the stove for 10 minutes, until it, too, is nice and soft. Jovanna takes the large pot of steaming purple water, with lemons floating in it, and dumps it into a stainless-steel sink after the squid has been removed. Tender slices of tentacles are sliced and served both at room temperature as a salad and grilled by Rudy.

Spiedini, thin slices of beef rolled with modiga, a mixture of bread crumbs, mozzarella cheese, parsley, pignoli nuts, raisins and “a little tomato sauce,” are on the heat, with Rudy diligently turning each until the cheese oozes out.

Everything that goes on the grill is brushed with olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon. A platter of sausages skewered with big bay leaves and chunks of onions, and another platter of jumbo Portuguese prawns, are waiting in the grill’s wings.

Meanwhile, a massive pan of round anelli pasta with meat sauce and lots of mozzarella, bakes in the oven, while the family continues to share stories, many of them about Celestino.

Young Celestino is father to the newest Gambino baby, one of four great-grandchildren. “You could talk to him about anything,” he says of his namesake.

The police had another view of the Sicilian patriarch. They thought he was part of the infamous Gambino organized crime family and would trail him all over Southampton. When they finally figured out he made great Italian food and was not out whacking people, they became loyal customers at La Parmigiana. However, no matter how many times they warned him to wear a helmet while riding his Vespa through town, Celestino refused to abide by the rule, his children say, laughing at the memory. “Eventually the cops stopped asking.”

Gambino3Frank, the eldest at 55, was 14 when his parents immigrated to New York from Palermo, Sicily. He didn’t speak a word of English and still has a heavy Italian accent. Frank’s favorite topic is growing fig trees, and his talents are evident in his mother’s backyard. He’s become a bit of a fig tree guru.

When the subject turns to making lasagna, the women talk passionately, all at once. After “Lasagna is hard to make,” the conversation becomes hard to follow. Thankfully, the proverbial dinner bell saves the day. Like magic, the pasta, spiedini, squid, prawns, sausages, salad and rice balls appear on the kitchen counter.

The table is set with a bowl for pasta, a plate for everything else, a wine glass, a water glass, utensils and a small loaf of bread.

Gambino4Josephine sits at the head, and everyone else scrambles for a seat. “No matter how early you sit, you still have to wait for everyone else,” says Jovanna. After a little nudging, granddaughter Sabrina says grace.

There are rules, especially concerning the rice balls. A rice ball must be eaten in hand like an apple. No cutting is allowed. Sharing is prohibited. Every person must eat at least one, whether it is stolen from the tray before dinner, eaten with the meal or after the main course. Truth be told, it’s hard to stop at just one.

The family is celebrating grandson Anthony’s 14th birthday, and after dinner there’s a sheet cake with candles. As the family sings, Celestino’s canary chirps away in the background.

The good news for La Parmigiana fans is that the Gambino family have published The La Parmigiana Cookbook: A Story of Food and Family. Written with the help of longtime customer Phil Keith and photographed by Edible East End photo editor Lindsay Morris, the cookbook can be bought at La Parmigiana, along with your next slice of pizza.

Here’s to the recipes ending up in a happy stomach and not over someone’s head.

 

Kelly Ann Smith writes from Bonnac territory and loves a rice ball.

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