Thursday, March 31, 2011

Growing up "Italian"

NOTE: Thursday "topics" are really just reruns of pieces that have already been published - the majority in the Connecticut Post when I was writing their "Get Out" column. This is one of them. It ran like five years ago, so don't try going to the places named without calling first to make sure they're still open!

“Mike Wood” is not exactly a name that screams Italian (even with all the vowels) but if you could have seen my great-grandmother, there’d be no doubt as to my heritage. We called her “Little Grandma,” as she stood no more than four feet tall. We’d visit her every year out in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and never once did I see her in anything but her black mourning dress, which she started wearing after her son Dominic was killed in World War II.

We loved visiting her - even if we couldn’t understand a word she said through her thick accent– because she managed to convey her joy, and earn our love, through her animated gestures and twinkling eyes. Our other “older” relatives had to ply us with presents and candy to get our attention/affection, but all Little Grandma had to do was clap her brittle, but soft, hands and we’d go running to her side, where she’d sing and tell us stories. And as old (and short) as she was, she would stand for hours over the stove stirring the Sunday sauce (oops, I mean gravy) and making pastas with names I still can’t pronounce.

Away from Scranton, things were decidedly less Italian. True, my mom did play her Mario Lanza records, and there was a lavabo in our living room (but thankfully no plastic covers on the couch) but her pasta always came out of a box, and sometimes the sauce was from a jar…and at home we always called it sauce. Even my “straight off the boat” grandfather seemed a little less Italian. Back in Scranton, he was Lorenzo Falduto from Calabria…here he was Grandpa Jimmy from Bridgeport.  I was in my twenties before I learned that my Uncle Jake’s real name was Ovideo and that Uncle Carm was short for Carmen. It’s not that we weren’t proud of our Italian heritage, it’s just that we were also made up of equal parts Irish and English. Or, more simply put, we were Americans, and our home reflected our varied backgrounds.

But my Italian relatives would have felt right at home at il Angolo (The Corner), the latest addition to Bridgeport’s Little Italy section. From the white stuccoed arches to the gold felted chairs, to the generous portions of pasta, an evening at il Angolo is like a trip back in time to Little Grandma’s house.

My wife and I went for dinner last Saturday night and found the dining room full and lively with conversation.  The staff, from the owner on down, was very friendly and eager to please, and never once appeared rushed or “too busy” to chat or discuss the specials, even with a full house.  We opted for the specials, but the menu had many tempting choices, with a wide variety of veal, chicken, beef, seafood, and of course, pasta.  I rarely order pasta in Italian restaurants because I can never pronounce them properly – to me, cavitelli looks like it should rhyme with “belly.” And while I have learned to ignore the “g’s” in gnocchi and lasagna, I will never get the hang of adding them to manicotti or ricotta- and we won’t even talk about my pasta fagiola incident.

But when it comes to dessert, my inhibitions go out the window – I don’t know (or care) how it’s pronounced, I’m ordering the tartufo; basically a giant chocolate covered cherry, only filled with ice cream and served surrounded by whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Our original plan, which was a good one, was to stop by nearby Micalizzi’s afterward for an Italian ice…until we saw tartufo on the menu.

Also on the menu was an unexpectedly lengthy line-up of top name entertainment that il Angolo has to offer. Tonight, for example, comedian Pat Cooper will harangue the audience with his trademark “comedic anger” honed over his forty years of performing with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Tom Jones. Pat recently starred in the Analyze This…and That movies with Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro and is a popular guest on many talk shows, including David Letterman and Howard Stern. His “I’m not yelling, I’m Italian” shtick should play to this crowd.

Other upcoming shows of note are the world famous doo-wop group, the Del Vikings who will bring their many hits, including Come Go with Me and Whispering Bells, to the restaurant on June 23 and The Bernadettes on the 30th. The Del Viking were a little before my time, but I have seen the Bernadettes perform, and I think il Angolo should be a great setting for lead singer Elden Lowery’s crowd engaging antics.  Show times and admissions vary, so contact the restaurant for information.

il Angolo is located in what used to be Testo’s, a very popular restaurant for many years, so they have some big shoes to fill, but if our experience was any indication, they are well on their way to meeting the challenge.  As for my Little Grandma, she’s gone, and no one will ever replace her.  Her shoes were not so big, but they left some really large footprints.


  1. Wood, I had no idea you're Italian. Molto bene!

  2. i had to stop reading when it got to the restaurant review as now i'm craving breakfast ricotta.

  3. I'm Italian too LOL! My grandma came to America from Southern Italy. :) Sooo fun! I've always been so proud of that.

  4. Mike, I'm gonna follow your blog. Still new to the blogosphere. I remember your funny post on ABNA where you looked at Jeff Fielder's profile pic and said he was a slightly better looking version of yourself. That was funny and modest.