Passage to Italy

Reclaiming heirloom recipes — and family history — is easier said than done

By Anne Mendelson
Saveur, March 2008

Long ago, in the crumbling old burgs of northern New Jersey, thousands of immigrants from now admired Italian vacations spots once sweated, planned, saved, wept, and fought their way from the bread of hunger to bowls of plenty. Today their descendants are among the vacationers. Some of them have even written culinary memoirs about the relationship between their ancestral lands and their suburban American homes, with food as a bridge between those two worlds.

Laura Schenone comes to the territory by a different route. Fresh from her ambitious, award-winning traversal of American women's history through cooking, A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove (Norton, 2003), she cast about for "an authentic old family recipe" on which to peg a more personal kind of culinary inquiry. The result, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, is a solidly researched, lovingly written memoir — and a splendid detective story.

After combing through the various threads of her Irish-German-Croatian-Italian heritage, Schenone believes she's found "the piece of happy family history [she]= was looking for" in the storied ravioli that a great grandmother brought to Hoboken from Recco, a town near Genoa, in Liguria. She sets out for Italy in search of the recipe, which she hopes will connect her "to a landscape more beautiful than postindustrial New Jersey . . . a landscape somehow more real". But the romantically envisioned familial and culinary legacy she hoped to uncover-the ravioli-making skills, the Ligurian cooking traditions from which the dish came, the details of her great-grandparents' love story and post -immigration saga-proves harder to reclaim than she thought. Authenticiy and soul-searching intertwine uncomfortably when, confronted with the from-scratch Italian ravioli, she ponders her great grandmother's baffling Americanization of that revered family food) she used cream cheese for the filling, among other adulterations). Finally, while pressing an expert for information in Genoa, she comes to understand that the real gist of her quest is "I'm not satisfied with the history I have, and I want to rewrite it."

Illumination comes, but patchily. When she returns to Italy with her husband and young children, Schenone glimpses how fellow Italian-Americans seek to claim a mythicized Italy. Back home in New Jersey, her relatives eagerly support her quest for authentic ravioli and supply valuable pieces of the puzzle; one even lends Schenone the long maple-dowel that her great-grandmother used for rolling out the dough. But, in reality, her increasingly ambitious ravioli-making marathons sometimes half wreck the mood at family gatherings, and even her dad, when presented with the original version, prefers the cream cheese kind.

This wonderfully intricate, rumpled, generous narrative would be a joy even without the final lagniappe of about two dozen hard-won recipes (from both Italy and New Jersey) written not in standard "recipese" but in the thoughtful, instructive language of someone who's aware that recipes-"somewhat like family life"-can let you down. The recipes I did try — for a lovely walnut sauce, an equally good pesto, a fresh cheese called prescinseua, a fine minestrone, and a savory spinach torta — harmonized precisely with the keynotes of Schenone's search.