It’s the eggs that make the difference, says Nino Germano, chef and owner of La Scala on Eastern Avenue in Little Italy. The eggs of his childhood were laid more than 50 years ago in the old country, uova harvested in the Sicilian backyard of Nenna Fazio, his grandmother.
“The eggs over there are very different,” he said. “We were organic by being poor – chickens, goats, wheat fields, olive groves, grapes. Everything tastes better over there.”
As the eggs are better – naturally – from the coops in Debra C. Rahl’s backyard in Union Square than supermarket eggs.
“Store eggs can be up to six weeks old by the time you buy them,” said Rahl, echoing Nino’s Old World memories. “I don’t refrigerate my eggs, I keep them in a basket on the counter. My chickens get a lot of table scraps and garden weeds. The yolks can be brighter, a little orangey-yellow depending on what they eat, like marigolds.”
Nino and I were discussing eggs because we were talking about zabaglione – Italian for eggnog; a creamy confection that is pronounced (with slight variations depending on which paisan or paisana you’re talking to) zah-bee-ohne.
Once upon a time, it was a morning tonic, something to make a kid strong, a treat much tastier than cod liver oil. “My mother would make it for me once or twice a week when I was five or six years old,” said Nino. “It was my meal after a nap.”
Now it’s most often found on restaurant dessert menus. Whether in Italia, the American kitchen of a traditional nonna or La Scala, it starts with yolks (usually three) separated from the whites. Then a few tablespoons of granulated sugar and a quarter of a cup of marsala wine, nutty and rich.
The wine, said the Bronx doo-wop king Dion DiMucci in a recent conversation, “gets rid of any impurities.”
I was interviewing the 83-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer (Runaround Sue; Abraham, Martin & John; The Wanderer) about his return to Catholicism and late-career embrace of Mississippi Delta blues. But you can’t talk to an Italian very long without the subject turning to food. It was from Dion – and not my Italian grandmother, who did not make it – that I learned about zabaglione.
He said his grandfather would come by his parents’ apartment at 183rd street and Washington Avenue near Fordham University every morning and start whipping the eggs. The sound of a fork banging the sides of a tin bowl was the adolescent boy’s cue to get out of bed and get ready for school.
“He’d beat it for 20 minutes,” said Dion. “It seemed like he did this for years. I would go to school buzzed, man.”
[Dion’s decades long buzz from much harder stuff ended more than a half-century ago, one of the reasons he’s still making vibrant music when so many of his fellow Hall of Fame rockers are long gone.]
Sabrina DiPasquale, who with her husband Joe owns the 108-year-old East Baltimore grocery bearing the family name, also had the dish – “silky, velvety, creamy,” she said – before school.
She pronounced it zahm-bee-ohne and it was a morning ritual on Claremont Street in Highlandtown courtesy of her mother Gina “Gizzi” Parravano, born in Frosinone, Italy.
“We had it every morning, it was our breakfast, not cereal like other kids. It kept us full until noon,” said Sabrina, whipping up a batch of the confection at the new DiPasquale on Toone Street in Canton where folks, usually Italian, occasionally ask for it .
“To me it’s a kitchen thing, not something you’d have outside of the house,” said Sabrina. Outside the house, however, is where the delicacy endures, topped with fresh fruit – sometimes ripe figs – and poured over sponge cake as a fancy dessert.
After the simple ingredients are churned into a thin batter, it is warmed over a pot of boiling water to congeal ever so slightly.
“My mother gave it to us in demitasse cups, drink it up and out the door,” said Sabrina. “After the 7th grade we told mom we didn’t want to go to school anymore with egg on our breath.”
Embarrassing? How would you like to have a chicken coop in the dining room?
After the Second World War, when Eleanor Cucco Stein was a teenager, her father Vincent (an accomplished clarinetist) bought a double-wide rowhouse in Little Italy, not far from the bell tower of St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church. Now 88 and widowed, Stein points to the middle room, remembers the noise and the stink and says, “My sisters and I cried when we saw it. We didn’t want to come here.”
All the way from the 200 block of South Exeter Street around the corner.
Their mother – Antoinette Maneta Cucco (who died in 1976, five years after Vincent, known for her rum sponge cake on New Year’s Eve), scolded the girls as ingrates. The house was renovated, and the front room was Vincent’s tailor shop.
“We never had to buy a winter coat, he made them for us and we passed them down,” smiled Stein, known around the neighborhood as “Aunt El.”
She is still there some seven decades later, a Catholic statue – particularly the Infant of Prague and the Blessed Mother – in every room. We sat in the kitchen just beyond the old coop, discussing the confection she pronounces zah-ben-yone.
“I used to make it but I don’t have the recipe,” says Stein. “I made it with ladyfingers for tiramisu when my granddaughter got married. I haven’t made it since my husband Harry died” in 2012.
Stein said one of her relatives “absconded” with her cookbooks a while back. But what true Italian cook (and Aunt El is one of the best) ever needed a recipe? It’s all in the hands. And the eggs.
Rafael Alvarez is the author of Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery released this month by Cornell University Press. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org