A global bedouin above all else must feel at ease wherever the night lures them. Famiglia di Schiavo for the last ten years say, “when we get home,” anytime we’re out and about referring to our temporary accommodations. Any blood ties on Jeanette’s side and mine are considered deleterious as far as we’re concerned. Jeanette’s situation is quite different than mine, most of hers are on this physical plane, however, those living on both sides remain spiritually corrupt. Milan wasn’t just another random choice; anywhere in Italy is more or less considered home.
Growing up in Queens during the early sixties when Louis Prima reigned supreme was practically being raised within Italy’s warm embrace. To avoid her young son from becoming in any way sissy, my mother, Jean only held my hand when crossing busy boulevards. Mom and I traveled on foot within the Ozone Park neighborhood we lived, a section of Queens not far from Howard Beach, John Gotti’s former stomping grounds.
The manner Jeanette, LouLou and I shop in Milan is rather like my first memory doing errands with Jean around Ozone Park. The local grocery store windows posted red or blue hand-painted newsprint displaying sale items, along with their prices — Italy uses these similar signs today; although fifty-five years ago in Ozone Park most grocery window advertisements used a cent symbol for beefsteak tomatoes and crenshaw melons. The corner grocer also stocked wooden crates packed with dried baccalà, nearby cucuzza spilled into broccoli rabe, half an aisle dedicated to every conceivable macaroni, as do markets throughout Italy these days and future decades. Jean dragged me into the neighborhood butcher shop; I hid behind her believing no good could come from raw meat. Back at home she’d bread the butcher’s thinly pounded veal cutlets, pan fry that batch to a golden brown, afterward squeezed lemon and sprinkled minced Italian parsley over them; upon eating, our afternoon macabre visit was totally forgotten. Those lost Ozone Park butcher shops are commonplace in Italy.
The miraculous instant Jean won an unconditional loving daughter with Jeanette, Jeanette’s gift was reaping a devoted Sicilian mother. Not only I sense home and feel close to Jean whenever in Italy, Jeanette also senses Mom nearby, while LouLou worships her nonna most everywhere we roam. The three of us will open a door at an Italian alimentari and immediately become woozy from aged provolone, alongside various prosciutto hanging from hooks. An antipasti feast in seconds flat: Parmigiano-Reggiano, artisanal olives, soppressata, mortadella, fire-roasted peppers, calamari insalata, and Italy’s rival to France’s baguette, a crusty sesame coated loaf of excellence. LouLou is Jean in so many respects; she’d too be satisfied solely by bread, cracked pepper and extra virgin olive oil.
For us, Easter morning wouldn’t be Easter morning without Italy’s classic cousin of Christmas panettone — Pane di Pasqua. The first recollection I have buying some was Good Friday in 1962. Back then Jean was a tried and true Roman Catholic, she demanded quiet from noon to three p.m. on Good Friday; 0ur chores were done in silence — except one interruption. Unlike my unsavoury language, Jean, never ever cursed; the closest she came occured during that walk to buy Easter morning’s special treat following church. At four years old, I was oblivious of my surroundings. Jean on the other hand seemed quite aware; my mother was raised on 110th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue in a mafia controlled strip of Cotton Club Harlem. Prior to our outing, I played with Mom’s rosary beads in church while she walked the stations of the cross; fidgeting no doubt, as she went into confession, later reciting whatever penance her priest ordered. Catholic graphic imagery instilled strong indication Good Friday was surely a gloomy day, one Christ suffered pure hell.
Leaving the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary that midday, the clouds drew a darkened set of curtains, swirling gusts appeared from nowhere rustling Queens’ established trees. Several blocks later Jean clutched my hand, yanking an arm barely developed, murmuring, “son of a beehive,” while jaywalking across the one-way street. Curious today, curious then; I turned my head back toward the direction Jean desperately tried to avoid, observing the tallest black man I’d ever seen standing between two chrome bumpered parked cars shaking his Johnson, flipping it back in his zipper after taking a piss. Jean was furious; I thought this mission we set about to the local bakery would be aborted. As mentioned, noon to three on Good Friday was sacred; I wasn’t gonna pipe up asking stupid questions. Jean kept up an angry pace, her firm grip swallowed my hand.
Focused she was — there in the Ozone Park bakery window, my eyes widened seeing a collection of Easter bread rings. My interpretation this year has nothing whatsoever to do with the Easter Bunny associated references of a four year old. I don’t know why, but especially this year, the braided ring symbolizes a crown of thorns; its dyed pastel eggs invoke new life beyond agony, even barbaric murder. Needless to note, Milan has no shortage of panifici nor authentic Pane di Pasqua or regionally specific Colomba di Pasqua, virtually impossible to locate in America these days. Nearly every San Franciscan of Italian descent living in North Beach made an exit for the burbs ages ago (currently inhabited by Chinese immigrants) as well as New York’s Little Italy, leaving a person hard-pressed to find an Easter bread ring. Not simply because Milan permanently exhibits The Last Supper, I’m convinced and stoked this global bedouin trio landed on a mighty fine patch of earth to honour Easter 2017.