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Italian Impromptu: Not Bad for an Actor (and Son)

"Don't Fill up on the Antipasto" by Tony and Marc Danza on Amazon.comDon’t Fill Up On the Antipasto by Tony and Marc Danza (Scribners, 2008)

I wasn’t expecting very much from a celebrity cookbook–mostly schmooze, a few loosely slapped-together recipes. I wasn’t actually wrong, but aside from a little kitsch here and there, and a dopey, gushy foreword from Jackie Collins, Don’t Fill Up On the Antipasto is a better-written, more down-to-earth read than you might think. Instead of a prolonged bout of “Remember me? I used to play —- on Taxi!” drivel (though there is a little; practically obligatory in a celeb cookbook), it’s mostly a Brooklyn childhood memoir with old-style Italian recipes–a throwback to the 1950s and 1960s, but a version that didn’t make it on-air in all those 1970s sitcoms.

Although the book is co-written with his son, with a few asides to Marc for his “modern” Southern California-style recipes and confirmation of one or another family anecdote (and repeat photos and mentions of the all-important toddler grandson), most of the stories and recipes are Tony’s.

Danza’s stories of his childhood in Brooklyn are the real draw for this book. He grew up in the postwar generation, at a time when children were given a lot less privilege and a lot less stuff, spanked a lot more often (and not just by their parents–any family member had authorization), and expected to be much more self-reliant at younger ages than they are today. The uncles and aunts and grandparents all lived close enough to see each other every week, and their personalities (and recipes, and foibles, and jokes, and tempers) feature prominently in the book. The result is a look back into a simpler, more direct, and often warmer way of family life than the one most of us recognize today, even if we’re old enough to remember it.

Danza was not born into a down-and-out family, certainly not for the times right after World War II. His parents were working-class, first-generation American, and when his father came home from the war with a Bronze Star, he went to work as a city garbageman. Unlike today, it was a respected job that could support a family. Instead of jeering, the neighborhood kids envied Danza for getting to ride down the street in his father’s truck. The family sent him to a Catholic parochial school and expected him to work hard at his studies, stay out of fights and gangs, and go into a profession.

It was the typical pattern for immigrant families almost anywhere in New York at that time and very close to my parents’ childhoods. Right down to the Army photo of Danza’s father, which suddenly appeared in the middle of the book and startled the hell out of me. Except for the face and the specifics of his uniform, Matty Iadanza’s official Army portrait with its distinctive soft-focused background and stylized pose (softened angled gaze, light hint of a smile, hair styled much more elegantly than in daily life), looks so much like my grandfather’s portrait in the same series that it suddenly hit me just how hard the Army photographers were working to try and make each man look like the movie stars of that era.

Because a garbageman’s day started early in the morning, Danza’s father was the daily cook in the family, while Danza’s mother worked late hours as a bookkeeper. So a lot of Danza’s reminiscences reverse the standard gender stereotypes and honor his father’s efforts, ability and economy in the kitchen.

The recipes are pretty simple for the most part and generally affordable–certainly the ones for salads and pastas with variations on marinara (which they call “The Date Sauce” for its simplicity, rapidity and power to impress). There are very few luxury ingredients and even fewer luxury housewares involved.

The salads are simple, really simple, and very much the style you get anywhere in Italy today–oil and vinegar, maybe salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Do you need a recipe for them? I’m not entirely sure, but they make a lot more sense than the 20-exotic-bank-breaking-ingredient fantasias you get every month in the foodie magazines, and they probably taste a lot fresher.

The pastas are really basic as well, with the exception of lasagna (I mean, excuse me, “THE Lasagna”). What’s important in the recipes is that Danza spells out how to check the degree of doneness. If you cook pasta on a regular basis at home, you probably already know how to do this to your taste, but he’s assuming nothing and taking no chances–and maybe he’s not so wrong. It’s amazing how many well-educated people these days simply don’t cook for themselves anymore if it doesn’t involve popping a cold box in a microwave and hitting the “Lean Cuisine” or “Atkins” button.

The recipes tend to repeat basic instructions for the sauces. At one point father and son write “Fry the garlic in the olive oil until it starts to turn golden, then scoop it out to a bowl and add X ingredient to the pan. And yes, we realize almost all of our recipes start this way.”

It’s entirely possible that they could have simply posted a master recipe for pasta sauce and then listed the variations underneath as variations with a given added ingredient, instead of fluffing each one out into its own recipe. But on the other hand, it’s not such a bad thing to point out this kind of specific and repeatable technique. For one thing, it means that if you happen to be one of the vegetarians the Danzas make fun of (lightly), you could throw something besides the given feature ingredient (e.g., mushrooms instead of mussels or clams) at the basic sauce and it still might have a chance of tasting pretty good.

You can carp a bit about some of the ingredient choices for other dishes–canned chicken broth, for example, tends to be loaded with salt and not all that fresh-tasting. The store-bought-roast-chicken soup goes a step further along the convenience cooking route, but paradoxically, it’s probably a better soup, closer to real, than the ones with canned or boxed broth. And at least the vegetables are fresh.

The only really fussy recipes in the book involve meatballs. Which for reasons of kashrut I can’t test for myself (ok, the clam sauce is out too, but at least I remember it fairly well from my non-kosher youth). The meatball recipe is like a well-made meatloaf formed into balls and fried–given the 1950s nature of things, it includes both bread and milk kneaded in for stretchers. Still–straightforward enough, as long as you cook the meatballs right. I’m not certain how easy this is from the instructions, which are very simply written, but since exactitude makes a difference here the description might not be explicit enough once the meat is actually in the frying pan.

The Danzas’ “THE Lasagna” recipe is the only one that really reminds me of my grandmother’s style of excessive fuss for the result (no matter how much Jackie Collins raves about it in the intro). You have to make meatballs and then break them up for the meat layer. Is it worth it? Maybe–possibly–I’d have to take it on faith, because I doubt either Quorn or TVP (neither of which I actually eat) would give a satisfactory result in a vegetarian version. To say nothing of tofu…And I’m not that willing to test the assumption. Even to eat old-fashioned neighborhood Italian food.

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