A few days ago I spent an evening with my Nonna. It’s rare that we find ourselves sharing some time and space together without any other family members in the mix, but on this particular night, circumstances lined up in such a way that it was just her and I. Nonna and nipote.
We put together a simple dinner – pasta with Swiss chard and ricotta – teasing each other about the “right” way to make it, a sort of a ping-ponging of questions and answers wherein I attempt (quite unsuccessfully) to enforce my points in broken dialect. We discuss the merits of handmade ricotta versus store-bought; she chops some chard and I watch over the garlic frying on the stove. Side-by-side in her kitchen, we reminisce about little details, many about my grandfather – how he liked his pasta cooked into oblivion; how he used to always help himself to seconds; how much he loved having people over for dinner, with a carafe of his homemade wine stationed on the table. His wine was practically undrinkable and we always complained that the pasta was overcooked – but we were happy.
Nonno didn’t talk much during meals, often telling us we talked too much, but he still found moments to inject a zinger or two into the conversation – usually something he knew would get a rise out of my grandmother, who would respond with a small, but swift whack to the back of his head. Without fail, he would peel into laughter and Nonna would shake her head, playfully lamenting: “Oh Lord, give me patience.”
The way they interacted was, to me, completely unique. It was integral to who they were as a couple and as partners, and inseparable from my memory of them as grandma and grandpa. We often think that romance is the first thing to disappear in a marriage, especially one that is decades old. But even in their late age, I would sometimes find him bringing her coffee in bed or holding her hand. They were simple gestures, but ones that were nonetheless tangible reminders of their love for one another; small expressions that slipped inconspicuously into their day-to-day, even in their last ones together.
The soul of that relationship lives on every time I talk to my grandmother about Nonno. She speaks about him with such tenderness. My mom once joked that he was her Italian Clark Gable. He no doubt drove her crazy in moments too – but when you strip it all down, what remains is the affirmation of a true partnership, one rooted in whole-hearted devotion and capable of withstanding the worst of life’s adversities.
As I sit with Nonna at the dinner table, I recognize the love she had for him. I also recognize the love I have for her and how spending this time by her side fills my heart with a warmth that is pure and unspoken and unparalleled.
Happy Valentine’s, Nonna. Ti amo. x
Pasta with Swiss Chard and Ricotta – serves 2
- 1/2 bunch Swiss chard
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
- about 1/4 tsp dried pepperoncini flakes
- olive oil
- 1/3 lb dry fettucine (or linguini)
- about 1 cup fresh ricotta
Put a large pot of water on to boil.
Wash chard and dry well (a salad-spinner works best). Remove large ribs (the white part at the base of each leaf) and chop the leaves. Set aside.
Once the pot of water has reached the boil, add a handful of sea salt. When the water has reached a rolling boil, add the pasta. Cook uncovered until al dente, being careful to stir every so often.
Put about about 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a large pan set on the stove on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the onion and fry until transluscent. Add the garlic and pepperoncini flakes and fry for about 1 minute, until the garlic is fragrant and lightly golden (but not browned). Then add the chopped chard and sauté for 3-4 minutes*.
(*you can add a bit of the pasta water to help steam the chard.)
Drain the pasta and add to the pan with the chard. Move the pasta around the pan (tongs work best) to coat with the chard mixture.
Serve in pasta bowls with a generous dollop of fresh ricotta and a drizzle of your best olive oil (and a few flecks of Maldon salt – but don’t tell Nonna).
Note: a nice alternative is to lightly broil the ricotta on the pasta before serving (see image below). Set the oven on broil at 500°F. Once you’ve mixed the pasta and chard, spoon it into a baking dish and add a layer of ricotta on top. Broil on center rack for about 2-3 minutes or until cheese is golden.