The Barbaresi family in 1925. Clockwise from left: Dora, George, Jean, Eva, Anne, Lydia, Edith, Septimina, and Dava Barbaresi. According to Dora (my grandmother), she is pouting because she didn’t get to sit in a chair like her younger sisters. Septimina died of pneumonia within months of this photograph. Gerry, the only surviving son, was born two years later.
In Italy, there is a saying: “Better a corpse in the house than a Marchigiano at the door.”
They couldn’t be more right. Marchigianos are my people. Northern Italians who hail from the often-overlooked Marches region of Italy, just across the tracks (in this case, mountains), from Tuscany. I say northern Italian, but really it’s about five paces north of the Italian equator, if there were such a thing, but somehow this makes a big difference to my grandmother.
Anyway, the reputation Marchigianos had, as I understand it, was due to the fact that they comprised the vast majority of tax collectors at one time in the Old Country. If the taxes weren’t paid, then there would be hell to pay instead. And I can believe it.
But my relatives weren’t tax collectors; they were farmers in the little town of Castelvecchio. And they cooked in the true peasant style. Suffice it to say that there wouldn’t be a corpse in the house if there were a Marchigiano in the kitchen.
George Barbaresi and Lydia Belbusti, in the photo above, were both born in the Marches and immigrated to the U.S. independently of each other by way of New Haven, Connecticut. In some pre-Internet, trans-Atlantic feat of communication that only Italians could pull off, they were set up on a blind date/arranged marriage in this country by their families back in Italy, or so it goes. When they met for the first time, George reportedly offered Lydia the following proposal: “Will you have my babies?”
It appears that she agreed. They were married in 1910, and raised seven children (two others died very young). They lived in a rented flat in New Haven during the Depression. The daughters went to school until about age 14, when they were old enough to work in the dress factories to help support the family. Their everyday dresses were made from flour sacks. Only the youngest child, a son, was able to go to college.
Most of the recipes I have came from the little girl on the left, Dora (my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonni), who learned the dishes from her mother, who learned them from her mother. I’m not sure of the extent to which these recipes have diverged over time from the original Marches recipes, but they have not changed much over the lifetimes of my relatives who grew up on them.
They would never let that happen!
These peppery little biscuits are an acquired taste to many. But once you’re bit, they’re addictive. We keep bags in the freezer (courtesy of Nonni) and wash them down with non-Italian beer.
3½ cups flour
3 Tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1½ Tbsp. black pepper, coarsely ground
1 cup water
¾ cup oil
Preheat oven to 300 F. Grease a large sheet pan.
In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Make a well and add water and oil. Mix well (the dough will be soft and oily). Form dough into several thin logs (about the diameter of a nickel) by rolling against the countertop. Slice into pieces about 1/4-inch thick and set on pan. Press thumb into the center of each coin to form a large indentation. Bake for 25-30 minutes, flipping once halfway through before bottoms start to color. Cool.
Dora [Barbaresi] Donroe
New Haven, Connecticut