What kind of Italian are you?” Grandma would ask, looking down at me from her stovetop, where she could usually be found in her apron and scuffs stirring a vat of tomato sauce or, as she called it, gravy.
What kind of Italian was I? A ten-year-old, fourth-generation Italian-American who just wanted to fit in, that’s what kind. The kind who wanted to have Wonder Bread instead of that hard, crusty loaf that had to be sliced with a knife, or a rubbery piece of American cheese instead of the sharp provolone that stung my tongue. While these were small requests, they struck my family as huge cultural insults. Back then, some 40 years ago, if I didn’t like what was being served for dinner, I wasn’t simply rejecting a plate of food. I was rejecting my entire Italian heritage—broccoli di rapa, Hadrian, and all.
My family originally came from southern Italy, settled in the New Jersey ghettos around Orange, and eventually clawed their way into the middle class. They spoke a butchered Calabrian dialect that was understood only in the territory between the Watchung Mountains and Brooklyn. This language, and certain inviolable food rituals, kept us distinct from the other ethnicities crowding into the neighboring split- and bi-levels. Every summer, we jarred a year’s worth of tomato sauce; on Christmas Eve, we ate seven courses of fish: shrimp cocktail, baccalà with potatoes, scungilli salad, fried smelts, clams oreganato, broiled eel basted in vinegar, and spaghetti in a calamari red sauce. And twice a year my father, Levio, and his two boisterous brothers, Aldo and Steve, would gather around our kitchen table to feast on capuzzelle-baked sheep’s heads.
In 1900s America, roasted sheep’s brains were considered comfort food (I found a recipe for them in the Home Comfort Range Cook Book), and today, the French sometimes feed them to infants. In my family, though, eating capuzzelle, “beloved skulls,” was a macho ritual. Not the meat of the cheeks and the face; that was easy. Even the women of the family would dig right in. But only the most macho would eat the eyes—and excavate the area behind the sockets—while getting deep satisfaction from watching his tablemates squirm in the process.
My mother, Rose, was considered a “delicate” Italian because she was put off by sheep’s heads. The truth is, they grossed her out. Her sin was absolved, however, when she learned, from my father’s mother, how to prepare them. She did her work in the basement, presumably so the gore wouldn’t traumatize us kids. Nonetheless, I always managed to pad downstairs to catch a glimpse of the skulls, fresh and bloody from the butcher.
First my mother would soak the heads in salt water for a few hours to remove any remaining cartilage, skin, or bright red blood. (“I hated cleaning them,” she told me recently, “especially the nose.”) Then she’d cleave them in half—”I was always impressed how the eyes, tongue, and brain were all so perfectly contained in their own compartments,” she said—splash the lobes with tomato sauce and top them with bread crumbs seasoned with rosemary, salt, garlic, and oregano. She would bake them in a slow oven (250 degrees) for four or five hours, during which a heavenly waft would rise through the house. It was a crisp, bready fragrance.
The aroma actually made my mouth water. But once the piping-hot heads were laid before the family patriarchs, I got spooked. There were the eyes in their sockets staring up at me, the tiny teeth in their jaws, and the nasal cavities exposed. It was my first inkling that something scary could also be sensual. Like my earliest forays into sex, I must have found this recognition embarrassing. My mother swears that I once closed the kitchen door to prevent my friends from seeing my father and his brothers reveling in their orgy of brains.
Of course, family legend grew up around capuzzelle. After one meal, my uncle Dante took home a shopping bag full of bones for the dog. He left the bones on the front porch overnight, and they proved too much temptation for the neighborhood cats. The next day, the skull-scattered lawn looked like a mutton massacre. “No wonder Italians in this country got a bad name,” my aunt screamed at the poor man.
Connoisseurs describe capuzzelle as creamy, crunchy (where crisped), and more sweet than bitter. I remember them as squishy, the texture of scrambled eggs, and disturbingly gray. Those qualities challenged my young palate, which, like most preadolescents’, was drawn to food that was more sweet than savory and looked more like art than biology. (Remember Jell-O 1-2-3?) To me, brains were a mouthful of fatty gray jelly—not exactly what a good, assimilationist kid weaned on The Partridge Family wanted for dinner.
Admittedly, no one ever forced me to eat heads. But I did feel the pressure to like other robust foods (kidneys, tripe, peppers, and anchovies) as a pledge of Italian allegiance. And coming from a family of self-styled Food Supremacists made me a bit of a reject among my peers. Burger King and McDonald’s were new to the Northeast in the ‘70s and soon became the rage.
“Horsemeat,” said my offal-loving father, dismissing the Big Mac and forbidding me to go anywhere near a golden arch. Tomato sauce from a can? Sacrilege! And only for the non-Italians down the block. When I told Grandma that my friend Scott’s Irish mother served fish fingers for dinner, tears filled her eyes. And once, after our Indian neighbors dropped off some of their homemade samosas, she opened all the windows to air the house of those “foreign” smells. Delicious, to my family, was in the nose of the beholder.
Part of me wishes I had been a better Italian, or at least that I had learned to appreciate capuzzelle. The dish has gone the way of cheap gas and eight-track tapes; in this country, capuzzelle have all but disappeared. Today I recognize that, back then, in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s, our recipes and our meals were our status symbols. Where our neighbors had money for circular driveways and Lincoln Continentals, we had sheep’s heads. And, in that, we were rich.