In “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” Giulia Melucci shares her stories of searching for Mr. Right, and shares the soulful Italian-American recipes that got her through many Mr. Wrongs. An excerpt.
I got a late start on the whole dating thing.
Kit Fraser was my first real boyfriend. He entered my life in January 1990, the day after I moved into my first New York apartment: an East Village sublet I shared with Jennifer Warren, a close friend from college. For the first eighteen months after graduation, I lived with my mother in the house where I grew up in Brooklyn. This was not exactly my ideal post college habitat; the transition to a place of my own had been delayed by my father’s death, which occurred simultaneously with the end of school. I was loath to leave my mother alone in that big gray stucco house, but I was also fed up with my two brothers using the basement for band practice while their girlfriends sat in the kitchen helping themselves to the provisions as if they owned the place. It was loud and it was uncomfortable. I had to get out.
That Monday morning, Lucy, my boss at Spy magazine, the legendary satirical monthly where I was employed as a picture researcher, said to me: “Now that you have a new apartment, you’ll probably get a new boyfriend.” What new boyfriend? I thought. There had never been an old one. Well, at least not for any significant amount of time.
Up until then, the only man I could honestly have called a boyfriend was Steve Sullivan, a local boy four years my senior whom I dated for about four weeks around the time of my sixteenth birthday. I remember this because Steve took me on a real grown-up date to a restaurant to celebrate and gave me a bracelet made of jade beads for a present. He wore a coat and tie — and I, a dress from Bergdorf Goodman. My mother played it free and easy with her stash of department store-specific charge cards in those days, sending me into the city,” as we called it, for shopping and haircuts at Bergdorf’s, the quintessence of elegance, on a regular basis. I would also have on my person a note in her scrawl explaining that I had permission to use the card, just in case anyone questioned me (they never did).
One evening on the piano bench, Steve declared that he was going to give it a go with the woman he had always wanted, Bernadette Corrigan. She was a big girl, a basketball player; her father owned a tugboat company, and their family had money. My father was a golfing buddy of Bernadette’s father and helped him get into the country club. (And this was the thanks we got!) Two months later, Bernadette was on the Sullivan stoop showing off the gifts Steve got her for her birthday — those Russian dolls that open up to reveal smaller and smaller dolls inside, with the last doll containing a Claddagh ring (the Irish wedding band, though they weren’t engaged). I came up with imaginative reasons why this scene wasn’t an excruciatingly painful one for me to watch.
Without particularly wanting to, I remained the good Catholic girl. The only reputation I ever had was for being funny. The cruel truth that men might prefer to get their yuks in one place and their ya-yas in another was brought home to me in my thirteenth summer when I discovered that Tony Sirianni, my constant companion at the country club pool, was spending his nights on the golf course making out with Connie Cambria. Granted, Connie looked a lot better in a bathing suit than I did. At college, I spent countless late nights talking to boys I had crushes on, but the activities never went past conversation or, that great tease, listening to music. The sheets and my virtue always remained pristine when we parted in the wee hours. I didn’t know if I was doing something wrong, giving off some bad vibe, or misreading whatever signal they were throwing. I did know it had me totally flummoxed, a conclusion I could have drawn without a psychologist’s corroboration.
That was behind me now. A new decade was beginning; my boss and I decided to call it “the decade of love.” Her prediction concerning the change in my romantic status proved strangely prescient. That very afternoon, a hand-delivered letter arrived from Kit Fraser. I had met Kit three years earlier when he showed up unexpectedly at my family’s house one summer evening with Michael Petriano, the brother of my oldest friend, Larisa. She and her family had moved to New Jersey after first grade, but despite the distance, our friendship continued with regular weekend visits in New Jersey or Brooklyn right through high school. I enjoyed getting to experience the lures of suburbia — sundaes from Friendly’s and public school (with boys and no uniforms), to which I would accompany Larisa when I took a day off to see her. Larisa still lives in New Jersey, and we remain friends thirty-five years later. Michael was my first crush. When I was ten I would join him on his paper routes, getting up at five in the morning to have some time alone together, riding Larisa’s borrowed bicycle around the neighborhood. Michael was brilliant and incredibly funny, and for this he suffered. He had a nervous breakdown the summer after he graduated high school; the week he appeared on my doorstep with Kit, he had chosen to go off his meds, and in my childhood bedroom he ranted about the bomb he was going to create to eradicate evil from the earth, which would be controlled by a specially selected group of clerics and rabbis. Then he went to take a shower.
While Michael was in the bathroom and my mother went about the house hiding sharp objects, Kit watched me unpack my books from the school year that had just ended. I talked to him about my current intellectual obsession, Dante, and played him an Aztec Camera record. According to Kit (I don’t remember this), I strung a bunch of tiny seed beads and tied them around his ankle. The evening stayed in Kit’s mind not just because of our friend’s odd behavior, but because of me. The bracelet stayed on his ankle until it fell apart, and when it did, he kept the pieces.
Two years later, while waiting for the elevator up to the Spy offices after lunch, I noticed a cute preppy guy wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an L.L. Bean hunting jacket waiting there, too. I wondered where he was going and became even more curious when he got out on my floor. He walked up to the receptionist and asked: “Is Giulia Melucci in?”
“I’m Giulia Melucci,” I said.
Kit, who later purported to have been infatuated with me from the moment he met me, had forgotten what I looked like when he came to find me. I, in turn, was unaware that I had spent hours with the guy I had been checking out on the elevator. Kit, fresh out of Georgetown, was staying with the Petrianos in New Jersey until he could find his own place in New York. When he landed a job at Atlantic Monthly Press, a small independent publisher whose young, hard-partying editors were often skewered in the pages of Spy, Larisa told him his office was right next door to mine. Standing next to the reception desk, he invited me to a party with him and Michael that weekend. I couldn’t go — nor did I want to. I could tell Kit was interested in me, ergo I wanted nothing to do with him. But I did notice when I didn’t hear from him over the next few months. Then the letter arrived, the day after I moved out of my mother’s house, the perfect day for such a letter. “New apartment, new boyfriend.” I was ready. I called him right away, and we made a lunch date for that Thursday.
I have yet to see another apartment quite as grim as Kit’s. It featured a tiny windowless room that was bathroom, kitchen, living room, and home office all in one. Off to the left was a bigger room with a window that appeared to look out onto something other than bricks but was off-limits because it was crammed full of stuff that belonged to the guy Kit was subletting from. There was a minuscule bedroom, not much larger than the size of a twin bed, with a window that looked out onto an air shaft where pigeons gathered and squawked.
Kit had done his best to cheer up the place. The walls were lined with appealingly haphazard decor — a boomerang, a tear sheet of an ad from the 1920s depicting an older man and a younger one on bikes: “Father and son on a chummy run.” I tried the snuff, and later that night I tried some other things I hadn’t tried before.
“My pillow smells like your perfume,” read the hand delivered note that arrived the next day. No more romantic words have been written to me before or since. I wondered if there might be something off about Kit. He seemed truly smitten with me, and that kind of thing just didn’t happen. I can count on my breasts the number of times I have missed a meal, but for several days after that date I ate next to nothing. Picking at a salad on an emergency date-analysis lunch with my roommate, Jen, the next day, I tried to describe Kit. By this time I was in full self-sabotage mode, and it had completely colored my memory of his physical attributes. I found the gooniest looking guy in the vicinity of the restaurant and pointed to him. “He looks like that,” I said.
“No, he doesn’t!” Jen, knowing me well, retorted.
“Okay, maybe not so bad, but something like that.”
If my own eyes were not to be trusted, I could have been clued in by other events that there was something unforgettable about Kit. Apparently, every woman he had ever known remained hung up on him. When I first started staying at his place, nary a night went by when there wasn’t a call from his college girlfriend. (Turned out they were still dating as far as she was concerned, but that’s a story for her book.) Even an old high school flame from North Dakota rang in the middle of the night on a weekly basis.
In spite of my anxieties, we became a couple. Kit, for his part, did nothing to exacerbate them. He left no doubt that he was serious about me. He always called when he said he would. He carried my bag if it was heavy whenever we walked anywhere. He was delighted to take the hour-long train ride to my mother’s house in Bay Ridge, even to spend just an hour, if that’s where I happened to be on a Saturday evening. In the beginning, the only problems were mine. This introduction to love and sex was frightening to me, so I invented problems to give substance to fears I couldn’t understand. For the first month I convinced myself I was pregnant, even though I was hyper vigilant about birth control and the chances of this were slim. Then I decided Kit was gay when I lost track of him and his friend Matt at a party. I didn’t even have the sense to keep my worries to myself. I brought them all to Kit, who put up with my neuroses like a saint.
Another new world, one less wrought with conflict, was opening to me at this time. That one existed in the kitchen of my new apartment, where a stove and oven of my own brought out a previously unacknowledged desire to cook. The kitchen to which I had recently bade farewell was strictly my mother’s domain, filled on Sunday mornings with the perfume of meat frying for the traditional Sunday ragù. As a child I would have a just cooked, perfectly seasoned meatball for breakfast — with bright green parsley peeking out of juicy meat, it tasted even better than the one I’d have that evening in the finished sauce. On weeknights, she might make a lamb stew with baby artichokes and fava beans; baked lemon sole covered in fresh bread crumbs; or — plainer, but no less delicious — roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes.
My mother, Janet, was first-generation Italian-American born in Brooklyn; my father, Nicola, came from the south of Italy to the States to establish a medical practice. They settled in Brooklyn and had five children: three girls and two boys, of whom I am the youngest. Despite clichés about the emotional Italian sensibility, my parents did not fling around the hugs and the I-love-yous. On the other hand, when they were angry with us, we knew it. Dad worked hard and Mom fed us well; those were the main avenues in which we could discern their love and commitment to our well-being. When my father wasn’t seeing patients until late in the evening, elaborate three-course dinners were the rule. At our round kitchen table, topped with a brightly patterned fabric tablecloth and matching napkins, we always began with a pasta dish, followed by meat or fish and a vegetable. My mother is Sicilian, which to her means a meal is not complete until you have “something sweet.” She is dogged in her pursuit of the best desserts and will drive any distance if she hears there’s a good bakery hidden somewhere in the tristate area. If she wasn’t just back from one such expedition, she’d whip something up: a coconut custard pie, a chocolate bundt cake, or moist ricotta fritters covered in powdered sugar.
Having a home to me has always meant food in the refrigerator. My roommate, Jen, and I were on the same page about that. Jen, who is Jewish and grew up in Westchester, loves to eat as much as I do (in fact, I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t), and she can testify to my mother’s talents. She still rhapsodizes about the many weekends she spent at my house when we were in college and my father was still alive and my mother cooked phenomenal meals. If we missed dinner because we had been out for a night of drinking or dancing at some Manhattan club, we knew we could count on a cache of leftovers waiting in the refrigerator when we returned. I knew of no other family who ate the way ours did. One night we arrived to find my brother Nick and his friend John already well into the raid.
“What are you having?” I asked them, a little worried that there would be nothing left for us.
“I’m having the swordfish, and Nick’s having the chocolate cheesecake,” said John, his voice filled with wonderment. He felt he’d discovered gold — I knew it was just what you might find at our house on any given night.
The first evening in our new apartment, after settling our things, Jen and I went out and shopped for groceries at the overpriced “gourmet” store up the street. When we returned, I dropped a bag containing a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil we could scarcely afford. The glass shattered and the oil spilled all over the kitchen floor. Jen grabbed a mop; I called my mother immediately because I knew she would sympathize with this tragedy. It was the first of many calls I would be making to my mother to announce a culinary mishap. Over the years, I have sought her advice on substituting self-rising flour for all-purpose flour (the remedy is on the package); I’ve asked her how to save homemade gnocchi I removed from the water too soon (they can’t be saved) and what to do if the roast needs another hour and my guests have already been sitting around for an hour eating olives and cheese (just keep pouring drinks). My mother would also be receiving more than a few calls about my romantic failures, but she has fewer clear answers to these.
If my mother did not impart to me an understanding of how to play games when it comes to love, she at least sent me into the world with a clear knowledge of how to make a simple tomato sauce. The foods I had seen her prepare countless times were those I made for Kit in the early days of our relationship. Penne with tomato sauce and basil was a typical first course for a Melucci weeknight supper; my mother would always hide a few slices of fried eggplant at the bottom of each bowl as a tasty surprise. The pasta would be followed by breaded veal or chicken cutlets sautéed in olive oil and butter, accompanied by lemon wedges; there was always a salad of romaine lettuce garnished with slices of red onion and chunks of orange. This was the first meal I made on my own. I shared it with Kit.
Fried eggplantGiulia Melucci
Makes 2 servings
Slice the eggplant into rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Heat the olive oil in a skillet, add as many slices of eggplant as will fit comfortably in the pan, and cook until lightly browned on both sides. You may need to add more olive oil if the pan gets dry, since eggplant absorbs a lot of oil.
Remove slices to a plate lined with two paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.
30111449604896048260492eggplant (preferably the small italian kind, if you can find them)11 eggplant (preferably the small Italian kind, if you can find them)olive oil2tablespoon2 tablespoons olive oilSalt
Breaded CutletsGiulia Melucci
Makes 2 servings
Put the eggs in a wide-rimmed bowl and spread the seasoned bread crumbs on a plate. Coat the meat in the eggs and then the bread crumbs.
In a skillet, heat the oil and butter at medium-high and fry the cutlets until they are cooked through and browned on both sides (about 4 minutes on each side, depending on thickness). You’ll probably need to do this in two batches; refresh the fat in the pan if necessary.
Remove the cutlets to a plate lined with two paper towels until ready to serve. Present them with lemon slices to squeeze on top.
301114496048260569eggs, lightly beaten, seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon salt22 eggs, lightly beaten, seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon saltbread crumbs, seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon salt0.75cup3/4 cup bread crumbs, seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon saltFreshly ground pepper, and 1 tablespoon chopped parsleythin veal cutlets (or chicken)1pound1 pound thin veal cutlets (or chicken)olive oil2tablespoon2 tablespoons olive oilbutter1tablespoon1 tablespoon butterlemon11 lemon
Romaine salad with oranges and red onionGiulia Melucci
Makes 4 servings
Wash and dry a head of romaine lettuce and cut the leaves crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Put them in a bowl with room enough for tossing and add the onion. Remove the stem ends of the oranges, then take off the skins with a paring knife. Cut into slices 1/4 inch thick and then cut the slices into quarters, removing any seeds and startlingly obvious white pith. Dress and toss the salad with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a little salt, and freshly ground pepper.
30111449604846048260492romaine lettuce1head1 head romaine lettucesmall red onion, thinly sliced and cut into 1-inch strips0.51/2 small red onion, thinly sliced and cut into 1-inch stripsnavel oranges22 navel orangesolive oil1tablespoon1 tablespoon olive oilSplash of red wine vinegarSalt and freshly ground pepper to taste
We ate sitting on the floor, our dishes perched on a square ottoman that came from my family’s house. We were saving up for a table, but, priorities ever in place, we dropped $3 on a bottle of Concha y Toro, purchased at our local liquor store, where the clerk and his merchandise stood behind bulletproof glass and you pointed out what you wanted. The Concha y Toro was positioned front and center, and good thing — you wouldn’t want to be forced to do too many elaborate hand gestures to obtain a $3 bottle of wine. It tasted good enough to our undeveloped palates, a fine pairing for that uncomplicated food.
Excerpted from "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," by Giulia Melucci. Copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing.