IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Actress recalls her Italian family’s love of food

In "The Best Thing About My Ass Is That It’s Behind Me," actress and comic Lisa Ann Walter offers a collection of essays about body image, parenthood, Hollywood and more.
/ Source: TODAY books

In "The Best Thing About My Ass Is That It’s Behind Me," actress and comic Lisa Ann Walter offers a collection of essays about body image, parenthood, Hollywood and and more. Here, the judge of "Dance Your Ass Off" writes about her food and her Italian family. Read the excerpt:

Chapter 2:  Throwing the gene pool  dice: It came up Italian pear-shaped peasant — I crapped out!

Only a very small percentage of girls get the Golden Ticket of tall, Swedish-y, big-boobed splendor that opens doors and wallets all over the world. What I got was Italian.1 Where food is love and love is food. And the food is so damned good!

Look, if I’m English, it’s easy to pass up the shepherd’s pie and the bangers and mash. Holy crap, that stuff doesn’t even SOUND like good food. It barely sounds like food. It sounds more like extras on the Bunny Ranch’s Fetish Menu. There are only so many variations on meat and potatoes. Meat on the bottom, potatoes on top; potatoes on the bottom, meat on top; meat on one side of the plate, potatoes on the other. All right already, we GET it.

But, Italian food ... oh my god, it’s a symphony of flavors. Just the ingredients sound like opera. Risotto. Pomodoro. Broccoli rabe. Mozzarella. I mean you wouldn’t want to eat “squid” — but calamari? Hell yeah! Tagliatelle, cappelletti, tortellini, orecchiette, farfalle, rotelle ... mmm. Sounds like an aria sung by Pavarotti — and those are just names of noodles.

These are a people who like to eat. I mean we are the descendents of ancient Romans, the fine folks who invented bulimia for God’s sake. They thought it was a good idea to stuff themselves to the point of power-puking.

Italians don’t miss an opportunity to connect food with family, celebration, or God.

There’s a giant pastry called “Easter pie” that consists of hardboiled eggs, salami, wheat grain — all baked in a pie crust formed to look like a crucifix. Or an Easter basket with real colored Easter eggs coming out the top. That’s right, real Easter eggs in a pie full of cold cuts. You heard me.

Christmas Eve features a dinner where you have to cook seven different fishes. And that’s before all the other stuff. Most real Italian meals have at least five courses: soup, antipasto, pasta (hence the “anti” pasta. It comes “before” the pasta. It’s got nothing against pasta. They’re not in a "West Side Story"gang war or anything. It’s not a Ristorante Smack-Down. Although I would pay to see that. “In this corner . . . wearing neon yellow ... and featuring a wallop that hits you twice! It’s Ultimate Food Fight’s reigning champion ... Hot Pepperoncini”!), meat, then salad and dessert.

This can take upwards of three hours. During none of which the women sit down. They scurry around exchanging serving dishes like hyperactive ants2 ’til the men and kids literally fat themselves out of their pants. Then the men and kids stay at the table and visit — picking at bowls of fruit and picking nuts out of their shells — while the women wash everything. Then the women sit down and eat a cold plate of food in the five minutes before these strunzes3 decide they’re hungry again and it starts all over. I’ve spent entire holidays where no one’s left the table for seven to twelve hours.

The first time I cooked for my Jewish then-husband and his folks, I planned the meal for a week, spent two days preparing the sauce with three meats plus braciola, and deep-fried my own cannoli shells using the end of a broomstick in a big pot of boiling oil, getting third-degree burns.4 They ate the whole meal in twenty minutes and his mom jumped up to start cleaning. I thought they hated the food. Turns out, this is how most people have family dinner. I had no idea.

“No thanks, I’m full.” Four words you never heard uttered in my family. Ever.

Full was when you had to open your pants at the Thanksgiving table and lie down next to it. “Wopping out,” I call it.5 You cannot fight this “Need to Feed.” I have it. My mother had it. My nana, my mother’s nana, Grandma Pompa ... she was the worst.

Grandma Pompa, who lived in the same two-bedroom walk-up on Thompson Street in Little Italy from 1914 through the birth of her twelve children — right there on the dining-room table — up ’til she died at the age of ninety-three. The apartment is still in one of my cousins’ name. I think with New York rent control it might be up to 134 bucks a month.

Grandma Pompa, who came to the States from Italy when she was a teen, but the only English she ever learned was a heavily accented rendition of “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Sung while my Uncle Tony slid me a fin, folded up like I was a waiter at the "Goodfellas" nightclub, with the muttered warning “Don’t tell your sister.”

When I finally lost forty pounds at age thirteen and looked “normal” I went to my Grandma Pompa’s and was full after the first course of escarole soup and artichoke. I just couldn’t face the ziti course, much less the leg of lamb. She started crying in Sicilian that I was dying of “the consumption,” and they force-fed me like veal to calm her down.

Italian mothers are like food pushers. They get you hooked on the entryway dishes  ... spaghetti with butter and Parmesan. ... Then it’s on to the hard stuff: baked mostaccioli and rigatoni, chicken Parmesan, Marsala, and piccata ... Giant platters of hard salami, sopresatta, capicolla (or, in the Brooklyn vernacular, “gab-a-gool”), veal scaloppini and osso buco ... the first cannoli is always free.

Now you’re hooked. You gotta come back for the cheesecake. Now you belong to her. You’ve got a ricotta monkey on your back and you’re jonesing for the cannelloni that only she can make. She told you that the first time she cooked it for you.... “No one makes sauce like Mama.” And she’s right. Your whole life you’ll be chasing that first lasagna high.

[1] And not Sophia Loren Italian. More like Danny DeVito Italian.

[2] If ants had big bat-wing flappy arms.

[3] Urban Dictionary definition: Italian slang for “sh--head” or “dummy.” In case you plan on watching a marathon of "The Sopranos" or "Real Housewives of New Jersey."

[4] By the way — wouldn’t have mattered if I’d served brisket and rugelach while belting a rousing rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man.” I was still gonna be “The Shiksa.”

[5] As an Italian, I’m allowed to say “wop,” so all you politically correctors out there, just chill, OK?

From "The Best Thing About My Ass Is That It's Behind Me" by Lisa Ann Walter. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins.