Ann Albano has been cooking for her family since she was 10 years old, but today she's nervous about cooking. Her granddaughter has convinced her to do a pop-up dinner at Butcher & Bee on Sunday.
"I never did a thing like this," she says in her distinctive New York accent. "I'm a housewife. I've cooked for my family, maybe 20 to 25 people. I've entertained a lot of friends, but this is my first time doing something like this. I'm getting very nervous."
To prepare, the 85-year-old, who relocated from New Jersey to a Mt. Pleasant retirement home with her husband Joe two years ago, is keeping it simple, planning a menu of her favorites, dishes she knows will make people happy: spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmesan, stuffed mushrooms, chicken parm, tomatoes with mozzarella and pesto sauce, garlicky broccoli rabe, ziti, and ricotta cake.
"We're gonna try the best we can," she says.
And her best promises to be pretty great. She'll be cooking Italian-American fare straight out of Brooklyn. As a child raised by Italian immigrants who worked hard to establish themselves, little Ann was taught to cook by her mother so she could feed her little brother while the older girls went off to make money for the family.
"My mother taught me how to cook cheap," she says. "It was all nourishing food, and it was all fresh. Nothing in cans or anything. But as we got older, the canned food showed up and we started using canned tomatoes."
Raised during the Depression, times were tough. "We are Catholics. We never had meat on Fridays. My mother had no money so we would make the sauce and that was our meal — you dip Italian bread in there. You have to manage." Sometimes her mom would take eggs, roll them in bread crumbs with cheese and garlic and fry them up for a simple Friday supper. "Because there was no money, but we had a meal on the table, a good meal."
Back in those days, Ann had never even seen a head of iceberg lettuce. She knew escarole and romaine, and she and her siblings would go to the park and forage for cicoria (dandelion greens in English, husband Joe reminds her).
"A head of lettuce? I never knew what it looked like. It was so different," she says.
The Albanos' granddaughter Nicole visits frequently from New York, where she works as a publicist for food stars like Bobby Flay, and has become a regular at Butcher & Bee. She and owner Michael Shemtov came up with this idea of getting Nonna in there to cook a classic, family-style Italian-American supper. Despite her nerves, Nonna knows that her food is something special because it comes from her heart.
"Over here you don't get Italian food," she says. "They don't know Italian food in South Carolina."
Every once in a while she and Joe will head out to eat with her son, who they followed to Charleston when he retired here a few years ago. "We went to Andolini's, and the pizza was good," she says, before qualifying her comment with a disclaimer. "You can't get New York style. If you stand on your head, you're not gonna get it here. You'll never get it here. Forget about it. But they're trying. It's not New York, but they try."
Of course, Joe eats it, and he likes it. At the retirement home, she cooks all the time. "I still cook at home because I want my husband to have a good dinner," she says. "When you're used to doing that all your life, it's hard to stop. And I don't want to forget how to do it. I'm 85. I just try to do my best."
For the dinner on Sunday, Albano will prepare her classic sauce and serve it with spaghetti and meatballs. Here's how she does it, in her words: "I generally use a can of puree — regular tomatoes in a can. I use that can with garlic, olive oil. You gotta have garlic and onion. Brown it up in the oil. Then I put cans of tomatoes in there. Take the garlic and onion out, then I put my tomatoes in there — four cans. I'll use a can of tomato paste with water, mix that into the sauce, then I put in a lot of fresh basil, half a cup of red wine. If you don't have red, use white, but you gotta have wine. Salt and pepper, hot pepper flakes. Then I make my meatballs and sausage — I get that from the store — and bake them in the oven. I don't fry nothing. I put them into the sauce, and that's my sauce I'm doing for 60 years."
When making a dish becomes second nature, it's more about trusting your instinct and doing what you know how to do than following recipes. Try to duplicate it, and yours will probably be nothing like hers.
Same with her meatballs, which sound deceptively simple: ground chuck, sometimes pork ("if they have it in the showcase"), eggs, salt and pepper, garlic powder, bread crumbs, and pecorino romano. Make them into balls and put them in a pan with olive oil on the bottom. Bake them until they're done and then wipe off the olive oil and drop in the sauce and cook for two hours. You'll probably have to add water to the sauce to thin it out too.
"You gotta put water in there cause it's too thick," says Ann, before adding, "I love my sauce."
You could stay at home and try to make these dishes for yourself, or you could head to B&B on Sunday and let Nonna cook something for you straight from her heart.