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Voices Spring-Summer 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “Bravo Italiano!” by Lynn Case Ekfelt.
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Voices SS08


Volume 34

Bravo Italiano! by Lynn Case Ekfelt

Foodways How many Italian ladies does it take to roll twenty-five hundred meatballs? No, this is not a new variation on the lightbulb joke. It’s just one of many questions that the chair of Watertown’s Bravo Italiano Festival has to grapple with when the theme of the event is “Everything Homemade.” The answer? Six women worked all day to roll the meatballs. Twenty-five women made their favorite cookies, two hundred pounds in all, then spent the better part of another day packaging them into one-pound containers. Another valiant woman spent three weeks cooking batch after batch of sauce until she’d made one hundred gallons. And those figures are just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t take into account the minestrone, the chicken cacciatore, the stuffed shells, the cannoli, the cream puffs, the pizza, the fried dough, the clam sauce, and the stuffed peppers—everything homemade, including the sausage and the pasta.

A few days before the 2007 festival last September, I caught three members of the auxiliary—Grace Marzano, Ida Alteri, and Susanne Grieco-Slodkowski—on their way to package cookies. They admitted that in the past, some of the festival food was not homemade, but they promised me that this year was going to be different. Although they obviously don’t cook in such enormous quantities at home, they assured me that the recipes are the same ones they make for their own families, recipes that they learned from their mothers and are passing on to their daughters—and, they hastened to add, their sons. When I asked whether they always “cook Italian” at home or whether they occasionally slip in a stir fry, taco, or plain old apple pie, they said that two or three meals a week are basically Italian, but that “no matter what you cook, it has a little Italian in it,” mainly in the sauces. It is clear when you look at the festival menu that this is a cuisine leaning heavily on tomatoes and garlic, ingredients not common in the dishes of northern Italy. It is no surprise, then, to learn that most of Watertown’s Italian community comes from Sicily, Calabria, and other areas south of Rome.

The twenty-three–year-old festival, held each fall, is a joint project of the Italian-American Civic Association and its Ladies’ Auxiliary. The association was founded in 1939 by twenty-eight men who lived in the Sand Flats around St. Anthony’s church. The hours they spent together talking and playing cards strengthened the bonds within their own community. But they wanted more. Not satisfied with remaining a tight-knit ethnic enclave, they set a goal for their organization: to show more interest in local elections and world affairs and to demonstrate to their neighbors that Italian Americans could help to make the city a better place. The organizations have grown to around three hundred men and one hundred twenty women, but their purpose remains the same. In the early years, their philanthropy was funded primarily through bingo games, but more recently, pride in their heritage led them to look for a way to raise money that would also show off the best of Italian culture. To that end, the groups have turned to spaghetti dinners and Italian buffets—and of course the festival—to help fund a scholarship to Jefferson County Community College, aid individual cancer and multiple sclerosis patients, build a teen center, fill food pantries, and assist in other civic projects. When I asked how many of these feasts they put on a year, Grace Marzano said simply, “It depends on how many are in need.”

The Bravo Italiano Festival is a two-day affair beginning Friday night with music, the Miss Italia pageant, and lots of food. Saturday picks up at noon with a karaoke contest, more music, a five o’clock mass, and lots more food. A few booths around the edge of the ice arena—mercifully without ice at present—advertise local Italian businesses (mostly restaurants), sell T-shirts with pro-Italy sentiments, and offer face painting for kids. It’s clear, though, that the main business of this festival is eating. At one table, the auxiliary sells out of its boxes of cookies by three o’clock on Saturday. Festivalgoers gather up food from various other booths, then rendezvous at the tables in the center of the room with friends. Everyone wears a powdered sugar mustache and a look of bliss. The association has once again succeeded in sharing with the entire Watertown community the love of food, family, and fellowship that characterize Italian Americans. And they’ve made enough money for a good start on this year’s philanthropy efforts.

Grace Marzano’s Chocolate Meatballs
Grace explained that when she learned to make these cookies, she never measured; she just went by feel. One day she sat down and figured out basic amounts for each ingredient, but she said that the milk in both the cookies and the frosting varies each time—you just have to add enough to make them feel right.

1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup cocoa
3-3/4 cups flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Optional: 1/2 cup chopped nuts, raisins, or mini chocolate chips
Approximately 1 cup milk

Cream shortening, sugar, and vanilla. Combine cocoa, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cloves, and cinnamon. Stir in nuts, raisins, or chips, as desired. Add dry mixture to creamed mixture, alternating with milk as needed to make a workable dough. Roll dough into balls about 1-1/2 inches around. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake ten minutes at 375 degrees. Remove from oven when still a little soft to the touch. Frost with the following icing:

2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons shortening
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Approximately 5 tablespoons milk

Combine sugar, shortening, cocoa, and vanilla. Stir in milk, one tablespoon at a time, until frosting is smooth and spreadable.


Lynn Case Ekfelt is retired from her position as a special collections librarian and university archivist at St. Lawrence University. She is the author of Good Food Served Right: Traditional Recipes and Food Customs from New York’s North Country (Canton, New York: Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, 2000), available on-line from our New York Traditions gallery store.

It’s clear, though, that the main business of this festival is eating. At one table, the auxiliary sells out of its boxes of cookies by three o’clock on Saturday.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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