Your Turn: Holiday meals unlock powerful family memories

Your Turn: Holiday meals unlock powerful family memories

Casatiello Photo by Melissa Arnold

By Melissa Arnold

Aside from a five-year stint in Suffolk County, Long Island, I’ve spent all my life in the shadow of Philadelphia, on the Jersey side. South Jersey is full of delightful perks — sprawling farmland that earned us the Garden State nickname; the Shore; Wawa convenience stores; and a melding of diverse cultures.

My Italian-American family has been here for several generations now, long enough to have lost our immigrant relatives and their knowledge of the language. Two things do remain: our family recipes, and the mashed-up, incomprehensible names we have for Italian foods. (Perhaps the most well-known is “gabagool,” our word for capicola made famous in The Sopranos.) 

Each year on Palm Sunday weekend, my grandfather, whom I called Poppy, would visit with football-sized parcels wrapped in aluminum foil under each arm. Inside were stromboli-like breads stuffed with Italian meats and cheeses and rolled up like a jelly roll. Poppy called it gozzadiel. His wife, Eleanor, made them annually for everyone they knew.

It’s been more than a decade since Poppy passed away and the gozzadiel deliveries halted. I could never get the recipe out of Eleanor because she never had one — like most Italian women, she baked with her senses, not measurements. “Just make a pizza dough and put the salami, ham and cheese on it,” she told me good-naturedly. That was all I got, and then eventually she passed, too.  

A few weeks ago, as Palm Sunday approached, my late-night thoughts wandered to the upcoming Easter traditions and to the gozzadiel we mention wistfully each spring. I began to Google intensely from my bed, grasping at straws: “Italian meat bread.” “Rolled Easter bread.” “Gozzadiel in English.” I got lots of recipes, but none of them were right. Google doesn’t speak our broken Italian.

Finally, I landed on a Neapolitan rolled bread called casatiello. Using my rudimentary Italian skills from high school, I spoke the word aloud into the dark. “Ca-sa-ti-ello … Ga-za-diel.” Close enough! But a proper casatiello features chunks of meat, and whole hard-boiled eggs affixed to the top with crosses of dough. Eleanor’s bread had layers of meat, not chunks. And there were no eggs atop ours. But it was a start. And this year, so help me, I was going to make it.

Mind you, I am not one of those crazy people that made a sourdough starter in the heat of last year’s lockdown. I love to cook, but I’m no social media influencer. I know how to follow directions and call my mother. Mostly, I just improvise.

So I did what Eleanor told me — I went to ShopRite and bought a refrigerated pizza dough, nervously plopped it into a bowl with olive oil, covered it up and said a prayer. A few hours later, my husband and I stared at the puffy, risen mound as if it were an infant. “Let’s do this,” he said.

Using a pepperoni bread recipe as a guide, we rolled out the dough in a rectangle as thin as we could, then covered it with my mom’s recommendations of Di Lusso Genoa salami, BelGioioso provolone, and imported ham. More cheese. More prayers. A careful, tight rolling and an eggwash, and finally, the trip to the oven. I read that the inside should reach 160 degrees, which took some trial and error — it needed 30 minutes at 400 degrees, and another 10 minutes covered with foil at 350 degrees (I was nervous).

The result was a perfectly golden behemoth. The next day, we gathered around my parents’ table as my father made the first cut to reveal a beautiful spiral and, miraculously, the exact flavor of our beloved gozzadiel. My dad raised his eyebrows and declared, “This could raise them from the grave. You nailed it!”

I was unprepared for the visceral flood of nostalgia that washed in with those first bites and transported me to another time. This was a true food memory, the kind that happens at tables like mine all over the world to bind families, friends, and communities. And it was glorious.

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