Like An Arancino
By Michael Procopio on July 06, 2012
When I think of my grandmother, I think of arancini.
It is an odd association, since she never once stuffed and fried a ball of leftover risotto. It hardly matters, since I don't think about her making them.
Instead, I think about her being one of them.
There is a particular story that everyone in my family remembers in great detail about my grandmother. The primary reason for this vivid recollection is that it is packed with drama, violence, and excellent set design. As I boy, I enjoyed the tale because, in it, Grandmom did her own stunts. As a grown up, I love it because it explains her nature better than any other story could. And because she did her own stunts.
I fondly refer to this tale as The Affair of The Handbag.
This isn't your typical, heart-warming, food-related Granny story. The lady may have been a phenomenal cook, but she wasn't the type of woman about whom most food writers like to reminisce.
She never thought to teach me how to make her famous meatballs. There were no moments of deep, generational connection over a pot of simmering minestrone. She was more the type to roll her eyes at me as I shrieked at the sight of her bludgeoning an octopus in the sink.
My grandmother was a tough broad with excellent posture and a mind of her own. She held her nose high when she wasn't busy sharpening it against the grindstone of hard work; her home and her person were as immaculate as the Holy Conception in which she believed; and she knew the value of a hard-earned dollar, several of which she wisely invested.
As a girl, she abandoned her legal first name and demanded that everyone refer to her as "Rita." As a woman, she hopped a train bound for California with her son and left her husband, her family, and Philadelphia behind. Within a year, the entire family moved to be with her. On her turf. My grandfather came, too, but on her terms.
She frowned upon extravagant outward displays of wealth. Money, she believed, was to be invested and not flaunted. She wasn't what I would ever consider miserlyespecially where her loved ones were concernedbut she was never lavish. It was entirely against her nature to shower her grandchildren with toys and candy on Christmas. She gave us U.S. Savings Bonds instead. She preferred to invest in our futures rather than our entertainment.
She was insufferably practical and marvelously intimidating.
And only a stranger or a fool would try to separate her from her money. Which is precisely what someone attempted to do in Palermo.
Because Rita did not enjoy the idea of being told where to go and when to go there, my grandparents ditched the end of their air-conditioned bus tour of Europe and hopped a plane for Sicily which, as the homeland of her parents, was where she had wanted to go in the first place.
One afternoon in Palermo, they found themselves wandering a quiet residential street during the riposo. My grandmother likely enjoyed the lack of noise, but was disappointed by the drabness and decay of the houses. The streets were tidy, but the stucco on the houses peeled and cracked. No color. This was not how she imagined Sicily to be.
She didn't have long to process her disappointment. The annoying buzz of a motor scooter approaching from behind broke her concentration. It was a Vespa Lambrettaa mode of transportation charming when used by likes of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, but upsetting when the rider is a purse snatcher with no obvious Hollywood connections.
The thief may have viewed my grandmother as an ideal targeta sixty-something American tourist, which in thieving circles means: lots of cash, not much resistance. He did exactly what you might have expected him to do: he rode up behind her and grabbed her handbag. Unfortunately for him, my grandmother refused to play the role of the victim.
She held on to her purse.