By Tony Leodora
Not everything that came out of America’s Great Depression was bad. Resourceful Americans have always found a way to get by, during the worst of times. And, not only do they find a way to get by, but they find a way to make the best of a bad situation.
And that is even truer when it came to the country’s newest Americans.
Not only did they have to suffer the trauma of uprooting their families from the home country but, for those here during the 1920s and ‘30s, they found themselves in the middle of the country’s worst economic depression.
Making ends meet was difficult. Stretching the wire-thin weekly food budget was even more difficult.
In the homes of many Italian-Americans, that meant creating meals that filled bellies, without draining the already-empty pocketbooks.
And, for the Roman Catholic families, that task was even more difficult on Fridays … when eating meat was not allowed. The first choice of many might be fish. But, unless the fish were being caught in nearby waters, most Depression families couldn’t afford the high costs at the seafood store.
These are part of the lessons underscored each year when the Americans of Italian Heritage Council meets for their annual Columbus Cup event at Bellewood Country Club, near Pottstown. This year’s 15th annual event continues to support the organization’s mission to preserve their ancestral heritage.
One of the ways they do that is the annual presentation of their “Featured Dish” at the day-long food, music, golf, bocce and wine celebration on Columbus Day. This year, on October 8, the tradition continues with a tribute to a dish that rekindles a lot of memories.
One of the dishes that satisfied a lot of needs at the family table was the Old World favorite – pasta e fagioli, or pasta and beans. Those two staples were among the most budget-friendly items available to families during the Depression.
Traditionally, the dish was tomato-based. It was a hearty soup that served two purposes – filling empty bellies and providing a meatless meal on Fridays.
This year’s featured dish – Toto’s Pasta e Fagioli – has a special twist to it. It comes from Antonio “Toto” Schiavone, managing partner at Radice Restaurant in Blue Bell and Moonstruck in the Fox Chase section of Northeast Philadelphia. And it is a departure from the dish known to most Americans.
Born in Badolato – in Calabria, Italy’s southernmost region – Schiavone grew up with a white version … one that also included meat.
“This recipe is the way my Mama used to make it,” said the animated character known to all as Toto. “And probably her mother, before her.
“We didn’t have a refrigerator. And there were no supermarkets. We had to cook with whatever was seasonal. In the winter, there were no tomatoes. Instead of a soup, we made this dish that was bound tighter. It was a heartier, winter dish.”
And, over the years, it took on a new name – one born from the Southern Italian dialect that was spoken by the majority of Italian Americans during the Depression era. Pasta Fazool became a name with a humorous ring to it.
While the word “fazool” was repeated by many Italian Americans, it actually had Greek roots from Calabria – a region with a predominance of influences from Greece. The Greek word for beans is “fasoulia” and the Calabrese immigrants brought the different pronunciation with them.
The “whisper down the lane” tradition of immigrant speech patterns soon turned this dish into the commonly known “pasta fazool.”
“We serve this dish at both restaurants, but more often at Moonstruck,” explained Toto. “It is very popular there and we have it on the menu at least once a week.”
Undoubtedly, after the attendees in the sellout crowd at this year’s Columbus Cup event taste this Calabrese version of the traditional Italian dish, there will be even more demand for Toto’s Pasta Fazool.
Toto’s Pasta e Fagioli
½ cup, plus 2 tbls extra virgin olive oil ½ cup shredded arugula
6 individually cut pork ribs ½ to 1 lb. ditalini pasta
3 cloves garlic salt
3 celery stalks diced very fine pepper
3 cups chicken broth parsley
3 cans cannellini beans ½ cup grated Parmigiano
- Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan. Add pork ribs and brown, remove from pan. Add celery and garlic until soft. Do not burn garlic. Add chicken broth and simmer for 7 minutes.
- Add beans, pork ribs and simmer until pork is cooked, approximately 30 minutes. Remove 1 cup of beans to a bowl and mash. Return all to pot.
- Bring pot of water to boil, add salt and cook pasta until firm (approximately 8 minutes). Drain and reserve ½ cup pasta water.
- Add reserved water to bean mixture along with arugula, salt, pepper, parsley and grated cheese. Serve in a pasta bowl with a pork rib. Let mixture rest for 5 minutes, and then serve. Drizzle each bowl with olive oil.