Just like grandma made: Stories, recipes connect generations

Just like grandma made: Stories, recipes connect generations

Mary Cantazarita, a vibrant life force, fount of food knowledge and expert cook well into her 90s, told Vic Christopher, her grandson who is a Troy restaurateur, “Don’t ever order meatballs in a restaurant.”

Christopher thought of his beloved grandmother, who died Feb. 26 at age 96, one weekend last month when he was in Boston’s North End. Disregarding her directive, he impulsively ordered what were purported to be the city’s best meatballs. His verdict: “Not very good.”

But Christopher thinks his grandmother would approve of the meatballs at his Donna’s Italian Restaurant, in part because, being adapted from her recipe (included in his stack of her recipes), they’re “dead-on in taste” to what Cantazarita made.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I recently asked some Capital Region restaurant people and Table Hopping readers about recipes from their own grandmothers. Coincidentally, more than half of those who replied mentioned, like Christopher, Italian dishes.  

For Michael Mastrantuono of 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, his grandmother’s eggplant Parmesan is a staple of his repertoire at home, although some 15 Church customers plead for it as a special-occasion dish at the restaurant. He also makes her pork ribs with potatoes, onions and sundried eggplant.

Kaytrin Ziemann’s paternal grandmother, Anne Della Sala, co-founded Della Sala’s Pizza outside Pittsburgh in 1959, and it remains open. Ziemann is in the business herself, owning, with her chef-husband, Devin Ziemann, The Cuckoo’s Nest and Crave Burgers + Frozen Yogurt, both in Albany, and The Nest in Schenectady, with another eatery, Mila Restaurant & Bar, just announced as being developed for a spring 2023 opening, also in Schenectady. Ziemann cherishes memories of her grandmother’s pizza, naturally, as well as wedding soup, stuffed hot peppers, fried chicken thighs, meatballs and tomato sauce.

David Zecchini, founder of DZ Restaurants in Saratoga Springs, recalls a childhood spent eating garden-fresh tomatoes with homemade olive oil and homemade bread on his maternal grandparents’ farm in Italy.

Jim Rua, owner of Cafe Capriccio in Albany, often braises lamb with a Sicilian-Arabic blend of spices including clove, cinnamon, fennel, bay, garlic, a bit of dried fruit and vinegar, an approach learned from his Sicilian grandmother. She’d braise chickens from the yard and rabbits in similar ingredients and would always have, Rua said, “abundant food available for snacking in her kitchen.”

When Dave Hart of Delmar was in medical school, he and his wife had a lesson in making ravioli from his grandmother Josephine Cerullo, then in her mid-80s. Cerullo insisted the dough had to be kneaded for 30 minutes. After she did the first 10 minutes of kneading, Hart stepped in, thinking he could finish, but after his own 10-minute stint, “My arms felt like they might fall off,” he said. His wife was exhausted after five minutes.

Said Hart, “My ‘little old lady’ grandmother smiled happily and jumped back in for the last 5 minutes of kneading, embarrassing us both.” Cerullo used a broom handle to roll out a paper-thin sheet of dough that was 5 feet wide and stamped out the ravioli with a drinking glass.

Said Hart, “I’ve only made it a few times since then, because it’s such a production, but I still have the recipe and plan to make it again when I have more time, maybe in retirement!”    

Moving away from Italian fare, the local photographer, author and creative director Richard Lovrich had grandmothers who were both raised on the same island in the Adriatic off of what is today Croatia. From them he learned to make frite, which he described as a “fried dough ball with a twist.” They added raisins, orange zest and a generous dose of homemade rakija, Croatia’ most popular spirit, and when Lovrich makes frite today, he adds diced apple, to keep the fritters moist.

Jaime Ortiz (677 Prime, Toro Cantina, Sea Smoke) got yani-cleclas, a fried biscuit that is analogous to arepas, from his grandmother, who served them with bacalao stew or a sweet, tomato-based corned beef stew.

Adirondack storyteller, musician and veteran kitchen hand Chris Shaw’s grandmother, Waneta Shaw, was of Mohican descent, and from her he learned to cook venison “every way (and) whenever I can get my hands on it,” as well as trout and her famous-in-Lake George apple pie. Frequent Capital Repertory Theatre actor Kevin McGuire, recently on stage in “The True” at The Rep in Albany, also inherited his grandmother Catherine McMahon Maleady’s recipe for apple pie, fondly remembered from his Hoosick Falls childhood.

Finally, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said his recipe is from his grandfather, who would take him to the former Carnivale Market in Albany to buy calf liver, bacon and onions to cook at home. “Nothing special,” Apple said, “but I have it at least a couple times a month.”

In my own family, my paternal grandmother, Carolyn Barnes, was a seriously good cook, with recipes that ripple down through generations: cheese souffle, chicken-and-rice casserole, congo bars, cranberry sorbet, rhubarb cobbler. My cousin Sean Magee once panic-called her in college to be talked through cooking her spinach-bacon quiche. My older brother, Scott, made a similar call to our  aunt Ann Boulton one Thanksgiving morning for her legendary turkey dressing (the secret: lots and lots of butter).

My maternal grandmother, Edith Boulton, would freeze lemon sorbet in metal ice cube trays, an easy way to pop out small portions. And my mother, Karen Barnes, grandmother of four, has for decades shared a recipe for rhubarb chiffon. She learned and adapted it from a neighbor in the garden club of West Hill, the Rotterdam community my paternal grandparents co-founded in 1948 and my parents called home from 1970 to 2005.   

A version of this story originated in the Table Hopping newsletter. To sign up for the free weekly newsletter, delivered via email on Thursday afternoons, visit

Ninya’s Meatballs

By Mary Cantazarita, courtesy Vic Christopher

Table Hopping reader Mary Beth Watrous submitted a recipe in poem form passed down through through her family for generations. Watrous said, “I can’t vouch for this recipe, as I don’t think I ever had it, but the family story goes that it was taught to my great-grandmother as a child, who passed it down to my grandmother Rose, who gave it to my father Dave and ultimately, me. They’re all gone now but I have my grandmother’s handwritten copy framed in my kitchen. It’s charming and I thought you might enjoy seeing it.”

Johnny Cake

Two cups of Indian*, two cups of wheat*,
One cup of sour milk, one cup of sweet,
One good egg that you will beat.
One tablespoon of butter new, 
Salt and soda, each a spoon*. 
Mix up quick and bake it soon.
Then you will have cornbread complete,
Best of all, cornbread to eat.
It will make your boy’s eyes shine
If he’s like that boy of mine.
‘Tis fit to set before any king
That a husband home might bring. 

*”Indian” refers to cornmeal, “wheat” to white flour, “spoon” to a teaspoon. 

Makes 12 to 16 meatballs

2 pounds ground meat. Use 1 pound sirloin and 1 pound chuck for the right fat-to-lean ratio, though 2 pounds ground round also works. Substitute up to 1 pound ground pork if desired.

2 small garlic cloves, grated

Sprig of parsley, chopped finely

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated Romano cheese

1 cup plain breadcrumbs

3 extra-large or 4 large eggs

Very cold water, as needed

Canola oil for frying 

  • To mix ingredients, wash but do not dry hands; the meat will mix and roll better if your hands are wet.
  • In a large, bowl, add meat and all remaining ingredients except eggs. While mixing with your hands, lift the mixture from the bottom of the bowl often so you get it all blended. Add the eggs one at a time, breaking them directly into the mix.
  • Cold water is a secret ingredient that makes the meatballs nice and moist. Add it sparingly, no more than a tablespoon at a time, in order to get the mixture soft, but don’t overdo this, or else it will be too mushy. Be sure to mix well, so all the ingredients are very evenly distributed.
  • Roll the mixture into meatballs slightly larger than a golf ball. Place rolled meatballs on a platter.
  • To fry, generously coat the bottom of a 12-inch frying pan with canola oil. When the oil starts to shimmer but not yet smoke, add meatballs, frying in batches if necessary or if you have a smaller frying pan. Do not overcrowd the pan, as this will cause the meatballs to steam, not brown.
  • Once brown, turn and continue cooking. The trick is to get them nice and brown; the crispy outside is what makes them taste extra special. Ideally, they should be crispy outside and soft on the inside. They will not be fully cooked through at this point.
  • If serving the meatballs in a sauce, place them in the simmering sauce of choice after browning to finish cooking. Stir to incorporate and let cook, checking a meatball’s internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer until it is at least 160 degrees.
  • Meatballs in sauce go well over spaghetti, penne, ravioli, stuffed shells or manicotti.  
  • To serve as a side dish or in a meatball sub, they must be cooked to 160 degrees. The easiest way to do this is finish in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, either in a large frying pan if all of the meatballs fit at once or on a rimmed sheet pan. After they have finished cooking, remove to a plate lined with paper towels to remove excess oil before proceeding.
  • For a great meatball hero, get a loaf of crispy Italian bread, scoop out the middle, cut the meatballs in half and generously place on the bread. Eat plain, line with sauce, or add sauce and mozzarella and put under an oven broiler until cheese is melted. 

Rhubarb Chiffon

Adapted by Karen Barnes from a recipe by Norma Maughan

Serves 8 to 10

4 cups raw rhubarb, coarsely chopped

½ cup white sugar

½ cup water

1 (3-ounce) package Lemon Jell-O

¾ cup boiling water

⅓ cup white sugar

1 medium lemon, juiced and zested

1 cup heavy whipping cream

  • Rhubarb is highly acidic, so it’s important to use a nonreactive saucepan, preferably stainless steel, when cooking it. Do not use cast iron or anodized aluminum. Combine chopped rhubarb with ½ cup sugar and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb breaks down, about 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
  • Once rhubarb is cool, in a large bowl, dissolve Jell-O in boiling water, add ⅓ cup sugar and lemon juice and zest. Stir to combine and chill in refrigerator until it has the consistency and unbeaten egg whites.
  • Once Jell-O is chilled, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the mixture briefly, add in cooled rhubarb and beat briefly.
  • Clean mixer blades and whip cream until it has soft peaks. Add to Jell-O mixture and beat vigorously with mixer to fully aerate.
  • Pour into an 8-by-8-inch glass or ceramic casserole dish, cover and refrigerate until set, at least two hours or overnight.
  • When ready to serve, cut into desired portions size and serve, garnishing as desired, such as with a strawberry half or two and maybe a sprinkle of lemon zest.

Notes: A casserole dish allows for cutting servings into neat squares, but the chiffon may be chilled in a bowl and have servings scooped. Refrigerate leftovers, covered. 

Spring Rhubarb Cobbler

By Carolyn Barnes

Serves 8 to 10

For the rhubarb:

4 cups raw rhubarb, coarsely chopped

¾ cup white sugar

1 tablespoon water

¼ cup white sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon cinnamon

For the topping:

1½ cups Bisquick

1 tablespoons melted butter

 ⅓ cup whole milk

1 tablespoon white sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Rhubarb is highly acidic, so it’s important to use a nonreactive saucepan, preferably stainless steel, when cooking it. Do not use cast iron or anodized aluminum. Combine chopped rhubarb with ¾ cup sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until rhubarb breaks down, about 10 to 15 minutes. 

Whisk together ¼ cup sugar and 2 tablespoons cornstarch in a small bowl, add to pot with rhubarb, mix well, bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bow, stir together all topping ingredients until thoroughly incorporated.

Pour the rhubarb into an 8-by-8-inch casserole. Drop evenly spaced, tablespoon-size mounds of topping onto the rhubarb.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the topping is cooked.

Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes, then serve hot, topping with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream if desired. Refrigerate leftovers, covered, and reheat in microwave or eat cold.