This past Friday, I lost one of the greatest people I’ve ever known: my grandpa. Along with my grandmother, the love of his life, he was an absolute rock to the family – a constant pillar of support, grace, and love. I never quite understood how a man so small in stature and so gentle in demeanor could seem so larger-than-life, but it’s a testament to the size of his heart and the strength of his character. He has always been one of my favorite people on this earth, and I’m going to miss him so much.
Now I never fully appreciated this until recently, but my grandpa was a fantastic eater. That’s not to say that he had the most refined palate, or the absolute healthiest habits – but he used food to connect with the people he loved and the world around him, and I’m convinced he enjoyed every meal he ate.
With food as with everything he did, Grandpa was nothing if not consistent. When he had beer it was Budweiser, when he had wine it was red. There’d always be fresh-picked tomatoes on the counter, soda in the cellar, and ice cream in the freezer. And when he went out to eat – which was often, and usually Italian – chances were good he’d be getting one of his favorite dishes: Shrimp Fra Diavolo. In remembering Grandpa, I wanted to learn more about this dish he loved so much. What I found was a story that reflected his own.
Literally translating to “brother devil”, Fra Diavolo consists of shrimp cooked in a basic tomato sauce made spicy by red pepper flakes, and served over a bed of linguine or spaghetti. Incorporating fresh seafood, tomatoes, and thin pasta, it has all the makings of authentic Sicilian cooking. To an authentic Sicilian like my grandfather, it couldn’t make more sense. The thing is, Shrimp Fra Diavolo isn’t actually Sicilian. In fact, like so many seemingly classic dishes, you’d be hard pressed to find it anywhere in Italy.
The true origins of Fra Diavolo can most likely be traced back to New York City, where at the turn of the twentieth century, Italian-American restaurants began developing dishes to attract a wealthier clientele. In this case, restaurateurs shipped in lobster from Maine, paired it with big bowls of pasta, and upped the ante by making the whole thing spicy. The dish was rich, intense, and filling – an instant standard in the New York restaurant scene.
Though Lobster Fra Diavolo was reminiscent of the classic Sicilian dish, Pasta con le Sarde (spaghetti in a sauce of sardines and tomatoes), it had a distinctly American fingerprint. Maine lobster – besides being unobtainable in Italy – was much heavier than the sardines and tuna used in Sicilian cooking. Likewise, the sauce had only ancestral links to the homeland – it was much thicker, much spicier, and much more abundant than the stuff served in Palermo.
But that all made sense. After all, Lobster Fra Diavolo wasn’t Italian cooking, it was immigrant cooking – interpreting, rather than mimicking, its roots. Like so many Italian-Americans, it remembered its origins while embracing its surroundings.
That’s sort of the story of my grandfather, too. Proud of his Sicilian blood, he was the member of the Italian-American Civic Association and spoke often of one day visiting the land of his family. Sadly, that day never came. His heritage was important to him, but I guess he was always just more interested in enjoying his own life in New Jersey than in discovering his father’s in Sicily. He was deeply connected with the people and community he loved, and it showed in everything he did.
It seems a little contrived to make this connection between Grandpa and fra diavolo, but it’s comforting to see his virtues and philosophy more tangibly. Back at the turn of the century, those restaurants could very well have developed recipes that stayed true to Italian sensibilities. And while Sicilians would have no doubt loved them, the dishes would have been somewhat lost contextually. They would have taken for granted the rich and vibrant culture surrounding them. In the 87 years of my grandpa’s life, I’m not sure if he took a single thing for granted. Watching him enjoy, engage, and truly experience everything around him has been an absolute privilege to grow up with. Though I know there’s still so much to discover and experience in my own life, I’ll remember my grandfather’s always.