How to enjoy Christmas, Italian style
The upper Texas coast is known for its large Italian families who immigrated here decades ago and helped shape our culture today. And while those families celebrate Christmas in different ways, they have in common a flair for large gatherings and feasts. We asked a few families and chefs to share their favorite Christmas recipes.
‘They’ll have the memories’
For the past 35 years, Nina and Gary Jones have been hosts of a traditional family Italian feast at their San Leon home on the Saturday before Christmas. It’s where the Sicilian descendants of the Loverde, Crapitto, Salvaggio and Russo clans gather together to enjoy stuffed artichokes, Italian sausage, lasagna, fried cauliflower, Italian pizza bread and Italian green beans.
Gary Jones recalls going to his grandmother’s home for a similar traditional meal.
“She had the tiniest kitchen, one small refrigerator and one oven,” Gary Jones said. “How she pulled that off is still a mystery to me. She’d cook for several days before we arrived and would fix cardone stalks, which is similar to celery, boiling them the day before, refrigerating them overnight, then cutting them into pieces, battering and frying them.”
Nina Jones is fortunate to have ample space to accommodate all the family members — sometimes as many as 40 — but keeps it simple by serving everything buffet-style from her kitchen island, she said.
Yet, the preparation involved to feed such a crowd takes a lot of planning, she said.
“I keep a timeline notebook with everything written down, and I start shopping about a week in advance, so I’ve got it down to a science,” said Jones, who makes 5 gallons of tomato sauce ahead of time.
Many of the recipes are regional Italian cuisine and Nina Jones points out that income heavily influenced meals in the Old Country.
“Many families could not afford much and would eat off one chicken for an entire week,” she said.
“If they were really poor, they didn’t even kill the chicken,” Gary Jones said. “They’d just boil the eggs and put them in the pasta sauce.”
This year, Nina Jones is going to try her hand at making Italian fig cookies, known as cucidati, she said.
“Both of our grandmothers made them, but they never taught us,” she said. “But I found a recipe in a cookbook by an Italian lady who is in her mid-90s, and her cookies look a lot like my grandmother’s.”
Family members attending this year range in age from 7 months to those in their late 70s.
“My dad is 103, and now lives in assisted living, so he won’t be joining us, because he doesn’t like to get away from his routine,” Nina Jones said.
As for the younger generation carrying on the tradition, that’s yet to be determined.
“I keep all the recipes, instructions and timelines in a big notebook, so they will have that,” Nina Jones said. “If they want to continue the tradition, fine; if not, they’ll have the memories.”
– Story by Sue Mayfield Geiger
5 (15-ounce) canisters Progresso Italian-style bread crumbs
5 (8-ounce) canisters Kraft grated Parmesan and Romano cheese
A few bulbs of garlic (reserve 1 clove for each artichoke and chop the rest)
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix bread crumbs, cheese, chopped garlic, salt and pepper and set aside. Cut off 1 inch of leaves at top of artichokes and cut off the stems to make a flat bottom. Snip all spiky tips with scissors from the outer leaves, pulling the leaves apart to loosen.
Put 1 garlic clove in the center of each artichoke, then put artichokes in 2 large baking pans filled with 1 inch of water. Cover the artichokes with the bread crumb mixture making sure it gets into all crevices of the leaves.
Generously drizzle olive oil over the artichokes and cover with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes; then turn oven down to 300 F for 3 hours. Test whether they’re ready by removing a center leaf of the artichoke.
Whole artichokes are eaten by removing one leaf at a time, pulling through your teeth to remove the soft, pulpy portion of the petal, discarding the remainder. After all the leaves are gone, remove the fuzzy center choke with a knife and eat the bottom, which is the tasty heart of the artichoke.
ITALIAN PIZZA BREAD
4 boxes of hot roll mix (mix according to directions)
4 ounces canned anchovies, drained
1 (.75 ounce) jar of dried oregano leaves
4 green onions, chopped
1½ (8-ounce) canisters grated Parmesan cheese
Divide dough in half and press onto 2 oiled 17-by-11-inch sheet pans. Let dough rise according to box directions. Separate anchovies, cut in half and press into the dough.
Top with oregano, green onions and Parmesan cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 350 F for 16-18 minutes or until brown. Cut into squares and serve.
‘A well-presented table’
Rico Caminos’ well-scrubbed kitchen smells of spices, olive oil and fresh pasta dough. In his domain — Riondo’s Italian Restaurant, 23rd and Strand in Galveston’s downtown — everything is fresh. Even the mozzarella is made in-house.
A seasoned chef with elegant hands and a ready smile, Caminos works six days a week. For him, creating delicious food for hungry customers is never drudgery, it’s a calling.
“Everyday is a challenge,” he said. “The more I know about the kitchen, the more there is to know. But I’m lucky because I love what I do.”
Though his parents were both from Europe — his mother from Italy and his father from Spain, Caminos grew up in Argentina.
The holidays of his youth were spent across the Atlantic, on his maternal grandmother’s farm in Tuscany with a vast, extended family, always cooking together. There, he milked the cows, learned to make pasta and was introduced to family specialties.
“For the holiday, we make a wood fire and grill a pig for many hours,” he said. “We would paint it with olive oil, fresh garlic, parsley and lemons. The taste was phenomenal.”
The familial feast was served with a salad of fresh tomatoes and onions tossed with a homemade vinaigrette, along with a plethora of fresh pasta, some with a savory stuffing, others sweet.
“My grandmother made the cannolis and stuffed them with ricotta cheese, or Italian crème and chocolate, or vanilla and sugar,” he said.
There also were almond cookies, fresh biscotti, orange and caramel candy — the stuff of sugarplum visions.
The memory of these confections is still fresh, even now that he has sons of his own.
Caminos will spend this Christmas with his wife, Susanna, in Galveston, where they’ve lived for 37 years. All his children and grandchildren will be home for the holidays, he said.
“We will have twinkling lights and a well-presented table,” he said.
But the occasion is more about the family preferences than past tradition, he said. His menu reflects a life spent around the globe.
“Perhaps I’ll prepare a cioppino or osso bucco. There will be fresh pasta, homemade sausage and sweets,” he said.
Even at home, Caminos is the chef de cuisine.
“My sons all have good jobs and I am proud of them,” he said. “They can cook, but they don’t have the love of the kitchen in their blood.”
– Story by Marsha Canright
RICO’s SEAFOOD CIOPPINO
Red pepper flakes
15 mussels, must be closed
5 fresh tomatoes, diced
1 cup dry white wine
5 large sea scallops
10 3-ounce pieces fish (snapper)
Sauté fresh garlic and olive oil with a little salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes in a large stockpot over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant.
Add 15 clams and 15 mussels — must be closed or out they go — and 5 fresh tomatoes, diced and fresh basil; stir. Cook until it’s slightly dark, a few minutes.
Add 1 cup of dry white wine, and cook, stirring until the liquid is gone, about 10-15 minutes. Add five big sea scallops. Simmer for a few minutes.
Final touch: Add 12 shrimp and 10 3-ounce pieces of fresh fish (snapper) and cover the pot.
Let it simmer about 5-10 minutes — you don’t want the fish to be overcooked. Then add salt and pepper to taste and serve over a fresh ziti pasta.
Carrying on a culinary tradition
When Chef Anthony Russo remembers his family’s holiday traditions, it’s all about food. With relish, he recalls the aroma of fresh cannoli pasta shells and homemade tomato sauce bubbling for hours on his grandmother’s stove.
“When she wasn’t looking, I’d sneak a cannoli pasta before it even had the ricotta and chocolate stuffing — it was that good,” he said.
Russo’s grandparents both immigrated from Italy; his grandmother from Naples and his grandfather from Sicily. They met and married in New Jersey and bought a little house in Paterson.
It was there that dozens of family members and friends gathered on Christmas Eve for a large Italian meal served in the basement.
“My grandmother cooked for three days to prepare for our family feast,” Russo said. “She made everything from scratch, everything fresh, with Italian herbs from her backyard garden. That’s what makes the flavor.”
The abundant menu starred arancini, lasagna, risotto, chestnuts, osso bucco, prosciutto and fig pizza, wine and cheese. Afterward, they attended midnight Mass.
Russo was only 12 when his parents moved to Galveston and opened an Italian restaurant on Seawall Boulevard. In a new place, they remained invested in their culinary heritage, he said.
“My mama and papa used to bring chefs from Italy to Galveston every summer,” he said. “They would stay with us and cook. I loved hanging out in the kitchen with the chefs, helping and learning.”
After graduating from Ball High School in Galveston, Russo opened a New York-style pizzeria in Jamaica Beach — with only two tables. He worked as the manager and the chef, making his own meatballs and pizza dough, although his mother helped when she could.
“I have always focused on the quality of the food — fresh and simple,” he said. “I never cut corners.”
The restaurant flourished and he opened two more pizzerias, one in Houston’s midtown and another at the medical center. He now owns seven Russo’s New York Pizzeria restaurants and has franchised another 42, including, seven in Dubai. He also operates a catering business providing sheet pans of baked ziti, chicken Parmigiana and scratch-made meatballs.
Every Russo restaurant makes the pizza with fresh ingredients and their own dough — nothing comes pre-packaged. For the flavors he loves, Russo imports his olive oil from Sicily and the cheesecake from Rocco’s Bakery on Bleecker Street in New York.
For the restaurateur, tradition counts.
Now Russo celebrates the holidays with his family in Houston: his mother, Gabrielle, and his stepfather, his wife Andrea and their five children, including their 8-year-old triplets.
“We have the traditional Christmas tree and stockings,” he said. “We send the kids to bed early, but when Santa comes at midnight, we wake them up.”
The next day, more than 40 family members and friends will gather at their home for Christmas dinner, he said.
Russo will be cooking the old recipes, sticking to tradition — with a few experimental additions, he said.
“My savory truffle mushroom pizza, for one,” he said.
– Story by Marsha Canright
Traditional Italian comfort food, osso bucco is a dish of cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth. Chef Anthony Russo, owner of Russo’s New York Pizzeria, garnishes this dish with a simple gremolata and recommends serving with either risotto à la Milanese or polenta.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook time: 90-105 minutes
4 10- to 12-ounce veal shanks, cut into 11⁄2-inch lengths
11⁄2 teaspoons salt
1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
1⁄2 cup flour
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
2 cups dry white wine
1 cup beef stock or canned broth
1 (14-ounce) can Italian peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped
1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 garlic cloves
Minced grated zest of 1 lemon
Trim excess fat from veal. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Dredge in flour; shake off excess. In a nonreactive Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add as many pieces of veal as will fit in the Dutch oven without crowding and cook, turning, 8 to 10 minutes, until browned on all sides. Remove and repeat until all veal is cooked, adding 2 more tablespoons of oil if pan becomes dry.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in same pan over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 4 minutes, or until onion is softened. Add wine, broth, tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of parsley and remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Return veal to pan, bring to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 1 hour, or until fork-tender. Remove veal shanks to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
Skim off fat from surface of pan juices. Boil uncovered until liquid is reduced to 3 cups. Meanwhile, toss together remaining ¼ cup parsley, garlic and grated lemon zest to make a gremolata. When sauce is reduced, return veal to pan and reheat. Serve with gremolata sprinkled over top.
Gnocchi is a traditional type of Italian pasta that has been around since Roman times. Characterized by its texture, which can vary from very light to doughy, this simple dish is sure to delight. Potato dumplings have a heavier texture and taste fantastic with butter and a light dusting of fresh Parmesan.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
4 pounds of small baking potatoes
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour, or more as needed
Finish: melted butter, grated Parmesan cheese and pepper, or Bolognese or marinara sauce or pesto.
Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water over medium heat for 25 to 30 minutes, or until tender; drain. Peel potatoes and return to pot. Using a potato masher, mash potatoes over very low heat, letting them dry out as you mash them. Make sure no lumps remain.
In a large bowl, combine mashed potatoes, egg yolks, salt and 1½ cups of flour. Turn mixture onto a clean work surface dusted with ½ cup of flour. Knead for several minutes, kneading in flour as necessary, until a soft dough forms. Divide dough into quarters. Dust work surface with remaining 2 tablespoons of flour, as needed. With your palms, roll dough into ¾-inch-thick ropes, then cut into 1-inch pieces.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook 1-quarter of the gnocchi at a time. When gnocchi rise to the surface of the water, remove with a slotted spoon to a warm serving bowl. Toss with melted butter, Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Or serve gnocchi with Bolognese, marinara sauce or pesto.
A coastal Christmas Eve
When islanders Teffeny and Frank Caruso set their holiday table for this year’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, it will be a poignant time of both celebration and remembrance.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition with its roots in Southern Italy. As the name suggests, the feast inspires families to share a sumptuous meal of fish and shellfish dishes. Traditionally held on Christmas Eve, it’s in the Roman Catholic tradition of fasting or serving meatless meals before a day of feasting.
As with many holiday traditions, the composition of the feast changes from family to family. Some might celebrate with dishes made with seven different types of seafood, some with two fishes served seven ways, while others celebrate with multiple seafood courses; seven for the sacraments, 10 for the Stations of the Cross or even 13 dishes in honor of Jesus and the Apostles.
For the Carusos, this year’s Feast of Seven Fishes will have special significance because it’s the first time they’ll be celebrating without Frank’s father, Frank Caruso Sr., who passed away in March.
“My father came to visit us a few years ago and we took him to Number 13 for Christmas Eve and ordered their tower of seafood,” Frank Caruso said. “He was at the end of his life and not eating much of anything at all, but he devoured this dish. It was so special to see him enjoying himself.”
This led to a new family tradition that saw the trio celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes with a tower of seafood from Number 13, a Galveston restaurant. This year, in honor of her father-in-law, Teffeny Caruso is preparing her own feast, she said.
“It’s just the two of us now, so we can’t eat seven different dishes,” she said. “Instead, I’m making two dishes with an abundance of Gulf Coast seafood. I thought it was the best way to get in at least seven different types of seafood.”
Her Christmas Eve table will feature her own take on a tower of seafood along with steaming bowls of cioppino, a traditional Italian seafood stew.
Nestled on ice, her seafood tower is built with giant crab and crab claws from Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston, and Louisiana shrimp cooked in a traditional boil mix. At the center is a dish of poke, a Hawaiian-style raw fish salad of tuna in a soy sauce dressing. She has put her own luxurious twist on the salad by spiking it with caviar.
The cioppino also has her own flavor twist. The fennel flavor is ramped up with the addition of both fresh fennel and fennel seeds and the hearty seafood flavors come from fresh Gulf Coast snapper and mussels. Finally, she splashes her favorite rosé Champagne into the stew.
“I love to celebrate with a glass of rosé Champagne, so it is a nice complement to have it in the cioppino.”
– Story by Shannon Caldwell
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup sliced fennel
½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
2 teaspoons chopped thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry Champagne
2 cups crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1½ cups seafood stock
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup flat leaf parsley, divided
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1 pound of mussels
½ pound skinless snapper cut into 1-inch pieces
½ shrimp (medium sized and tail-on)
In a large pot over medium heat, melt butter and heat oil. Add the red onion, fennel, thyme and celery and stir for 8-10 minutes. Add garlic, pepper flakes, bay leaf and tomato paste stirring constantly for 1-2 more minutes. Add dry Champagne and reduce by half over 5 minutes.
Add tomatoes and seafood stock and bring to boil. Simmer 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. When ready to serve, add mussels, shrimp and fish and cook for 5 minutes. Add parsley before serving. Serve with crusty gremolata toast and pair with a brut rosé Champagne.
2 tablespoons of butter, softened
2 tablespoons of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
½ a tablespoon of lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, minced
Mix the butter, parsley and lemon zest. Add the garlic to the mixture and spread on a crusty bread such as a baguette.