When I spot Nonna’s Fiat 127 across the ice-cream parlour, my heart skips a few beats. I tug at my white denim miniskirt, desperate to unpin the hem I shortened on my way here. She’s followed me before, watching and spying my teenage world, but this is the first time she doesn’t hide behind one of her Christian magazines with happy families on the cover.
She waves, summons me aboard.
Has something happened? I ask, worried that she’ll say something about my clothes (I was wearing trousers when I left her house).
She shakes her head and takes the longest route back to the beach where she lives, in an old house surrounded by old pines.
Once in her kitchen, she pulls her apron from a cupboard and throws a new one at me.
We’re making cappelletti, she announces.
But Christmas is four months away! I protest, thinking of the boy I won’t get to see this afternoon.
I know, silly, but I won’t be there this time.
What do you mean? Where will you be?
In a place no one wants to visit, not even those believing it actually exists.
Nonna tends to speak in riddles when she is not ordering people around like a retired officer desperate to regain some purpose. My grandfather stepping on a mine a month into their marriage may have something to do with it. At eighteen, she was a pregnant widow in a country plagued by a civil war. I’ve been mourning Freddie Mercury for the past nine months.
After emptying a sack of flour onto her marble counter, Nonna digs a hole in the middle. With her left hand, she cracks egg by egg against the stone and drops them in.
A pinch of salt, a teardrop of olive oil, and plenty of elbow grease, she says, gesturing for me to help her.
I push the flour from the edges into the hole and mix it quickly with the tip of my fingers until it has absorbed all the eggs. I don’t like the way the dough clings to my fingernails, crusts on my hands. Some people enjoy the honesty of kneading, pushing, shaping matter into food. I just feel clumsy and dirty and after a couple of minutes I run to wash my hands in the sink.
You’re not done, Nonna says.
Can’t we use an electric beater?
No, you need to feel it. Come here, look at me.
Her shirt’s sleeves rolled above her elbows, she digs her hands in the yellow, floured dough and pummels it, as if she means to kill it. Under her effort, the lumpy blob becomes a smooth globe, taut and fierce. She sprinkles flour on it, then puts it to rest in the fridge while she gets the meat for the filling.
A pound of minced browned veal, grated Parmesan, salt and a pinch of nutmeg. Don’t forget the nutmeg, understood?
I watch her grind the cooked meat, grate the nutmeg, whose sweet-earthy notes quickly fill the air around us. She makes me retrieve the dough from the fridge, roll it into a thin sheet, spoon dollops of filling on it, equidistant like stars on a handmade quilt.
Together, we cover it with another sheet of dough, we cut dozens of squares, each with the dollop at its centre.
She’s softened her tone as she teaches me her moves and I’ve lost my sass.
We push the filling in one corner of the square and fold it in half to make a triangle. Then we bring the two ends together and pinch them close, until we have one, two, three, a hundred perfect cappelletti, ready to be cooked in guinea-hen broth on Christmas day.
When we’re done, and the cappelletti are aligned on a floured tea cloth on the kitchen counter, my grandmother sweeps her forehead with the back of her hand and lets herself collapse on a stool.
Do you remember everything you’ve done? She asks, regaining for a second her commanding tone.
I think so.
Would you be able to do it all over again?
With some practice, yes. I hope.
Good. I have three months left, she says. The day you’ll bury me, you have to start making them or you won’t have enough for Christmas. It’s fifteen per person, remember that. Twenty if you have hungry people at your table, or teenagers.
Later that night, we turn the fan on and eat flaming hot cappelletti in Knorr broth. My grandmother’s fingernails are still covered in dried dough and I wish mine were too.