Early in the 20th century, Christina Pitarra of Calabria, Italy, scraped enough money together for passage to America for one. She sent her son Pasquale Pitarra in hopes that he, at least, could forge a better life. Pitarra, probably about 20, took a portrait of his mother off the wall of their home, wrapped it in a blanket and put it in his steamer trunk for the trip to New York.
Eventually, he settled in Dupont, got a job as a miner, married and had 11 children. He raised most of them himself after his wife died, feeding them with the gardening and cooking skills he had learned from his mother.
Many of those 11 children stayed in the Greater Pittston area and created an extended family – aunts, uncles and cousins – who still live in West Pittston, Dupont and the Old Boston section of Pittston.
Fast forward two generations. The portrait has been handed down to Pitarra's great-granddaughter Linda Maniscalco. The paper cover on the back of the portrait was so old, it was disintegrating, Maniscalco wrote in an email. I took the portrait to a photo repair shop.
When the frame was removed, Christina Pitarra's hand-written recipes were discovered behind the portrait.
Those recipes became the basis for the book Italian Christmas Eve: The Feast of Seven Fishes written by Maniscalco and her husband, Rocco. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian Christmas tradition that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes.
But the Maniscalco book is more than a cookbook. It features original artwork, family stories and traditions And the recipes are not limited to seven fishes, but include appetizers, side dishes, desserts, Italian cookies and celebratory beverages and toasts, including a the toast stata buon Italian for stay well.
The book reveals that Christina Pitarra was way ahead of her time. Her garden-to-table recipes use what today are called organically-grown foods for a green lifestyle.
Her recipes and traditions inspired us to preserve our Italian American heritage of food, faith and family, Maniscalco said. My relatives taught me everything about cooking and baking. Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins are the best home cooks and accomplished bakers. I spent practically every holiday growing up visiting the coal region back home and even now my husband Rocco and our children and their Nonna, Martha Pitarra, enjoy visiting descendents of the Pitarra family, who are among the best of the best in the kitchen.
The book includes endorsement blurbs by Archbishop Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Bishop Bambera of Scranton.
The book costs $12.95 and is available at all Gerrity's Markets, the Guild Catholic Bookstore in Scranton and online at the Maniscalco website at Statabuon.com.