Luigi was my grandfather. Luigi Quintiliano. Grandpa Luke is what I called him. He was quite a character, a tough guy, Italian immigrant. He left Italy, came to New York City, got his start as a tailor in a sweatshop, then got involved in the labor unions.
Luigi was an anarchist. Just so you don’t have to look it up, an anarchist is someone who doesn’t believe in government, thinks we might be better off running things on our own.
Luigi was a political activist; he helped edit the ant-Fascist Italian newspaper Il Martello, which was started by labor organizer Carlo Tresca. Tresca survived an assassination attempt by Fascists, but was later gunned down by the Mafia because he insulted a mob boss.
So I guess Luigi felt like he needed to carry a gun.
Luigi was also secretary of the Italian Committee for Political Victims, which raised money to defend Italians that had been imprisoned because of their political beliefs. Luigi helped raise funds for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists that had been accused of murder and robbery.
Most folks conclude that they were railroaded. Luigi testified at their trial. Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder in 1921. The case was appealed. For the next six years, the Sacco and Vanzetti case got worldwide attention. Protests were held in most major cities in the world.
Luigi helped raise money for the appeals process. But in 1927, the verdict was upheld, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Most scholars conclude that they were convicted because of their anarchist beliefs, not because they were guilty of murder.
Luigi wasn’t my real grandfather. My real grandfather died before I was born. Luigi was my grandmother, Angela’s…boyfriend? That sounds weird. Lover? Even weirder, especially for a grandson. They were in love, Angela and Luigi. That sounds best.
But to a lot of folks they were known as husband and wife. To us kids, he was Grandpa Luke. In the US census in 1940, they were listed as Luigi and Angela Quintiliano. Back in those days, two people in love didn’t just shack up. They usually got married if they wanted to live together. But Luigi, being an anarchist and all, didn’t believe in marriage. Even though they never got married, I know they loved each other…
Luigi had a sister, Estherina, who was a nun. She was in a convent in Italy, and then was assigned to a convent in New Jersey. Estherina wasn’t too happy about her situation in Jersey. Apparently, the convent in Italy was a lot more respectful of the nuns than the convent in Jersey. I imagine the food in the Italian convent was a little bit better, too.
Estherina was miserable.
Luigi was more than happy to help Estherina leave the convent. Luigi told Estherina that his friend, Joe, had agreed to marry her, so she could stay in this country. Luigi arranged for my uncle Oscar—Angela’s oldest son–to get her out of the convent.
So Oscar and a friend drove to Jersey, snuck Estherina out of a window, and over a wall, and they drove Estherina to Baltimore. Luigi introduced Estherina to his friend Joe, and they got married. Luigi wanted Estherina to get married in order to become a US citizen, but he didn’t want her to stay married. But something crazy happened…
Estherina and Joe fell in love. They moved up to Flushing, Queens and lived happily ever after in New York.
Luigi continued his anti-marriage crusade. When Oscar was getting ready to get married, not only was Luigi against it, Oscar’s fiancé’s family was against it. They offered Oscar money not to get married.
That didn’t work.
Oscar’s fiancé’s family threatened Luigi with a gun. Luigi said…
“You better not miss, because I never do.”
There was a lot of animosity between the families, but never any gunfire. Oscar got married anyway.
When my Dad fell in love with my Mom and wanted to get married, he brought her to meet Angela and Luigi. Luigi made a feast. He made antipasti, pasta, cutlets, sauces, meats, and he kept serving my Mom.
My Mom, being so gracious, ate what was served. Luigi was amazed that she hung in there like a real Italian. It was like he was testing her, and she passed with flying colors. Luigi loved my Mom.
But Luigi was against marriage, so I guess that’s why my Mom and Dad eloped and got married in New Orleans.
Luigi was always real sweet to me and all the grandkids. He was gentle and kind, and I remember he used to hand me silver dollars at Sunday dinners and tell me to keep my mouth shut.
Luigi took me to New York City a couple of times. He’d cross in the middle of the street, hold up his hand like he was king, and traffic would come to a screeching halt, as I gripped his other hand as hard as I could.
Luigi and Angela eventually broke up. I guess a girl can only take not being married for so long. So Angela broke it off, somewhat reluctantly. I have letters from Angela to Luigi, and they are kinda sad…I got the sense from reading those letters that Luigi wasn’t fully committed.
What a shame.
When Angela died, I was going through her stuff, and found Luigi’s gun at the bottom of a trunk. I still have it. It’s the only thing of Luigi’s I have, besides a few letters and this recipe…
Luigi used to make this dish with rabbit. I don’t know if it’s because I love Bugs Bunny so much, but I’m not a big fan of rabbit.
So when I cook this dish, I use chicken. Most times, I use organic free-range chicken, although in all the western movies I’ve seen, and in all my travels, I’ve never seen herds of wild chickens roaming the free range.
I’ve seen buffalo. I’ve seen horses. But never chickens running free out on the range.
I use chicken on the bone. I have my butcher dude chop each breast into 3 or 4 pieces, and each thigh into 2 pieces.
But when I cooked this recently for a lady people friend of mine, she mentioned that chicken cut like that would never fly in a restaurant–people might choke on the bones.
I felt like grabbing Luigi’s gun and firing a couple of rounds in the ceiling, but I didn’t. I just agreed.
And you know what? She’s probably right. So if you want to use boneless chicken breasts and thighs, go ahead. Just don’t cut them into pieces that are too small—you don’t want them falling apart. You need thick pieces. And don’t cook ‘em as long.
2 large chicken breasts, skin removed, each cut in 3 or 4 small pieces
4 chicken thighs, skin removed, each cut in two
3 dozen or so pearl onions peeled (drop in boiling water for a few minutes, remove, cut off the root end, squeeze off the skin, yields about 2 cups)
3 celery stalks, leaves cut off, diced (about 1 ½ cups)
4 white mushrooms, sliced (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary
5 garlic cloves, chopped fine (about 2 tablespoons)
1 cup red wine
3 cups chicken stock
Cognac, about 2 or 3 ounces
Extra virgin olive oil
HERE WE GO!
Rinse your chicken pieces in cold water.
Pat dry with paper towels.
Take some flour, put it on a plate.
Take each piece of chicken, and roll it in the flour, coating all sides lightly.
Do this with all the chicken.
Put some olive oil, about 3 tablespoons, in the bottom of a large pan or Dutch oven—large enough to hold EVERYTHING–over medium heat.
When it’s warm, add the chicken and the onions, don’t stir, and let them brown for 3 to 5 minutes.
Flip ‘em over and brown on the other side–don’t stir–for 3 to 5 minutes…
Remove the chicken, leave the onions in.
Take 2 or 3 ounces of cognac, add it to the onions/sauce.
Get a lighter with a long handle, and stand back! Light the cognac on fire.
When the flames die down, and your wig has stopped burning, add the mushrooms and celery.
Give ‘em a stir. Scrape the stuff off the bottom of the pan.
Let the celery and mushrooms cook for 5 minutes or more.
Add the garlic, cook for a few minutes.
Put the chicken back in the pan.
Add 2 cups of chicken stock.
Add a cup of red wine.
Add the rosemary.
Turn the heat on high.
When it comes to a boil, let it boil for a few minutes, then reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook, covered, for 30 minutes or so.
The sauce needs to be thick, like gravy. If it ain’t, take a cup of warm chicken stock, add a tablespoon of flour, and mix it up.
Add it to the sauce, gradually, until the sauce thickens.
Taste the sauce for salt and pepper and adjust.
You can serve it as is, with some crusty bread for your crusty friends…Or you can serve it over egg noodles.
Cook the egg noodles according to the instructions. Drain, put in a bowl and drizzle with a little olive oil.
Then pour some of Luigi’s chicken over the egg noodles, mick ‘em up, and…