Joseph Bocchicchio

THE SUBSTITUTE SISTER                 

                               “Our memories are searching for a way home from the wilderness.”

                                                                                                                                 Li Jinfa (1900-1976)

I was a mama’s boy. I don’t recall, but was reminded often, how on the first day of school my mother had to drag me into the classroom as I slobbered and bawled.  It was a bad start for a troubled kid prone to trouble from the get-go. My mom, a kind and beautiful woman, plagued by poverty, four children and a passionate but unreliable husband put me in the hands of the good Sisters for what was to become 12 years of Catholic education, first by Nuns, then by Priests. I was a poor student from the beginning. I could not follow directions, I talked out of turn, was reprimanded often and was easily moved to tears. I angered the Nuns and my mother. I colored outside the lines using only black.  I hated going to school, I hated returning home. I felt cursed.

I was smart and knew how to read before I started kindergarten. However I could neither focus nor sit still, and worse yet, I was willful and sullen. I no longer cried when punished, even when struck by the Nuns with the hard wooden paddle. I often day dreamed, looking out the window imagining the lives behind the clotheslines that draped the tenements across the alley or sat drawing what I thought to be the interior organs of the human body. “He’s intelligent”, my mother was told, “but he’s lazy.” “He just doesn’t want to do the lessons.”  My homework, never started, rotted in the bottom of my school bag.                 

This was a world of large families in tight knit neighborhoods, divided by class, race and ethnicity, all cramped into the towering concrete upsurge of New York City. These were the days of Sputnik and Telstar, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were often drilled; herded down to the school basement in the event of an atomic war. At age eight I knew that crouching underground would not save me from the Bomb.  I was certain that the war would start and certain that the world would end.

I think I was always an atheist.  I had a dream, back then, that the school yard was filled with Nuns frantically running to and fro, jerking about like puppets. I was horrified and lunged at one tearing off her habit only to find the crucified Christ.  I awoke instantly. At school the next day I stared up at the looming figure of my teacher, Sister Phillip Mary, then to the cross upon the wall and back to the Nun. She looked down at me. I noticed her upper lip. It was hairy.

She fell ill and for a short time and I had a substitute Sister who’s name I cannot remember. I recall that she was young, beautiful and kind. She brought a dynamism to the classroom as she energetically wrote on the board going from topic to topic yet always seeming to keep on the subject at hand. At one point she mimicked the lumbering gait of a gorilla. I was fascinated. Soon she was talking about an ancient Greek and a cave and shadows and light and then about a chariot drawn by two horses and passion and reason and a man who flew too close to the sun and fell back to the earth as his wings were not his own and somehow I got it, I got it all and I knew that there was another truth beyond the grim tale of sin, punishment, and blind obedience to the rules of God and man. 

Sister Phillip Mary returned and the dull economy of rote learning came with her. I remained an intractable student, even more so. I was exiled to the “slow class”. I continued to not pay attention, not do my homework, to talk out of turn, shout out answers that no one else knew and draw the organs of the human body. Now, however, I had a spark, a secret joy within me. I had an inkling of who I was; someone smart and not always good.  I was reading the encyclopedia from A to Z and library books on archeology, science, history and poetry. I radiated defiance.  I was on another path, perhaps to hell, but one of my one choosing.  


Joseph Bocchicchio was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, NYC. He moved to Ohio and attended Kent State University where he studied History, Philosophy and Public Health.  While in Ohio he met and married his wife Victoria. They have two children, now grown with kids of their own. Joseph worked for 24 years in Community Mental Health in Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. Joe is also an activist and community organizer having facilitated Poverty, Creative Writing and Theater of the Oppressed Workshops for the indigent and working poor. He also did grass roots organizing for opiate addiction treatment and suicide prevention for the Last Letter Project in Akron, Ohio. Joe is now retired and living in Boston, Massachusetts with Victoria. Joe works part time for The Old South Meeting House Museum and Historic Site where he researches and does presentations on various historical topics. His poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Cut-Throat, Up-street, Jawbone, Entropy, Panning for Poems, Enclave, and The Daily Clout. He also has an entry in a Wick Poetry Center’s Chap Book, River of Words, from the 2017 Edith Chase Symposium conducted at Kent State University. He also has poetry accepted for Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center’s Traveling Stanzas project.

Guido’s Corner


by Mike Fiorito

When I am a teenager, my father makes Linguine Vongole before my mother gets home from work.   While he makes dinner, my brother and sisters are setting the table.  I’m in charge of tossing the salad.  Just home from work himself, my father puts dinner together quickly.  First, he slices garlic, sautés it in olive oil, then pours a can of Il Progresso white clam sauce in the pot. 

“Getting it in the can is easier,” my father says. “And you don’t have to clean the clams, which isn’t an easy task.”

Making fun of the name of the dish, I call it Linguine Baffanculo, or linguine go fuck yourself in English.

What’s interesting about my father’s (& mother’s) recipe for Linguine Vongole is that it’s very simple and very easy to make and its very delicious.  You boil water, sauté the white (or red) clam sauce in olive oil and presto its ready.  It never occurs to me that we’re eating food that comes from a can. And why would it?  My parents are working people; they don’t have time to prepare elaborate meals during the work week, although sometimes they still do. 

Only later I realize that our family eats in the tradition of Southern Italian cooking.  That is, food made quickly with what’s available on hand. There isn’t a lot of fuss about how fresh the clams are.  It makes a delicious dinner for six in thirty minutes.

Then for holidays, my mother makes scungilli, using canned scungilli, adding garlic sautéed in olive oil.  Although scungilli can be amazingly simple to put together it is extremely tasty.  The pale, white flesh has a texture like calamari.  Some serve it simply in a salad with some garlic, sliced onion, red pepper flakes, lemon, oil, and vinegar. The dark outer layer, removed mostly for aesthetic purposes, is a great addition to a simple pasta with marinara sauce.  Whether served chilled in an insalata di mare or hot in a marinara sauce, scungilli is a staple of Italian American cuisine.   

“Your father liked it with oil and vinegar; my brother, your uncle, liked it with spicy marinara sauce.  So I made it both ways.”

“How do you like it?” I ask.

“I never ate it.  I hated it.”

The word scungilli is the Neapolitan dialect word for conch, which is sconsiglioScungilli has a pleasant briny flavor and a dense, meaty texture. Reminiscent of a time when Neapolitans live near the ocean, conch was once eaten fresh.  Today, it can be hard to find fresh conch; it’s found sold in Italian markets, stores like D. Coluccio & Sons, partially cooked and frozen or in cans.  My mother insists on buying the Lamonica brand.  

“You can have it in your closet for a hundred years,” my mother says.  “When you open it, the conch will be fresh like you just caught it that day.”

And it’s true.  I pick up a can of Lamonica scungilli and then eat it many months later.  I can’t believe how fresh it tastes. 

“What’s funny,” my mother adds, “is that when you get scungilli fresh from the market, it can be rough.  Lamonica’s is always tender.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“How do I know?”  she says.  “Maybe cooking it makes it tender.”

Although they are not as popular today as calamari, or even octopus and eel, scungilli is one of the dishes Italian Americans prepare for a holiday spread, especially for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

Ironically, Crazy Joe Gallo is between plates of scungilli atUmberto’s Clam House when gunmen enter and open fire. Crazy Joe, wounded, makes it to the sidewalk and dies, leaving the world with one of the most iconic photos of a murdered Mafia boss.    

“What other seafood dishes did you make?” I ask my mother.

“I made a cold seafood salad.”

“How do you make it?”

Scungilli, scallops, shrimp, crab meat and sometimes octopus.”

“Why sometimes octopus?”

“First of all, I couldn’t always get it.  Secondly, do you know how they prepare octopus?”

I shake my head no.

“They pound it on rocks to tenderize it.  I saw that when I was a kid at the Fulton Fish Market; that image never left me.”

“That sounds horrible.”

“You’re telling me?”

“What do you put in a seafood salad?”

“After you prepare the seafood, you add diced garlic, lemon and vinegar.”

“That’s all?”

“Are you kidding me?  It costs fifty dollars, more if you add the octopus.”

“How many people does it serve for fifty dollars?”

“Six people.  It’s not a meal; it’s an appetizer.”

Years later, my father is in his last stages of pancreatic cancer.  We bring him home from the hospital.

“Just make him comfortable,” the doctor says.

“What would you like to eat?” we ask my father.  He is weak and pale, hardly able to keep his eyes open.

He feebly asks for Linguine with White Clam Sauce, Linguine Vongole.

We order the food.  No time or energy to make it. 

Now we are at the table, my mother, father, brother and two sisters, eating.

My father twirls the linguine on his fork and attempts to lift it to his mouth.  He can’t.

“Help dad,” shouts my brother Frank at me. I’m closer to my father.

“Can I help you?” I plead.

“No, I can’t eat,” my father says.

And although he doesn’t eat the Linguine Vongole, it’s the last food he’ll ever taste.   


Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project , Brownstone Poetry and others.  He is the author of Call Me Guido (Ovunque Siamo Press) and Falling From Trees (Loyola College/Apprentice House). He is a regular contributor to Ovunque Siamo.