SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES
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 sconsiglio. Scungilli 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.”
“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.