15a-Station Break: Sunday Afternoon Dinner in an Italian-American household

In North Boston, Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day (1969)

When this commercial was made, Uncle Sammy and his first wife Annie lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York. I attended New Utrecht High School and lived at home on 79th Street in Dyker Heights. The predominant ethnic group was Italian-American but the customs were not like those depicted in this commercial. Wednesday was a weekday. Children had to do homework and get to bed early. Parents had to clean-up and get ready for the next day. Meals were never so elaborate during the week. The scenes depicted in this commercial were more typical of dinner during a Sunday afternoon amongst the families we knew in our part of Brooklyn.

Relationship Notes

Sabato Serrapede was the son of Gennaro and Emilia (nee Pappalardo) Serrapede.  Josie Muro was the daughter of Nicola and Letizia (nee Scotti) Muro.

Jose and Sabato married in 1930. They were:

–Sammy’s parents
–EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandparents

My Memories of Sunday Afternoon Dinners

Sunday was the day when all the stores were closed because the Blue Laws were still in effect. These laws required certain places of business like bars to be closed because it was the Sabbath day. There were restaurants that were open but little else. There was a sense of stillness and a suspension of the routine we lived during the rest of the week.

Among the people I knew, families went to church if they were religious.  Others got into their cars early for a drive to someplace like Shore Road where they’d relax and enjoy themselves.

In the Italian American community the Sunday afternoon dinner was the main social event of the day. Preparations began on Friday . Shopping was done between Friday and Saturday afternoon. The tomato sauce was started Saturday night in some households or early Sunday morning in others.

Life went at a slower pace and Sundays provided the perfect time to catch up on what was happening in the family. It was also a way to hear the old stories the first generation told and a chance for the second and third generation Italian-Americans to tell the stories of what was happening in their lives. These dinners provided a time to strengthen ties to heritage and group identity. I remember them as a kind of spiritual vitamin pill during the stressful times of the late 1960s. At that time there was so much conflict between the older and younger generation over issues like the Vietnam war, America’s role overseas, and the struggle for equal opportunity for people of color and women. Even when the discussions turned to these topics the older generation in our family had a sense of give and take along with respect that enabled the flow to go back and forth. There were never any personal attacks made on someone who expressed a different point of view.

Instead a challenge was offered up to state why that viewpoint was so important and how would the person they voted for implement it. Our relatives were well read and very well informed keeping up with current events through the radio and TV. However, they never adopted wholeheartedly the words and thoughts of others. They had learned to ask questions and get a variety of answers then make a decision. I credit this ability to the difficult lives they led where patience and consideration in all things was a necessity. The idea of repeating verbatim the point of view of a newscaster or famous person was unheard of.

The words “Sunday Dinner” always bring back vivid memories of my maternal Grandparents Sam and Josie Serrapede. I have good memories of my Paternal Grandparent’s Sunday dinners, too. My paternal Grandma Blanche had many guests on Sunday. After Grandpa Al’s death in 1963, when I was 10 years old, those dinners occurred at my paternal Aunt Maureen’s apartment. They were very warm and loving get-togethers but did not happen with the frequency of Grandma Josie’s dinners. My paternal Grandmother began a new life which included volunteer work and going on cruises to Israel or the Caribbean. As a teenager, I needed the steadying influence and reassurance these weekly dinners brought. This is why Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam, their home and the time spent there are most associated with these memories.

My parents only cooked multi-course meals for holidays like Thanksgiving or birthday parties. The menu was heavy on the meat and carbs. Autumn was the season when my parents reciprocated for all the entertainment the other relatives provided during the year. Since my Mother had returned to the workforce she rarely had time or interest to cook with the passion Grandma Josie did.

New Year’s Eve, circa 1981 or 82 at Josie and Sam’s house. From left to right: Josie, Sam, Annie (Sammy’s 1st wife), and Sammy.

 Grandma Josie and my Mom (Josie’s daughter, Emily Leatrice), circa early Spring 1982.

Grandma Josie’s dining room looked something like the one in the Prince Spaghetti commercial except for the flocked wallpaper. The tablecloth was always clean and covered with a clear plastic table cloth on top of it for protection.  When the weather was good Grandma Josie would set out chairs in the backyard where we could relax and have iced coffee and pastries later. If the weather was bad we were free to take a nap in one of the several beds she had up in the attic.

The Typical Sunday Meal

–First Course-pasta with meat sauce.

Grandma Josie sometime made her own pasta and manicotti from scratch.

The tomato sauce was flavored with meatballs and pork sausage. Sometimes she made braciole, a kind of Italian steak, and added that to the sauce.

–Every so often, Grandma Josie made a second course, usually broiled chicken.

One dish that stands out for me is Grandma Josie’s Chicken Oreganata. Before broiling the chicken she’d baste it with lemon juice and oregano.

–Garlic Bread
–Wine (any time)
–Espresso or Coffee
–Stella d’Oro cookies and fresh fruit in season.

During the summer we had figs from the little fig tree in the backyard.

Josie sometimes omitted these parts of the traditional Italian dinner:


We rarely had an antipasto, a platter of meats, cheeses and vegetables over which olive oil and vinegar are poured.

Festive Sunday Dinners

For Easter Sunday, lamb was served as the second course. Dessert consisted of wheat pie and espresso. Our family had the espresso with either sugar and twist of lemon peel or straight with a shot of Anisette.

On Palm Sunday the dinner fare was more in keeping with the usual Sunday dinner. Sometimes we had homemade pasta. I remember Grandma Josie rolling the dough out on top of a large cutting board she placed on top of the old Formica kitchen table. She had a little cutting wheel from which she cut very straight ribbons of dough. I’d carry these into her bedroom where a special sheet was laid on top of her bed. The window would be open so the pasta could dry a little before being cooked.

Christmas Eve Dinner

This was the one dinner of the year where Grandpa Sam got involved. He’d be in the background getting the ladder from the basement and helping hang the decorations around the windows and the chandelier. Grandma Josie would place her orders for seafood, cheeses and meats with the different shops on 11th Avenue. She’d give Grandpa Sam a list of other items to pick-up along the way on some days. On other days they’d go out with the shopping cart together to bring other food items home.

It never mattered what day of the week Christmas Eve fell on, we’d all be there. During a work week the dinner began about 7:30 or 8 p.m. to give everyone enough time to get home from work.

My Mom would help with shelling the shrimp or cutting the vegetables for the salad and cleaning up. The preparation of the sauce took many hours due to the variety of fish that had to be cooked separately before being added to the sauce. Grandma called the dinner “Frutta del Mare” which means fruit of the sea. We sometimes had octopus in the salad.

Grandma Josie’s nephew Tino D’Ambrosio came with his family for dessert each Christmas Eve when he lived in Brooklyn. Tino was the older son of Grandma Josie’s sister Rosie. Tino was accompanied by his wife Susan and daughters Rosemary and Florence.

Dessert was another area where my Grandmother surpassed even the chefs at restaurants I’ve dined at today. She made her own struffule, a kind of honey ball to which she added grated orange and lemon zest, candied cherries and multicolored sprinkles. We had these accompanied by a dessert liqueur and espresso.

At midnight we’d attend mass at Regina Pacis Church. After mass Grandma’s sister Florrie, nephew Alfred and brother-in-law Freddie sometimes joined us. Gifts were exchanged and heartfelt expressions of our love and best wishes were given to each other for the year ahead.

Grandma Josie always invited my paternal Grandma Blanche and Aunt Maureen to her Christmas Eve dinners. There were many years they joined in and are part of my memories of the good food, wonderful times and the amazing generosity and love my Grandmother extended to the people in her life.

Monday afternoon and evening: Leftovers

Grandma Josie always made enough food for the entire week. She sent us home with a large care package wrapped in aluminum foil. Sometimes my Mom froze the meatballs. She’d defrost and then use the meatballs with the Ragu sauce when preparing a quick meal on those Sundays we did not visit Grandma Josie. Other times we had meatball hero sandwiches for lunch on Monday and the leftover pasta on Monday night. If we also came home with some chicken or fish those were reheated on Tuesday. Since everything was made from scratch and only with fresh ingredients having left-overs a day or two after the Sunday dinner was still a pleasant dining experience during the week.

My Updates to the Tradition when Mom was with me

After my parent’s divorce in late 1980 my Mom no longer wanted to spend time cooking. In the mid-1980s when there were just the two of us living together I started adapting the Sunday routine of making a pasta dinner for us. I liked the way Mom looked forward to it and we planned the desserts together. While I made the sauce, Mom went to get the tarts or pastries. By this time the Blue Laws in New York City were repealed. On Sundays, there was more activity in the streets since a growing number of supermarkets, Laundromats, gas stations, bars and other businesses were open.

Mom and I choose recipes that were very different from those Grandma Josie created. I only realize now that the concept of Sunday afternoons together was changing with the times. Here are some of those changes we made:

–Instead of wine we had sparkling mineral water.

–We studied different cookbooks in search of an alternative to sauces that got most of their flavors from meat. The recipe from one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks Mom bought me had a recipe for marinara sauce we thought was made in a very unusual way. After shelling the shrimps, the shells were sautéed and then removed before adding the tomatoes and red wine. The shrimps were prepared separately and added to the sauce later. The sauce was served over angel hair pasta. It was very tasty and very light.

–When we wanted more time for napping or a walk after lunch we made pita bread pizza with fresh mozzarella, basil and Linda McCartneys quick tomato sauce.

A sample of other Sunday menus Mom and I enjoyed:

–Linda McCartney’s quick tomato sauce with eggplant parmigiano, salad, garlic bread.

–Linda McCartney’s stuffed peppers (with golden raisins, rice and pignoli nuts), semolina bread, fresh fruit for dessert.

–Pasta with Linda McCartney’s homemade basil pesto that included pignoli nuts. Vine ripened tomatoes as a side dish. Fresh fruit for dessert.

–Chez Panisse cold pasta salad with vinaigrette dressing that included cherry tomatoes and parsley.

During the mid-1980s to early 1990s we lived one block away from Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam. We often went to visit them and had dessert there.

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday June 21, 2015, 11:00 – 11:45 a.m.

 Uncle Sammy shared his memories about dinnertime on Sunday or a holiday.

 –Uncle Sammy remembers the Christmas Eve dinners in the same way I do. He added that he does not care for seafood. There was always a special dish made just for him such as macaroni with butter and grated cheese. On Christmas day he had dinner at the home of Willie and Frances Romano, the parents of his first wife, Annie.

–When he was growing up, Uncle Sammy said Josie followed the same meal plan every week with only a few variations. The following was a typical weekly meal plan:

—Sunday: Macaroni or spaghetti with homemade sauce, meatballs, sausage, salad, Italian bread.

—Monday: A meat dish, or frittata, or chicken.

—Tuesday: A meal was made using up the rest of the tomato sauce. It might be pasta or eggplant parmagiana.

—Wednesday: Changeable from week to week. Might be macaroni and butter with grated cheese.

—Thursday: Any leftover sausage, meatballs or other meat that was used for the Sunday sauce was now used.

—Friday: On Fridays, Catholics abstained from meat. Josie made fish or lentil soup.

—Saturday: Veal Chops.

–Uncle Sammy sometimes makes a pot of sauce but does not do it from scratch. He will enhance the flavor of a prepared marinara sauce by adding onions, garlic and basil along with sausage meat he crumbles into the mix after removing the casing. He also adds canned tomatoes and lets the sauce simmer for a half-hour.

–Uncle Sammy and Aunt Kathie do not follow any set meal pattern for Sundays. They prefer to dine out or heat up prepared meals a special service makes and delivers to the house.

–After my Mom’s demise I put away the Chez Panisse and Linda McCartney cookbooks. Sunday mornings are now dedicated to the family history project which she requested I initiate.


Prince Spaghetti Commercial, 1969
The URL is (https://youtu.be/KlNAYCcxgUw)

Recommended Reading

Some of these bloggers include recipes. Enjoy!

Adventures of the Mommy Homemaker

Italian Sunday Dinner Tradition Goes On
October 30, 2011


Back Road Journal

Classic Italian Sunday Feast
Posted May 7, 2012



Skinny Chef: Make Italian Sunday dinner recipes healthier with minor changes
by Jennifer Iserloh, Skinny Chefm November 1, 2013


Food Blogga

Bring Back Sunday Dinner
April 27, 2007


Italy Chronicles

Italian Sunday Lunch
February 6, 2009
By Alex Roe


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