I’m feeling lost.
One year ago today my life was very different. I was in a committed relationship. I was living in a spacious one bedroom apartment of the 19th floor of a doorman building on the Upper West Side. And I was running 6 miles a day.
Nowadays I reside in a tiny studio in Greenwich Village. I am single and standing on my own two feet. And just yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in 10 months.
Although I am happy with where I am in life and although there is no amount of money that could get me to hop on that 1 train and head back uptown– change is tough. The ups and downs of life; the breakups, the career changes, the relocations that seem to be so prevalent in this fair city – they leave me a little shaken, a little insecure and a little alone. There are moments when I feel like I am living in the land of the lost. On a few rare occasions and in certain critical or condemning company, I become so uncomfortable in my own skin that I almost feel like an immigrant in my own homeland: lost, alone, confused.
But my strife and my struggle pales in comparison to the real stories of strength and survival of those who truly are strangers in a strange land. The story of the immigrant experience in NYC – with its searching and its strivings – and the eventual fulfillment of that good old american dream – that story is one I can only stand back in awe and admire. In search of some comfort to ease my own feelings of newness, confusion and questioning in my life – I turned to someone who had experienced those same emotions – only tenfold.
I spent last Thursday evening with Raffaele Ronca, Executive Chef at Palma Restaurant, who shared his tales of his immigrant experience in New York City.
I didn’t have very far to travel to find Raffaele commanding his kitchen – only 40 paces from my front door I am welcomed inside by the brightly colored yellow and white striped awning. The color coordinated purplish-pink tulips in every corner, the wooden tabletops and the beamed ceiling transport me to another place and time. A time more reminiscent of Raffaele’s youth at home in Italy.
Nearly 20 years ago Raffaele Ronca arrived in NYC to begin anew. Born in Naples and raised by the sea, Raffaele was blessed with a good upbringing, natural talents and, above all, a lucky locale. If Italy is the country most known for its culinary delights – then Naples is the capital of that kitchen – and Raffaele is undoubtedly the Prince of the pasta.
As quickly as Raffaele greets me hello he sends me on my way. After phoning in his orders for tonight’s feast, Raffaele sends me on a mission to find the fresh foods at the top of his list. I am off to Ottomanelli’s butcher shop on Bleecker Street to pick up ten pounds of organic Bell and Evans chicken breast, ten more pounds of grass-fed black Angus strip loin and yet another ten pounds of pork chops. Thirty pounds later I find myself in a physical struggle to make it back to the restaurant. This reminds me to keep up my work at the gym.
Cooking is a physical task – as much as it is an artistic one. Before my entrée enters the oven and before my branzino beckons the broiler – the beef must be bought from the butcher and the shelves must be fully stocked. In my 15 years in the workforce I have hardly lifted a finger. Are these physical tasks a glimpse into the lives of my ancestors as they arrived on Manhattan Island – and labored with weighty work and extended hours? Is this a snapshot of what it was like for my great-grandfather, Tanaham Bandolik, when, nearly 103 years ago, he docked in the Port of New York and took his first steps off The RMS Lucania? And when the young, handsome, dark-haired and deep dark-eyed Raffaele Ronca stepped foot into the terminal at JFK’s airport with only 20 years of life under his belt, was this sort of labor what he imagined was in store for him?
I arrive back at Palma just in time for prep work. It’s nearing 6pm and we’ve got to quickly gather our ingredients before Raffaele’s fans and friends flood this family run restaurant. We climb down the shaky stairway into the dark and low ceilinged basement below. At 5 foot 7 inches in height, I can’t even stand up straight down here.
As we enter the seemingly freezing fridge and examine the rows of ripe produce, Raffaele reminds me that this recent trend of fresh, seasonal, locals foods is nothing new to him. Growing up in Italy – everything he ate was fresh, seasonal and local. This is not a new idea to him – just a way of life. I learn that the gift we get as a result of the immigrant entering America is that we are reminded of a different way of life – far from fast food fixes and fanciful feasts. We are reminded of the simple, rustic, raw way of feeding our families that is lost in many parts of our country. I am thankful for the reminder.
As we search for ingredients, we get to talking about Raffaele’s first few hours in NYC. After an 8 hour TWA flight from Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome to NYC’s JFK, Raffaele took his first few tentative steps in his new home. After his cab driver tried to swindle him by circling the airport several times, running up the meter to the grand total of $150, Raffaele finally settled in with some family friends in Howard Beach. While Raffaele can now laugh about his early days in America, he tells this story as if were yesterday as he recalls a time when his inability to communicate in English brought about many lonely and lost nights. Equal parts hope and fear propelled Raffaele forward. Failure was not an option.
We gather some sprigs of basil, six containers of red ripe cherry tomatoes, three hearty eggplants and climb back up the steep and narrow staircase. Raffaele takes me into the small shed behind the restaurant that is no larger than a midsize car. I don’t mind the cramped quarters. Raffaele’s childlike smile, fiercely determined eyes and true italian accent are the reason many people come back to dine at Palma. That – and the food too.
I am responsible for prepping the special for tonight: Cartucho – which after many italian translation tools I came to discover is a filet of Branzino which is wrapped in tin foil so it can cook in its own juices. Between my chopping and taking notes – and Raffaele’s still strong italian accent and quickening pace – a few words might have gotten lost in the exchange. But in the language of food – we are certainly on the same page – as Raffaele guides me in my task using his hands to punctuate each sentence and explain each step. Raffaele reminds me that in true italian cooking – simplicity equals success. A few fresh ingredients are all you need. If he can count them on one or two hands, he’s happy. If I can get these few simple steps down while he leaves me in a room alone with my food prep, I’ll be happy.
Measure out the tin foil. Place the sautéed seasoned greens on top. Place the branzino on top of that. Sea salt. Cherry tomatoes in halves down the center of the fish. Olive Oil. White wine. Wrap and seal tightly. Next.
After I prepare five of these little packages of perfection Raffaele pops inside the small shed and asks how I’m doing. When I tell him I have five more to go – he gives me a knowing look which I interpret to mean I should speed up my steps in the way that only a suave and savvy Italian man can. Somehow, he gets me to move even faster without once making me feel as if I have failed at my first task. He could have told me my shirt was on fire and I think I would have found him soothing, sultry and reassuring.
Raffaele arrived on these shores in 1993. He was 20 years old and hoping the break into the world of acting. Back home in Italy he was making only 80,000 Lira per week. Thats roughly $40. Within one week of arriving in NYC Raffaele made $600 as a bartender. This artist would be starving no more.
Raffaele’s main crisis upon arrival – aside from missing his family – was that he couldn’t find a good italian meal – at least one that tasted like home. For Raffaele, and many of us like him, food is the comfort that reminds us of home and soothes our troubles – large or small.
Raffaele and I are quite similar . We turn to food for comfort. We are soothed by the familiar. Although for Raffaele, familiar is a 4-course meal topped with a butter and sage sauce or a balsamic reduction — my familiar is less a hunger for my own ancestral eats but more so a cool cup of Carvel ice cream with cookie crunch, hot fudge and rainbow sprinkles. The Bandolik family special.
When Raffaele arrived he was hungry. Hungry for success in New York. Hungry for a creative career. Hungry for a good meal – one that reminded him of home. What most immigrants miss upon arrival is just that – food and family. Without stepping inside a formal cooking classroom, Raffaele learned to cook. With a family of butchers and fisherman Raffaele spent his winters helping his Uncle Peppino in the family’s butcher shop and his summers with Uncle Mimmo catching and cooking fish. Now in New York his only access to the wealth of resources his family held was to pick up the phone and call. And so he did. Day in and day out Raffaele would call home to his Mom, his Grandmother, his Aunts and Uncles and work through those old Italian recipes. He would cook – so he could eat. Raffaele was like most immigrants. His talents were born out of necessity.
I am not an immigrant. I was born in Southampton Hospital and raised in the Hamlet of Hampton Bays on the east end of Long Island. My family has lived in these parts for several generations. According to the Passenger Record and ship’s manifest of The Lucania, my Great Grandfather, Tanaham Bandolik, arrived on Ellis Island on April 27th in the year 1907. He was 27 years old. My great-grandfather, like so many others before him and like Raffaele after him, turned to food. Tanaham Bandolik was a produce vendor on the Lower East Side, transporting watermelons from as far South as Valdosta, Georgia to NYC to sell off the side of a truck.
For better or for worse, any time we change the course of our lives, we leave a little something or someone behind. A necessary loss of the growth we all seek. What Raffaele did not leave at home was his intensity, his talent and his passion for food and for feeding others. Italy’s loss is New York’s gain.
I may never fully understand what it feels like to be an ocean away from my family and from the foods of my formative years. I may never know what it felt like to first step foot in a foreign land with no plan for a return to my roots. I can only borrow bits and pieces, stories and sentimentality from my own ancestors and from my friend Raffaele. When I am feeling lost, I crumble. I lose sight of the aspects of my life that are good and secure and solid. I lose perspective. When Raffaele arrived, lost and alone in New York, he showed a meticulous, intense and uncompromising determination to succeed as only someone who seriously understands the gift that is America can do. If only I could borrow a bit of that lesson. If only I could see the good in general– despite the confusion in the immediate. If only I could be a bit like Raffaele.
After several hours of prep time and a short stint in the kitchen, I left Palma Restaurant at about 9PM. Raffaele stayed well into the night. I walked away with a few sore muscles, a small slice to my pinky finger and newfound appreciation for what it takes to make it in America.
The word immigrant is defined as an organism found in a new habitat. If that is the correct interpretation of what it means to be an immigrant – I suppose I am an immigrant too. I suppose, at times, we all are.Blog post featured as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Immigrant Heritage Week. -Amy Bandolik