My grandfather, Albert Sarti, saw my Irish last name as a small mistake of my mother's marriage that could be rectified by immersing me in Italian culture. So each Sunday, my grandfather brought me to one of the many Italian households that made up our extended family: The Peligrinos in Lodi, the Favatas in North Bergen, and the Garfallos in Saddlebrook, Nutley, and other towns around Northern New Jersey. Each dinning room differed, yet had persistent similar details. Each home had a family portrait hung on the wall of the dining room, each had a map or painting of the precise Italian village from which that part of the family came, and each had a warm meal set out for us, table cloth and silverware making this a most important occasion. This was an act so seeped in tradition that I felt awed and scared as I entered each home, where I was treated to the admiration of countless loving relations and fed countless dishes - the Italian names of which I failed to grasp.
Much to my proud grandfather's dismay, the Irish was too firmly fixed in my blood. Even though I heard Italian spoken around me daily, I failed to learn it or attribute the proper names to the proper food. All stringed pasta was always spaghetti despite my grandfather's constant corrections. All tube pasta was always ziti, despite the subtle differences of each. My Italian relations laughed over my ignorance and calmed my frustrated grandfather, assuring him that I was still "a good Italian boy."
In years since, I have dined at a variety of Italian restaurants and maintained the same stubborn ignorance of Italian names for food. Yet not until I dined at La Mia Cucina in Secaucus earlier in May of this year, was I struck by the same cultural shock I had felt as a kid.
La Mia Cucina had many of the same features I used to find in my family's homes, from the pictures on the walls to the red checkered tablecloths. The pictures, however, were not portraits of family members, but characters out of the film "The Godfather" and the TV show "the Sopranos."
"We put them up to set the mood," Pasquale Camporeale said, grinning a little as his restaurant capitalized on the national fascination with that one aspect of Italian culture. Indeed, the joke even affected his menu where specialty pizzas were named: Sinatra, Pacino, DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Soprano.
Located at 1259 Paterson Plank Road, La Mia Cucina Trattoria Italiana & Cafe offers everything from antipasto to mussels marinara as appetizers, as well as traditional and alternative pasta dishes, specialty ravioli, veal, poultry and seafood dishes, egg plant, and hot and cold sandwiches. Last year, Camporeale tried to give up pizza to better emphasize the restaurant's more eloquent menu, but found too many people requesting pizza for him to rid the menu of it entirely.
"We don't make 200 pizzas a night, but we still make 70 to 80," he said. "When some people bring their kids here, that's what they want."
A mix of classic and modern dishes
Camporeale said his lessons in cooking began in Italy when he was a small boy, helping around his family's kitchen in a village called Molfetta. When he came to Hoboken in 1968, he began to work in Italian eateries after school until he picked up the subtler details behind good Italian cooking. As if part of a classic Italian love story, Camporeale met his wife in one of the restaurants where he worked. She was a Secaucus girl who eventually brought him to Secaucus, where he has lived for about seven years.
Although the menu offers numerous classic Italian dishes, Camporeale has conceded that changes in society require special offerings, gourmet items designed to appeal to modern American tastes. In the past, Italian restaurants - like those of other nationalities - were designed to bring a bit of the home country to people living in this country. So restaurants like his would have served numerous Italian customers. This has changed.
Camporeale, however, maintains a menu mix that helps bring the memory of the Old World alive or introduce a new generation to authentic tastes from the past.
The marinara sauce that flavors many of his dishes from mussels to various pasta dishes has the chunky appearance of home made, full of tomato, onions, garlic and basil so as to give it a spicy yet not hot flavor. While Camporeale concedes he does not make his own ravioli, his experience cooking in Hudson County has allowed him to purchase from vendors he trusts. His ravioli comes from a Moonachie firm that has done business in the area since 1900, offering him 25 varieties. The sweet sausage is purchased from a traditional Union City supplier. The cream used for the cannolis comes from a local Italian bakery. Each cannoli, however, is filled when ordered.
"You can't fill them and leave or freeze them," he said. "They have to be made fresh."
The quality of food is remarkably good, and the prices as remarkably affordable. The most expensive dish on the menu is $15.50. Most dinner items average about $11.50. Sandwiches range from $6.50 to $9. La Mia Cucina has a significant lunch crowd.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and is located at 1259 Paterson Plank Road. For information, call 553-9711.