My Dad didn’t want a daughter. As the story goes, he said he wouldn’t be a good father to a girl. He couldn’t play ball with a girl, didn’t know how to talk to a girl. Wasn’t much for pink dresses and bows and ribbons and such. And then he said he saw me (a jaundiced lump of a thing), and held me (the largest of the newborns in my family), and it was love at first sight. And a foretelling start to our relationship. I am today and have always been what can only be described as a “Daddy’s Little Girl.” I’m the middle child sandwiched between two brothers, and they remind the whole family all the time of the hold they believe I have on my Dad’s heartstrings, repeating their favorite taunt of “whatever Dana wants, Dana gets.” While this is patently untrue, there's no denying the special bond that we share. My Dad has always told me how "delicious" I was as a baby in my little orange bathing suit (
I'm wearing that famous suit in the photo above). And any time since then, when I've been sarcastic or snippy with him, he posits: "Where did that sweet little girl in the orange bathing suit go?" Even now, when I make a joke at his expense, or imitate my Dad -- which makes him cackle despite himself -- he wonders that same question. It's code for "when did you grow up so quickly?" and I think it's disarmingly sweet.
There's a lot of my Dad in me. I've got his long limbs and his gap-toothed smile, his skin coloring and his green eyes. And then some things are probably a hybrid: partly genetic but given a bump-up by learned behavior and emulation. Sarcasm and sense of humor? Check. An entrepreneurial sensibility? Yes. An ear for music and language? I think so. A friendliness and approachability that somehow attracts random strangers to ask for directions, or money, or even more bizarre requests? Indeed, people at home and even overseas seem to seek out both my father and me. My love of history and great storytelling (written or spoken) is an appreciation my father passed on to me. And certainly embracing my Jewish identity -- probably even more a cultural thing than a religious one -- my Dad really helped me with that, even when as a child, I struggled with it. When you're young, the last thing you want to be is different. My father taught me that not only is that okay, but it's a positive thing. Being different is being special, and what's better than that? It's a lesson and a conviction I've carried with me ever since.
I've got a lot of food memories involving my father, partly because my mother was the primary cook in the family, so on the less-frequent occasions on which my father cooked, his handful of "specialty items" were memorable. Often times on Friday nights, he would make a simple fried flounder, coated in breadcrumbs and pan-fried, with fried onions on top. I loved that dish. He also claimed to be the master of the omelette, which in reality was more of a protein pancake, with pastrami-and-eggs, ham-and-eggs, and salami-and-eggs as his Jewish deli-style specialties. This was his cure-all for pretty much anything that ailed us. And of course, though he didn't actually make the whole Saturday or Sunday morning spread, the process of procuring the best "bagels and lox" (a catch-all name for a variety of bagels, cream cheeses, and smoked fish) was something at which my Dad excelled, and still does.
I remember him bringing me along in the car to an appetizing store in Menlo Park, NJ as a little girl. All the guys in the shop knew him by name, but what stood out to me was the lone female among the smoked fish specialists, named Rita -- a sassy lady with short dark hair and a small mole on one cheek. She was so sweet to me, and always gave me a sample to taste the Nova lox she sliced paper-thin per my Dad's request. Then we'd go next door to the bagel shop to pick up a dozen warm, crusty bagels to go with the fish and cream cheese. The smell of that bagel bakery has haunted my senses since I was a young girl. So when my nose was caught off-guard one day, and I sniffed the exact same smell as that bagel bakery, more than 20 years later, I was surprised and giddy. It emanated from a famous forno (bread bakery) around the corner from my apartment, in the Jewish Ghetto, in Rome. I still adore that bakery, and I happily inhale as I walk past it when the ovens are on full-force, late in the afternoon or very early in the morning. To find pure childhood nostalgia, to be reminded of those father-daughter weekend morning treks -- in Rome of all places -- is pretty amazing.
And so, speaking of this Italian connection and the strong pull Italy has on me...it most likely has its roots with my father. He's a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, not Italian by heritage at all. And though Jewish and Italian cultures share a lot, especially the emphasis on family and food, it's more than that. My Dad always says he feels Italian. Maybe in another life, he was a peasant in the Italian countryside, he says. And: Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" came out in 1972 -- not incidentally, I'm convinced, the year I was born. And ever since I was of a passable age to view the film, my father would watch it with me, almost coaching me on it. The significance of Sonny's outspokenness in front of his father, Michael's gutsy proposal to his Sicilian future father-in-law, Don Corleone's understanding that "it was Barzini all along"...it was like receiving a master class in mafia cinema. My Dad even gave a toast at one of my cousin's weddings in the manner of Luca Brasi! So imagine how thrilled I was when, a few years back, I was lucky enough to cook for the Godfather himself, Al Pacino. The irony of the actor (as kind and well-mannered as could be, by the way), suffering through a low-carb diet -- The Godfather, Il Padrino, unable to eat my pasta! -- was not lost on me, believe me.
Nor is it lost on me that the one dish I grew up preparing together with my father turned out to be Pollo alla Romana. Of course, we called it "chicken with peppers, tomatoes, and onions" at the time. And my brothers still cringe at the thought of being force-fed this culinary creation that we thought we'd pretty much invented in the late '70s. My mother was more patient and accepting, as is her way. So she was quite game when I came home one summer while living in Rome, and my Dad and I decided to recreate this Sunday staple, but with a little more insight honed from my professional cooking career. I taught my father the finer points of knife skills and chicken-searing, and we all enjoyed a meal steeped in Italian flavor and nostalgia.
As a born chocoholic, the first dishes I prepared were sweets. My father taught me early on the importance of a perfect chocolate chip cookie, or a great chocolate cake, which I'd make for him with the help of my Mom. Dad often had these treats with milk (one word: "Milk'n'cake") as an evening snack between dinner and bedtime (not to mention his prolific consumption of Devil Dogs, Suzie Q’s, and anything containing chocolate that Drake or Hostess produced). As an adult, I've been able to steer my Dad's palate to a slightly more sophisticated chocolate dessert. My much-requested flourless chocolate cake uses so little sugar that even when I use Splenda instead (at my Dad's request), you can't taste the difference. It's pure chocolate decadence, something my Dad loves -- something I love, since the time I was Daddy's Little Girl in the orange bathing suit.
In Tel Aviv
With my parents in NYC
In the Scottish countryside