My brothers and sister and I anticipated a trip to Alesci’s the way other kids looked forward to going to a toy store or amusement park. Battleship!, Etch-A-Sketch, a Mrs. Beasley doll, or a cardboard canister of Lincoln Logs – none of these could compare to the strong yet transient allure of our favorite Italian market (sad to say the branch we shopped closed in 2016).
Alesci’s wasn’t in the nice part of town. It was surrounded by rows of small, shabby homes, run-down strip malls, auto body shops jammed with rusting cars, gas stations, and shady-looking insurance offices. It had a beat-up parking lot and the store front could have used a fresh coat of paint, but none of that mattered when we stepped onto the magical black matting that opened the glass and metal doors into a sensory overload of colors and odors. It was like stepping out of black and white Kansas into Kodachrome Oz.
The first smell to enter our eager nostrils was of baking bread: heady, warm and utterly addicting. Tall rolling carts rested near the entrance, each shelf loaded with trays of freshly-baked Italian bread, the loaves fat and studded with sesame seeds (or plain, if you preferred). Underneath this homey smell was a sharp tang from vinegar waves arising from open barrels of olives, marinated peppers, garlic cloves, and artichoke hearts. (We all preferred the fat, green olives – as big as dad’s thumb – to the inky shriveled and oily variety.) Inhaling more deeply, one’s nose detected the earthy funk of aging cheeses all exuding their particular cheesy signature, drawing us further into the store like ravenous zombies.
There were shelves of panettone, the liquor-soaked fruit cakes so beloved by Italians. Its appeal was a mystery to our family. There were rather dry and uninteresting cookies in soft pastel colors (we rarely bothered with the bakery counter at the back of the store), though we did love the flat anise-flavored pizzelles, and cannoli as long as the crisp shells were filled to order with sweetened ricotta cheese.
Along the sides of the store were the refrigerated glass cases with bowls of prepared salads, logs of capicola and prosciutto, wheels of blue-tattooed Parmesan, puffy pink ropes of sausage (balls of fat visible through the thin skin), and links of firm pepperoni resting in awkward maroon coils. The bright lights made every item a temptation. Machines at either end of the counter pumped out paper tickets – Now Serving ###! – with each firm press of a blue lever. When our turn came my siblings and I were usually handed a thin slice of something – cheese or meat – which was hungrily and gratefully devoured. Please sir, can I have some more?
In the center of the store, in between the glass cases were rows of shelves, organized, yet in a kind of disarray, as if the items had been hurriedly placed there and then pawed through. Crackers, biscotti, bottled vegetables suspended in brine like lab specimens, olive oils and vinegars, canned tomatoes and sauces, and tubs of grated Parmesan cheese stacked in leaning Pisa towers. Of course, there were rows of wine, many in their 101 Dalmations-spaghetti-dinner wicker wrapping and red wax tops alongside jugs of Manischewitz. Alesci’s was close to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
From the ceiling hung soccer-ball-sized globes of aging provolone, each wrapped in a protective cocoon of yellowy, wax-like rind. Dad would select a “young” one and we’d hang it from the ceiling in our own kitchen, impatiently waiting for the day when he decreed it ready for slicing. We never did figure out how he knew it was ripe enough and he refused to enlighten us.
On the drive home, the intoxicating smell of the bread in its brown paper bag stowed far from our reach in the back of the faux-wood paneled station wagon made our mouths water. As soon as we arrived, dad would set about slicing the bread (which inevitably tore being so freshly baked), thick rounds of pepperoni and slabs of cheese on which to snack. We popped the briny olives like Pez, eating until our mouths puckered from the salt. All of it spelling disaster for the dinner mom prepared. Not one of us kids would have traded the spoils of one of our visits to Alesci’s for a shiny new plastic toy.
Below is my simple “Parmesan” recipe, an homage to Alesci’s and the wonderful memories from my childhood.
Pasta isn’t complete until it’s sprinkled liberally with this savory, flavorful seasoning. It takes less than five minutes to make and keeps beautifully in the refrigerator. Tweak the spices to suit your tastebuds.
- 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
- 1/4 cup hemp hearts
- 1/4 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning (I use Morton & Bassett. It has a nice kick to it.)
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, optional
- Put all of the ingredients in a mini-prep and pulse until a blended and broken down thoroughly – or to your preferred texture.
- Store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. I suppose it lasts indefinitely!
- White miso powder is a very nice addition to this (skip the 1/4 teaspoon salt, though), but it’s not easy to find so I didn’t include it in the recipe. The Health Ranger sells it here.
- Add another dimension of delicious with 1/2-1 teaspoon of hickory smoke powder.
- Yet another flavor-enhancing option: 1/2-1 teaspoon of Trader Joe’s Multi-purpose Umami Seasoning Blend. Wow.
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Keywords: seasoning, nutritional yeast, salt, pepper, spices, parsley, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, Italian, herbs
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links.
THROWBACK RECIPE, DECEMBER, 2014: