By all family accounts, Paolo’s nonna Assunta was a formidable woman. Built with the bone matrix of a longshoreman or a linebacker, she was as tough as boiled beef and brooked no nonsense from either God, man or beast. She spent most of her life in the lean, hardscrabble existence of a contadina in Vicchio di Mugello until the family moved to their vine-strewn patch of earth in Florence.
She was bawdy in the way of die-hard country-bred Tuscans: every morning along with her caffè d’orzo she’d pop a raw clove of garlic into her mouth and chew forcefully, under the awestruck gaze of young Paolo and his siblings. To their little nose-wrinkles of disgust she’d laugh and say “Meglio puzzare d’aglio che di coglioni” [better to stink of garlic than of balls].
She had a farmer’s obsession with the land and a workaholic’s mania for industry; even in Florence and at an advanced age she was unflagging in her cultivation of the large orto and the tending of her flock of chickens and rabbits (over whose care and caprices she’d cuss lavishly). She was also the main cook in the nine-odd member family—and the bane of her daughter-in-law, Paolo’s mother—until an octogenarian stroke plunked her firmly into a wheelchair. Though still a force to be reckoned with, she was reduced to a state of clamorous resentment at her lot and wept bitter tears over the severing of her connection to mother earth. She was chucked out the door of this life kicking and screaming.
But for all her salt and crust, she was tender and artful at the stove: a culinary virtuoso deftly slinging the down-home classics of the Tuscan repertoire like some kind of hillbilly Puccini. Her pappa al pomodoro was sublime and is perhaps the dish for which Paolo loved her most (and which he recreates in the cart, in season), but a close second was her polpette: crisp, burnished croquettes with an earthy bass line of ground chicken and potato and a bright, delicate counterpoint of lemon zest and herbs.
In honor of dear, indomitable old Assunta—and because they’re just so flippin’ good—we’re now serving these delicious, surprisingly light beauties at the cart. Garlic clove optional.