Sunday, June 26, 2016

Between her wedding in 1924 and 1945, Anthony’s mother gave forth twelve children. The first were girl and boy twins that died soon after birth. The twins were followed by the birth of seven boys and three girls averaging two years apart. His mother had told him that his birth in the1945 summer was simultaneously a family first and last: he was the first to have been born in a hospital, and the last of the siblings. On his birthday, Anthony’s father and mother were forty-six and forty respectively, old enough to be his grandparents whom, as a consequence, he never got to know.

His father‘s parents, Giovanni and Maria Giellomino immigrated to Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century from Avellino in Italy’s Campania region. His father had been born Giovanni Giuseppi (John Joseph) in Fort Greene Brooklyn in 1899, and was raised in the Gowanus section of the borough. He had an older brother named Nicola (Uncle Nick), who became a New York City cop, and a younger brother named Pasquale (Uncle Patty) whom Anthony never got to know.

His mother’s parents Giovanni and Rosa Martino came from Naples, also in Campania. They arrived in the Bronx around the same time the Giellominos got to Brooklyn. Giovanni was born in Italy in 1873. Born in Italy in 1878, Rosa died in 1915 in the Bronx from influenza. After she died, Giovanni took his two oldest female children out of school so that one could go to work and the other could keep house: Philomena (Aunt Fannie) born in 1900 and Maria, (Anthony’s mother) born February 2, 1905. His mother was forced to leave school after the fifth grade to perform housewife duties, but that was only half of her misery. For the rest of her life, a bubble wrap-like scar that ran down her left arm reminded her of the day her father disciplined her in the kitchen with a pot of boiling water. 

In September 1928 his grandfather, Giovanni Martino died in the Bronx from bullets he took in front of 231 East 150th Street—the newspaper reported Giovanni had taken it in the liver. One of the three killers was caught but the official motive remained vague. The New York Times reported the motive had to do with someone having lost his job as a waiter; the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the killing was over the ownership of some wine, a possibility that, considering the way Anthony’s life had turned out in the wine business, he found fascinating, if not stimulating. 

Whenever she spoke of him, Anthony’s mother referred to her father as “the miserable sonovabitch.” To her, the wine story was likely the real one. She was convinced the “miserable sonovabitch” was killed for stealing from or cheating the wrong person on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

The rest of his mother’s siblings were Tomasso, Michelina, Domenico, Concetta, and Pietro (Uncle Pete). Anthony knew only the oldest, Aunt Fannie and Uncle Pete, the youngest.

At the time of his grandfather’s murder, Anthony’s father had already spirited his mother away to his South Brooklyn home base, which was also home base to Lucky Luciano and his Brooklyn mob. In fact, Al Capone and the Giellomino family crossed paths in Brooklyn. Capone and Anthony’s father had been born the same year and in the same Fort Greene neighborhood where, as a teen, Capone led a gang of thieves and ruffians (Anthony was later born in the Cumberland Hospital, a couple of blocks from Capone’s birthplace). Capone and his father each wound up living on Union Street, not far from the Gowanus Canal. Neighborhood lore had it that Capone had gotten his scar in South Brooklyn, followed by a one-way ticket to Chicago financed by Lucky Luciano. That is not true. Capone was set up in Chicago by a gangster named Frankie Yale, who controlled the ice delivery business, which was big before electric refrigeration came along. Before going to Chicago, Capone got his signature facial scar in a scuffle over a woman at a Coney Island bar, which happens to be farther south in the borough than South Brooklyn.

The southern border of the original Village of Brooklyn, Fulton Street, began at Fulton’s Ferry at the harbor and ended not too far east. Later, when Brooklyn incorporated sections from outside and around the original village, its southern border extended a couple of miles south, from Fulton Street to approximately Seventeenth Street, which was officially named South Brooklyn. The area between Fulton and Seventeenth became a largely Italian working class enclave; the harbor and docks were its western border; Sixth Avenue was its eastern border. As Brooklyn grew farther east and south, Fulton to Seventeenth Street continued to be known as South Brooklyn.

Anthony’s parents raised their family one block north of Union Street, on Sackett Street. Almost in the dead center of South Brooklyn, Sackett Street was a perfect example of the Italian immigrant community of the desperate, deprived, violent, hopeless, and a minority smattering of hopefuls. But what kind of neighborhood was it really? 


Brooklyn humidity in summer made sleep difficult. July Fourth celebrations made sleep impossible. The blasts came from Fifth Avenue, where mobsters gleefully lobbed firecrackers at one another. They tossed mats—ten packs of twenty firecrackers per pack. When the fuse was lit, 200 firecrackers went off in rapid succession, like a machine gun. The men threw individual firecrackers too, the loudest of which were called “cherry bombs” and “ash cans”: the first issued a blast like a concussion bomb; the second gave off a tinny, echoing blast, as if it had exploded inside a steel barrel. The day after the mobsters’ mock war, Anthony and his friends scavenged Sackett Street seeking duds, which they could “fix” either by inserting makeshift fuses or lighting the ones that had fizzled for whatever reason and had left a short fuse behind. It was a dangerous pastime that led to some boys gaining the nickname “Three Fingers” or “Lefty,” but they were fearless, like the mobsters, whose holiday war was manifestation of their wanton nature. 

Mobsters referred to their crew as family, but family relationship was of little use to someone who crossed a bookmaker or loan shark. These people played hard, drank hard, fought hard, and were hard to love. When someone crossed a mobster there was blood, in pools that dried maroon on the sidewalk.

On one steamy summer night in the early 1950s, Cosmo, a local mobster fleeing the police, climbed through the Giellomino’s open kitchen window from the backyard, made big muddy footprints as he ran straight through the apartment from room to room, stepped over Anthony in bed in the last room, and then jumped out a window onto Sackett Street’s pavement. It was an easy trip for Cosmo, since they lived on the ground floor of a five-story tenement in a four-room “railroad” apartment—the rooms joined in a row like boxcars. The tenement housed ten such railroad apartments stacked five on each side, filled mostly with first and second generation Italians; its hallway was laced in olive oil residue, the smell of garlic permeated.

The only thing for Anthony to do after Cosmo woke him up was to retrace the muddy steps back to the kitchen. There, he built a sandwich of olive oil on bread while the family, and then the rest of the building’s tenants who had found out, excitedly discussed what had just transpired over some bread and wine that a few of them had brought with them onto the front stoop. When the police asked the group on the stoop if they had seen the man, no one knew what the cops were talking about. If you wanted a job on the docks or just wanted to live in peace, it was best not to rat on mobsters, even if a member of your family was on the police force. After the police, the bread and the wine were gone, everyone went back to bed.

It was that kind of neighborhood.


Just curious. Is anyone still on the notifitcation list for this blog? I am thinking I might restart the blog entries and would like to know whether not I need to find a new audience, as if as there was an old audience ...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vinogirl and I clash

Believe it or not, Vinogirl and I did not get together on our mutual posts, even though they have the same theme.

Recently, thanks to my regular column in a Rochester, NY magazine--yeah, print--I received two emails last week from PR people applauding my column and then asking if I would like to taste some wines that they represent.

As I do with everyone who contacts me with that kind of request, I informed them that I rarely do wine criticism, and when I do it's generally for wine that I have bought at retail. In each case, I was thanked for my honesty and told the wine would be sent nevertheless.

They arrived--two wines form Italy and three from Portugal (they came form a PR agency in NY City). Last night, I opened one of them to have with dinner.

Because I hate wine criticism, especially when the wine is in a vacuum, as a tasting rather than in its true setting, with food, I will do this a different way. I'll tell you what I prepared for dinner and then tell you how the wine did with it.

I had an eggplant that needed to be consumed, but I had grown tired of the usual wok eggplant dish that I prepare every two weeks or so. This time, I decided to do something in an Italian mode to pair with one of the wines from Italy.

We have finished off the last of our tomato sauce from our 2012 crop, so I am reduced to opening a can. I know all about ragu: the long, slow process of cooking a tomato sauce, usually with meat. I don't cook much like that. I decide about an hour or two before dinner what I want to eat, which gives me half an hour to make a sauce. Easy task, as you really don't need a lot of time to make a tasty tomato sauce.

A can of crushed (organic) tomatoes, 1/2 cup sweet wine (Madeira), some chicken stock does the trick.

I take one of my basil ice cubes and melt it--yeah, that's how I preserve basil all winter. At harvest time, I select some bunches and whip them up with olive oil and then pour them into an ice tray. After they freeze, I remove them from the ice tray and dump the basil ice pieces into a plastic bag to store in the freezer.

Drop a basil cube into a 12-inch stainless pan, slice a couple of cloves of garlic thin with a razor and give them a quick saute in the olive oil, pour in the tomato, wine, and 1/2 cup of stock, add a few laurel leaves, and let simmer for half an hour, adding stock if it starts to dry up too much.

Turn on convection oven to 350.

Slice the eggplant into 1/4-inch thick pieces. Dip each into egg, drip and then dredge each piece into breadcrumbs. (I make my own breadcrumbs from the insides of whole grain baguettes that I eat. I drop the insides into a container and store them in the refrigerator so they dry out nicely--then I grind them fine in the food processor and store in a jar in the freezer.)

Lay the breaded eggplant on an oven pan and bake for about 20 minutes on each side.

Put water on to boil for cheese ravioli. When turning the eggplant over for its last 20 minutes baking, drop the ravioli into boiling water and cook until done--eight minutes or so.

Meanwhile, wilt some spinach leaves very briefly--about a minute, tops. Lay the spinach on a salad plate, top with fresh olives and some bean sprouts (we make our own sprouts).

That's the salad.

Chop some parsley for garnishing, and crumble some grana padano cheese into small pieces.

When the ravioli and eggplant are done, put them into separate plates and pour the sauce over them. On top of the eggplant, spread the little pieces of grana padano. Sprinkle parsley over ravioli and eggplant dishes.

That's dinner; now the wine.

Barba's 2009 Montepulciano D'Abruzzo (red). The grapes are grown organically and, based on its opaqueness as well as its gritty/chewy quality, I'd say the wine is not filtered.

It has a truly earthy aroma, but not Brett: elemental, with a black cherry undertone. It doesn't present fruit in the taste; it's on the vinous side. It's got a lot of body and heft to it, and it could not be mistaken for anything but old-style Abruzzo winemaking. In fact, the winery claims old vines.

I liked the wine with the food. The food toned it down a little, which was good, as the wine is quite hefty.

In all, it was a nice experience, but the wine is nothing that I would spend a lot of time seeking.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sweet red wine: blech.

Unlike the supposed progression that people make from liking sweet wine when young to slowly developing a taste for non-sweet wine as we get older, I gravitated directly to wines that did not taste sweet but that made my mouth feel puckerishly dry. It's not that I didn't drink the usual cheap, sweet wines of youth--who had enough money for anything else?--but when I had the money, I went straight for table wines, mostly reds, that were decidedly not sweet.

Don't get me wrong. I did then and do today like many sweet white wines, but not nearly as strongly as I prefer non-sweet reds (and non-sweet whites). Maybe I have old man Anton's wine cellar to blame for my delightful shortcoming.

Anton was a Neapolitan who lived in the building next to ours where I grew up in Brooklyn. He operated a summer-only outdoor candy store where he also sold the freshest lemon ice this side of Italy--so fresh we had to spit out the pits. He often let me help him produce the lemon ice in the backyard in summer. Either I poured sugar into the ice and lemons that he crushed and mixed in his homemade contraption, or I just helped him move bags around. Free lemon ice all summer was my pay.

I loved the summer work of course, but it was the autumn work with Anton that truly made me feel blessed--that was when I helped him with general wine cellar work, which consisted mostly of cleaning things. I loved to sniff the barrels after he emptied them, something Anton's grandson taught me to do. One sniff from a recently emptied barrel acted like a catapult.

For my pay, Anton rewarded our family with a few gallons of red wine each Thanksgiving and Christmas, wine as fiery as laying asphalt in August and, more important, as parching as Mohave.

So, here I am, many decades from those days with Anton's wine and what I have to show for it is an undying love for parching red wine met by an opposing distaste for sweet red wine. I also don't like any red wine that fizzes--pink is ok, but not red. So much for Lambrusco (yeah, yeah, Alfonso. I tried it in its home region, but still don't like it).

Yet, I keep hearing about a newly developing market for sweet red wine, and so I told myself that if I want to know what I am talking about when I tear down sweet red wine, I have to give it a try.

My first dip into the sweet red craze was a Cagnina di Romagna. Oh my, how do people drink that stuff?

My second dip into sweet red was a Dornfelder from the Rheinhessen. Nope.

My third dip...I dropped the idea.

Maybe it's low acidity, maybe tannin with sugar doesn't work for me (I never put sugar into coffee or tea), maybe it's the kind of fruit from red wine, maybe it's a combination of things, but something happens to red wine when it is sweet, and that something is quite unpleasant to my palate.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It's income tax time

Every year at this time I try to determine what my income tax bill would be if we were allowed to deduct what we spent for wine during the year.

Last year, I spent almost $4,000 on wine. If I were an influential wine writer, that figure might mean very little as a percentage of my income. As it is, I am not influential nor do I have an income worth flaunting. That $4000 means a lot to me, which is why I daydream over a wine deduction on my tax returns.

Thanks to resveratrol, anthrocyanins (did I spell that correctly?), polyphenols, and whatever else is in there, wine should be considered a medical expense, but it should not be handled on the Schedule A Itemized Deductions. That schedule is where the IRS makes life difficult, with formulas and worksheets to follow in order to figure out how much of the actual money spent will wind up becoming a deductible amount. So often, I follow the worksheet only to find that I spent an hour serpentining from Schedule A, to Form 1040, to Publication this or Publication that, to a tax information booklet so-and-so, only to discover that I can't take the deduction. This is the kind of gyration that makes the Form 1040 Standard Deduction valuable only to those with an income worth defending with an automatic weapon, and not being an influential wine writer, I have yet to reach that income level.

I don't like it that the standard deduction for medical payments throughout the year is subject to a worksheet. The money is gone, all of it, including the $4000 for wine; why is only part of it considered spent?

The medical/wine deduction should be a dollar-for-dollar credit that goes on the first page of the Form 1040 (in fact, there should be only one page for tax returns, but that's a whole separate conversation that comes up only around election time).

You guessed it: I've been doing my tax returns.

As an aside: I have changed entry to this blog from allowing anyone to allowing only those who  register. The people who occupy space with amoebas, the spammers, have made me do it. The Internet really is a cesspool.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Wine Week That Was

In this new feature of Vinofictions, we put our extensive, unquestionable knowledge to work as insightful analysts, recapping and commenting on some of the wine news of the week that is fit to print, but likely should be ignored.

It will be the words that matter, but this being a subject connected to wine, we have established a 100-point rating system. Unlike the other 100-point system, the one of incomparable accuracy, this system works in reverse. The news that we select each week is the kind of information that leans toward the absurd, the incredible, the comical, the truly stupid. Our rating system of a news item starts with 100 points just for being selected--each 5 points below 100 symbolizes our attempt at trying to be nice.

And borrow from Murrow: here now, the news.

The Reviewer Card.

Few words can describe this one.

We won't give his name or his Web site address, because we don't want to give this fellow any traffic, but last week, a 35-year-old sharpie was reported to have come up with what in his mind is a brilliant idea: shakedown restaurants and retailers for wine (and food) freebies.

The idea came from the fact that people with more time on their hands than is probably good for the world can use that time on Yelp to do some good--for themselves. (Yelp is the most important social media happening since the Lascaux Caves.)

Now Yelp reviewers can show their blatant self-importance with the flash of REVIEWERCARD. We heard a rumor that the card comes with a supply of toilet paper so that the reviewer can offer some to the restaurant or retail manager to wipe up what he or she is supposed to do at the sight of the card.

95 because in the end, we decided that there are a few words to describe this one.

Drunks don't kill--cars do. Right?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) unveiled a two-step approach toward protecting our Second Amendment rights.

The first step in the NRA plan is to establish a relationship with one of those wine clubs that offers exclusive wine deals to everyone capable of believing that the deals are exclusive, which apparently counts as an awful lot of people.

Learning from Mother's Against Drunk Driving, the NRA's second step is to sell stickers sporting the slogan "Don't Drink and Shoot" intended to slap on all weapons large enough to kill groups of people within seconds. The sticker will be printed in blurry script, so that everyone who drinks will be able to read it.

According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, purchases from the NRA wine club will directly benefit support of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and "...the other basic freedoms of the American Culture."

95 because we cannot figure out what LaPierre is talking about.

Rather than being in a row, ducks on each coast are having a row

Napa Valley's Duckhorn Vineyards claims that by not putting Duck Walk Vineyard's geographic location on the front label of Duck Walk wines, use of the word "duck" by the Long Island winery is in violation of an earlier settlement when Duckhorn sued Duck Walk over a perceived duck-centric trademark infringement.

According to Duck Walk's attorney, Duckhorn does not have a trademark on the word "duck" and therefore has a quack case.

90 because we don't know how to do a duck sound on this blog

What the world needs: another Southern Wine and Spirits distribution facility

The Miami-based octopus known as Southern Wine and Spirits will open a 2,500 square foot facility in Salisbury, Maryland (a 2.5 hour drive from Monkton, Maryland, and rightly so).

This new plant marks just another regional location for the tiny family business that today spans 35 states, but we are certain is eying the remaining 15. Southern gives new meaning to the idea that Repeal of Prohibition removed questionable control over alcohol sales and distribution in the U.S.

85 for being big and probably able to do damage to the reputation of minor critics like us.