The Italian American Wartime Kitchen

Jobs and the finer things were in short supply during WWII, but none of that mattered as we circled the stove, taking in the ragù's garden-rich aroma with crusty bread in hand.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor 

Our Weekly War Menu

Times were tough during the early 1940s; there was a war going on. Food and jobs were in short supply, and as a group, Italians were classified as enemies of the state by our President.

Of course, no jobs meant no money, and food was rationed. Basic necessities, such as grocery items, shoes, metal, paper and rubber, were scarce.

Families and individuals received ration books, and they had to exercise a bit of belt-tightening. Ration books limited the purchase of defined amounts of sugar, flour, meat, butter, cooking oil and processed food goods. Other essentials such as gasoline, tires and fuel products were also limited.

Related: Uncovering WWII Italian Internment Camps

Rationing forced mothers to plan their daily meals carefully. Our weekly menu changed drastically. One thing was for sure, there wasn’t much meat on the table, except what Pap supplemented from his hunting skills. Meals were simple, not changing from week to week. No food product was wasted. When meat was available, it was cooked to render the fat, to reuse as future cooking oil

The holidays were the few days meat was on the table. It wasn’t steak or other fancy cuts, but meatballs, chicken, neck bones, or some kind of game meat. Sometimes, we even had “la trippa,” or snails, and they weren’t bad with the right type of sauce mixture.

Sundays were always the favorite meal day. It usually was the only day of the week meat was on the table and pasta, the main staple. The saving grace of this day was the exquisite aroma of the “ragù” as it percolated all day, and, us kids with our tongues hanging out, waiting to dip into it with crusty homemade bread.

On occasion, we had a particular type of ‘braciole’ with our pasta. I don’t remember what they were called, but they were made with chicken giblets, gizzards, and livers, rolled with sprigs of oregano, rosemary, then tied with chicken “stindini.” The pasta, tagliatelle, or orecchiette – little ears, were homemade from half of our flour allowance. The other half went to make bread. Ravioli were reserved for special occasions and holidays.

Monday was a soup day, usually a minestra, greens and beans, or a “pasta e fazzul,” and occasionally with leftover chicken pieces.  Pap loved gnawing on the chicken neck. As for the rest of us, he was welcome to it! Thanks to the local butcher who provided bones to many families, for a few pennies, or even for free, to make soup.

Tuesdays, and Thursdays, were, again, pasta days, meatless, but with lots of homemade crusty bread. Friday was a polenta day covered with a meatless red sauce, and occasionally, a piece of “baccalà” fish. Wednesday was a toss-up usually from leftovers or something like a potato and egg mixture. We kids often brought school lunches, conspicuous, oil-stained brown lunch bags, made with homemade Italian bread, and eggs and peppers, or fried bologna.

Related: School Day Lunches and the Italian Brown Bag

On holidays, such as Easter, we might have lamb, and of course, fish on Christmas Eve. For Thanksgiving, we usually had homemade ricotta ravioli, the size of a small dinner plate. Turkey never made it as a regular to our table, unless Pop was lucky to get a wild one during hunting. On Christmas, we had whatever was available:rabbit, pheasant, or on rare times, a “Capone.” A jug of Pop’s homemade wine always sat on the table.

Yes, times were challenging and austere, but the Italians–strong in spirit and mind–found joy and love even during those challenging times. They managed to survive it. “E Cosi.” It was what it was; they made the best of it.

Meals were meager but wholesome, and no one starved. After the war and rationing were over, diets returned to normal, including a bit more meat and fish. Mom even threw in one or two “merican” type entrees – -that is if you consider a baked bean and wiener stew, an American dish!

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