An Ode to Sunday Lunch

May 23, 2024

When I was a kid, meals were considered sacred time. I always joke that if you weren’t at the dinner table, you’d best be dead. No excuses mattered. Not late volleyball or swim practice; not play rehearsals; nothing. You were expected around the table for dinner. It was a time together; it was respect for the work my mother had put into the meal. It was family and nothing; and I mean nothing came before that.

And Sunday lunch was sacred on steroids. I’m half Italian and half Irish. The Italian side cooked so it’s no stretch to say that everyone gathered at our house, Italian and Irish alike.

I am convinced that more than half of my love of Italy is that being there, enjoying long leisurely meals with our loved ones takes me back to the magical Sundays of my childhood.

My memories of Sundays in the kitchen with my Nonni and mother (and aunts…and cousins) are some of my most precious. The counters teemed with raw ingredients ready to be transformed into luscious meals. As a child I was sent into my grandfather’s garden to pick the freshest summer herbs and tomatoes, zucchini and peppers, figs, winter squash, carrots and greens in winter; whatever was in season. He taught me what to look for and how to choose what was ripe.

The Sunday table groaned under the weight of the number of dishes we enjoyed each week. My Nonni’s pasta dishes were as limitless as her love for us. Along with mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, eggplant (grilled, sautéed, roasted, stewed), whole poached artichokes, meat dishes like chicken cutlets or pork chops. Salads and vegetable dishes were as varied and abundant as our garden.

And all that was before dessert and coffee. Fresh seasonal fruit, biscotti, cannoli and miniature cakes decorated the table like it was Christmas…every…single…Sunday.

As I grew into a teenager whose friends knew nothing of this sacred feast, I began to consider Sunday lunch to be more like emotional blackmail than a family gathering. You’d kill Nonni if you decided not to come to Sunday lunch. How can you refuse to eat the food she cooked with such love? And to her credit, when I declared I was a vegetarian at 14 years old, she made more vegetable dishes and saw to it that she cooked beans and placed the meat dishes far from where I sat. How could you not love this woman?

As my relatives began to pass away, I began to realize the value of this holy time together as a family. What felt like chaos to me as a kid now felt like cherished times I was too young to appreciate. I always say thank God I wanted to cook; thank God I wanted to cook. My memories of the kitchen fuel me to this day. The voices talking over each other; the singing as they cooked; the laughter in the kitchen as each person moved smoothly from task to task, never in the way of another, never annoyed. It was heaven to me and it has allowed me to keep those stories in my heart and my culinary heritage alive.

My love of cooking and feeding people comes from the strong women who showed me how to love; how to nourish and how to work hard with joy.

Working as much as I do in Rome (and other cities in Italy) shows me that stopping everything to sit together for a meal is very much alive. At around 1 pm on a Sunday, the streets are mostly empty of locals. It’s as silent as you’ll find any city in neighborhoods away from tourist sites. As early evening rolls around, local people emerge from the table for their “passaggiata,” their stroll to work off and digest some of the calories consumed at their long lunch.

Now my Sunday lunches are with friends, my chosen family and with the groups I host in Italy, as they become family at least for the duration of their travels with us. We need a time to gather with people we love. We need a time to remember our traditions, our culture. We need a time to honor our ancestors in the same loving way they honored us when they were alive.

 We can argue. We can disagree. But once you sit at the table together, everything changes. With the food and the wine, everything becomes clearer and you realize that love is all there is. It’s all there ever is.