Joseph F. Berenato
Hammontonians discuss ‘Sunday dinner’
For many residents of Hammonton, the words “Sunday dinner” conjure imagery of copious amounts of both food and family gathered around a grandmother’s table. For some, these weekly events exist only in memory. For others, though, Sunday dinners are an ongoing tradition.
Bonnie Vettese said that she has been making Sunday dinner for close to 30 years.
“We like when the family all gets together ... It’s a tradition from when we were younger. The grandfathers or grandmothers used to cook, and now we do it,” Vettese said.
Vettese said that she learned how to cook at her father’s side.
“From when we were younger, my father always cooked. My mother worked at the grocery store in the meat department; she wrapped the meats and stuff. My father worked on construction for my uncle, which was across the street from where we lived, so he was home earlier. He always started cooking, so my sister Donna and I, when we would come home from school, we would help him. We would peel the potatoes and that kind of stuff. On Sunday, my father would do all of that. He really never taught us; we just watched him,” Vettese said.
The centerpiece of each Sunday dinner, Vettese said, is pasta, whichever variety her granddaughters decide.
“We have cavatelli—and that’s my granddaughter’s favorite—spaghetti, rigatoni and then we have meatballs, sausage, pork and some beef. Lately, we’ve just been using the chicken sausage; I buy it at Bagliani’s, because when my mother-in-law was here, we had a caretaker, and she was Russian, and she couldn’t eat pork so we started buying the chicken sausage. Probably for the last five or six years we’ve been using that, and I kind of like it better now. The kids like it, too; they didn’t care for the pork because it had the fennel seeds,” Vettese said.
Vettese said that much of the appeal of the meal is that it is homemade.
“We don’t use jarred sauce here. My father would be rolling over in his grave if we did that ... We really don’t have recipes for our sauce or our meatballs, either; we just kind of throw it together and see how it tastes,” Vettese said.
Pasta with red sauce has become such a staple, Vettese said, that several members of her family express disinterest at the thought of any other type of meal for Sunday dinner.
“If I say to my husband, my son and son-in-law that we’re not having pasta, they say, ‘OK, see you next week,’” Vettese said.
Left/Above(l-r): Arturo Consoli, Angelina Lagnese, Elpedio Trepiccione, Amelia Trepiccione, Pietro Consoli and an unnamed cousin gathered for Sunday dinner, circa 1973. Middle: Amelia Trepiccione, making Sunday dinner in the 1970s. Right: Amelia Trepiccione enjoyed Sunday dinner with her grandson, Josh, circa 2001.
For Amelia Trepiccione, making Sunday dinner is second nature. Trepiccione has been preparing the weekly feast since 1963, shortly after her arrival from Sparanise in Italy.
“Almost all the Italian people do this. I cook every day, anyway. You’ve got to eat every Sunday, right?” Trepiccione said.
Trepiccione said that her meals consist of many traditional dishes.
“I make gravy with meatballs and sausage, braciole, and I make pasta ... The best part is the pasta. Sometimes I do the gnocchi; everybody loves gnocchi. I make it. I don’t make it every week, but I make it. Fettuccini, too,” Trepiccione said.
Trepiccione’s grandson, Josh Trepiccione, attested the quality of her homemade pasta.
“She does makes a mean gnocchi,” he said.
Josh Trepiccione said that he and his brother go to their grandmother’s each week for the meal, often bringing friends.
“For the past few years, we’ve had friends of ours that really look forward to that tradition. They’ve asked to come, and they help. They want to learn to cook from her, so they’ve asked to come as well. We may have seven or eight people, all usually under the age of 24, around us with my grandmother, who’s 89, teaching them how to cook different dishes,” he said.
Like Josh Trepiccione’s friends, Lucy Diaz learned how to make Sunday dinners from Italian grandmothers.
“I was influenced by Mrs. Fragola, Mrs. Campanella and Rose Torres—formerly Rose Berenato—on Messina Avenue. They taught me about canning tomatoes, making sugo, eggplant parm, lasagna, homemade meatballs, escarole soup, wedding soup, Regina cookies, fennel and orange salad. This Puerto Rican, a true Hammontonian, has been infused since birth,” Diaz said.
Diaz spoke fondly of the woman who helped her to learn multicultural cuisine.
“This town is full of Italian pride and culture, cooking and baking. There are the ones that embrace society as a whole, and have so much pride that they teach others, as I was taught. So many folks captivated and engulfed me into the Italian culture. Now, I not only cook Puerto Rican and Italian meals, but I can make a mean Tamale from scratch and enchiladas, tacos and pozole soup, amongst other Mexican dishes. I love my birthplace and hometown,” Diaz said.
Diaz said that she regularly prepares Sunday dinner, though they have been pared down somewhat.
“Dinners are now for four to eight, a big difference from the 12 to 20-plus ... We have had a rough year, so Sunday dinners, of course, are not the same because of COVID; I have family that cannot come because they are in Philadelphia. So, it’s simple suppers—but, of course, we still make the wonderful seasonal items in a smaller downsized version, like stuffed zucchini flowers and bread. I’m looking for cucuzza to make with baccala, and I’ve started getting ripe figs,” Diaz said.
Diaz said that the pandemic has actually created a resurgence in some traditions that had started to go by the wayside.
“The old ways were dying out, but COVID is teaching folks how to bake and cook and can again. It’s wonderful,” Diaz said.
Patty Gazzara agreed, noting that perpetuating such traditions is important.
“You miss a lot of the old traditions. You try to keep them up with your children, and try to instill them in your children and your grandchildren. Sometimes it takes; sometimes they don’t want to be bothered, but there’s nothing like it. There is nothing like it,” Gazzara.
Passing on the knowledge of how to make Sunday dinners is an important part of the traditional meal, and one that is particularly important to Gazzara.
“When my aunt was alive, she made the best homemade pasta you’d ever want to eat—it was so light and fluffy—but she would never give me the recipe. She hoarded it all to herself. She passed away, and took the recipe with her,” Gazzara said.
Gazzara said that, most of the time, Sunday dinners consisted of pasta and other homemade dishes.
“Sometimes, we would vary; we’d have roasted chicken, or my mother would do a stuffed breast of veal. It was always red sauce; we never mixed it up, except for Christmas Eve, then we’d have macaroni and garlic and oil—sometimes I put anchovies, but not everybody likes them. We had braciole, we had sausage, and sometimes, if you had a pork chop left over, you’d throw that in there, too—just to give it flavoring. I always made my own meatballs—always,” Gazzara said.
The time spent with family during Sunday dinner is one of key ingredients of the tradition.
“It was a time for everybody to get together, to find out what was going on, to commiserate, to have fun and to talk about everything: what was going on with everybody, what they were doing in their daily activities. Sometimes, during the week, you hardly see anybody. You talk to them, but you really didn’t know what was going on until you got together. It was fun. You have fun doing it,” Gazzara said.
Recently, Gazzara said, she passed the mantle to her daughter-in-law, Amanda, shortly after the birth of her granddaughter Ainsley.
“She kind of took over everything. She enjoys doing it. She’s not really Italian, but she’s picked up a lot of it. I have a sister-in-law who is totally Irish, and we went there one time for dinner. She made spaghetti sauce, and my mother was absolutely in awe that she was able to make a good spaghetti sauce. I think the same way about Amanda; she can make a very good sauce. I taught her what to do and how to do it, and she really picked up on it. She doesn’t make homemade meatballs, but I make them and bring them over,” Gazzara said.
Gazzara said that she is uncertain that the tradition of Sunday dinners will continue in Hammonton in the years to come, but remained steadfast in extolling its importance.
“A lot of the girls I see today are not really into cooking, which really surprises me because, when we were younger, that was the first thing you did. You were in the kitchen with your mother, cooking. A lot of kids aren’t into that right now, and I’m afraid they’re going to start coming away from that. To me, it’s not good, because that’s how you connect with your family. That’s how you grow with your family—getting together with Sunday dinners,” Gazzara said.