The power of pasta

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With red sauce running through my veins and olive oil on my skin, I love as much as any Italian American. And through the years, as I grew my career in music, I brought backstage with me as much of the pasta-and-meatball experience as I could.

What started with my grandmother in Chicago’s Little Italy on Taylor Street where I was born has turned into a part of my rock ’n’ roll business model.

Sadly I never met my grandparents. My Nonna Sabina came over from Naples in 1911 to start a new life in America. She died two weeks before I was born, trying so desperately to hang on just to see the first offspring of her son and my father, Alberto, who was the youngest of six kids.

What she left behind were old-world culinary traditions, and hundreds of warm recollections shared with me by aunts, uncles, cousins and my own parents. So even though she had passed on before I met her, I learned a great deal about my heritage and the passion surrounding it from her.

And who has benefitted? Rock stars including Uli Jon Roth of The Scorpions, Eddie Money, Burton Cummings of The Guess Who, Ted Nugent, Rick Springfield, Kevin Costner, and so many more who relish the fact that there is actually a home-cooked meal in the dressing rooms of a music venue! At so many other venues, the food is bland, cold and not presented in a way that is appetizing in any way, shape or form. But not at The Arcada!

My Nonna started at the crack of dawn, blanching yard-grown tomatoes to get the skins off. Little by little the pot would fill, first with olive oil, white onion and whole cloves of garlic. Then red wine until the alcohol was burned off. Next ame the whole peeled tomatoes. After simmering a bit to loosen the water from the tomatoes, some sugar went in to relieve the acidity. After some salt, pepper and ripped basil leaves were added, it simmered for about four hours, filling the neighborhood with a home-style aroma that brings one back to the piazzas of Naples.

Then came the meatballs. Ground beef, pork and veal were mixed together with a bit of breadcrumbs made from the hardened crusty bread leftovers from the Sunday before, along with seasonings and fresh parsley. She would bust out the black cast iron frying pan to sear the baseball-sized meatballs on all sides, adding that wonderful flavor. After quickly frying the outsides, they would be immersed in her sauce together with fresh Italian sausage and pork neck bones.

My cousins used to say that the best part of the six-hour process was the amount of people from the neighborhood that would stop by just to rip off a hunk of crusty bread and dip it into the gravy when my Nonna wasn’t looking. They would just walk in, since the doors were never locked!

But she just pretended not to see. She made extra gravy and about 200 meatballs just to make sure there was enough left by dinner time!

Between lasagna noodles drying on towels and bed sheets spread out everywhere, to freshly washed dandelion leaves and stems for soup picked from the green area along the streets of our neighborhood, the cooking process took over every room in the house.

Recently, I had Eddie Money in for another fabulous evening of “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Two Tickets To Paradise,” “Baby Hold On To Me” and his many other hits. Prior to the show, he came into the kitchen and we started talking food. Next thing I knew, we were making his favorite dish, lasagna, together! In deference to his wife, who is a vegetarian, we whipped upa veggie lasagna. It was amazing!

The same thing happened with two of my British buddies, Denny Laine of The Wings and Moody Blues, and Joey Molland from Badfinger. To make them feel at home, we all got together and made a beef roast with Yorkshire pudding. What a dish!

Making English-style potatoes for Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was also a huge treat for him. “Just like my Mum makes,” he said.

Of course, more and more are the occasions when I need to prepare gluten free, vegan meals. Recently I used cauliflower flour to make a pizza dough topped with fresh veggies and olive oil. The vegans LOVED it!

So if I have anything to celebrate as far as my career path goes, I must credit my Nonna as well as my mom. They taught me how to season and prepare “passion” and serve it up to celebs. With all things being equal, the bands love coming by me for “Ron’s meatballs”!

After all the years of preparing homemade old-school style dishes for my guests backstage, it has proven one thing. The secret to a great performance is a great, home-cooked meal before the show. Of course, the several glasses of red wine that go with it could also have something to do with it!

About Ron Onesti

Ron Onesti is the president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, chairman of Casa Italia and a board member of the Italian American Veterans Museum. He is the founder and president of Onesti Entertainment Corp., which runs five entertainment and dining venues across the Chicago area and produces concerts, special events and festivals nationwide. Among the latter are Festa Pasta Vino on South Oakley Avenue, Festa Italiana on Taylor Street and Little Italy Fest-West in Addison. He was inducted as a cavaliere into the Ordine della Stella d’Italia by the president of Italy

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