The man who keeps coming to dinner

My teenage son and I recently watched a "60 Minutes" segment on the enormous number of single men in Italy who still live with their mothers (I would write "parents," but it's the mothers who seemed thrilled with the arrangement), well into their 30s and 40s.

The reporter, Leslie Stahl, asked one of these so-called mammoni (mamas' boys) what it was like.His smiling response:"Paradiso."

After the segment, Alyosha turned to me and remarked, "That's you, Dad.You're a mammoni."

I had to laugh. "I don't live with my parents," I told him."I live with you.If anything, that makes me an 'Alyoshoni.' "

Actually, I knew exactly what my son was talking about.A few miles down the road lives the family of one of his friends.The mother, Anne Marie (nee Rotolo), is a phenomenal old-school cook who always has something bubbling on the stove or steaming in the oven.

Not long ago I showed up there on an errand and interrupted the entire family in the middle of supper. "Excuse me," I was quick to apologize, "I didn't know...."

Before I knew it, Anne Marie had taken hold of me and escorted me to the table, commanding her husband and three children to make room.I gazed at the pasta, the chicken, the fresh bread, and a salad bowl large enough to do a backstroke in, and my head swooned. But I still had enough self-consciousness left to beg forgiveness one more time.

"I'm sorry...." I began, but was immediately cut off by Anne Marie's abrupt but good-natured, "Shut up and eat.Eat!"

And so I ate, plowing my way through a banquet large enough to feed the Italian Army.Since then I have developed the inexcusable habit of showing up just as a casserole of chicken cacciatore or a mountain of rigatoni is making its way from oven to table. My son, of course, caught on to this in quick time, and that's why he calls me mammoni.

But I'm only a part-time mammoni and, truth to tell, I'm a victim of circumstances, the main circumstance being that I don't like to cook.In fact, shortly after waking I begin to fret about what I will bring to the table that evening. My only respite is Friday -pizza night - and now I have a second one, involving my uncanny knack for sensing an incipient lasagna at Anne Marie's.

Sometimes my son comes with me, especially after a stretch of eatingthe culinary labors of his father's hands.Just last week we showed up for the most delicious baked haddock I had ever tasted.

Alyosha looked at me with something resembling mild disgust as I dug into fillet after fillet while Anne Marie encouraged me by cooing, "More, honey, have more.Eat!"

And so I ate, I ate!After all, it would have been impolite to refuse, and I wanted to be a good example for my son.

Sometimes it seems enough to just sit in Anne Marie's kitchen while she is working her stove-top magic.She never glances at a cookbook, and seems to pull the ingredients out of the air.I sit with my cup of tea and watch as she mutters, almost sings, under her breath, "A little of this, a little of that, a pinch, just a pinch. Ah!"

Now and then, there is a small, heaven-sent gift as Anne Marie carefully wafts a wooden spoon my way and admonishes, "Taste, honey."

Then she waits, perched ripe for my approbation as I roll the ambrosia around in my mouth and then, inevitably, nod.Flashing a self-satisfied smile, Anne Marie returns to the stove to continue her creation with renewed vigor.

Anne Marie runs a tight ship.It's a big house with a husband and three teenagers, and she thrives on keeping one eye on the kitchen and the other on her gang of four. I have sometimes been there when events seem to reel out of control, watching from the sidelines as she darts about with the desperate exasperation of a drill sergeant.

At those moments I have learned what to say.It goes something like this:"Anne Marie, tell me how you make your pasta fazoule."

In the instant, she turns from her exertions, touches a hand to her face, and becomes placid, looking off into the distance as if envisioning the coming together of so many ingredients."Ah, my pasta fazoule, " she sighs, and the poetry begins.

Alyosha, of course, understands none of this.He continues to call me mammoni.At one point this began to affect me.I considered that maybe he was right, and so I lay low, went on hiatus, and stayed away from Anne Marie's for a week. I made desperate pots of macaroni and cheese while dreaming of Tortellini al Pesto a scant few miles down the road.

On the eighth day of my self-imposed exile, there was a call.It was Anne Marie.

"What's wrong?" she demanded. "You don't like my cooking?Come over here right now!I have a nice baked ziti and an antipasto."

I hung up the phone and grabbed my jacket.

"Where are you going?" my son asked with deep suspicion. "You're going to Anne Marie's, aren't you?" he accused.

"Yes," I admitted.

Alyosha mouthed the "m"word.

I took him affectionately by the shoulders and blurted out, "But it's baked ziti, Alyosha. Ziti!"

I got into my truck, and just as I was starting it up my son jumped into the passenger seat."Well, I've gotta eat something, too," he surrendered.

And so we headed off together for some of the sweetest pasta on earth, this mammoni and his son.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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