Nearly half a lifetime ago I met Nick and Fannie Saccente. In-laws of a business colleague, they would later claim me as an adopted daughter. I was proud of that. I met them during my corporate years while working as a Human Resource executive in the financial and information services industry. When the New York based employer relocated the business to Omaha, and later to Atlanta, Nick and Fannie also relocated – they were part of the package deal.
They excelled at acclimating to a new city, making easy work of blooming where they were planted while the rest of us –30-40 years their junior — struggled mightily to adjust to any city that wasn’t New York. (For the record, I was born in Alabama, but 20 plus years in New York – the longest I lived anywhere — did make me a bit homesick).
Nick and Fannie made fast friends wherever they went. First they would scout out the new city – especially the grocery stores. They no doubt first appeared to grocery store employees as a sweet older couple, somewhat distinctive due to their unmistakable New York accents. What was not as initially obvious to the grocery store managers, meat cutters and produce managers they befriended was that they were on a mission and armed with more than their fair share of persistence. Persist they did, until the stores carried their favorite foods from ‘back East’ like broccoli rabe (not a Midwest or Southern staple at the time), a certain brand of ricotta, special bread flour, meat ground just so for sausage – the list went on. It was a great strategy for dousing homesickness. In no time, they were cooking up all of our favorites – meatballs, cavatelli, breads, eggplant parmesan…yum!
I traveled extensively for business during those years and was fortunate to dine in some terrific restaurants both here and abroad. None of those meals could beat the ones prepared by Nick and Fannie, though. Their family recipes passed down from generation to generation, adjusted along the way to suit tastes and budgets, weren’t fancy. They were just plain delicious.
Nick and Fannie loved food, loved cooking and especially loved sharing their wonderful dishes. All of that love was bound to add up to great meals – and it always did. But there was also something else that made their food great. Nick and Fannie could cook – I mean really cook. Love and natural culinary talent – an unbeatable (and sometimes fattening) combination. To know Nick and Fannie was to hit the comfort food jackpot.
Fannie passed away about 4 years ago – she was 90. By that time, Nick had lost his vision to macular degeneration and his hearing loss was defeating even the best hearing aid technology. Of course, he missed Fannie terribly. He also missed cooking. I must admit, I missed their cooking too, but even more, I missed their company.
Nick, inspired by my partner John’s expressed regret at never having tasted Nick’s fabulous cooking, suggested that he show me how to make his famous meatballs. I admit to being skeptical (maybe even a little horrified) at the thought of how we would manage this feat with a man who could not see and only barely hear. I was game, though, and we set aside a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Shame on me; I should have known better. Our time together blossomed into more than two years of Sunday afternoons during which I was blessed with first hand lessons from a cooking master. And, he wasn’t telling us what to do – he was showing us – with his own hands. Blindness simply wasn’t an obstacle for Nick. John became a vital part of the cooking team by helping steer Nick around the kitchen, making sure he could find, touch and work with each ingredient. Our two standard poodles, Glenda and Lily, were an ever-attentive audience, waiting patiently for the cooking commotion to end before they closed in on the floor scraps.
This kitchen scene was the inspiration for the label I created for food parcels we gifted to others, particularly during the holidays, when Nick never forgot anyone, including the dogs! I only regret he couldn’t actually see the label, although when I described it to him he seemed as tickled as he would have been had he been able to see it.
About this time last year Nick’s health failed to the point that our Sunday afternoon cooking adventure was off the menu. He died last November at the age of 94. We all miss him terribly. Certainly he left behind his cooking legacy, seen so clearly in the incredible, imaginative dishes created by his grandson Matt who is a natural. And, although she won’t admit it, his daughter Evelyn (my ‘adopted sister’ and very dear friend) also has the cooking gene. More than that, though, he left the gift of hope by demonstrating all of the wonders and possibilities that exist when you don’t let a few obstacles keep you from doing what you love.
Next up – Nick’s cavatelli.
Mary, I was incredibly moved by this story, and fervently wish I could have had the privilege of meeting both Nick and Fannie. They sound like a wonderful people whom you were very blessed to know, and I’m sure Nick especially would be bursting with pride at such a lovely tribute. The world needs more people like Nick and Fannie.
Helen – thank you so much — especially for encouraging me to write it!
Mary, what a wonderful tribute to Nick and Fannie who loved you fiercely! You will never know what your “Sundays with Nick” did for him the last years of his life….you, John, Glenda and Lily were the inspiration and motivation for him to keep plugging away at challenges I cannot begin to imagine. He would dream, plan and anticipate Sundays like a child waits for Santa! I have no doubt he is so proud to be honored by this fabulous blog!
I can’t wait to read more!!! And, the mere mention of Cavatelli makes my mouth water…..
Thanks Evie – and for anyone reading this, Evelyn is my ‘adopted sister’ – Nick and Fannie’s daughter, who always so generously shared her her family with me! I guarantee you that Nick & Fannie gave more to me than I ever gave back…
Peg, that was such a nice story about Nick and Fannie. I feel privileged to have met Nick on one of my trips to Atlanta. I can’t wait for the recipes!
Thanks Chris! I remember that visit well – you were so kind and attentive to Nick and he always asked about you. Given your culinary skills I know you will do the recipes justice — Maybe as the recipes are published you could be persuaded to suggest a wine to go with them?
Peg. That was absolutely lovely. My mouth is watering for the cavatelli!! I really like the logo.
Tucker – thanks! I do seem to recall that when you and Vicki visited Omaha (and maybe even Atlanta) Nick and Fannie made sure I was stocked with cavi as they knew how much we all liked it. Of course, you can still get it here in Atlanta – at our place, now that I have learned from the master himself how to make it!
Li and I will never forget his turkey meatballs with no hint they were turkey. I’ve never had meatballs that good anywhere.
Mike – soon I will post that recipe.! I would guess that over a 3 year period we probably made several hundred pounds of those meatballs – gave them away as Christmas gifts in freezer packs. Or rather, they were requested as gifts. He loved that people couldn’t guess and especially got a kick out of it with ‘foodies’ like you and Li.
Mary, what a great story. I felt like I was in the kitchen with you, Nick, and John, with Lily and Glenda looking on. I wish I could have known Nick and Fannie.
This is so beautiful and moving. Thank you for all you did for my grandparents. I know first hand that your Sundays were the highlight of my grandpa’s life the last two years. Thank you for your bravery in welcoming him into your kitchen to cook. It takes a very special person to let a blind, nearly deaf 92-year-old man who is unable to get around new places without assistance into your kitchen. I miss those Meatballs and Cavi almost as much as I miss my grandparents!
Christina – Your comments are so kind and generous! Thank you! We truly did get more out of it than we gave and I know you miss them so much. As for the meatballs and cavi, I feel a home delivery coming on soon so be on the lookout.! I seem to recall that you cooked with Nick and Fannie during their soup-making era, so I am hoping to tap you for some recipes soon! And perhaps I will tell a little story about a young woman dancing with her grandpa….
What a wonderful tribute to Nick and Fannie. Growing up with them we weren’t aware of their talents and goodness until we were far into adulthood. I was fortunate to have shared one of your cooking Sunday’s and I know how much it meant to him. You and John gave him a reason to be and I do believe it contributed to his longevity. He spoke of you often and you were loved as a second daughter.
On behalf of the Saccente family I thank you for giving us this great narrative to have and cherish forever. I will pass this on to those who knew Nick….Kudos to you!
I knew Nick and Fannie many years ago when they lived in rural PA. The meals there were always top notch, only superceded by their hospitality. As a result, we’ve made PA our home as well. We’ll never forget them, nor the wonderful times we shared with them.
Elaine and Don
Oh, Mary and Evelyn, as Evelyn’s sister-in-law of approaching 40 years, my greatest memory of Nick and Fannie was meeting them for the first time in the living room of my parents’ home just before Evelyn and Walter’s wedding. Nick immediately came up to me and kissed me on both cheeks, then Fannie started her warm, wonderful questions to me, getting to know me and my husband. As for food, every St. Patrick’s Day, these two native Italy born people would mail to us the most amazing and incredible Irish soda bread, sometimes with raisins. Their Irish soda bread was so soft and fresh and would melt in our mouths. Also around my home are several pieces of Nick’s charming stained glass creations on display – including green dragon, Santa Claus, and a little girl in pink for my newborn daughter. Nick and Fannie were living saints, and I miss them very much. Great love, Mary Roos
Mary Roos – Nick and Fanny spoke of you often and were so proud of the fact that you so loved their Irish Soda bread – which was indeed wonderful as was their other St. Patrick’s favorite – Corned Beef and Cabbage!
I will have to get your address and ship you some soda bread next March! It’s one of the many things he taught us to make.