Discovering Delicious Treasures Hidden in Old Parish Cookbooks
With a Recipe for Authentic Family Pizza Dough
When searching for Catholic cookbooks online, this title may pop up: Deo Gratias: Parish Heritage Cookbook from St. John the Baptist and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Rome, New York. Its main author, Anthony J. Rotolo, is a former professor at Syracuse University and has a private practice using coaching and clinical hypnosis to help clients overcome mind and body stress. But as the cookbook underscores, his Catholic faith is the major influence in his life — though, he adds, he is not really a cook.
As it happened for him, he was raised in an Italian Catholic family in Rome, New York, and as he noted, “the dearest memories of my childhood are the times I spent at the parish with volunteers.”
“We attended Mass,” he said, “and I was an altar server. I went to religious education classes. But the time I spent in the parish in service and around food there is what shaped me as a person. … We had Italian-American festivals with Italian food, and from my teenage years, I helped our pastor to manage the processes around the festivals. They were hugely popular with lots of people and food. These were yearly festivals, and much centered around food. Most of the community turned out for sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, Italian street-food specialties and fried pizza dough — and memories like this are what started the writing of this book.
The Parish Heritage Cookbook, he said, is really a local food story.
“The parish had published its own fundraiser cookbook going back to the 1950s,” he said, “and, of course, as typical fundraiser books with their home-spun quality of recipes, the books became so popular, like coveted items. My grandparents had some stained, well-used copies … and many of our parishioners kept asking for these old recipes. We realized that these food stories were getting lost.”
“I agreed to work with my mom, an unnamed coauthor, and the Marian Guild to put the book together to recapture the past,” he said. “We wanted to put in personal memories of parishioners and had some mostly by word-of-mouth that should be written down. My paternal grandmother was the president of the Marian Guild and oversaw the assembling of many of the original books.”
One of the reasons for these books, he noted, was that they told the story of the faith and food in his parish and the broader region.
“The area was a magnet for Polish and Italian immigrants who found togetherness because of their shared faith. … My mom and the other women of the Marian Guild provided a running commentary on these recipes whose authors are largely no longer with us. They provided the history and context about how these foods appeared in their memories and lives.”
As Rotolo reminisced about this project, he found that many stories were influenced by past hardships.
“Many of the early parishioners had suffered harsh times as immigrants or children of immigrants, and many of the foods in the book reflect those times,” he said. “A lot were what my mother calls ‘Great Depression dishes’ that were created out of lack of ingredients, such as dishes like pasta fagioli (pasta and beans), dandelion greens collected from yards and fields, and even the simple pizza dough that could be used for everything from pizza pie to savory breads and even fried and topped with sugar as a sweet treat. These meals became family favorites that were shared after Mass from my childhood and to today. For me, these recipes reflect the versatility and resilience of those families who relied on their Catholic faith to survive. After all, faith is food for the soul — you cannot survive without feeding both body and soul.”
Over the years, Rotolo has revisited what he learned as a youth and realized that growing in knowledge has helped him appreciate the depth of his Catholic faith and how he has embraced its wisdom.
“The more I learned as a scholar, and the deeper I could engage with the faith, I never found it lacking,” he said. “I tried to demonstrate that in the cookbook and to dive deeply into the relationship between Mary and Jesus, for example, and how their example can guide relationships in one’s family. There are layers upon layers to the Catholic understanding of Scripture and how to apply it to our lives. I am grateful that my faith has always been there for me and always will be.”
Recipe: Family Pizza Dough
Mrs. Sara R. Messineo
“My mother, Anna ‘Nunie’ Stagliano, was a very close friend to Sara Messineo,” says Mary Ann Rotolo, “and they both used this pizza dough recipe. I remember arriving home from school to see a huge bowl of dough covered with a special moppina (dish towel) sitting close to the heater to help it rise. Once the dough had risen to my mother’s liking, she turned it into the best pizza pie ever. The same dough could also become ‘pizza frittata’ (fried dough) or maybe sausage bread. It was always a surprise to find out what delicious creation Mom would make with this simple homemade pizza dough.”
- 1 package dry yeast
- 3/4 cup lukewarm water
- 6 cups sifted flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 egg (optional)
- 2 tablespoons melted shortening
- Dissolve yeast in water. Let stand for 5 minutes.
- In a large bowl, add dissolved yeast water to 3 cups of flour. Mix well. Then, add the remaining flour and combine with melted shortening and egg.
- Flour a breadboard and knead the dough for 5 minutes. Place dough in a greased bowl and cover it with a damp towel. Let the dough rise for 90 minutes, and then knead down.
- Makes enough for two pizza pies.