When Sal Bordonaro came home from Riverside High School, another class was about to start. It was Sicilian Home Cooking 101, and at dinnertime, his mother would see if he passed the test.
Anna Bordonaro worked as a seamstress at Kleinhans department store, while her husband, Luigi, toiled as a construction laborer. Sal, the eldest of four sons, was in charge of putting dinner on the table to nourish his weary parents.
That's how Sal Bordonaro, The News' June Cook of the Month, learned to re-create his mother's simple, hearty Sicilian cuisine.
"Most of the time we went home and were left with the responsibility of preparing the meals," said Bordonaro, now director of the Cheektowaga Public Library. "She would tell us what she wanted cooked and instructed us."
Today, he carries on her tradition when it's time to feed his family. "Those were simple meals that were delicious," he said, "and to this day we perpetuate them by doing them here."
Anna Bordonaro immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1957, welcomed by fellow townspeople from the village of Montedoro who had settled in Buffalo's West Side. The next year, Sal, who was 6, made the journey.
The family's meals, mostly prepared by Anna, relied on vegetables and bread, pasta and olive oil, with meat on some days. Sunday meant a pot of tomato sauce, usually made without meat and served with pasta. It was served with a meat dish, like chicken cacciatore or a steak with crushed garlic, lemon and olive oil, Bordonaro said.
A weekday repast might be as simple as fried peppers and a loaf of bread, he said. "A little olive oil in a frying pan, crush the cubanelle peppers into the pan to break the skins, then fry them," said Bordonaro. "That was the meal, cubanelle peppers and a loaf of bread."
Her sons didn't complain much after hearing their mother describe the scarcity of food in her village during World War II. "She told us that when she was a child during the war, her family, they were happy to have a stale loaf of bread and an onion," Bordonaro said. "Pane e cipolla. They were content with that."
Sal told his daughter, Teresa, and son, Lou, that story when they were younger, urging them to appreciate the food they had to eat. Like children everywhere, they rolled their eyes at their dad's preaching, but some of their favorite dishes today are Sicilian favorites passed down from their grandmother, Bordonaro said.
Lou likes pasta muddicata, made from bread crumbs, cheese, oil and garlic, one of the traditional Sicilian ways to use up old bread. Teresa enjoys pasta melanze, eggplant in tomato sauce, especially with tomatoes cultivated by her grandfather, who still tends the backyard gardens of numerous family members.
Making Sicilian food, Bordonaro style, means "using whatever ingredients you have at your disposal, and making the best of them," he said. The pasta muddicata is a prime example.
"Mix a stale loaf of bread with some cheese, and there's your ingredients right there," Bordonaro said. "You don't need all sorts of fancy or rare condiments to put in your food."
>Sal Bordonaro's Chicken Florentine (Fiorentino Pollo)
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 cups Italian-flavored bread crumbs
1 cup grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup dried basil (or 1/8 cup fresh chopped leaves)
3/4 cup olive oil
2 12 ounce bags spinach
2 8 ounce containers mushrooms, sliced
8 cloves garlic
1/2 of a lemon
Make chicken into cutlets by filleting and pounding with a mallet.
Beat eggs in a bowl. Place mixture of Italian-flavored crumbs in flat container, add Romano cheese and basil, and mix.
Dip cutlets in egg batter, let excess drip off, then coat both sides of cutlets with crumb mixture. Place breaded cutlets on a plate.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large frying pan, and slice 4 cloves of garlic into oil, over medium heat. When garlic begins to brown, saute cutlets in batches until both sides are golden brown, about three minutes a side. You may have to add more olive oil, since bread crumbs soak it up. Sprinkle cooked chicken with a little salt after removing.
Place chicken pieces into large casserole dish and bake for 45 minutes in 350 degree oven. (You can bake browned chicken less if you like, check it to make sure it's done.)
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup of oil in a quart saucepan and slice remaining 4 cloves of garlic into it. As garlic turns golden, put rinsed spinach in pan along with mushrooms on low burner until contents are cooked, about five minutes. Squeeze lemon on top of ingredients, removing seeds. Sprinkle four spoons of Romano cheese over spinach and mushrooms, then pour contents over chicken cutlets. Serve.
>Sicilian Potato Salad (Patate alla Aceto)
1 pound potatoes
2 onions, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup parsley, preferably fresh
Salt and black pepper
Peel potatoes and boil until they can be pierced with a fork. Add onions toward the end of the cooking time so they blanch a little. Drain.
When potatoes are cool, cut into chunks in a large bowl. Add oil, vinegar and parsley, and gently fold in ingredients to avoid breaking up the potatoes.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Name: Sal Bordonaro
Dish: Chicken Florentine
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to-instant meal: Grilled hamburgers with fried potatoes and onions
Guilty pleasure: Two slices of Italian bread around Nutella
ON THE WEB: Watch Sal Bordonaro make Sicilian chicken cutlets at video.buffalonews.com.