It was Mrs. Danesi who inspired one of my grand food epiphanies. At one point towards the end of high school it came up that I had never eaten lasagna (a difficult thing to imagine, I know, but it was a different time). She immediately invited me to dinner, and what she served me was one of those sense-opening taste experiences that cause some people to become chefs. This dish was amazing. Now, it's not as if at that point I had ever even once cooked an actual dinner, but I asked for the recipe anyway, so overcome was I with the desire to taste this again. And here's where I learned some key lessons.
The very first thing Mrs. Danesi said, when I took out a notebook, was "You're lucky because the Valencia Pork Store just opened a branch in Middletown. Before that you would have had to go all the way to Long Branch to get Mozzarella stored in water." Because that was step one: If you're not going to get fresh Mozzarella cheese, there's no point in making the dish. You can now get Mozzarrella stored in water at most supermarkets, but the freshly-made product available at the time in delis that catered to Italian immigrants in New Jersey really was of a taste and quality I haven't seen reproduced commercially. It was, in fact, the key to the whole dish. It seems such an obvious point now, about primacy of ingredients and the difference between fresh smooth creamy cheese and the plastic-wrapped stuff in the dairy department, but seriously this was a big deal. When I later moved to Boston I would travel to the North End to find this cheese.
She also taught me about finding a good jarred tomato sauce (recommending some local small producers) and "doctoring" it with herbs and simmering it for a bit. She said that most people in this country add meat to the sauce, and I could do that if I wanted to, but she insisted that traditionally the meat was served as a separate dish on the side (sausage, also purchased at the Italian deli freshly made) and was not a part of the lasagna. Lesson noted and never violated. I even made the dish for my family not too long after, and my mother had me type the recipe up on an index card which she whimsically labeled "Lasagna a la Danesi".
This one amazing meal and this lesson in the importance of quality fresh ingredients is what started to open up a world for me, and I have often thought of Mrs. Danesi and privately thanked her.
And here's the second thing of importance, of greater importance really, for which I remember Mrs. Danesi. Mrs. Danesi -- from the time I met her when I was in 7th grade -- always treated me (and all of Debbie's friends) with absolute respect and affection, as full human beings in our own right. She showed genuine interest in us, asked after us, cared about us. This really wasn't all that common of a way for parents to treat their kids jr-high friends back then. She also told fun and vivid stories, she was something of a fireball of humor, and that's fun to remember. But at the core what I remember so strongly is not being treated as a child, but being treated as somebody who had something to offer. This means a lot to a 13-year-old. Hell, this means a lot to a 56-year-old. I suppose I looked to this in some way as a model, and this has served me well over the years as my own friends have had children.
So here's a fond farewell to a very nice lady who was a positive part of my teenage years. I'm fortunate enough that, through Debra, only a couple of years ago I was able to tell her the very things that I've written about here, and of the lessons she taught me that I still hold.