How three families use lasting memories in modern mealtime

The Timeless Tastes of Italy

By Shauna Nosler / Photography By Jennifer Rubenstein | November 12, 2016
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Knuckles family
Knuckles family "gravy".

Ah, the holidays. The time of year when families gather to carry out honored traditions, to join one another for special meals, to reconnect and build memories—memories that not only last a lifetime, but become building blocks for future generations.

“When we were kids, we spent every Christmas Eve at my grandmother and grandfather’s house,” said Robert Knuckles, head golf pro at the Indiana Golf Club in Lebanon and self-proclaimed food enthusiast.

“My immediate family would join with my uncle’s family and spend the day cooking, eating and opening presents. My grandmother would be slaving away in the kitchen and my mom would join her putting together the giant feast that was to come.”

A feast, he said, that would begin around noon and last most of the day.

“It wasn’t until nearly 4 p.m.—when all the food was gone, the kitchen cleaned up and the men had had their smokes—that the presents could be passed out and opened.”

But, says Knuckles, the funny thing about their traditional Christmas Eve dinner was that it was anything but traditional in the usual sense. No turkey. And no ham.

“My grandfather was German and his favorite meal was chili, so our Christmas Eve dinner would consist of huge bowls of my grandmother’s famous chili, stuffed with beef, onion, chili beans and crackers crushed on top of melted cheese. The recipe was given to her from her mom and eventually was passed to us.”

Passing on the goods

Similar to the Knuckles family, the Lacabazzos know that family and food make an unparalleled combination.

“A lot of the time I’ve gotten to spend with my grandfather has been around food,” said Vinnie Salas. “He is not only a conduit of his family’s traditions but a gourmet in general.”

Salas’s grandfather was the first of his family born in the United States. When he was younger, he dropped the Lacabazzo surname and changed his name to Jim Gerard. He was a radio broadcaster, said Salas, and felt he needed a name that sounded more American than foreign. But even without his Italian name, Salas’s grandfather taught his grandson to love and appreciate the foods he himself grew up eating.

“He was the first person to have me try blue cheese as well as dry-cured salami,” said Salas. “I remember thinking there must be something wrong with the salami for it to be so hard.” But he trusted his grandfather and soon developed a taste for the cured meat.

In addition to cherishing the times spent with his grandfather, Salas says he is particularly fond of the memories he has of his family preparing eggplant parmigiana over the holidays.

“My mother and her two sisters would plan the event of making it for weeks,” he said.

“It’s still a favorite dish for me and more than any other reminds me of the biggest family gatherings of the year.” And although Salas isn’t yet allowed to assist in the making of the eggplant parmigiana, he does hope that one day he can fulfill one of the important duties that go into its preparation.

From northern Italy to the north side of Indy

Like Salas, Andrea Bettini’s love for good food grew from a childhood heavily influenced by his family, their holiday meal preparations and their commitment to passing on cooking techniques as well as recipes to the younger generations.

Bettini grew up in the small, rustic community of Correggioli—about an hour and a half north of Venice in northern Italy. And it was there, among the rich vegetation and flourishing agriculture, that Bettini developed an appreciation for the freshest ingredients.

“As I was growing up,” he said, “I remember we had our own garden, grew our own carrots, beans, tomatoes, peppers and a host of other vegetables. We also had our own fig trees and a very small grape vineyard.”

And his family, he said, were fortunate to grow and harvest enough produce to keep their cellar stocked during the winter months—months that along with the cold would bring friends and family to visit for the holidays.

“My grandmother always enjoyed the holidays, spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing all sorts of foods,” he said adding that for Italians, the center of home is often around the dining table.

“One of my grandmother’s favorite dishes and a traditional dish for the Christmas holiday in Northern Italy is Tortelli di Zucca [Pumpkin Tortelli]. We still fix it today and since I have been in the United States I still prepare it for holiday eating as it is a very unique dish not customary among Americans at the Christmas holiday season.”

Last year, Bettini, a onetime teacher of classical piano, shifted his love for music into his desire to chase what he called his American Dream and founded Bettini Pasta. His pasta is made fresh daily and served in some of the best restaurants in town, including Bluebeard, Ambrosia, Osteria Pronto, Shoefly, Tavern on South, Marrow, Milktooth, Pioneer and many others. But you don’t have to go out to eat to get this authentic taste of Italy; now you can buy Bettini Pasta at Amelia’s Bakery, Goose the Market, R2Go and soon at Market District in Carmel.

Andrea Bettini
Robert Knuckles, head golf pro at the Indiana Golf Club in Lebanon and self-proclaimed food enthusiast.
Vinny Salas.
Photo 1: Bettini’s love for good food grew from a childhood heavily influenced by his family.
Photo 2: Robert Knuckles, head golf pro at the Indiana Golf Club in Lebanon and self-proclaimed food enthusiast.
Photo 3: Salas' grandfather "was the first person to have me try blue cheese as well as dry-cured salami."

The importance of a family meal

Clearly, the Knuckles, Lacabazzo and Bettini families know the importance of sharing a meal with loved ones. For them, family mealtime—be it over the holidays or not—gives everyone the chance to bond, to have conversations, to learn about what’s going on with one another.

“My father,” said Knuckles, “instilled in us all that dinnertime was sacred and was never to be missed. Mealtime is more than the food we eat; it is reconnecting every day to recharge your soul with the ones you love. It keeps lines of communication open between family members, and ensures that all needs are addressed and recognized, and it keeps you grounded.”

And it’s this reconnecting of family relationships that the experts over at the Family Dinner Project—a nonprofit organization operating through Harvard university’s Project Zero—believe is the foundation for healthy family relationships. Citing over 15 years’ worth of research, the project has shown a direct link between regular family meals and positive behaviors in children such as higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem as well as lower rates of the mannerisms deemed less desirable. Family mealtime, according to the group, is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members.

Bringing it all together

Knowing all too well the importance of family mealtime, nowadays, when schedules will allow, the Knuckles family has dinner together every Sunday night.

“It has become much more difficult to do it every night as we did when I was a kid,” said Knuckles, but when Sundays roll around, they have a firm standing dinner date.

“No matter how busy we are, Sunday is family night. Most of the time we prepare a home-cooked meal of some kind,” a meal, he said, that he encourages his two daughters to cook with him.

“Sometimes it takes some prodding, but usually once they start preparing the meal with me, they really enjoy the experience, and I get to spend some wonderful quality time with each of them.”

Plus, they get to learn some family secret recipes like the meatballs they make to accompany their prized Sunday Italian Gravy.

As for the family’s Christmas Eve dinner, you can bet they’ll once again be enjoying his grandmother’s beloved chili just as they have for generations.

“Grandmother died about seven years ago,” he said, and so the tradition of preparing and serving this family-favorite dish has been passed on to him.

“When I cook her chili, the memories of those fun days spent with family lift my spirit,” says Knuckles, adding that it’s the food, especially food made from a recipe handed down for generations, that can rekindle memories of those who are no longer with us.

“The food we make and eat, the time spent together at mealtime, is family,” he said.

And the memories made, of times spent laughing and telling stories over a good meal, are the ones cherished for a lifetime.

Three tips for making your own eggplant parmigiana

Although we weren’t able to get the exact recipe Vinnie’s family has mastered over the years, we were given the following three tips for making eggplant parmigiana:

1. The eggplants must be light purple with no brown spots.

2. Remove the skin from the eggplants before layering the dish.

3. Use good cheese—Salas recommends Locatelli’s Romano or any of the new American small production Romano-style cheeses.

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