When I was a little boy my grandparents owned a restaurant called the Little Ritz on Pacific Avenue near Parkland and just before Spanaway. (Many years later the first restaurant I ever owned in Aspen, Colorado, was coincidentally called The Ritz before I purchased it--renaming it Gordon’s.)
A humble café, I loved hanging out in the kitchen with my grandparents (we called them “Nana and Papa”), and helping make french fries by placing peeled Russets into the french fry cutter, lifting the weighty cast-iron handle and pushing the potatoes through—and watching as hundreds of perfectly cut french fries fell miraculously into the bowl.
My Italian grandfather Frank Naccarato (Papa) was a great cook, and was famous for his soup. I remember sitting in the restaurant watching homeless people wander in off the street (“bums” Papa called them). But he never refused to serve them—even if they had no money. Papa always had a nourishing bowl of minestrone to give, and more than once I saw him slip them a little money as they walked out the door.
When my mom and dad would take us to eat at the Little Ritz, sometimes Papa had just finished making a huge pot of minestrone, and after dinner before we left he would take a one-gallon glass jar and fill it with soup for us to take home, screwing the metal lid tightly.
I loved watching Papa make soup. I would stand next to him and watch as he stirred the vegetables in some olive oil until they were softened, then adding homemade chicken stock, chicken meat and herbs to the large pot simmering on the stove. I don’t have the recipe but I remember how delicious it smelled and tasted.
Then one day many years ago, when I was at The Monkey Bar in Hollywood, California, the owner, Alan Finkelstein, walked into the kitchen and seeing that I was making chicken soup, commented that his Jewish Mother’s secret ingredient was to add some diced parsnips to the vegetables (along with carrots, onion and celery.)
So I took his suggestion and added the parsnips. His Mom also put egg noodles into her soup, so I made it that way for Alan. I roughly chopped the noodles so they would fit onto a soup spoon—I hate to have clients spill onto their expensive clothing with noodles that are too slippery and long to easily eat. I also had to add fresh chopped Italian parsley, dried oregano—and on a whim I threw in some fresh chopped rosemary.
When I tasted the soup I was instantly transported back. It was as if I was standing in Papa’s café in Parkland tasting my childhood again. I stared into the stockpot brimming with jewel-like vegetables tasting the rosemary and the sweet perfume the parsnips lent the broth—I was once-again standing in Papa’s kitchen watching him tend his soup.
Papa died of cancer when I was just eight years old—just before President Kennedy was assassinated and just after Marilyn Monroe died. I can still hear his raspy laugh and feel his rough beard against my face when he would hug and kiss us kids.
I never got his recipe for minestrone.
But I know the secret to great chicken soup.