Just One Way To Skin a Rabbit

Chef Franco Lombardo of Sapori Trattoria in Collingswood learned a lot about cooking from his Sicilian Nonna Anna Prestigiacomo.

Growing up in Sicily, Franco Lombardo learned from his nonna Anna (with him as a boy, below) many ways to cook rabbit. She also taught him how to kill one with a kind of karate chop to the neck.

“I hope you find a woman as good a cook as I am,” Franco Lombardo’s maternal grandmother, Anna Prestigiacomo, used to tell him. “But if you don’t, let me teach you a thing or two.”

Growing up in the Sicilian village of Carini, Lombardo would stop by his grandmother’s house on the way home from school. She always had a meal for him as well as the nourishment of watching her cook and being taken into her confidence on everything relating to food: the importance of cooking meat on the bone (“That’s where the flavor is”), how to scale and clean fish, how to make cuttlefish-ink sauce, how to tenderize octopus (“When you first catch it you have to slam it against the cliff a couple times”).

“It’s come in handy,” says Lombardo, 36, chef/owner of Sapori Trattoria in Collingswood.

Anna showed him how to bake anelletti—a shape Americans will liken to SpaghettiO’s—in the style of lasagna, with bechamel, ground meat, carrots, tomato sauce, prosciutto and mozzarella. Lombardo occasionally offers it at Sapori.

“I didn’t change it,” he says. “Never change what’s great.”

Born in Sicily during the first World War, Anna also taught Lombardo how to slaughter rabbits and chickens, which at first interested him more than some of the other lessons. “Somebody gave me two rabbits when I was little, and I wound up raising 147 of them,” Lombardo recalls. “Each week [in the fall], we would take a couple rabbits to eat. You’d hold the rabbit by its hind legs and hit it in the neck with your bare hand, like a karate chop, and break the neck. Then you would start cutting the skin and fur off, beginning with the hind legs. It would all come off in one shot if you did it properly. I remember being amazed that the body felt so warm. My grandmother would cook it with onions and olives and mushrooms and bell peppers, like a cacciatore sauce. It was the same with chickens—you’d break the neck. To this day, people bring me live chickens. I know what to do with them. It’s not something you learn in culinary school.”

In the village, preparing food, like eating it, was a group activity involving the entire extended family, who lived in close proximity to one another. “The average family was six or seven kids, and the reason for that was you needed the manpower,” Lombardo says. “The more arms available for work, the better.”

The people were poor (“While you guys were driving cars,” he says, “in Sicily we were still riding donkeys”), but they had land—small but fertile family plots. Lombardo’s family had lemon, orange, chestnut, cherry, pear, pomegranate and olive trees. They made flour for pasta and bread from homegrown wheat and oil from the olives. To gather the olives, he says, “they spread blankets below the trees, and then a couple people would go around with something that looks like a rake and pull the olives down, and then the kids and the women would pick up the olives. It made the most tasty and cleanest olive oil I’ve ever tasted.”

In the summer the extended family labored together to make enough tomato sauce to last all winter. The process took from early morning to about 11 pm. The youngest children removed the stems. Older children dumped the tomatoes into buckets of cold water, the teenagers rinsed them and transferred them to other buckets, where the women crushed them by hand. The crushed tomatoes were put in a big copper pot on a wood fire, which the men were in charge of tending.

“The ladies would then add onion, basil and olive oil, and boil the sauce for six hours,” Lombardo says. “Somebody would stir the tomatoes with a wooden spoon like an oar so it wouldn’t burn. They’d change the person stirring every 15 minutes or so.”

After the cooking, the sauce was left to cool for awhile. Then the men poured it little by little into a hand-cranked machine that removed the skins and seeds. “This was an old machine that my grandmother had received from her mother,” Lombardo says. “Eventually one of my uncles hooked up a drill to it so it would be quicker and you wouldn’t have to turn it by hand.”

Finally the women boiled bottles that they had saved from other uses, filled them with sauce and sealed them. The bottles were placed under blankets to cool slowly overnight, improving the seal. But around midnight, the women took some of the fresh sauce and served it to everyone with maccheroni on a long, thin wooden tabletop. No plates. The pasta was turned out onto the long board and people went at it with forks in a kind of celebratory free-for-all.

Anna died in 1996 at age 79. The family still makes tomato sauce the old-fashioned way, and Lombardo flies home once a year to join in the ritual.

“It’s a way of living for us,” he says. “It’s a great gift. You take it for granted, but when you meet other nationalities that don’t take food to that extreme, then you appreciate it even more. I’m very grateful for being raised the way I was.”

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