Sunday supper: Moms make weekly family dinners something special

Electronic connectivity keeps us working 24/7 and kids' sports schedules run all weekend long. So is the tradition of Sunday dinner a mere relic of the past?

Not in Pittsburgh. Some local families still make it a priority every week, with multiple generations gathering in one house to eat, talk, play cards, laugh and argue.

Often, the glue holding these gatherings together is one person: Mom.

With Mother's Day approaching, we went looking for families who practice the Sunday dinner tradition almost religiously -- and who appreciate the matriarchs who most often make it all happen.

Why bother?

Marianne DeFazio of Shaler hosts Sunday dinner around her gigantic dining room table every week for herself, her six grown children and their families. It's a lot of work for an 82-year-old woman who's on dialysis, but she insists on doing it, and she's outspoken about why: "I have a firm belief that what's wrong with the world today is that families don't eat together, so they don't stay together."

She is not the only person thinking about this.

Two recent cookbooks picked up on the Sunday dinner theme: "The Good Housekeeping Cookbook: Sunday Dinner Collector's Edition" and Diane Cowen's "Sunday Dinners: Food, Family and Faith from Our Favorite Pastors."

The introductions to both cookbooks referenced research, such as studies done by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, indicating that children whose families eat meals together have better life outcomes.

That's true any day, but the famous pastors the author interviewed -- including best-selling author Joel Osteen, George W. Bush spiritual advisor Kirbyjon Caldwell and boxing champ George Foreman -- indicate there's something extra-special about Sunday dinner.

"My children are apt to come home with McDonald's any other day, but Sunday is sacred," said Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas.

Ms. Cowen wrote, "Some family dinners are utilitarian, both prepared and eaten quickly so adults can dash off to work or meetings or children can be shuttled to sports practices or games ... But those are weekday dinners.

"Sunday is special. People sleep in a little, drink an extra cup of coffee and linger over the newspaper before heading off to worship. Once a family returns home, the day -- or a big part of it -- is often spent together. Extended family may drop in... Together they carry on decades-old traditions and create new memories. This day of rest that prepares us physically for the week ahead also comforts us spiritually."

But even the "Good Housekeeping" book capitulates to the times. It's called a "Sunday Dinner Collector's Edition," but editor-in-chief Rosemary Ellis goes on to write, "'Sunday dinner' is just a catchphrase for a meal that can happen any night of the week" -- any night the entire family can manage to show up around the dinner table at the same time. So the cookbook offers 52 menus for weekly meals, plus pantry supply lists and recipes for just about anything you can possibly imagine, from traditional Sunday roasts to quick-fix weeknight suppers. At 752 pages, it's a tome that tries to be all things to all people, on all days of the week.

Who shows up

There's no capitulation at Mrs. DeFazio's house. Sunday dinner is not an option; it's a requirement.

"They have to come, or they face the wrath of Gammy," she said, laughing.

Nobody's complaining.

"We've all just grown to cherish Sunday afternoons at her house," her daughter, Francine Porter, said. "It's the time when we can see what's going on in each other's lives." Mrs. Porter even picks up her daughter, a University of Pittsburgh student, so she can join the family every week.

At least 16 people show up, although it can range up to 25.

"We've always been encouraged to bring friends, boyfriends -- it can get out of hand," Mrs. Porter said.

The Pitt granddaughter and a second grandchild at Duquesne University always are encouraged to invite friends, and Mrs. DeFazio's sister often comes, too. Said Mrs. DeFazio, "My neighbor said to me once, 'What are all those cars every Sunday? Are you having a party?'"

Likewise, Sue and Richard Ehmann of Point Breeze have continued preparing Sunday dinner for the families of the three of their four grown children who live locally. This translates to about 10 guests on a Sunday, or more like 15 when the son who lives in North Carolina brings his family home to visit.

"We always ate together at suppertime, and if somebody had practice late, we tried to hold off," Mrs. Ehmann said of the years her children were growing up. "If the kids had friends, they've always been welcome. When my one son was in high school, his friend always came over and said, 'Mom, what are we having tonight?'" She had to set an extra plate, but she never minded.

"Whoever's around is welcome to eat."

When West Deer couple Bruno and Dianne Morelli's kids get married, "their spouses automatically return" to their house for Sunday dinner, Mrs. Morelli said. Her grandkids range in age from 7 months to 15 years, so "it's a loud place," she said. "We look forward to summer when the kids can run around and play."

But it's not only the volume of the voices. It's also the volume of food that makes these gatherings a challenge.

"Mom never knows how much pasta to make, but there always seems to be enough food, like the loaves and the fishes," Mrs. Porter said.


What's on the menu

It's probably no accident that many of the local families who hold the Sunday-dinner tradition are Italian.

"We're so clannish," Mrs. DeFazio observed.

"In an Italian family, food is such an important part of our life," Mrs. Porter added.

So what's on the menu?


But that's not all. Mrs. Morelli's list reads like a restaurant menu.

She says she makes some form of chicken probably 80 percent of the time because everybody in the family likes it: "chicken parm, chicken Romano, a chicken casserole recipe I have which is the fave, or even just fried chicken breasts.

"To offset this I will have the traditional Italian meatballs -- have to have them! Or possibly a beef or pork roast.

"Now, another item we must have on our table every Sunday is the pasta. As we are an Italian family, Sunday dinner is not dinner without a pasta. But, alas, the youngsters do not enjoy sauce on their pasta so that means either I will make some plain pasta with butter for them or I make up a couple boxes of mac-and-cheese for them. Then we go on to the potatoes. A normal amount is 5 pounds, made any number of ways" -- and that's not including two vegetables, a tossed salad, bread and at least two desserts.

And Mrs. Morelli usually prepares it all, although sometimes someone else brings dessert.

Nancy McKenna of Mt. Lebanon "married into" the Sunday dinner tradition; her mother-in-law, Patricia, of Forest Hills, usually makes Sunday dinner for the six of her seven adult children who are in the Pittsburgh area. But Patricia McKenna doesn't mandate that the gathering be at her house, so the other adult children take their turns. Nancy McKenna recently hosted and farmed out some of the menu. Her mother-in-law brought salads, and someone else brought buns. Nobody ever said all the cooking has to fall on one person.

Unless you're Mrs. DeFazio.

Her father used to make the Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas Eve, and a couple years after Mrs. DeFazio got married, she proposed taking it over from him.

"When I die, you can take it over," he told her.

Now that's what she says to her kids.

Mrs. Porter said Mrs. DeFazio's Sunday dinners consist of pasta with "the most delicious sauce," meatballs and sausage, bread, salad, greens and beans or rapini, and stuffed chicken or a beef roast. But Mrs. DeFazio is accustomed to cranking out food -- she owned La Cresta, a former Aspinwall restaurant, for 15 years.

She had something to prove in the kitchen, her daughter said. Mrs. DeFazio married a 32-year-old man when she was just 18, and her sisters-in-law kept asking their brother, 'Why did you marry someone so young? She probably doesn't even know how to cook.'"

She showed them.

Baldwin resident Rose Giovannitti's Sunday menu always features pasta, too. She tried fixing roast and meatloaf, but her son Mark finally admitted, "Mom, we only come to your house for pasta."

Her standards include braciole, hot sausage, meatballs, spaghetti, spinach lasagna, stuffed shells, baked ziti and eggplant parmesan (see recipe). She goes to a farmers market in Cecil every August to buy eggplants and red peppers by the bushel. She then fries eggplant slices and freezes them so she can make eggplant parmesan year-round. She also roasts red peppers with olive oil and lots of garlic, allows them to marinate for a day and then freezes them to pull out later for appetizers with crusty bread.


What's on the schedule

Appetizers are an important part of the meal at the Giovannitti house because Mrs. Giovannitti always schedules a happy hour before dinner.

Family members usually attend 4:30 Mass and show up at her house around 6 p.m. A happy hour with appetizers gives everyone time to talk and catch up, and Mrs. Giovannitti prepares her food in advance so she can join in.

At the Ehmann house, the family sometimes plays progressive gin rummy or watches the Steelers. At Christmas time, they decorate cookies together as a Sunday afternoon activity.

And when you get such large groups of people together, it's not going to be quiet.

"Sundays at our house are crazy," Mrs. Morelli said. "When everyone leaves, I do think they are all happy to be out of the noise!"

"We talk about whose grades are failing and whose are good, who got an award, who's mad at their neighbor, whose best friend is hurting her," Mrs. DeFazio said.

"It's a good thing my house sits alone back in the woods so nobody hears" all the racket.


What it all means

It doesn't matter that the gatherings are crazy and loud. The women we spoke with unanimously agreed that it's worth the hassle to encourage family togetherness.

When her family is gathered in the basement for happy hour and Mrs. Giovannitti makes her way upstairs to put the pasta water on to boil, she loves nothing more than the sound of her adult children laughing together downstairs.

"Once kids turn 17 or 18, it's like they don't belong" to their families anymore, Mrs. DeFazio said. By contrast, she says she feels a strong bond with her grandchildren because they've always spent Sundays together.

"I will not skip a Sunday -- until I can no longer do it -- so that this tradition will continue to keep our family close," Mrs. Morelli added.

But Mrs. Giovannitti brought up a worry that other matriarchs echoed: "I often wonder, 'When I'm gone, what will happen?'" Will anyone else take over where she left off? Will the family stay close?

"I'd like to think so," Mrs. Ehmann said of the same dilemma, but she's not so sure it will happen. "If Dick and I aren't here to cook and have everybody come here, I'm afraid it will kind of die off. I'm not sure it will carry on except for the holidays."

If only families could see the value in this tradition, Mrs. DeFazio thinks they'd snap it up in a heartbeat.

"Sunday dinner is where all the problems of the world are solved."

Southern Italian manicotti

Dianne Morelli learned to make this manicotti by watching her non-English-speaking mother-in-law make it. She notes that if you use too much butter on the griddle, the dough mixture will not spread or the crepes will break apart during cooking. We used nonstick spray in place of butter, and we re-sprayed only after two or three batches of crepes had been cooked.

For the shells

6 eggs, beaten

1¼cups water

2 cups flour

Dash salt

Mix above ingredients until smooth. Meanwhile, heat griddle until hot and grease lightly with butter. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of batter on the griddle. Using the back of the spoon, flatten into very thin, transparent circles. When the top starts looking dry, immediately flip over for 10 seconds and remove from pan; do not brown. Reapply some butter and continue making crepes until all the batter is used. Makes about 21/2 to 3 dozen crepes.

For the filling

5 to 6 cups jarred or homemade pasta sauce

1 large tub (30 ounces) ricotta cheese

12-ounce package shredded mozzarella, divided

2 beaten eggs

Dash salt

3 tablespoons parsley, or to taste

1/2 cup grated parmesan, divided

Pour a thin layer of pasta sauce into the bottoms of 2 9-by-13-inch casserole dishes.

In a bowl, combine ricotta, half of the mozzarella, eggs, salt and parsley.

Sprinkle a little parmesan cheese on a crepe. Spread a tablespoon of ricotta mixture to form a strip of cheese lengthwise along the center of the crepe. Fold over. Place folded side down in casserole dish; repeat with remaining crepes.

When finished, lightly add more pasta sauce on the top of the crepes, using the spoon to get sauce between each manicotti. Sprinkle top with remaining parmesan and mozzarella.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Makes 2 9-by-13-inch casseroles and serves at least 12.

-- Dianne Morelli

Eggplant Parmesan

Rose Giovannitti allows fried eggplant slices to cool and then freezes them in freezer bags until ready to use. She estimates that about 60 slices are needed for a 13-by-9-inch casserole.

When she submitted the recipe, she (like many experienced cooks) didn't list any quantities with her ingredients, other than noting that 3 eggplants are needed for a 9-by-13-inch pan. So we tested the recipe and made it more specific. We hope it's a reasonable facsimile of Mrs. Giovannitti's original.

3 large eggplants

Salt, as needed

3 eggs, beaten with 3 tablespoons water

3 cups flour or as needed

Canola oil, as needed

4 cups homemade or jarred pasta sauce

1/2 cup grated Romano or parmesan cheese

4 cups shredded mozzarella

Remove skin from eggplants and slice into circular slices (about 20 slices from each eggplant). Put slices on plate and sprinkle with salt. Keep layering slices and salt. With a heavy pan on top, weight eggplant down and let stand to remove excess water. Let stand for 2 hours or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Blot slices dry on paper towels. Dip slices into beaten egg mixture and then flour.

Heat about ¼-inch layer of oil in the bottom of a frying pan over high heat. Fry prepared eggplant slices in hot oil on both sides until brown. Drain on paper towels.

Assemble casserole in layers, as follows, in 13-by-9-inch pan: ¼ of the pasta sauce, 1/3 of the eggplant, 1/3 of the Romano or parmesan, 1/3 of the mozzarella.

Repeat layers once.

For the final layer, use 1/4 of the sauce, then the remaining eggplant, then the final 1/4 of the sauce, then the remaining cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees.

When sauce starts to bubble, bake about 5 minutes longer, about 45 minutes to 1 hour total. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

-- Rose Giovannitti

Melba-glazed ham

1 fully cooked smoked bone-in ham (14 pounds)

2/3 cup peach preserves

1/2 cup red raspberry jelly or jam

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. With a sharp knife, remove skin and trim fat from ham, leaving about ¼-inch-thick layer of fat. Place ham on rack in large roasting pan (17 by 11½ inches). Bake ham 1 hour and 45 minutes.

In small saucepan, heat peach preserves and red raspberry jelly until melted and smooth. Remove ham from oven. Brush with glaze and return to oven.

Bake until meat thermometer inserted in thickest part of ham (not touching bone) reaches 135 degrees, about 30 minutes longer, basting ham with glaze once or twice more during that time.

Remove ham from oven and transfer to warm platter. Let stand 15 minutes to set juices for easier slicing; internal temperature of ham will rise to 140 degrees.

Serves 20.

-- "The Good Housekeeping Cookbook: Sunday Dinner Collector's Edition" (Hearst, 2014)

Five-flavor pound cake

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon coconut extract

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 teaspoon rum-flavored extract

1 teaspoon butter-flavored extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup shortening

3 cups sugar

5 large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place a wire rack in center of oven. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan and set it aside.

In a small bowl, combine the flour and baking powder; set aside. In a measuring cup, combine the milk and extracts; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter, shortening and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat until smooth.

Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the milk mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Spoon the cake batter into the prepared pan and bake for 11/2 to 13/4 hours or until the cake tests done. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes.

Turn the cake out of the pan onto a wire race. Place waxed paper under the rack to catch any glaze drippings. Slowly spoon or brush glaze (recipe below) onto the top of the cake while it's still hot. Let cool completely and serve.

Five-flavor glaze

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon coconut extract

1/2 teaspoon rum-flavored extract

1/2 teaspoon butter-flavored extract

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a saucepan, combine the sugar, water and extracts. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

-- Cora Jakes Coleman in "Sunday Dinners: Food, Family and Faith from Our Favorite Pastors" by Diane Cowen (Andrews McMeel, 2013)


Rebecca Sodergren: or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


Hot Topic