My grandfather, Nicholas Carrola, was born in 1887 in Prignano Cilento, a town in the province of Salerno in the Campania region of southern Italy. He first came to the United States in 1905 but like many immigrants from the early 1900s he returned to the “old country” three or four times over the next 15 years.
On one of his return trips to Italy he was drafted into the Italian army. When World War I ended and Italy came under the rule of Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party, my grandfather decided to return to America.
When he got off the ship at Ellis Island, he had nothing but a small suitcase and something that has lasted almost a hundred years — his recipe for Italian Army Potatoes.
I found his recipe in a stack of papers my cousin and the family historian, Elaine Kray, sent me a few days before Easter. I waited until Easter Sunday to go through the papers with my sister Louise and other family members. When we found the recipe, my sister and I both agreed that our mother used to make this dish. But she never called it Italian Army Potatoes. Matter of fact, she didn’t call it anything. She made it, we ate it.
So I called Elaine, hoping she could explain how my grandfather got this recipe. This is her version: “Grandpap said when he went back to Italy for the last time, the Italian army grabbed him as soon as he got off the ship. They took him up to the mountains and every so often they would bring a bag of potatoes and some meat. He would fry the meat and then add the potatoes and throw in some onions.”
I have only a limited memory of my grandfather, who died in 1968, but according to our records he originally settled in Uniontown, Fayette County, with his three brothers and one sister. Two other brothers stayed in Italy. The brothers here, all coal miners, got my grandfather a job in the coal mine. We don’t know how long he stayed in Uniontown, but the story is that he was having an affair with a married woman. The husband found out so Grandpap left town, accompanied by his brother Anthony, and they eventually made it to Pittsburgh and found jobs in a steel mill. They lived in a single rented room in a large white house on Glass Run Road in Hays.
No family story is complete without a love interest. Supposedly Grandpap spotted Louise DeLucia, my grandmother-to-be, one day while he was leaving the boarding house for work. She was live-in servant to a family in Homestead and her boyfriend used to walk her home on Sundays to visit with her family. My grandfather followed them to her house and managed to scare the boyfriend so badly that he fled to New Jersey and as far as we know he never returned to Pittsburgh. Interestingly, my grandfather bought the boarding house he used to live in and it became the family gathering place for many years.
We know Grandpap used to embellish stories but I know this much is true — his Italian Army Potatoes are delicious.
GRANDPAP CARROLA’S ITALIAN ARMY POTATOES
It goes without saying that the recipe is a little vague — no amounts, and no culinary descriptions. My guess is he just threw everything in a pot and cooked it. I tried to keep the recipe as close to the original version but changed just a few things (such as adding garlic).
This makes enough for 8 people depending on serving size.
1½ pounds round steak or chuck roast
4 or more tablespoons olive oil
l large onion sliced (I used a Vidalia)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
5 to 6 large potatoes, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick (I used Idaho)
Cut the steak into cubes. Place olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan (I used a 12-by-3-inch-deep stainless-steel pan), add the steak and cook over medium-high heat until cooked through. Remove steak and set aside. Place onions and garlic in the pan and cook until translucent. Remove onions and garlic and set aside. Place potatoes in the frying pan and cook, stirring, until the potatoes are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes; return the onions to the pan; pour about 1⁄3 cup water over the potatoes and onions. Cook, stirring often while scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. When the potatoes are browned and tender, return the steak to the pan. Add 1⁄3 cup water and cook about 10 minutes longer or until the liquid thickens a bit.
— Arlene Burnett
Arlene Burnett: firstname.lastname@example.org.