Ravioli is only one of several cheese stuffed pastas for New Year's Dinner. For many Italian Americans the preferred pasta is lasagna. In other families you may find tortellini in brodo. I have been making ravioli because ravioli are the favorite of my daughters. When I was growing up lasagna was the pasta for every holiday. Homemade ravioli, on the other hand, was a very rare preparation when I was a child. Ravioli, a much more labor intensive pasta, was often something bought from a small Italian American store that specialized in cheese filled pastas such as manicotti or stuffed shells. While Lasagna is essentially a casserole, a "feed the masses dish, "ravioli is a small, individually crafted delight meant for singular appreciation. Traditional Italian American lasagna is usually heavy with red sauce and cheeses. Ravioli, on the other hand, is a particular dish that may be dressed with any number of sauces.
My first recollection of ravioli has really no Italian connection at all. In fact, my first recollection of homemade ravioli crosses the cultural and ethnic lines into the world of WASP America. I can see my mother teaching our neighbor, Mrs. Brown how to make them. They had set out the entire dining room table with an oil cloth covered with flour and pasta dough. What is curious about this scene is that Mrs. Brown was what we used to call a Black Protestant. Black Protestant has nothing to do with race. They were so called because of their very particular religious views. Black Protestants typically had no tolerance for Catholics. One of my Black Protestant uncles firmly believed that Catholics were stocking arsenals in their church basements in preparation for a takeover. Sometime before my time, a cross was burned in the field across from my childhood home. But even when I was a child in our neighborhood, aside from us, the only non- Catholics were the few Italian and Jewish shop keepers: Massucci the shoe maker, Verocchio the barber, Max Factor the pharmacist. Mrs. Brown was a Methodist. She lived in the house behind us. I don't think Mrs. Brown was a cross burner. I don't know what she thought about Catholics or "foreigners." I do remember that Mrs. Brown wore pants and that she sat with me at the garden table and taught me about birds and flowers. I loved listening to her stories. Mrs. Brown knew everything about everything in the garden. Every Sunday Mrs. Brown marched passed our house on the way to the United Methodist Church with her fox stole caressing her shoulders. My mother said that Mrs. Mortadella in Bologna was a Black Protestant, yet, here she was, in our dining room. Methodist, Black Protestant Mrs. Brown was making ravioli with my Irish mother in my Italian American grandmother's dining room. I can still see my mother's hands pressing the ravioli corners with a fork to seal them and showing Mrs. Brown just how to do it. What I don't remember is what became of those ravioli. Did Mrs. Brown share Sunday dinner with us that day? Did Mrs. Brown sit at the same table as her Irish-Italian Catholic neighbors?