The black and white canister of Italian style breadcrumbs sitting on the countertop was wrong, just plain wrong. For starters, the crumbs were overly brittle and too salty. And forget about tasting any hint of herbs, as the green specks of dehydrated parsley bits peppered throughout the mixture are a far cry from the fresh parsley plants found in Naples, Italy. There, breadcrumbs are made daily from homemade bread. But in America, Antonietta DeCrecenzo simply makes do with basic supermarket staples.
“These are American ingredients. They’re no good. In Naples, everything is fresh. You could taste how fresh the food is,” she said while preparing to make one of her family’s favorite dishes: Chicken Milanese. “But you need to eat, so you use what you got.”
Even the dish DeCrecenzo is preparing is a wholly American concoction. She explained that in Naples, the part of Italy she immigrated from with her family in the 1960s, the Milanese dish is actually made with veal. But leave it to the Americans to swap one kind of meat for another more readily available one. She lamented the lack of butchers in the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, neighborhood, which she said makes it hard to find good veal. So, DeCrecenzo settles instead for the easily available chicken.
First, she piled freshly washed and trimmed chicken breasts onto a white ceramic plate, waiting to be bathed in a mixture of eggs, and later, the Americanized breadcrumbs. Watching DeCrecenzo work as she sliced, aggressively pounded and then gently laid the cutlets atop one another, it became apparent that she’s made this recipe many times. Indeed, she devotes one night a week to it.
“Monday is chicken night,” she said as she began coating the meat in egg wash, then burying it into the breadcrumbs. “Mondays are long days, so I want to make something quick and that I know everyone will eat.”
Though DeCrecenzo has long been an American citizen, listening to her speak revealed traces of her Italian accent. It could be heard in the quick addition of an extra vowel at the end of certain words (like “quick-a,” for starters). Indeed, for a woman who has not stepped foot into her native country since leaving, she possesses all the earthiness of a quintessential Italian mother. She eschews wearing much makeup, prefers the comfort of wearing a housedress when cooking and usually gesticulates, whether she’s describing her college-aged children or boasting about the tomatoes and fig tree in her backyard garden. And her ethnic roots are most on display in the kitchen.
Once the chicken is breaded, the ritualistic sautéing of garlic in olive oil can begin. With a few quick strokes of a knife, DeCrecenzo heaped several minced cloves into a heavy skillet with some oil. “You don’t want to let the garlic cook too long in the oil, or it gets bitter,” she explained. “The trick is to flavor the oil quickly with the garlic, let it get hot and then start frying.”
The crumb-caked cutlets are dipped into the frying pan, causing oil to splatter onto the kitchen counter and her arm. A seasoned veteran of frying with hot oil, she doesn’t even flinch. Soon, the kitchen is flooded with the aroma of garlic, oil, and gently frying chicken. Within moments, the inviting aroma wafts throughout the rest of DeCrecenzo’s house, which she bought exactly two weeks after marrying her husband in 1972.
“I was a good Italian girl. I lived with my parents up until my wedding,” she recalls. “We got lucky because the old woman who lived here died and the house went up for sale. We got a good deal on it, but this is back then. Now, forget it.”
That is, forget the way Bensonhurst used to be. The area has changed over the years. A neighborhood that was once a haven for Italians has slowly given way to a younger, hipper crowd of professionals and Chinese residents. With that, home values soared, and many Italians (even some in DeCrecenzo’s own family) were priced out. She laments the downfall of her once proud, ethnic enclave.
“If we didn’t pay the mortgage off as soon as we did, we probably wouldn’t have been able to stay either. A lot of the Italians went to Staten Island, Jersey, anywhere with cheaper houses. The neighborhood really changed after that.”
Careful not to let the meat burn, she deftly flips it over in the pan with a fork, revealing a golden brown crust. She advises only frying four cutlets at a time; that way, the pan isn’t overcrowded and all the pieces cook evenly. This process continues until the entire batch of cutlets—roughly 20—are fried and neatly stacked onto another ceramic plate. A few garnishes of fresh parsley from her garden renders the meal complete, and DeCrecenzo covers the dish with plastic wrap and sets it on the kitchen stovetop. She will reheat it quickly in the oven when her family gets home in a few hours.
Sipping water from a Poland Springs bottle and admiring her work, she firmly declares her reluctance to ever leave the neighborhood. Indeed, it is the only place outside of her small apartment in Naples that she has ever called home.
“The people come and go,” she said. “Some stay. I’m one of the ones that will stay. I don’t know anything else but Bensonhurst. My friends are here. My life is here. Everything is here.”
Everything, that is, except real breadcrumbs.