VOICES OF HUNTSVILLE | Mangia Huntsville! by Jill Farkas
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In this month’s Voices of Huntsville Jill’s family history, rooted solidly in her Italian heritage, gives rise to her delightful foodie recommendations here in Huntsville. Read on to explore her foodie fun, then and now! And then try a coveted family recipe of hers for Chicken Picatta!
Portrait Photography by White Rabbit Studios
Mangia Huntsville! by Jill Farkas
I love being Italian. Is that why I constantly crave pasta, cheese and bread? I like to think so, or maybe it’s just a handy excuse for carb-loading. What I treasure most about my Italian heritage is the pride I feel as the grandchild of immigrants who bravely sailed to this country for a new life and an unknown adventure.
My grandparents, Annunziata and Vincenzo.
The Brooklyn home my grandparents lived in.
Annunziata and Vincenzo, my grandparents, arrived from the province of Bari in 1920 on the ship Giuseppe Verdi. Vincent and Nancy settled down in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. My grandfather was an ice delivery man who also worked as a translator to help his fellow immigrants learn English. My grandmother was a talented embroiderer by trade. So talented in fact, that even after her retirement she was sought out to embroider the 2,000 rhinestones onto Mamie Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration gown. My aunt shared with us that a limousine would pull up to their house every day and take Nonna into lower Manhattan to work on the gown. I visited the Smithsonian’s First Ladies exhibit with my family many years ago, and I got very emotional seeing Nonna’s stunning and intricate work on the pink peau de soie gown.
Photo of portrait courtesy of First Ladies National Historic Site.
Nonna and Aunt Annie.
Unfortunately, I don’t share my grandmother’s needlework talent. My Nonna loved food much more than she loved cooking, and I feel the same way. Italians are always thinking and talking about food. Even after my dad and his siblings learned English in school, the Italian word MANGIA packed a much bigger punch than the English EAT. My Nonna’s sister Annie was who the kids looked to for their daily meals. Aunt Annie lived with my dad’s family all her life and did all the cooking. Even as adults, my father and his two siblings brought their own children to Brooklyn for Aunt Annie’s multi-hour, multi-course meals. My own siblings remember walking through fresh pasta drying on clotheslines strung around the kitchen. My Nonna was one smart lady to keep the family chef nearby, and one lucky lady to be able to spend her life alongside her dear sister.
As the youngest of my parents’ six kids, I’m sad I didn’t get to know Aunt Annie. I sure do wish I could’ve learned a thing or two from her about authentic Italian cooking. My dad continued saying Mangia all his life – and specifically “Mangia, Mangia, figlio mio te fa grande e grasso” which hangs in my kitchen on a sign handmade by my daughter. Sadly, the crazy household my dad headed did not include a family chef like Aunt Annie. My patient mom always found the time to make us meals, but dealing with the chaos of six kids left her little time for anything gourmet. My siblings and I do remember our mom whenever we make her go-to meals like stuffed pasta shells, rice pilaf, broccoli casserole, and chicken cordon bleu. That food is like a big warm hug from our mom, just as Aunt Annie’s homemade soups and pastas were for my dad and his siblings.
Me and my siblings, circa 1977.
The sign my daughter made that hangs in my kitchen.
I treasure the idyllic New England childhood I experienced in the 70’s. My father’s engineering career then moved us to Virginia where I finished my education. As a college student at Virginia Tech in 1986, I met my future husband Mike who would eventually bring me to Huntsville. I would never equate my move from Virginia to Huntsville with my grandparents’ immigration from Italy. How in the world did they make that huge decision to leave their home country and move 5000 miles away, while here I was being nervous to just move a few states to the south? But just like them, I arrived anxious about my new home and sad to leave behind close family and good friends. Our thoughts were that if we didn’t like it in Huntsville, we could always move back to Virginia once Mike got some post-grad work experience on his resume. So he made the move right after the tornado of November 1989, and then I followed in June once my year of teaching was complete. We settled down in a nice apartment, and I spent my time applying for teaching jobs and wandering my new city to learn more about it. I was determined to become familiar with Huntsville so it would feel more like HOME.
In our new kitchen, I cooked my small collection of favorite recipes and went out restaurant hunting. If you lived in Huntsville back in the 1990’s, you surely remember how bleak the dining scene was. Huntsville had never met a chain restaurant it didn’t like, and the search was bringing me mostly frustration. But as Mike and I added two beautiful children to our family, we began to notice a change in the dining options in town. As our kids grew from babies to working adults, the chain restaurant domination finally dwindled. In its place, we’ve welcomed a more diverse population with sophisticated tastes and higher expectations. Huntsville finally began to rally with celebrated local chefs, restaurants with varied and refined menus, beautiful outdoor dining options, craft breweries, wine bars, and a myriad of choices for those with dietary restrictions. The Breakfast Club (formed from all the good friends I met through playgroups with our young kids) now has quite a long list of dining options for our weekly morning gatherings. It’s a fun and fulfilling hobby for me to find new local spots to add to that list. And what makes me happiest is now when I’m craving some authentic Italian food, I have real choices! These are two of my favorites in the Huntsville/Madison area:
Seafood Cioppino at Mazzara’s Vinoteca.
The Teresa at Valentina’s Pizzeria.
- Loved That Then
- the prime rib at The Fogcutter
- the all-you-can-eat-ribs at Daryll’s
- sandwiches at The Mill
- smoked chicken ravioli at Chef’s Table
- biscuits at Eunice’s Country Kitchen
- crab cakes at Pauli’s Chop House
- the chicken salad & strawberry pretzel salad at Victoria’s Cafe
- brunch with live music at Jazz Factory
- the Italian bread at Fratelli’s
- having a beer at Boots Lounge
- Love This Now
- the filet at Tom Brown’s
- the ribs at Chuckwagon BBQ
- sandwiches at Good Company Cafe
- lemon ricotta ravioli at Mazzara’s Vinoteca
- biscuits at Biscuit Belly
- crab cakes at Char
- chicken salad at Mason Dixon Bakery & Bistro
- strawberry pretzel salad at Dallas Mill Deli
- brunch with live music at Rhythm on Monroe
- the bruschetta at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria
- having a beer at Yellowhammer and an Earth and Stone Pizza
Mike and I made the right decision to stay in Huntsville, the perfect city to raise our family! We really enjoy the more laid-back atmosphere here with less traffic, a better quality of life and warmer weather. Of course by now, our families from up north have come down to visit many times and have seen for themselves what a wonderful place Huntsville is to live. Mike and I have been happy residents of South Huntsville for 31 years now. Before making the decision to be a stay-at-home mom, I taught at Holy Spirit Regional School and then worked in the Registrar’s Office at Catholic High School, now known as Saint John Paul II. Mike moved from Teledyne Brown to McDonnell Douglas, and he’s now in his 33rd year with The Boeing Company. We are so proud that our children are both Auburn University alumni and residents of Huntsville. Julie works as a Communications Specialist at Northeastern University in Boston, and Sean is employed by Torch Technologies as a Systems Engineer. These days when I’m not out sampling local dishes for my food blog, I work part-time as a Legal Assistant for an attorney downtown.
Thanks to my daughter’s social media experience and the constant nudge from my amazing Breakfast Club friends, I created Mangia, Huntsville. It is both an ode to my Italian heritage and a way to celebrate all the food adventures that our Rocket City has to offer. I’d be so honored if you would follow my social media pages as I highlight the foods I love in Huntsville and beyond!
About Jill Farkas and Mangia, Huntsville
Jill Farkas grew up the youngest of 6 children, with an Italian engineer father and an amazingly patient stay-at-home mother. Chaos was common, but “Mangia” (eat) was a word heard often around the house and what brought everyone together around the table. After a childhood in Connecticut in the ‘70’s and Virginia in the ‘80’s, Jill arrived in Huntsville in 1990 with her aerospace engineer husband Mike. Since then, they have enjoyed a wonderful life in South Huntsville raising two children who are both Auburn University alumni. Julie is 26 and works as a Communications Specialist at Northeastern University in Boston, and Sean is 23 working as a Systems Engineer for Torch Technologies here in Huntsville. Mike is currently in his 32nd year with The Boeing Company. Jill, when she’s not out sampling local dishes for her blog, is a former 5th Grade Teacher at Holy Spirit School, a former Assistant Registrar at Catholic High School (now known as St. John Paul II Catholic High School), and currently works part-time as a Legal Assistant for a local attorney in downtown Huntsville. Along with her daughter Julie, Jill created Mangia, Huntsville on social media as both an ode to her childhood and a way to celebrate and share all the food adventures that our Rocket City has to offer. You can follow her on Facebook and on Instagram.
Thank you so much Jill for sharing your amazing family history (that inauguration dress!), your own personal journey, and your love of food with us and Huntsville! Be sure to make sure to follow @mangiahsv on the gram and Facebook for some more local foodie fun!
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