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Cousin Frank’s Tomato Pie

Zesty tomato pie: One of cousin Frank’s signature creations.

By Charlie Sacchetti

When I was a kid I thought it was pretty cool that we had a bunch of cousins who lived in Rhode Island. They were all from my paternal grandmother’s side of the family, and when we would drive north to see them or they would come to Philly to visit, there was always fun to be had.

My earliest recollections of our visits to the Warwick area come from when I was about 7 years old. I remember seeing a bunch of my father’s cousins who greeted us with love, food and laughter. My dad had a good time teasing them about their New England accents and they gave it right back to us. They were mostly my parents’ age and were all very interesting. One cousin owned a costume jewelry factory and lived in a large, beautiful rancher, in Barrington, overlooking the Narragansett Bay. His brother was a priest. Two of our cousins were unmarried sisters who were also well to do and actually had a golden piano in the living room. Another cousin, whom we called “Sonny,” was a brilliant professor who taught psychology at Brown University. When I found out that he used hypnosis in his private practice, I kept bugging him to hypnotize me but one look from my father put an abrupt end to those requests. But, I must say as a little kid the most interesting cousin was Joe, who owned and operated a Carvel Ice Cream stand. That was a most enjoyable afternoon visit that featured a large banana split both designed and eaten by you know who!

However, when it came down to my favorite Rhode Island cousin of all it had to be Frank Fusco. Frank was a big man who was married to sweet cousin Julia. I believe he was in the construction business but I couldn’t really say for sure. He drank his favorite homemade wine from early morning until late in the evening and he never got drunk. He looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Luca Brasi. When Frank hugged you, you disappeared until he decided to let you go. He had a heart of gold and to stay overnight at his home was an adventure. Julia loved to cook and Frank made a tomato pie that was so good that you would think about it all the way back to Philly. Their home was equipped with an entire “kitchen” in the basement. Of course, they had one upstairs too but the basement room was the place where most of the delicacies were created. The stairwell from the upstairs to the basement had a low overhang midway down and on the occasion of a visitor bumping his head the next thing you would hear would be Frank bellowing, “Watch my head!”

We would see Frank and Julia more frequently in Philadelphia than in Warwick. Frank’s business allowed for him to have more freedom to travel than did my father’s union factory job. However, after I graduated from college and worked as Business Manager of Athletics at Temple University, I seized an opportunity to see Frank and Julia at their home. In the fall of 1970, Temple’s Football team would travel to Kingston Rhode Island to take on the University of Rhode Island. Since it was my job to arrange for all travel arrangements and all related details of the trip, I naturally would accompany the team. Our hotel in Kingston was only a 35-minute drive to Warwick. I called Frank and Julia and told them I’d be stopping over on that Friday night to visit. Of course, they “forced” me to come for dinner and I jubilantly accepted the invitation.

Before hopping into my rented Chevy Impala, I toyed with the idea of bringing one of my co-workers along but decided not to so as not to impose on Julia. So, when I arrived at the house, around 6 p.m., I was bear-hugged by Big Frank, kissed by them both and led to the basement dinner table. Julia told me that I should have brought a friend with me. I made it downstairs safely, not bumping my head while Frank watched intently to see if he’d have the opportunity to yell his famous line!

As Frank poured the wine Julia brought out the first course: A giant bowl of freshly gathered quahog clams on the half shell. Frank and his buddy had just dug them up that morning and they were just great as served chilled with Julia’s homemade cocktail sauce.

Next came a giant macaroni dish filled with homemade raviolis, accompanied by dishes of meatballs, sausage, and pork from the gravy. Naturally, this was served with crusty Italian bread baked by Julia only hours before.

Next came the large dish of fried chicken, drumsticks and thighs. Very crispy.

Next came the beautiful garden salad, with the imported extra virgin olive oil and fresh wine vinegar made by Frank himself.

Finally came Julia’s pineapple cheesecake, made with ricotta cheese, along with freshbrewed espresso.

There were just three of us, but the meal could have fed 10!

At 10:30, we finally got up from the table. I hugged them both and shortly afterwards headed back to the hotel. I was stuffed, but at the age of 23, I could recover pretty quickly and actually felt pretty good on the ride back. The game would start at 1 p.m. the next day, and Frank made me promise to stop by in the morning before I went to the stadium.

At 9:30 a.m., I pulled into the driveway looking forward to giving them both one last hug and thanking them again for the wonderful meal and the love we shared. After doing so, as I turned to leave the house, Frank told me to wait. He went over to the oven and took out a whole, rectangular, tomato pie wrapped it in aluminum foil and gave it to me to take home.

That tomato pie made it back to Buist Avenue in Southwest Philly that night to be shared with Mom and Dad with love from Big Frank and Julia.

Charlie Sacchetti is the author of the book “It’s All Good … Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change.” Contact him at worthwhilewords21@gmail.com.

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