Living With Music: A Playlist by Mark Rotella

The New York Times
October 06, 2010

We were in our early 30s, had been married for just two years and were thinking about starting a family when my wife learned she had breast cancer. The year was 1998.

Friends called, came by with food, offered to go for walks; our sisters and parents traveled from Florida, Massachusetts and upstate New York to visit and help during surgery and chemotherapy. We had all the support we could have wanted.

Yet we were alone. Our lives had taken a bizarre turn into a parallel universe of IVs, oncologists and baldness. We were supposed to be having fun — trying to get pregnant while making the most of our freedom. Instead, while friends were getting sonograms to detect life, Martha was getting them to find cancer. And we felt alone in other ways too. At the end of the chemo sessions, we wanted to go home and rest. Our friends could sympathize, but no one could know what we were experiencing. Sometimes it was just easier to keep each other company.

For our honeymoon, Martha and I had taken a trip to Calabria, Italy, where my grandparents on my father’s side had come from. I had slowly begun to explore my Italian heritage (a study that would last until, well, today). Searching in bins of CDs, I picked up a couple of recordings with such names as “Eh, Paisano!” and “Mob Hits,” and the soundtrack to the film “Big Night.” I remembered the songs from my childhood — even those I had never heard before were somehow familiar to me.

We stayed at home more. I began cooking, with recipes from my grandmother as passed to me from my Aunt Savera — all the while listening to these songs by Italian-Americans, the songs that marked a time when they were assimilating into American culture. The songs, largely from the 1950s, were, to my mind, optimistic. I was trying to latch on to that sense of optimism.

I would go with Martha to each session of chemotherapy. When we got home, a bouquet of flowers would have arrived, sent by our friends Wolf and Meg. After each session Martha would come back and rest, and I would try my hand at cooking, and I would play these songs again and again.

One of the recipes I tried is a typical southern Italian comfort meal — pasta e fagioli, known to many Italians from south of Rome as pasta fazool.

Step 1: Chop carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Put on Louis Prima’s Oh, Marie. Prima and his band get the rhythm going, get your mind off watching your wife get her veins filled with poison. You tap your feet as your knife dices and minces and slices; Prima blows his trumpet as Sam Butera wails on the sax, trading riffs, scatting in Italian. The cooking has begun.

Step 2: Sauté the vegetables in olive oil. Claudio Villa’s La Strada del Bosco comes on, a romantic drive through the forest as the title suggests. Villa was a pop star in 1950s Italy who was well known to Italians in America. It’s an upbeat tune, and it carries over the saxophone from the Prima number. The carrots and celery sizzle in the pan, and the aroma of garlic and onion fills the kitchen. You look out from the kitchen to the living room where your wife has settled on the couch and is reading the newspaper.

Step 3: Add the tomatoes and chicken broth. Put on Anema e Core by Jimmy Roselli —it’s “Heart and Soul,” Italian-style. Born in Hoboken, Roselli sang Italian songs with real Neapolitan style, trilling on a single syllable, a kind of virility test for Italian singers. You take out a cold bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge, pour a glass and bring it to your wife to take a couple of sips. She smiles and thanks you.

Step 4: In a separate pot, cook the ditalini pasta. Roselli segues into Love Is a Many Splendored Thing by the Four Aces, three Italian guys and an Irishman from Pennsylvania. It’s a saccharine-sweet tune in a slow 4/4 beat. You look at your wife and she rolls her eyes with a smirk because she knows that love is indeed splendored. Add a palmful of chopped rosemary — Rosemary Clooney, that is, as she sings Mambo Italiano: “all you Calabrese do the mambo like you’re crazy.” She’s an Irish girl from the Midwest who sometimes pronounces Italian better than Dean Martin. She’s having fun, and so is your wife, despite herself.

Step 5: Add the pasta and the cannellini beans. When you’re making this dish you kind of have to put on Dean Martin’s That’s Amore. Forget about the moon and the big pizza pie — how about “when the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool.” Enough said. After these last two songs, your wife looks at you quizzically. At this point the entire apartment has filled with the scent of rosemary and garlic and tomatoes, completely replacing the chemical smell of the hospital.

Step 6: Serve with grated Parmigiano cheese. As you sit down, you dim the lights, maybe light a candle. Your wife joins you at the dinner table. The first song that comes to mind is Innamorata, or “sweetheart,” by Jerry Vale. The Percy Faith orchestration is sweet and bright, completely of its time — smack in the middle of the 1950s — and Vale sings in Neapolitan style at full volume: “kiss me, kiss me, sweet innamorata.” Simple love songs, yes, but at this time the 1950s seemed so accessible to me. It seemed as if, then, it was OK to wear your heart on your sleeve — in a song, at least. It was acceptable to boldly profess your love.

Step 7: Take your first bite. The flavors are both simple and transcendent, and what better song to accompany them than Domenico Modugno’s Volare, which evokes the feeling of flying to the sky. Next up is Beyond the Sea by Bobby Darin, an Italian kid from the Bronx. You swing over to the pot to get another bowlful for each of you. You see your wife is trying to be upbeat; but her energy is waning.

Step 8: Your wife gets ready for bed. Keely Smith sings Here in My Heart.Smith was a onetime bandmate and wife of Louis Prima. The song, originally made popular by Al Martino, opens with a swirl of violins, and Smith sings at top volume a yearning, “here in my heart, I’m alone and so lonely.” Like my wife, she’s not Italian, but she kind of became one de facto by marrying one. Your wife kisses you goodnight, then turns out the bedroom light.

Step 9: Clean the kitchen and wash the dishes. You are left with your own thoughts. What’s going to happen? How effective was the chemo? Will the treatment work? Did they catch the cancer in time? What if I am left alone? Frank Sinatra’s One for My Baby is narrated by a man, in the early morning hours, pouring his heart out to a bartender about the girl who has left him. For you, it’s about the fear of ultimate loss; the apartment is silent with the exception of the sound of water running over the dirty dishes and, of course, this song.

Step 10: Dishes are done. You pour yourself one more glass of wine, sit down at the table and put on one last song. It’s by the singer that many Italian men put on late at night — the singer who inspired every single Italian-American vocalist up through the 1950s. Enrico Caruso. And the aria you choose is an operatic staple created by Italians in New York City: Core’ngrato, or “ungrateful heart.” But then you end with a more recent recording, something more triumphant. That is Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s “Turandot,” sung by Luciano Pavarotti. No one will sleep tonight, suggests the song title, as the singer plans how he will scheme to keep the girl, ending the aria with “vincerò!”: I will succeed. We will survive. And we did.