There's an old saying that you can tell how important someone is by how many people it takes to replace them.
In the case of Donata Mento, three of her children work to fill the gap left by their mom, but - they admit - they aren't really up to the task.
"You always miss your Italian mama around the holidays," said Loretta Mento, 50, a piano teacher and musician from Linwood, who with brother Steve, 55, and sister Maria, 52, work to preserve their mother's memory in the kitchen. "She was the hub of the family. We try to continue that - making these dishes she used to make, but we miss the hub she provided."
Natale and Donata Mento had six children and raised them in Pennsauken, Camden County, in a family with strong Italian influences. His name meant Christmas, hers meant gift, so it seemed the couple were destined to be together, their children said.
The kids' grandparents came from different parts of Italy.
On their father's side, their grandfather was from Messina, Sicily, while his wife, was from Bari, a port across from Greece. Their grandmother on their mother's side was from Campobasso in southern Italy, while their grandfather was from Asocli Piceno.
All came to this country for the same reason - to make a better life for themselves and their families, their grandchildren said. They worked hard, raised their children, loved their grandchildren and didn't talk much about their lives before coming to America.
"My grandparents didn't talk a lot about Italy or the regions they came from," Steven Mento, a realtor and musician, recalled. "Back then it was a little like children should be seen and not heard - there was not a lot of communication."
Still, the Mento children grew up learning about their family's heritage.
Each grandparent brought recipes with them from the old country, and these regional dishes found their way onto the Mento table, particularly during holidays.
"Italian food was a big thing when we were growing up," Steven Mento recalls. Many of the family's meals were Italian, with things such as Italian wedding soup, brasciole and homemade ravioli showing up frequently on the menu.
"The recipes we had that were unusual - the things that restaurants don't have, that other families don't have - were the regional dishes my grandparents brought over, things like the stuffed olives," he said.
Stuffed olives remains a Mento family favorite. The dish, which calls for olives stuffed with chicken, is a dish that requires more than a little preparation. Because of that, the Mentos only serve it around holidays, when Maria will make enough to feed the gathered family, which usually includes the trio's three other siblings and their families.
"They are a little tedious to make," she admits. "It takes a couple of hours to make, but it's worth it. One recipe makes about 35 stuffed olives - and they go pretty quickly."
Even as children, Steven, Loretta and Maria all were interested in what was going on in the kitchen, and their mother was happy to teach them how to cook.
"The three of us learned to cook because we were interested," Loretta Mento said. "We hung around with mom when she made these dishes. We watched her make the gnocchi or ravioli. It was fun."
Natale Mento "was a good teacher, she had a very kind nature, she was very patient," Loretta Mento recalled. "It was fun for her to make the meals for us. I guess she had a sense of purpose doing that."
Steven Mento enjoyed the lessons so much he later took a cooking course after high school and worked for a time as a chef at Ambrosia Cafe in Ocean City in the early 1980s.
While he no longer works professionally in the kitchen, Steven Mento still enjoys cooking, preparing Italian or Greek food for his family a couple of times per week.
Cooking is not Mento's only creative outlet. He and Loretta are both pianists and perform together as Duo Mento. The pair lost their representation about three years ago, when their agent went out of business, but recently performed a concert together.
"It was a full house. We got standing ovation. It was a great experience," Steven Mento, 55, recalled.
Mento also remains close to Maria, with whom he and his wife share a house.
The siblings also get together for lunch, to hang out, and to reminisce about old times and family history. Food is frequently a part of those conversations.
"The recipes we have are a connection to our past," Steven Mento said. They remind the Mento siblings of where their family has been, he said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Italian Chocolate Orange Pastry (Cagiunetti d'Ascoli Piceno)
Pastry shell ingredients:
• Six eggs, beaten
•1/4 cup oil
•1/4 cup melted butter
•1 teaspoon vanilla extract
•1/4 cup sugar
•3 cups of white whole wheat flour (more if needed to make right consistency)
•2 cans of ceci (chick peas) smashed with fork
•1 pound dark chocolate morsels
•8 ounces honey
•6 ounces apple butter
•1 orange rind
•1 lemon rind
In a bowl, mash chick peas with fork, mix in remaining filling ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix all dough ingredients together. Flour work area, roll out dough with rolling pin, With a tablespoon, place two equal lumps of filling on the dough, leaving enough space to fold dough over. Cut into two pastries with ravioli cutter, bake on greased cookie sheet for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
Italian Stuffed Olives (d'Uliva Ripieni d'Ascoli Piceno)
•Four chicken breasts
•Rind and juice of one lemon
•2 tablespoons pecorino romano cheese
•2 teaspoons marjoram
•2 teaspoons olive oil
•1/2 teaspoon salt
•Dash of pepper
•Approximately 35 large queen green olives
For olive coating
•Two cups of white whole wheat flour
•2 cups bread crumbs
•2 tablespoons pecorino cheese
•1/2 cup milk
Boil chicken breasts, let cool and tear meat into pieces. Mix in bowl with eggs, marjoram, cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon rind and juice. For olive coating, in separate bowls, place whole wheat flour and bread crumbs, in another bowl mix eggs, pecorino cheese and milk. Remove pimento from olives, cut on one side to open and fill with mixture, then alternately roll in milk mixture, flour and breadcrumbs. Fry in olive oil on both sides.