Virgilia Tuccinardi might not have used lots of traditional measuring cups in the kitchen, but she did bring lots of patience and love to just about every meal she made.
And that's why the Atlantic City woman was the perfect person to teach her five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren how to cook.
"She was a good teacher," said granddaughter Lisa Milstead, a special education teacher at the E.H. Slaybaugh Elementary School in Egg Harbor Township. "She was always patient, she would always let us do the cooking. She'd say 'You try and I'll watch you,' that kind of thing."
Milstead even has a video of Tuccinardi, who died in June at age 83, teaching her daughter how to make spaghetti last fall.
"They were making pasta together. My daughter wasn't even 2 yet, but they were working together," Milstead said.
Teaching a toddler to cook was just one of the many challenges Tuccinardi - known as Nonna to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren - faced during her life. Born in 1927 in Minturno in southern Italy, she survived the hardships of World War II and married Francesco Tuccinardi, a bricklayer, in 1947. The couple had three children, including Milstead's father, Lorenzo.
Francesco Tuccinardi emigrated to America, sending cash home to support his wife and children. In 1958, Virgilia Tuccinardi and her three children - the oldest was 9, the youngest 4 - boarded a ship for the two-week trip to America.
Tuccinardi "came to America with one pocket full of hopes and dreams of a better life and another pocket full of her heritage - recipes and such - that she was so proud of," Milstead said.
The couple settled in Atlantic City and a fourth child soon followed. When he wasn't working construction, Francesco Tuccinardi found work in the winter as a waiter at the 500 Club in Atlantic City.
When he grew up and married, Milstead's father settled his family in Egg Harbor Township and opened Interior Design Concepts, a company that does upholstery and window treatments, in Pleasantville.
"Growing up in the 1980s, Egg Harbor was nice and small, that's for sure. It seems like it's too overpopulated today. Back then it was a small town," Milstead said.
Milstead, 33, saw a lot of her grandparents when she was growing up.
"My grandparents were a big part of my life. My parents worked, and they (my grandparents) took care of me," the Northfield woman said. The family always gathered for Sunday dinners at the grandparent's house.
Those days spent babysitting also gave Tuccinardi an opportunity to teach her granddaughter how to cook. Milstead still treasures the memories of those times together.
"She would be like, 'You want to eat, let's learn how to make food,'" Milstead recalled. "She wanted to show me what to do."
Lessons included everything from simple cooking instruction to making pasta, gnocchi and manicotti.
"It was always fun using the pasta machine - rolling out the dough. It was a fun learning experience," she said.
When Milstead's cousins were over, everyone would take a hand in the preparations - a tradition the family still maintains.
"Even my daughter, at 2 years old, we have her cranking the arm of the machine to push the pasta through," Milstead said.
But Tuccinardi didn't leave all the cooking to her grandchildren. Milstead remembers her grandmother as a great cook who was equally proficient at roast chicken and Italian cream, a lemon-flavored pudding dish that could be served by itself or as a topping on pound cake.
The one thing her grandmother didn't cook was rich desserts.
"Where they came from in Italy, they made a lot of pound cake, cheesecake and Italian cream. I always asked my mom, why didn't she make anything with chocolate, she said where my grandparents came from, they didn't make anything elaborate," Milstead recalled.
In Tuccinardi's section of Italy, they also didn't use standardized measuring utensils. That made it a little difficult for family members trying to copy her recipes.
"We'd say, 'Nonna, how much of this? How much of that? She'd say, 'A handful' or 'A cupful,' but she'd be measuring with a coffee mug," Milstead recalled. "We would try to stand next her and write the recipes down - but it would be things like, 'Add a palmful of raisins.' She didn't really have anything written down. She had it all in her head."
With her grandmother gone, Milstead plans on assuming the mantle of teaching the next generation to cook. And following her grandmother's lead, she knows those lessons are as much about patience and love as they are about knowledge of recipes or cooking skill.
"My daughter loves to cook. She likes to bake, she loves to help in the kitchen," Milstead said. "I always have to say to myself, 'It's going to be messy. It's going to be messy.'"
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•6 egg yolks
•1 cup sugar
•1 quart whole milk
•3 tablespoons cornstarch
•1 rind of a lemon
Beat egg yolks and sugar with mixer until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. When cream starts to boil, turn heat to low and stir constantly. Allow to boil for a few minutes until cream is slightly thickened. Remove from heat and allow to cool. It will thicken to pudding consistency as it cools. Refrigerate when cooled.
•2 whole eggs
•6 tablespoons flour
•1/4 teaspoon baking powder
•1/4 teaspoon salt
•1 cup milk
Whisk eggs lightly in small bowl. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add eggs to flour mixture and stir, then milk. Batter will be runny.
Place small pat of butter in a small non stick frying pan over medium heat. Put about 2 tablespoons of batter into pan. Lift the pan off the heat while tilting and rotating so the batter is like a very thin pancake. Cook until the top is set and golden underneath then flip over carefully using spatula or fingers and cook until lightly browned. Remove and place on wax paper, then repeat with batter, adding a small pat of butter before you put the batter in the pan. When cooled fill with cheese mixture.
•1 pound ricotta
•1 cup mozzarella cheese
•1/4 teaspoon black pepper
•1 tablespoon parsley dried or fresh
•3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
Combine ingredients and stir. Place about 3 tablespoons of cheese mixture on manicotti shell and roll up. Repeat with cooled manicotti and place in a 9- by 13-inche pan lightly coated with pasta sauce. Add more sauce over manicotti and sprinkle with parmesan cheese if desired. Cover and cook at 350 for about 30 minutes or until heated.