Love may conquer all, but it doesn't necessarily make a tasty meal of meatballs and tomato gravy.
So, when Northfield's Frank and Nikki D'Alonzo married, the groom had one request for his wife, whose family came from eastern Europe.
"I said to her, 'You need to go next door to my grandmother's house and learn to make spaghetti sauce and meatballs,'" Frank D'Alonzo, 61, re-called. "Luckily, she loved my grandparents, so she didn't mind spending time over there."
Nikki D'Alonzo might have gotten the recipe, but it's Frank who is now well-known for producing the meal. He's twice been named winner of the annual meatball cookoff at Kelly's Corner Pub in Atlantic City, thanks to Jennie "Neenie" D'Alonzo's recipe.
"Kelly's has the competiton every year on the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving. There are only two two-time winners, and I'm one of of them," D'Alonzo said proudly.
Tim Kelly, owner of the pub, and a friend of D'Alonzo's said he's eaten the meatballs at the competition, where the rules state they must be 1 inch in diameter, but at D'Alonzo's house, where there are no rules and the meatballs come in sizes "closer to meatloaf."
"You go to his house and the texture is great and the taste is just melt in your mouth," Kelly said. The fact D'Alonzo can win the contest even when serving meatballs a third the size he normally does shows just how great the recipe is, Kelly said.
The secret of D'Alonzo's success?
"Cheap hamburger. My grandmother was a Depress-ion-era cook. Everything she used was bottom line. She was very frugal, but cheaper is fatter - thus tastier. The people who use the lean meat, their meatballs are usually dry."
Italian cooking is a thread that runs through D'Alonzo's family history - you could even say it was the factor that brought his grandparents together.
D'Alonzo's grandfather was born in Italy shortly before the start of the 20th century. In 1913, Luigi D'Alonzo's father saw Europe was headed toward war and suggested his 16-year-old son consider making a move to America until the hostilities ceased. The boy found a patron who got him work in an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia and found him a place to live with the DeVito family in Pleasantville. The family had a daughter - and that's how Jennie and Luigi D'Alonzo met.
"He fell in love and wound up staying here," D'Alonzo said.
The couple settled in Pleasantville and had three children, including D'Alonzo's father. The other two children moved away, but when he married, Frank D'Alonzo senior settled close to his mom and dad. One whole block of the city was a D'Alonzo/DeVito complex with D'Alonzo's grandparents living on one corner, his grandmother's sister living on another, his family living on a third and a barn on the fourth.
"They were Italian, so in the middle they had a big garden where they could grow their tomatoes and vegetables and things," D'Alonzo said.
"It was a different time back then," D'Alonzo recalled. "Growing up in the the 1950s, things were a heck of lot different. You didn't lock the door. People came to the back door, yoo-hoo'd and then walked right in."
Sometimes those visitors came in the middle of the night, coming to ask Jennie D'Alonzo to help with the delivery of a new baby.
"My grandmother was an amazing woman. She was a midwife. There were probably a hundred kids born in Pleasantville that my grandmother delivered," he said.
The family was forced to move when the Atlantic City Expressway was constructed through their neighborhood, but D'Alonzo's parents and grandparents settled in adjoining homes in Northfield.
The whole family always got together on Sundays, when D'Alonzo's great uncle, George DeVito would host dinner in his basement on a huge table made of plywood placed atop sawhorses.
"It was a big event," D'Alonzo said. "It would start at 1 p.m. and go on to 4 or 5 o'clock. We'd go to mass in the morning and then I'd stop by the bakery with my dad for three or four loaves of Italian bread."
The women did all the cooking, with D'Alonzo's grandmother and his great aunt Nellie DeVito supervising. Much of the cooking was done on Saturdays, and D'Alonzo would watch as the women made meatballs and sauce, homemade ravioli and gnocchi.
"The daughters would help, but the recipe and the direction came from my grandmom and great aunt Nellie. They ran the kitchen," he said. "It was an absolute marvel to watch them work in the kitchen. Everyone had their job and everyone did it."
The two women were also famous at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Pleasantville.
"Every spaghetti dinner, every time they had an event, my grandmother and great aunt Nellie were the two principals down in the basement cooking," D'Alonzo said.
His family's love of cooking rubbed off on D'Alonzo. He began working at Giberson's Diner in Pleasantville and became friendly with the manager there.
"I started out as a bus boy, and then I washed dishes for a while, but then he took me under his wing and I learned how to cook," D'Alonzo recalled.
He worked as a cook through high school and college. Then he got a job at the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel in Atlantic City as a cold meat chef. When he went into the service, D'Alonzo spent six years in the Navy serving as a cook.
Leaving the service, D'Alonzo "bounced around" playing in rock bands, working in bars and even serving as a bouncer.
Finally, in 1974 his father, who operated K Building Company, called and asked if D'Alonzo was done messing around.
"He said, 'Come work with me.' I did, and I stayed in the construction business for the rest of my life," he said.
Now that he's retired, D'Alonzo again exercises his love of cooking. He's administrator of the Atlantic City Moose Lodge 216, which serves lunch daily, dinner on Thursdays and breakfast every other Sunday.
"Now that I'm retired, it gives me something to do," he said.
And he still brings out his grandmother's meatball recipes for special occasions and competitions.
"The only thing I really do differently is that I use a little Italian seasoning, which my grandmother didn't use - she was old-fashioned. She would use every little thing she grew in her garden. I cut that out by using the seasoning," he said. "Her basic concept was less is more, less is better. A lot of people think you have to put a lot of different things in your meatballs - a little pepper, oregeno - but that usually doesn't work. Keep it simple and it taste's good."
Jennie 'Neenie' D'Alonzo's Meatballs and Tomato Gravy
•2 pounds inexpensive ground beef
•8 to 10 slices white bread, broken into small, 1/2 inch pieces (or use rolls or any stale bread)
•2 eggs, slightly beaten
•1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or to taste)
•1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
•(or to taste)
•2 teaspoons parsley flakes (or to taste)
•1/4 to 1/2 cup grated
•parmesan cheese (or Locatelli)
•1 to 2 teaspoon salt
•1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
•Olive oil or vegetable oil (for frying)
Mix all ingredients gently in a large bowl until well combined. Roll meatballs
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches in diameter. Heat about 1/4-inch of oil over medium heat in a large frying pan. Fry meatballs in oil, rolling frequently, until evenly browned and juices run clear.
Tomato Gravy ingredients:
•2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
•1 28-ounce can tomato puree
•1 6-ounce can tomato paste
•1 tablespoon sugar
•1 1/2 teaspoons salt
•1/2 teaspoon black pepper
•1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
•1 teaspoon garlic powder
•1 tablespoon parsley
•1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese or
•1/2 cup romano cheese (or Locatelli)
•2 onions, chopped
•2 cloves garlic, chopped
•Italian sausage or
•1 to 2 spare ribs (optional)
•1 cup leftover cooked chicken thighs or chicken legs (optional)
•1 cup pepperoni (optional)
•1/2 cup dry red wine
Combine tomato products in large stock pot or Dutch oven. Add a 28-ounce can of water and stir. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Sprinkle with sugar, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, parsley and grated cheese and stir to combine. In a frying pan, heat about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil and fry sausage or meatballs until cooked through. Add the meat to the simmering sauce, along with any optional meats (recommended mentioned in ingredients). Add chopped onions and garlic to pan in which meat was fried. Do not drain anything before adding onions and garlic - there should be some drippings/oil left in the pan. Fry onions and garlic until tender and aromatic. Remove pan from heat. Add about 1/2 cup dry red wine to the pan and swish around, combining the leftover drippings and onion and garlic. Pour and scrape it all into the simmering sauce. Stir to combine. Let simmer for 3 hours or until desired consistency, stirring occasionally.