LAWRENCE – Customers at The Italian Kitchen seem to know what they want before they step up to the counter. Most appear to be regulars who know this menu inside and out. Then again, there aren’t many choices. In fact, there are only two.
Peter Messina’s father started The Italian Kitchen in a storefront in 1958, and Messina, 70, who is now the owner, has been working here since the beginning. In all that time, he’s been turning out just two Sicilian specialties — crispelli, a kind of fried dough, but better than you’re imagining, and rice balls. (It should be noted that Messina also caters, and for that, his repertoire stretches into many other dishes.)
Both menu items serve as reminders of how delicious fried foods can be. The rice ball, about the size of a tennis ball, encases a filling of chicken and peas. It has been dipped in egg, rolled in crumbs, and fried until deep brown and crisp, served with a tomato sauce created just for the dish. The chicken inside is a bit of a departure from tradition — the usual filling involves meat — but making chicken broth from scratch leaves Messina and his wife, Ruth, 66, who shares the cooking duties, with surplus cooked chicken that needs to get used.
Rice balls were once an unusual menu item, says Messina, but “now everyone makes them.” It’s true they’ve become a bit trendy, usually appearing under their Italian name, arancini (see related story, Page 11). Asked why he doesn’t call them arancini, Messina just shrugs and says, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”
Crispelli is a harder term to translate, and a harder dish to find. In fact, Messina is convinced his is the only place in this country that serves them, though there used to be others in this corner of Lawrence, once dominated by Sicilian families. “I’m the last of the Mohicans,” he says. You could call crispelli “fried dough,” but while accurate, that would be inadequate. Messina, a born teacher, is happy to explain the dish’s origins as a snack made from bits of dough left from Sicilian women’s weekly bread baking. Unwilling to waste scraps, the women would wrap the dough around an anchovy or a bit of ricotta cheese and fry it. At The Italian Kitchen, plain and sugar variations are also on offer.
Messina demonstrates deftly how to make them, grabbing a handful of dough and twisting it around an anchovy — he goes through two or three 28-ounce cans each day — to form a stick of dough, then popping it into the first of two fryers. (Both crispelli and rice balls go through a double-frying process, at two different temperatures, to ensure crispness and minimize greasiness.)
It might seem nearly impossible to run a food business on two simple items, but The Italian Kitchen embodies the philosophy of doing one, or two, things well. Messina, who was born in Sicily and came to the United States at age 11, is an old-fashioned cook dedicated to quality and tradition. The crispelli dough is mixed by hand (“A machine can’t tell the feel of the dough,” he says), and he disdains commercial ricotta, instead using a version made for him by a friend in Boston. He also gives plenty of credit to his wife. “She’s a better cook than I am,” he says.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Messina’s boyhood friend Bill Gianetti is awaiting an order of crispelli at the counter; the two reminisce about the former Sicilian community here. They recall the fruit man, whose cart around the corner sold artichokes in spring, and the two chicken stores that carried live birds. “Everybody lived in triple deckers. Everybody knew everybody,” says Messina.
Today, the neighborhood is quiet, and business is steady but slow, except during the Labor Day Feast of the Three Saints, when crowds line up for crispelli.
The Messinas’ three children have no plans to take over the family business, so crispelli may soon be a thing of the past. Longtime customers dread that day, but knowing that it’s coming only sharpens their appetites.
Paul Armando, 53, who is picking up an order with his 23-year-old son, says that he’s been a regular since he was in utero. “This place is a treasure,” says Armando. “Everything changes, but as long as he’s here, I’ll keep coming. It’s a little heaven on earth.”
THE ITALIAN KITCHEN
91 Common St., Lawrence, 978-685-1652, www.ouritaliankitchen.com.Jane Dornbusch can be reached at email@example.com.