The Second Kitchen

What do you do if everybody in the family is coming to your house to celebrate your Mama’s 70th birthday? You’ll have to cook multiple dishes for upwards of fifty people.

First, you accept the offers from your daughters and sisters to come and help. But do you have enough oven and refrigerator space for all that food? Storage room for all those plates? Yes, you do. Because you have a second kitchen in your cellar. ’Mericans who live among Italians call that second downstairs kitchen an “Italian kitchen.”

An old stove somebody in the family no longer needed. A refrigerator bought used from a neighbor. A sink unit, metal sink and counter over 6-8 feet of metal cabinets. Maybe some upper cabinets. Storage shelves for sure, for all the extra dishes, the serving trays and pasta bowls, the miscellaneous jugs and pitchers. All the appliances set next to each other. Nothing installed, really, except the plumbing for the sink. Every Italian family has a relative who can plumb a sink.

Probably nobody will work in this kitchen except for the weeks when tomatoes have to be picked and made into sauce to be canned or frozen. The rest of the year, women work in the main kitchen upstairs, occasionally sending a daughter down to take something from the refrigerator, check the baked ziti in the oven, stir the vat of trippa simmering for hours on the stove.

As generations pass, families get smaller, and even Italian mamas don’t cook everything from scratch anymore, the second kitchen dwindles. Maybe the laundry tub serves as the sink. Maybe the counter goes away. But the storage shelves, the extra stove, the refrigerator-freezer—they’re not going anywhere. The space is not so uniquely Italian if it’s not a full second kitchen—lots of people have an extra refrigerator and stove, a storage cabinet full of dishes—but they don’t call those things a kitchen like old Italians do.