Italian Kitchen closing , Get your last Crispelli
Italian Kitchen on Common Street in Lawrence will be closing on Sunday April 30th after being in business 59 years, you have this last weekend to get what may be your last crispelli.
Saying goodbye to a piece of my childhood. The Italian Kitchen on Common Street in Lawrence will be closing on Sunday April 30th after being in business 59 years. They sell only 2 products, crispellis and rice balls. And as of now no one else in the area or even the U.S. makes crispellis. As a matter of fact not too many people outside of The Merrimack Valley and Sicily even know what they are.
For those of you who don’t know. A crispelli is a small piece of fried dough. They can come several ways. Plain are like a mis-shapen doughnut with or without a coating of granulated sugar. The anchovy crispelli are stuffed with a single anchovy in a 3 0r 4 inch straight piece of fried dough. The cheese is stuffed with fresh ricotta in a round ball about twice the size of a golf ball. For an Italian in The Merrimack Valley, these balls of dough are not only delicious they are a big part of our heritage.
Peter Messina is the owner of Italian Kitchen. He was born in Catania, Sicily in 1944 and moved here in 1955. Peter has been working at the Italian Kitchen since 1958 when he was 13 years old. His father started the business with a few friends, specializing in crispelli and rice balls for the Feast of the Three Saints.
Growing up in the Merrimack Valley, Labor Day meant 2 things. Back to school and the Feast of the Three Saints. Lawrence had a high Italian-American population in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but even if you weren’t Italian you looked forward to the “feast”. There were rides, games, concerts, raffles, and all kinds of Italian food. One thing you did not skip was crispellis. Italian Kitchen has been selling crispelli and rice balls for 59 years at the Labor Day Feast.
A Crispelli is a take on the Sicilian Crespelle, different spelling same thing. It is different in taste and texture from the Neapolitan Zeppoli. Peter says there are many secrets to his crispellis. One of them is knowing how to mix the dough. He and his wife Ruth, who helps him in the kitchen, mix it with their hands. They never use a machine, which is especially impressive when you see the size of each batch and how many they make. Another secret is using two Fryalators — with a 40-degree difference between the two. So, one can expand the crispellis and the other can brown them. He also uses specific flour, anchovies and ricotta to get the signature taste.
Peter’s rice balls are like no other you will have had. First, they are the size of softballs and they are not meat stuffed in the middle of a rice ball. These are mainly rice with ground beef and peas, cheese, a little tomato sauce with maybe an egg mixed in for a binder rolled together around a small piece of chicken. The chicken wasn’t traditional. But originally when Peter’s father started making them he made homemade chicken broth to cook the rice in. The by product is heaps of delicious slow cooked chicken. So, Peter’s father decided why throw it away when you can use it in the center of the arancini (Italian for rice ball). They are then rolled in breadcrumbs, deep fried, covered in tomato sauce, and served in a Styrofoam cup. No high end arancini here! But to an Italian from The Merrimack Valley these are the only ones that taste the right way.
The Italian Kitchen is situated in the heart of the old Italian community (Jackson St, Common St, Newbury St etc.) in Lawrence, MA. There was a time when this area was the place local Italians shopped. Tripoli’s Bakery is right across Common St, Pappy’s bakery was on the corner of Newbury and Common, Napoli’s Pizza is still the other corner, Gangi’s Fish Market was just down the street and Fisichelli’s Bakery is still there, just a block away.
Peter has spent the last 58 years of his life making crispelli and rice balls. He has perfected them, “they’ve evolved over the years” he said. Products would change and ingredients would change each time forcing an evolution. “Only two people mix the dough, me and my wife”, “it’s all done by hand”, there is no mixer involved. Peter might be 73 but his hands and arms are straight outta Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the years of many feasts Peter would hire young strong guys to help, “I would look at their arms” he said,”They always called out the next day.” Mixing that much dough by hand is necessary to maintain consistency. You need to feel the dough. After many years of doing it Peter’s arms have become accustomed.
I asked Peter what he was going to miss. “The people” he said. “one woman came in last Sunday, gave me a hug and started crying. Before you know it everyone was crying. This business is all about the people you know, they’re like family.” It made me think, when did I first meet Peter and Ruth, I couldn’t remember. They were just always there. The Italian Kitchen is being dismembered after April 30th, the contents being sold piece meal. No one is taking over the business. You will probably find Peter at local bars and restaurants, he said “I’m gonna get a Sicilian Donkey, that way I can drink and not break the law.” It sounds like Peter has plans to finally enjoy his life a little. Crispellis may not yet completely extinct from the Merrimack Valley. Next door The North End Deli has a sign out front that reads “Crispelli Coming Soon”. I’m sure I will go and try them, they may even be great, who knows. But my heart and stomach will always be with Peter and Ruth.
The Italian Kitchen is open Thursday 12pm-7:30PM, Friday and Saturday 11:30AM-9PM and Sunday Noon-8:30. I suggest you get there this week to get your last fix, or try one for the first time if that’s the case. Be prepared to get in line, this last week was busy with many friends and patrons going to get their last crispelli and say goodbye to 2 wonderful hard working people. Be sure to thank Peter and Ruth for their hard work over those many years. They will be sorely missed. Addio triste!