The Fortunate Pilgrim isn’t Mario Puzo’s most famous book. It hasn’t lead to an Oscar-winning movie, nor is it his biggest seller. It is, however, his favorite, his most intimate, and a significant contribution to diaspora literature.

The Fortunate Pilgrim tells the story of Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo, an émigré from a small village outside Naples who travels to New York in the beginning of the 20th century. She leaves a home of rural poverty to marry a man she knew only as a child.

Ruthless matriarch

Before we meet her in The Fortunate Pilgrim, Lucia Santa has already come a long way from that girl. She is not a subservient housewife, making pasta in the background as men make plans. Tragedy and poverty have turned her into a shrewd, fearless matriarch. She is tenacious, in control and always plotting. To protect her family, Lucia Santa becomes cold and ruthless.

Lucia Santa is modeled after Mario Puzo’s own formidable mother. And in turn, Lucia Santa gave birth to Puzo’s most famous character, Don Corleone:

‘Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time.’

In the harsh reality of 1920s New York, Hell’s Kitchen lived up to its name. Against this backdrop of hardship and tragedy, food is a source of calm to the Angeluzzi-Corbo family and their immigrant community.

Salami sandwiches and a Pepsi are eaten to celebrate a hard-won victory. A cup of coffee calms the most broken spirit. Spaghetti and meatballs introduce a new father to his step-children. Fatty sausage and peppers reenergize after a day’s work. The list goes on.

Food is integral to The Fortunate Pilgrim, and Puzo instills meaning in each dish. When the new and strange Collucci family visits, Lucia Santa serves store-bought cake, both to impress but also to keep at arm’s length. When the welfare officer, Mr. Fortezza, complains that the crusty Italian bread cuts his mouth and cured Italian meat is too strong for his weak stomach, he proves to be an exploitative outsider. Missing dinner is an offense worthy of a beating.

‘White crystals of ice’

One treat shows up more than others – lemon ices. They only cost a penny or two and are eaten regularly throughout the summer months to combat the unrelenting New York City heat. Lemon ices accompany happy moments: an act of courtship; a display fatherly love; or just a child’s guilty pleasure.

‘The Panettiere himself filled the white-ridged paper cups with cherry-red, pale-yellow and glittering white crystals of ice. He scooped generous portions, for he was rich…’

The children are constantly nagging Lucia Santa, ‘Give me a penny for a lemon ice.’ But even the older generation loves them, ‘[The old women] sucked greedily on ridged paper cups of chilling lemon ice and took great bites of smoking hot pizzas.’

When the young Vincenzo is forced to work for the Panettiere, or baker, who sells lemon ices during the summer months, freebies are a huge perk of the job, saving the family money.

More than a meal

Food also shows value. Lucia Santa understands she could save more money by foregoing the fine imported prosciutto and olive oil. Or perhaps eating meat only once per week.

This particular thought is echoed several times throughout the book. First, by Dr. Barbato who recalls growing up in the same tenements as Lucia Santa. But unlike her, his father scrimped so his family could be elevated above the poverty:

He lived as she did not, with his spaghetti on Thursdays and Sundays; pasta and fagioli on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and scarola on Mondays to clean out the bowels…. Whenever he entered a home like this, he blessed his father.’

Pasta e fagioli (a pasta and bean soup) is a peasant dish, common to almost every region of Italy in varying forms. It is nutritious and cheap, and thus, a necessity.

When Zi’ Pasquale Bianco loses his life savings during the depths of the Depression, he seems beaten, until:

‘…his wife bent over him with a great deep plate of beans and pasta cloudy with a steam of garlic and brown bean sauce. Zi’ Pasquale picked up a spoon as he would a shovel, scooped in, and with an expert laborer’s flip the mound of beans and pasta disappeared behind that enormous mustached mouth, and after three such thrusts he put down his spoon and tore off a great chunk from the loaf of bread.

Spoon in one hand, bread in the other, he poured life and energy into his very soul. With each mouthful he grew visibly stronger, more powerful. He grew taller in his chair, over them all.’

In this one scene, Puzo has instilled the humble pasta e fagioli with the immigrant experience. It represents survival, fortitude and stoicism. It embodies both the highs and the lows.

Although Italian food runs through The Fortunate Pilgrim, these two dishes perfectly reflect Lucia Santa and her experience in the tenements of Hell’s Kitchen. Lemon ices, a playful summer treat, and pasta e fagioli, a dish of survival.