Remembering Pat and Bella, who welcomed me in my early years in America

Their home in Yonkers was my refuge in the 1980s as I grappled with immigrant life

Bella and Pat Barbuto, whose meals nourished my body and my soul during a period of transition for me.

Bella and Pat Barbuto, whose meals nourished my body and my soul during a period of transition for me.

 

He was Italian. She was Irish. Their home in Yonkers was often a refuge for me during the 1980s, my early years in America, as I grappled awkwardly with immigrant life.

Hospitable to a fault, Pasquale “Pat” and Bella Barbuto knew how to make guests feel at ease. Whether you were from Dublin, like me, or Tehran, like my friend Hossein, close or distant family from New York, New Jersey or Donegal, Pat and Bella always had room for one more at their table. Bella was the cousin of my then boss, Fr Bartley MacPhaidin at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. She and Pat took me under their wing.

Driving down Interstate 95 to New York, I used to relish the prospect of sinking into the warmth of their welcome on Thanksgiving, Easter or Independence Day.

Having somewhere to go also meant I could answer the inevitable question from colleagues about what I did over the holiday, as follows, “Yonkers with friends...lots of fun.” Honest answer plus relief at not appearing to be friendless in the new world.

Slow food

At the heart of every visit to Yonkers, however, was the most tantalising of bonuses - really delicious food and plenty of it. I mean quantum leaps above what my bachelor self could prepare.

Incapable of rushing a meal, Pat and Bella approached dining languidly well before the slow food trend became popular. They also specialised in multiple courses perfectly paced and stretched over an afternoon or evening.

Fine cheeses, olives, cold cuts and bread from Italian stores in the Bronx might get things started. Pasta was inevitable, although in smaller portions with tried and true sauces. As for main courses, they were always substantial but elegantly prepared: salmon, pork chops, veal cutlets, steak or sausages from the grill. Of course, they served the freshest, zestiest of salads and often fruit for dessert. At every stage, wine and food were paired, nothing excessive or extravagant but just right.

As hosts, they sparked lively conversation as they showed genuine interest in others. Their home buzzed with the sound of laughter and people happily chatting away.

Even beyond the 1980s, I visited Pat and Bella on many more occasions, savouring not just their hospitality, but their friendship and inclusion.

Tribute

Bella died in 2012 and, within a year, Pat followed her. At his funeral, as we headed to the church, their son Joe had the line of cars detour to pass his parents’ house. Idling outside without Pat and Bella inside was a touching tribute to his parents and what their home meant to so many of us who had been cared for by them over the years.

It was an end-of-an-era moment, and my mind kept returning to what Bella would say whenever I complimented her on a fine meal. With a wave of her hand, she’d dismiss me by saying, “Ah, it was a nothing meal. Just something we pulled together.”

Of course, she was being too modest. When she and Pat were expecting guests, they shopped carefully, spared little expense, and devoted hours in preparation. But, they had a gift for camouflaging the hard work so that guests could relax and enjoy.

During a period of transition for me, those “nothing meals” nourished my body and my soul. For the kindness of their embrace, I will always be grateful. To have been a regular guest in their home has been one of life’s blessings.

Martin McGovern lives in Mashpee, Massachusetts. He is the director of communications at Stonehill College

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