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The first time I had a Christmas tree, I was somewhere in the ballpark of my early 40s. My sister, Janet, and I were renting a house (we would later own) in the Beechwoods area of Callicoon. We had never had a tree before because we are Jewish. Our parents were not particularly religious, but they were Jews nonetheless, and I knew enough to pine away in silence for what I coveted.
Close neighborhood friends sympathetically assured me that a decorated tree in our living room would not be a symbol of Christianity but a celebration of the beauty and bounty of the area. I bought in, and after some whining, inappropriate as it was at my age, convinced Janet to allow me to have one.
The first-ever holiday tree was particularly meaningful because we trekked into the woods behind an enormous farmhouse down the road, with the owner’s permission, and chose and cut the tree ourselves. Our small, spindly specimen was taken down in a couple of strokes with an old saw found in our basement and was nicknamed The Charlie Brown Tree, as its spindly branches were almost too delicate to hold up ornaments.
Still, we fell in love with it and began a tradition of collecting ornaments, some from travels abroad (like whimsical painted tin cut-outs found in Mexico); yard sales and craft market finds; or ones we made ourselves.
Another tradition we would maintain for years began circa 2005. On Christmas Eve, we drove nearly an hour to Tre Alberi Ristorante, a family-owned and run Northern Italian eatery in Barrysville, NY. Onorato and Agnes Alberi (both extraordinarily tall and regal-looking) were from Croatia, bordering on Italy, and their food was influenced by both countries.
Entering Tre Alberi was akin to walking into someone’s home. The atmosphere was warm and the furnishings less like a restaurant’s than a cozy living space. The music was soft and the two small dining spaces were filled with the happy chatter and laughter of families or groups of friends.
The menu was somewhat limited, but there was always a handful of specials, and lobster could be ordered in advance by a simple phone call. We invariably started with a bottle of wine and munched on sesame-studded bread sticks with butter while we waited for the food to arrive. We liked to share each course, with the exception of a bowl of soup Janet requested, which started the cold wintery night off just right. It is called straciatella and is similar to Chinese egg drop soup with the addition of thin strips of fresh spinach and a healthy dusting of grated Parmesan cheese. Straciatella, which means “little rags,” refers to the appearance of the eggs when they are whisked into the hot chicken broth.
A tre colore salad of endive, arugula and radicchio often turned up after the soup, and then we would split such offerings as duck breast scallopini, cooked in a bit of cognac; goat in brandy, garlic and white wine (a first for us!); or fettucini with morels, fresh tomato, arugula, and a touch of vodka.
We always ended the meal with tartufo (a ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, covered either in dark chocolate or cocoa, with a cherry at its center), along with rich cups of espresso—the perfect conclusion to a divine meal.
The warmth with which we were greeted whenever we arrived at Tre Alberi set the tone for one of the loveliest nights of the year. As we made our departure, I always popped my head into the kitchen to compliment Onorato on his cooking expertise, and more than once he motioned us into a tiny bar where he poured us a healthy portion of grappa. We toasted each other and the new year. Then we drove home along the curvy country roads, sated and feeling at peace, but also with anticipation. We knew when we arrived close to home we would be met by roads lit by luminaries glittering in the dark. When Onorato and Agnes decided to retire, we were saddened by the loss. At least we still have the luminaries; a big, beautifully scented and decorated tree; and the recipe for straciatella.
Straciatella (Italian chicken broth with eggs and cheese)
6 cups rich chicken stock
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling over soup
3 cups fresh spinach, cleaned, stemmed, and sliced into quarter-inch ribbons
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a small bowl, beat the eggs well. Add a grinding of black pepper and beat in the cheese. Set aside. Bring the chicken stock to the boil. Season lightly with salt. Stir in the spinach and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Pour the egg mixture into the boiling soup while stirring constantly with a whisk. The egg should look like “little rags” floating in the soup. Serve immediately, offering extra Parmesan cheese.