The year was 1932.
If this isn't the kind of story usually recounted around your family's dinner table, welcome to Ranalli's world. The comely, 40-year-old Le Virtu pastry chef grew up eating and cooking traditional Abruzzese food and baked goods - culinary knowledge leavened with more than a little mysticism.
Raised in a Marlton, N.J., household where four generations of Italians lived under one roof, Ranalli learned to cook from her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, often using produce from the farm her aunt owned in Vineland. But she didn't just learn recipes from these women. She learned about kitchen superstitions, customs that could make or break the taste of a dish or the height of a cake.
"My great-grandmother seemed ancient to me - she lived with my grandmother upstairs in our house. I'd see people coming in with all kinds of problems, complaining of bad luck. They would go upstairs and the oil would come out, sewing needles, salt. I was about 13 when I started really wondering what the hell they were doing up there," Ranalli recalled.
"When I asked, my grandmother said that there is a prayer to ward off the malocchio, or evil eye. Only a few special people could learn it - and it had to be passed on verbally, and only on Christmas Eve at midnight."
Ranalli eventually sneaked upstairs and was inducted into the bubbling cauldron of family tradition. "My grandmother was always telling me to listen to my intuition, to pay attention to my dreams."
Bone cookies and basil rubs
Many ancient Abruzzese beliefs have strong ties to food and farming, and were based on stars and phases of the moon. So, it's not surprising that Ranalli fell in love with astrology.
"I feel like planets, and especially the moon, affect everything - including the food we prepare in the kitchen," she said.
The pastry chef sees meaning everywhere, in the sediment in the bottom of a wine glass, leftover tea leaves in a cup and in the tarot cards she regularly consults. "Of course we were raised Catholic, but what my great-grandmother believed isn't really Christian," she said. "It's paganism with a saint or two thrown in for good measure."
Ranalli believes that herbs have power and influence. Italian prostitutes used to rub basil on their bodies to ensure a good night of business. When Ranalli and two single girlfriends were going to a wedding a few years back, they crushed some basil and put it in their bras.
"I believe there is an energy to everything - and that plant is alive," Ranalli explained. So how'd it go? Let's just say that two of the three women got lucky.
"I was, like, how much basil did you use?"
In Ranalli's family home, polenta was never prepared until the first snowfall, as a way to welcome in the winter spirits. Her mother, who ran a small catering business when Ranalli was growing up, would leave the kitchen rather than cook if she sensed bad energy at work.
"It all made perfect sense to me," Ranalli said.
Superstitions and rituals are as much a part of Le Virtu's kitchen as food and wine. "All of the food is historically connected to something ancient," she said.
One traditional Halloween sweet from the region of Puglia is made with farro, relating to the resurrection of the dead, and pomegranates, a reference to the underworld and the goddess Persephone.
The Italian cookie known as Bones of the Dead ( Ossi dei Morti, see recipe), traditionally only prepared on the first and second of November, is shaped like human bones.
Signs of luck and love
Ranalli lived in Italy for a while and returned to the area three years ago. After working with French pastry chef Michel Gras at La Patisserie in Cape May and part time at Waterworks and Vernick Food + Drink, she really wanted a full-time job.
She had never heard of Le Virtu until she saw a random ad on Craigslist. "I'd never been to Passyunk Avenue before and didn't know the restaurant," she recalled.
A bus trip later, and she finds that not only is the owner's family from the same region as her grandmother, the restaurant's address, 1927, is a number she's dreamed about since childhood.
Turns out it was her lucky number after all - not only is Ranalli in the kitchen full time at Le Virtu, the restaurant's Sicilian executive chef, Joe Cicala, is now her husband.
The pair got engaged in - where else? - the town of Scanno, in Abruzzo, during the festival of Glorie di San Martino, a pagan festival welcoming the winter spirit.
"I believe in symbols and signs," said Ranalli, who years before her son's birth dreamed of her grandmother three days in a row, showing her a picture of Christmas. "It was so weird, my grandmother was dead, and it was summertime."
Years later, her son arrived prematurely on Dec. 23, a date she has loved her entire life. "I think the signs are there for us all to see, but we're always in a hurry. We just don't pay attention to them."
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.