Many recipes begin with chopping an onion.
The new play “Napoli, Brooklyn” begins with a woman talking to one.
It’s 1960 in Park Slope and Luda can’t understand her inability to cry. “She looks to that onion for an answer,” says Alyssa Bresnahan, who plays Luda, a wife and mother of three daughters ages 16 to 26.
The opening scene of Meghan Kennedy’s drama, now in previews and opening Tuesday at the Laura Pels Theatre, is the first of several ways in which food plays a co-starring role. Luda cooks for her family and tries to serve good advice along with the red sauce.
To season Bresnahan’s characterization, the Roundabout Theatre Company arranged a lunch between the actress and celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, who’s been called the godmother of high-end Italian cuisine.
Over tuna prepared four ways and excellent wine at Felidia — the famous foodie’s flagship restaurant in Midtown East — the women covered motherhood, food and family.
“We talked a lot about food,” Bresnahan says. “And just as helpful, she talked about her life and about being an immigrant.”
Bastianich was 12 when she and her family came to New York from Europe in 1958.
“She said that cooking in her family was the roots of connecting,” Bresnahan adds.
Bits of that conversation can be seen in a video recorded by the Roundabout.
“The Italian table is about … love and togetherness and family unity,” Bastianich says in the clip. “Food tells you who you are.”
Figuring out one’s place in the world is one of the themes the play covers as each of Luda’s daughters wrestles with secrets they’re afraid to share.ù
A real-life fatal mid-air crash that happened on Dec. 16, 1960, over Park Slope, stirs the pot and the plot.
“Both times (the family) sits down to eat, a big argument happens, so we never get to finish a meal,” says Bresnahan in the video.
Even so, the stage is set for dinner. The busy props department, armed with a microwave oven and hot plates, along with some wood and rubber fish, see to it.
Before each show, dishes including spaghetti with tomato sauce and mussels and calamari with lemon wedges — plus Italian bread — are prepared.
“All of that is real, well, mostly,” says Bresnahan, who adds that the mussels are actually just shells. “One of the actors is vegan so it’s gluten-free pasta.”
A dinner around the Feast of the Seven Fishes — common in Italian-American households on Christmas Eve — is swimming is stage trickery. Dishes with scrod, eel and baccala (salt cod) are all phonies.
“When I told Lidia that our baccala wasn’t real, her face fell,” Bresnahan says. “She said, ‘Let’s move on.’”
And while eating and acting can be tricky, Bresnahan welcomes the challenge.
“The more real stuff you have when you’re doing a realistic play like this one, the realer it is,” she says.
And it turns out that the calamari made by props pros isn’t bad.
“It’s good,” says Bresnahan. “It’s not Lidia Bastianich, but it’s good.”
by Joe Dziemianowicz