Continued from Part 2...
Finzi: The first time our family visited Molfetta (where my father was born) we didn’t have time to meet the relatives that still live there (although we've gotten to know each other since on Facebook). What advice would you give to someone with a desire to approach long-lost relatives in Italy, especially if there is a desire to collect the heritage of recipes from their famiglia?
Mary Ann: Call or email them; send photos; plan a meeting with them; bring old family photos if you have them.
Finzi: When you first met your Italian relatives, what impressed you most?
Mary Ann: Their genuine hospitality and love of connection with you. My cousins were especially welcoming.
Finzi: I lived in France for a while and tried my best to be a decent French cook, but after experiencing the simplicity of regional Italian cooking on our voyage throughout Italy, I immediately was drawn back my Italian roots. It’s amazing to think that in centuries past, the food eaten by the Italian upper classes was in the French style. Why do you think the Cucina Povera rose to the top of Italian cuisine, with its fairly simple ingredients and basic techniques?
Mary Ann: Because that is the true Italian cooking. It was only the upper class Italians who employed chefs called monzu. These were Italians trained in France and what they cooked was truly French and not Italian.
Finzi: When my parents got married, according to my mother, she “wanted an American household”, so she didn’t teach her five children Italian. I’ve read that you took lessons on how to speak Italian. Did your mother have this same attitude to “Americanize” your family in this or any other ways?
Mary Ann: No, my mother spoke Neapolitan dialect because my Nonna Galasso--her mother--lived with us. My mother would never serve an American style TV dinner and neither would I.
Finzi: I’ve never heard you talk about having a second home in Italy. If you do, can you tell us a little about it? And if not, of all the beautiful regions and towns in Italy, where would you love to live, and can you describe your Casa dei Sogni, or Dream Home for us?
Mary Ann: I go to Italy every year but do not have a home there; if I did, it would be in Siracusa because I love this baroque town; my second choice would be Torino.
Finzi: Your culinary life was influenced by two Nonne, but not everyone has an Italian grandmother to help educate them on how to prepare Italian dishes. In a way, you have become that Nonna for the millions of us who have watched you cook for nearly 30 years. Can you tell us something about your Mary Ann Esposito Foundation and your desire to pass along your passion and techniques to future Italian chefs?
Mary Ann: Thanks for asking! The foundation provides scholarships for students in culinary degree programs in universities offering the study of Italian regional foods and is also establishing a legacy library online to record for posterity, regional recipes that otherwise would be lost to time for future generations. All donations in any amount are most appreciated. Your Grand Voyage Italy readers can go to www.ciaoitalia.com and click on “foundation” to learn more and to make a donation.
Finzi: I want to really thank you for taking the time for this wonderful chat, Mary Ann. We'll be looking forward to seeing your new episodes on PBS... my TIVO is fired up to record every episode!
One last thought... For us to envision il pranzo perfetto per Maestra Esposito, what are your all-time favorite dinner courses in La Cucina Esposito?
Guy Esposito on Gardening
Finzi: When I was a boy, my Dad taught me all about saving seeds and the benefits of Home Grown Tomatoes, and now my 15 year old son grows them with me. Our favorites are Eva Purple Ball, Jersey Devil and Giant Belgium. Which are your top three favorite heirloom tomato varieties, and why you like each.
Guy: Costoluto Genovese for fresh eating and preserving, intensely flavorful, deep red flesh); San Marzano are the only ones that match to those in Campania for sauce; Redorta for eating fresh, making sauces, canning or drying. It's better than San Marzano for growing in colder climates.
Finzi: For some reason, I’ve always had less than good results with Costoluto in our garden and Redorta is one we haven’t grown. I’ll try some next season.
I’m in Zone 6a in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (April 15, last frost) and still I wish the growing season was a bit longer than it is. What are the problems growing vegetables in your short, Zone 5b growing season in New Hampshire?
Guy: We get a late start after May 31 because of such a short growing season.
Finzi: What do you consider the essential vegetables for an Italian gardener to grow, and for beginners, which do you think are the easiest?
Guy: Lettuce, zucchini and radishes are easiest and the hardest are melons and artichokes.
Finzi: Were you always a gardener or did your garden develop as Ciao Italia became a more prominent part of your lives as a couple, and what compels you to grow your own vegetables?
Guy: I have been gardening since Medical School. We are believers in farm to table food without pesticides. For good health we maintain a Mediterranean diet.
Finzi: We are also pretty much organic in our garden, but can always do better with a heathier diet. At least we make pretty much everything from scratch. I just wish we had a good fish monger near us.
My wife Lisa would love to grow huge bushes of rosemary like we saw in Italy. For me, pomegranates and olives. But of course, we can’t in our Pennsylvania climate. What don’t (or can’t) you grow in the garden that you wish you could, or would like to grow, and why?
Guy: Radicchio di Treviso and Bulbing Fennel (finocchi). Both are delicious for salads or cooking.
Finzi: I’ve watched videos on how complicated it is to grow Radicchio di Treviso. Definitely not for the home gardener!
What single vegetable or other crop has May Ann wanted you to grow that you haven’t yet, and why haven’t you grown it?
Guy: Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes. It's just not hot enough here in New England and we have the wrong type of soil. .
Finzi: I love the idea of growing these but even if I could, I doubt if they would last through the winter, hanging in large bunches, the way they do in Campania.
If you could only grow one, solitary crop, which would you grow?
Guy: Lettuce! Virtually every day we eat large salads every day.
Finzi: That’s one crop I wish was possible to grow all season long. I’ve grown a variety of types, but some years, the rabbits and chipmunks get the best of them.
What are the most difficult things to grow in your garden?
Guy: Melons and sometimes tomatoes. Melons need a lot of heat and a long growing season. Some types of tomatoes we love can be prone to disease.
Finzi: I’ve also had some experience with melons, but they require a lot of attention and even watering--difficult to keep up with in drier seasons.
Is it difficult to be the husband of such a famous chef, or do you consider yourself a partner in Mary Ann’s efforts—and how involved are you in the production of the show?
Guy: Mary Ann is first and foremost my wife. I am involved with Ciao Italia as the head gardener and wine consultant. The Mary Ann you see on TV is the exact same person in real life. I am a lucky man!
Finzi: You certainly are.
Mary Ann and Guy, I want to thank you both for being so generous with your time. I’m certain our readers are going to gain a lot of wisdom from the depth and span of your knowledge, experience and passion about Italian cuisine.
Alla prossima e mille grazie!
Copyright, 2020 - Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be reproduced in any form without expressed, written permission.
Continued from Part 1...
Finzi: Of course, we’ve read your new book, Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy. You've given us all some more great recipes and stories with an enormous degree of detail. Another winner, for sure. Brava, Maestra!
Speaking from an Italian-American perspective, what are the main differences between Italian cuisine and the dishes Italian-Americans served here? And regardless of their lack of authenticity, which Italian-American dishes do you really love?
Mary Ann: Regional dishes are based on local ingredients, fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Italian-American food is often based on many canned foods like beans and prepared tomato sauces and inferior, imitation cheese. Of course I love spaghetti and meatballs and chicken “parm” like anyone else.
Finzi: I grow our own string beans and especially love those yard-long heirloom beans that can plate like a green spaghetti, but I'll have to take your advice and start growing my own beans. We do make our own sauces from scratch, but most of the year used high quality canned tomatoes. In summer we do make fresh tomato sauce, which is wonderful.
Chicken “parm” is a favorite in our house, too. We love the way my wife makes it (casserole style with rigatoni) but I also make a lighter version more like a standalone corso secondo.
All of us have our favorite cookbooks. We have a collection of yours (of course), but also from Julia Child, Nick Malgieri, Marcella Hazan and Pierre Franey. Which cookbooks couldn’t you live without? Also, what are some historic cookbooks you would recommend for people wanting to explore the history of Italian cuisine?
Mary Ann: Ada Boni’s, Italian Cooking; Waverly Root, The Food of Italy; John Keahy, Seeking Sicily; Carol Field, The Italian Baker; Pellegrino Artusi, The Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well
Finzi: We actually have one on your list--Carol Field’s Italian Baker is amazing and includes a fantastic recipe for focaccia.
What regions—or towns—have you never visited or cooked in when traveling through Italy? Which are on your bucket list, and why?
Mary Ann: I have never cooked in Friuli or Calabria and I would love to cook in Abruzzo because the food is very high quality, and I love the way they use almonds in cooking. Although I love the confetti (candy coated almonds), there is so much more to do with them.
Fried Fish Fillets with Parmesan and Almond Coating
Finzi: We agree totally. We love the flavor of almonds in all manner of pastries. But to be honest, I personally never went for confetti almonds—I was always worried about breaking a tooth!
The waves of Italian Diaspora during the 19th and 20th centuries brought Italian migration to several countries around the world, merging Italian cuisine with that of their host countries. Have you ever thought of exploring the evolution of this mash-up of culinary cultures? (Examples: Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Tunisia).
Mary Ann: It is a great idea and I have thought of it. It's on our bucket list!
Finzi: I’ll be looking forward to see what you come up with. By the way, in researching my own surname’s roots, I have discovered that there are nearly as many Finzi in Brazil as in Italy! I’m in touch with many of them via Facebook—perhaps I’ll ask them for some fusion Italian-Brazilian family recipes!
Are there any other countries you like to visit and cuisines you enjoy cooking? A fusion, perhaps?
Mary Ann: I just love Ireland and their food is fantastic. I also enjoy cooking Chinese food.
Click the photo above to see our own Shepherd's Pie Recipe
Finzi: This past Saint Patrick’s Day, I made my annual shepherd’s pie and my wife Lisa made her Irish Soda bread. Although my wife Lisa makes fantastic Chinese food, she hasn’t picked up her wok in a while. (Hint, hint.) There is such a wealth of ethic food in the world and so many influences in the regional foods of Italy!
You’ve cooked with many famous chefs over the years, but we also appreciate when you cook along with home cooks here and in Italy (I still remember the episode with your Mom). Have you thought of doing a series of shows where you feature these home cooks’ recipes?
Mary Ann: We have featured many home cooks and you will see them on our new season coming this spring. I learn a lot from them.
Finzi: My mother was a pretty good Italian cook and my Dad worked as a grocer and deli man his whole life. Because of this, my favorite heirlooms from them is Mom’s scolapasta, her large pasta pot, her ravioli pin, Dad’s meat slicer and even his retractable crayon marker he used to mark prices on cold cuts. Which kitchen heirlooms do you treasure?
Mary Ann: My nonna Saporito’s 2 ft long, thin rolling pin, her cleaver, chitarra, my mother’s scribbled notebooks on Italian foods, her apron and old cannoli forms made out of bamboo.
Finzi: Bamboo cannoli forms? I love the idea. Easy to make if you have a neighbor with overgrown patch of bamboo.
Beside heirloom kitchen tools, my Mom left me her techniques of making “Sunday gravy”, gnocchi (click for RECIPE) with a fork and her Italian style Pot Roast (click for RECIPE). Dad taught me how to make giant deli meatballs (click for RECIPE) Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas ham and all about home grown heirloom tomatoes. What are the most important technique your family's cooks passed along to you?
Mary Ann: Use your hands! They are your best tools.
Finzi: According to my son, my pizzas and other dishes are so good that he’d like to see me open a pizzeria or restaurant, but I simply enjoy cooking for my family and friends. With both of your grandmothers cooking for professional reasons, did you ever consider “going pro” and perhaps opening your own restaurant? If “no”, why not? Personally, I would really enjoy dining in your Trattoria Ciao Italia!
Mary Ann: No, because I think of my show, Ciao Italia! as my restaurant. Opening a restaurant means a commitment to be there and I cannot do both at the same time.
Finzi: Last summer, we vacationed in Cape Ann, Massachusetts and seemed to discover Italian influences just about everywhere. When we visited the North End of Boston we considered it to be a better Little Italy than Manhattan’s Little Italy, the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue or Philly’s Italian Market district. Which “Little Italys” have you visited and what are the best features of each?
Mary Ann: I've been to most: Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, New Orleans. Philadelphia has retained more authenticity; the rest are fading examples.
Copyright, 2020 - Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be reproduced in any form without expressed, written permission.
When we spent some time on the Amalfi Coast, one of our goals was to visit "the" ceramics town--Vietri sul Mare, just west of Salerno. One of its must-see places to visit was the amazing Ceramica Artistica Solimene, one of the most iconic artisan shops for Vietri ceramics. Rather than the geometri, Renaissance designs of other ceramic design shops, Solemene's designs are childlike, with free-handed strokes and creatures and colors of the life along the Amalfi Coast... fish, octopus, pigs, chickens and donkeys.
The building which houses the "factory" (if you can call it that, since all the ceramics are made by and painted by hand), is itself a work of art, commissioned by Vincenzo Solimene and completed in 1954. Architect Paolo Soleri designed this masterpiece of architecture, a mid-century modern homage to ceramics, with its inverted, cone shaped exterior covered with terracotta discs.
The interior houses a sales area on the first floor open to the skylights on the roof, with a ramp that spirals upward (no stairs, but there is a small elevator) to different levels where the clay is formed, sculpted and then painted. The spiraling design is similar to modern parking garages.
Chain smoking artisans welcome visitors and will even give short lessons on their techniques (our son--then 11--was shown how to attach a handle to a cup). Visiting the Solimene factory can be considered the highlight of spending some time in Vietri sul Mare's ceramics district--there are scores of ceramic shops within a few blocks.
The family business has been creating ceramics for more than a century and has produced tableware, garden ceramics and pots, sculptural pieces, floor and wall tiles--all worked and painted entirely by hand, using a combination of modern and ancient techniques, such as the potter's wheel. Their tableware is food safe (they utilize lead-free glazes) and can even withstand dishwashers. In our own Pennsylvania villa, we serve our meals on Solimene ceramics. So far, in about 5 years, no chips--just compliments.
Random pieces decorate the outside of the Solimene building
I never was interested in an inheritance from my parents. Not that I couldn't use some extra financial help when we had our son late in my life (I was 53 when he was born). After my Dad passed, my Mom didn't have all that much anyway... besides, I always felt strange about even discussing such things. When my Mom finally passed on some years ago, I actually refused to deposit the meager check my sister sent along after her affairs were supposedly "finalized".
But when my Mom was alive she did "will" me some things in person when she was moving from her tidy suburban home to a senior citizen's apartment complex. I treasure these simple things.
One treasure was her scolapasta. The literal translation of this essential kitchen tool is "dripping pasta", a very descriptive name for her colander. It might even me called scola maccharon' (macaroni drain) in southern dialect. My Mom would grab a mappine (pronounce mop-EEN, meaning dishtowel), pick up the boiling spaghetti pot and then dump the steaming pasta into the scolapasta to drain the water.
I remember when she offered it to me... "Here, you take this home". It was like she was passing the culinary baton to me and my cooking. No fanfare. But with that simple statement, I was honored all the same.
She must have poured several tons of pasta through that beautiful piece of aluminum for decades before I got it. It's a large one, too... holding two pounds of pasta. I've been using it every time we make pasta in the new Casa Finzi for over a decade now. It's amazing to think that this tool must be over 60 years old--at least--and still going strong. Try that with one made of plastic or from cheap Chinese steel. We actually have another colander that we bought in the famous Dehillerin kitchen shop in Paris, but somehow we always reach for Mom's scolapasta first...
Olive oil has been used in many other ways over the millennium... greasing wheels, cleaning the body, lighting ancient homes in lamps, polishing furniture, but the most important use for the golden elixir throughout the ages is in la Cucina.
But we don't always give our olive oil the respect and care it deserves. After all, we should respect an oil that I've witnessed with my own eyes still coming from trees hundreds and even thousands of years old. Olives are a gift from the gods... a gift of Mother Nature herself. They are a link to our past and a healthy path to our future.
Here are some ways you can give respect to your olive oil...
Someone get me a chair and a cool glass of water... Jeepers, this thing is sexy!
Find out more...
When we traveled through Italy, we fell in love with the style of la Cucina Rustica (the Rustic Kitchen), which still influence modern kitchen layouts. Stone, brick, tile and terracotta are the main materials used for sinks, counters, floors and other structures. If there is stone or brick in the structure, exposing them adds to the feeling of warmth. Wood beams on ceilings of above a hearth is almost a requirement. Often a modern cooktop and small oven (by American standards) are complimented by a propane tank and gas burner set into iron legs or an wood coal heated grill built right into the walls of the structure. There are many Cucina that have large and deep cooking hearths where pots would hang for cooking and baking. Modern farm style apron sinks popular today are mere great-grandchildren of the one piece carved and decorated marble or travertine sinks found in vintage Italian country kitchens.
The two photos above were taken in Trullo Gallo Rosso, a wonderfully restored compound of trulli that he runs as a B&B in Puglia. Our host Hugo prepared fantastic breakfasts in his own version of a Cucina Rustica. The property was originally owned by his grandparents and still contains treasures from his Nonna's cucina as well as well as keeping alive the traditional food.
The photo above was taken in the Cucina of our hot air balloon pilot's home in Tuscany (Idea Balloon Tuscany). Gianna and Stefano made us feel right at home, sharing wine, sausage, bread, cheeses and other treats... along with being able to scratch the bellies of their many pooches. Stefano told me that he had done much of the carpentry himself--the hand hewn thick walnut counter in the foreground can rotate to the other side of the kitchen via a floor-to-ceiling huge pivoting post. And just take a look at the kitchen table he built.
Even modern Italian kitchens don't need a lot of space. The fridge is small because most people pick up fresh food from markets and shops pretty much every day. There are less cupboards because Italian cuisine requires less equipment to prepare and cook and serve the foods. Their meals are simpler--small breakfasts and dinners--because pranzo (lunch) is the main meal of the day during the 2-3 hours riposa. Coffee machines are rare because most people prefer making espresso with their little Bialetti Moka pot. So open shelves are plenty for storage. One more element that might be overlooked is indoor shutters--in Italy, used to shut out the light and heat during the midday riposa.
Finishing touches and accessories to complete the
Cucina Rustica look...
To finish off a Cucina Rustica, you need accessories that not only look the part, but function well. After all, simplicity is the key in Italian cooking and kitchens. Great, long lasting pots hanging on a wall rack, good quality knives, storage jars and jugs, cutting boards and pizza peels, pasta bowls, a wall rack with your most used kitchen tools and of course, the ubiquitous Moka pot to make your espresso. I'll finish off with some ideas to inspire you in creating your own Cucina Rustica with some recommendations from Amazon products...
I've learned things in my many years of cooking... and I'm still learning lots of tricks and shortcuts in nella cucina. From time to time, I'll be passing long these Kitchen Hacks you our fellow Voyagers to help with many cooking tasks...
As you can tell, the first Hack concerns onions. There is a real science behind this Hack. Perhaps too much for the home cook to even want to understand. To boil it down: when you cut an onion, it releases sulfenic acid which then changes into other compounds as soon as they make contact with the air. These are the chemicals that burn your eyes so much.
Some people think it's the variety of onion that makes a difference, but the more precise truth is that it's where the onion is grown and in what type of soil that matters most. Sweet onions grown in less sulfur rich clay soils in places like Georgia contain less sulfur to start with.
All you really have to remember is to buy only "Sweet Onions" (this is what they are called in the U.S.). You will find them called Vidalia, Maiu Sweet, Mayan Sweet, Walla Walla, etc.
Do NOT use the bagged, smaller sized "yellow" onions. These are storage onions, and as such, their level of sulfur compounds increase as they age and when cut, they really burn your eyes.
Sweet Onions (we buy Vidalia unless making something requiring large amounts of onions, like French onion soup) are typically much larger and often a flatter, less round shape. They are also wetter than "storage" or bagged onions. As onions sit for long periods of time they dry out. The higher water content in large sweet onions help dilute the sulfur compounds. The dryer the onion, the more likely it will make you cry.
Here's a ranking with the LESS TEARFUL types on top:
Good luck keeping those tears at bay...
As an alternative, try these pro quality chef's onion goggles....