Bringing Italia to New Hampshire
A conversation with Mary Ann Esposito
By Susan Ware firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Ann Esposito, the star of Ciao Italia on PBS, answered the door at her Oyster River home in Durham one hot afternoon with a firm, welcoming handshake and pointed to a casually arranged still life of striped gourds on a weathered bench by the door. The fall scene seemed out of place in the unseasonable heat.
ďThose are Italian pumpkins. I use the filling to stuff lush tortellini. There is nothing like it,Ē she said.
Espositoís Cape-style home, which I visited in September, is cozy, welcoming and modest. The entrance has a wall filled with oak-framed covers of all 10 of her cookbooks.
Her half-hour cooking show, heading into its 18th season, is a mixture of history and technique and feels like a beloved aunt is teaching you the ways of the kitchen. Once a school teacher, Esposito received a Masterís degree in history from the University of New Hampshire in 1991. In addition to having a new cookbook hitting shelves on Tuesday, Nov. 13, Esposito is the guest of honor at ďAn Italian Farmers Market,Ē a Bedford Village Inn dinner on Thursday, Nov. 1. (Tickets cost $115 per person and the event sold out several weeks ago. To see the menu, go to www.bedfordvillageinn.com.)
We sat in her kitchen, one wall an enormous bay window overlooking the tidal, salt-water river that abuts her backyard. On her show, the set kitchen is loosely based on her own kitchen, but the view from the set window is the exact replica of Espositoís in Durham.
Esposito has the longest-running cooking show on television, and uses her home as the base for her operations, Mary Ann Esposito Productions. The Ciao Italia garden is the garden in the side yard and she perfects her recipes in her home kitchen.
Dark wood cabinets mingle with what seem like antique hutches painted fire engine red and filled with hundreds of different pieces of blue and white china in neat stacks that add to the charm.
ďPeople are always sending me things, so I try to find a place for them,Ē she said as she waved her arms at the mass of china and pottery.
At the kitchen table, covered in red toille, Esposito served a wild blueberry-port wine bread dusted with powdered sugar on a thick, modern, red square of clay. She placed delicate, antique plates in white with a lattice edge on the table and served lemonade in vintage jelly glasses.
This is her charm. Like the Italian pumpkins on her stoop, Esposito effortlessly mixes old and new and food and makes it all so very comfortable.
You have a new book coming out Nov. 13. Tell me about that.
It is called Slow and Easy and is full of recipes for braises, stews, lasagnas and casseroles. Comfort foods with one-dish preparations for those cool days when you want to curl up indoors and have the house smell really good. Fix and forget, cooked at low temperatures, dishes that taste even better two days later.
Yes, they are as popular as ever. What is not to like about a casserole? You can make it ahead of time, eat it for several days, freeze it, and put one together by cleaning out your refrigerator. We all have ... fond memories of casseroles; they are the ultimate comfort food. Plus, I bet that most people, if they are feeding the family and arenít heading out for a steak, make some sort of casserole.
Your last book was Ciao Italia Pronto! with a focus on ease. Is this book different?
Yes, ďprontoĒ is how Italians in Italy answer the phone ó it means ready. Here it means fast. That cookbook was all about 30-minute meals. Slow and Easy is about combining ingredients in one pan and forgetting about the meal until it is ready to be served.
Now that the book is done, what is on your schedule?
[Laughs] I write my own books ó there is no ghostwriter ó so Iím always working on a book. Iíll be doing a book tour in New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida and in May 2008 will go into the studio to film the 19th season of Ciao Italia. In a few weeks [in October] Iím taking a group to Sicily for cooking classes. I donít think much beyond because I am so busy all the time.
Do you ever take a day off?
No, never. I am living food all the time. I find that Iím always rearranging it in my head. Iím an early riser and a list person. I need a list to cross things off; that is how I am happiest.
Where is Ciao Italia filmed?
It is filmed at PBS in Rhode Island. It takes two weeks to film the entire season. While we are filming the 19th season, the 18th will begin airing. We are always one year ahead.
Have you ever filmed here at your home?
I have tried in the past, and it is difficult. Now, it is not advised, because everything is filmed in HD and if you arenít in the studio you could spend all this time filming only to find out it isnít up to PBSís specs and all that work is wasted. I do film my garden shows in the garden out front. Guy [Mary Annís husband] plants the garden every year.
How do you decide what recipe gets on Ciao Italia?
It has to be something I like to eat, made with ingredients that are easily available, something that is not too familiar and something that the kitchen team on set can handle.
Recipes take longer than three or four minutes to prepare. How do you decide which steps to show viewers?
It is called blocking the show. I have to assume that the viewer knows nothing and then figure out what is the most important technique for that recipe. Each recipe is made in multiple batches, at different stages of preparation. If it is bread, I have to decide if it is important for viewers to see how to proof yeast, or punch down bread, or both.
Did you ever imagine that you would be considered the U.S. authority on classic Italian cooking?
Never in my wildest dreams. I thought I was just going to make this little cable show here in New Hampshire and teach people about Italian cooking.
You were a teacher, and then focused on cooking. How did that come about?
My mother sent me a pasta machine, a hand- crank one, as a housewarming gift when I moved to New Hampshire in 1979. It was like riding a bicycle: I suddenly remembered how to make pasta again, it all clicked.
Do you watch the Food Network or other cooking shows?
No. Never. I have maybe seen Emeril Lagasse once. First, Iím too busy, and second, when you live something, you need a break from it. My husband doesnít watch my show either. He tells me that he lives it every day, why should he watch me on television.
Which chefs do you admire?
Julia Child, for having always kept her feet on the ground and not getting a big head. Martin Yan, Jaques Pepin. I have learned a lot from all of them.
What was food like growing up?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Both of my grandmothers were from Italy and both were professional cooks. One was a butcher, and I would spend summers with her learning the trade. The other owned a rooming house, where she served meals; that is where I lived with my parents. My school lunches were fried eggs on a thick, homemade bread ó we made bread every day at the rooming house ó or arugula, olive oil and tomatoes that we dried in the sun. The other kids had tuna and mayo or peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread. I was dying for Wonder bread, but my mother wouldnít hear of it.
How did you feed your two children?
[She laughs] The same way. No spitball bread for them, everything was always made from scratch. You know what they say; youth is wasted on the young, you never appreciate what you have.
What about the Ciao Italia garden?
Guy is a retired surgeon, and he truly has a green thumb. I give him his marching orders every January and he starts planning the garden. I typically do three episodes in the garden. One year, I asked Guy to plant artichokes. Artichokes in New Hampshire, letís get real, who ever heard of such a thing ó but he did it and artichokes we had. Another year was hot peppers; I wanted them because I had tasted a dish in Italy that called for them.
Where do you get seeds?
Italy only. There is a link on the Ciao Italia Web site to the seed producer in Italy.
Tell me about the hot pepper dish?
One night my crew and I were eating at a local place owned by a father and son in Molise, Italy, and they served a dish made with a hot pepper pesto. They deglazed the pan with an apian wine ó apiana means honey in Italian, meaning sweet. It was fantastic. It is dishes like this that I try to bring to Ciao Italia. So we grew hot peppers and I did an episode on proper cleaning ó wear gloves, stay away from face and eyes ó and it was a hit.
Where do you eat out in New Hampshire?
Actually, we eat a lot of fish, and my favorite restaurant is Anneke Jans in Kittery, Maine. It is a small place; the food is good and very consistent. But I find that truly the best place to eat is at home. My father always said that and I believe it. Well, except in New York; I am like a kid in a candy shop there.
Where do you grocery shop?
The Durham Marketplace for as much as I can, I like their organic meats. I find it tough in New Hampshire because there is no big Italian provisions store. When I first moved here almost 30 years ago, I went to the butcher and asked for a veal shank to make osso bucco. He looked at me like I was nuts. It is better now, but it has been a very slow process. I also get beef from Joe Pace in Saugus and Haverhill Beef, they also supply my show.
Do people recognize you when you go out?
[She laughs] Oh yes, especially in the grocery store. Iím very conscious of what is in my carriage because when someone sees me, the first thing they do is look in my carriage and then ask what Iím making for dinner. When my son was younger, he went through a phase where all he wanted was Campbellís tomato and rice soup. I would get up early and head to the market to stock up before it got crowded, hoping no one would recognize me. One day, as I was stacking the soup in my carriage, a voice from behind called out in shock ďYou are not buying Campbellís soup, are you?Ē It isnít easy.
Do you eat organic?
I do now. After seeing Fast Food Nation, I even ask them to grind my beef or whatever in front of me. I have a saying: organic is cheaper than chemo. Americans are really bad about food, we arenít careful about what we eat. The spinach scare last year really shook me. I just recently bought my first bag of spinach again, and it was organic. If people stop buying the cheap produce from countries without pesticide controls and start buying and demanding organic, the prices will come down.
Do you find Italy to be different?
Oh yes. When I take a cooking class to Italy, I send the chefs a list of ingredients ahead of time. One time in Rome, the class was on preparing roast lamb. When we got to the class location, all of the ingredients were laid out except the lamb. I asked the chef where it was. He left the room and came back with a wheeled laundry bin with four hooves sticking straight into the air. Americans arenít used to that level of freshness. I had to take the lamb into the back room and prep it. Another time in Italy, it was rabbit ó fur and all. When you say fresh in Italy, it is fresh.
Why do you think Americans eat so differently?
We are out of touch with where our food comes from. It is homogenized, everything tastes the same. I blame McDonaldís for a lot of our problems. So many Americans have developed their palates as children to taste only generic flavors, not true flavors.
What do you cook at home for you and your husband?
Tonight we are having cod, cooked on the grill, sautťed spinach and corn chowder. We always have a big salad. Sometimes we have simple desserts, like baked apples with figs from the tree outside or pie.
How do you keep recipes fresh? Lasagna is lasagna is lasagna, isnít it?
Not at all. I have maintained a narrow focus on classical Italian food and its history. In 18 years, I can honestly say that I have barely scratched the boot of Italyís 23 regions. There is lots more to come.