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‘Ciao, Italia!’: Mary Ann Esposito is America’s ambassador for Italian cooking

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Two years ago when we visited the Sun WineFest at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Uncasville, Conn., we were standing in front of the booth of a wonderful new food magazine, Northeast Flavor, and talking with its editor, Jean Kerr. Feeling a presence standing next to us, we turned and quickly recognized the famed PBS TV chef/host and writer, Mary Ann Esposito.

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“Hi, Mary Ann,” we said. “Hello there, guys!” was Mary Ann’s immediate warm and enthusiastic reply. We blurted out “OMG, you’re just like a real person!” To which, without missing a beat, Mary Ann exclaimed “But I AM a real person!”

Fast-forward to Sun WineFest 2014. We watched Mary Ann up on the stage prepping one of her famously easy-to- do regional Italian dishes - a traditional eggplant timballo filled with tiny meatballs, pasta and cheese.

In her trademark, perfectly-clear way, she demonstrated how easy it is to prepare, and told the gathered crowd “If you prep everything ahead of time, you can pull together a great meal in a flash – no sweat!” The audience ate it up.

No ‘diva’ here – Mary Ann Esposito, for all her fame, multiple awards, best-selling cook books and host of TV’s longest running cooking show is still a very real person.

Consider her accolades – in October 2013 she received the ‘Order of the Star of Italy Cavaliere’ (knight) award from the President of the Italian Republic as well as the annual Premio Artusi award for her work in promoting Italian food. Johnson and Wales University presented Mary Ann with their Distinguished Author Award. St. Anselm College gave her an honorary doctorate for her dedication to teaching and preserving authentic Italian regional cuisine. And The Italian Trade Commission named her a 2010 Hall of Fame honoree.

But, that’s not what Mary Ann is all about. We chatted with her briefly after her cooking presentation at the Sun WineFest:

Examiner: “During the past 25 years as host of the longest-running cooking show on PBS, how has the growing sophistication of American tastes in food affected your presentation?”

Mary Ann: “Not at all, not at all. First of all, I tell people that there is no such thing as ‘Italian food,’ only regional food. Every part of Italy has its own dishes, its own cuisine.

“People think that they don’t have time to cook. But what I teach them is how to prepare good, simple traditional food. You can prepare all of my recipes in all of my books if you keep your pantry, refrigerator and freezer stocked with basic ingredients.

“I tell you, you can prepare a great soup dinner in about 10 minutes. All you need is some leftover chicken – maybe a rotisserie chicken from the market - some low-sodium chicken broth: bring it to a boil. Whip 3 or 4 eggs, lemon juice and grated parmesan cheese in a bowl and add it to the broth and stir - kind of like egg-drop soup. Add the chicken, some peas, parsley and more parmesan and whatever else you have on hand, and you’ve got a meal!”

[Note: We tried this recipe that very night. And as Mary Ann suggested - “whatever else you have on hand” - we added celery, carrots and fresh baby spinach to the above and ‘presto!’ – the easiest chicken soup ever!]

Examiner: “From your ‘Ciao, Italia Family Classics’ cookbook, your grandmother Galasso’s frittata is now our absolute – and fool-proof favorite. What are some of the other recipes in your books that fans rave about?”

Mary Ann: “You know, I’ve got over 1300 recipes online and they’re all available free! www.ciaoitalia.com. People like easy dishes like whole wheat spaghetti with tuna, lemon and capers, the Tiramisu, my mother’s Whiskey Cake, the soups and stews. And of course, lasagna!

“Sometimes I think people won’t invite my husband Guy and me over for dinner because they think ‘Oh, what could we possibly cook for Mary Ann?’ But I love lasagna as much as my friends and viewers do. And that eggplant timbale that I just made on stage. That, a nice fresh salad and a glass of good Italian wine, and you’ve got a happy dinner guest!”

Examiner: “Speaking of salads, your husband, Dr. Guy Esposito, is the ‘head gardener’ of the Ciao Italia garden at your home in New Hampshire. What advice do you – and he - have for people about gardening?” [You can go to the Guy’s Garden Blog on www.ciaoitalia.com for more gardening tips.]

Mary Ann: “Don’t think BIG! Start small, container gardening is fine. You need to plan, to make a chart, a graph. All of a sudden you’ll find out that it’s August and everything is coming in at once. This year I had so many vegetables that I spent several days making Minestrone soup and freezing it. I took the huge crop of zucchini and grated it, dried it on paper towels, and then wrapped and froze it for future use in soups and other recipes.”

[Mary Ann’s own invention for freezing zucchini, which does not freeze well otherwise, can be found on her website]

“And you need to be IN the garden, focus on the plants. Gardening teaches you patience. You can’t rush a vegetable….it will be ripe when it wants to be. Our gardener Marino says ‘Every Italian garden needs a dead man.’ I said ‘What do you mean, a dead man?’ He means someone who is always there, always in the garden to care for it. I’m in the process of putting together a gardening book, so look for it late this year or in 2015.”

Examiner: “Both your grandmothers were food experts [one grandmother was a butcher, the other owned a boarding house and cooked meals for her boarders and outsiders] and your mother was a passionate cook. Any interesting stories that you can share about your early experiences with how these women influenced your career and your life?”

Mary Ann: “I was always helping at home from the time I was a little girl. I peeled vegetables, and I even plucked chickens for my grandmother’s butcher store. I was always pounding dough or doing other chores in the kitchen.

“But after all that work as a child, I never wanted to be a cook! Later on, I realized that the traditions and dishes that were being made by each generation had to be preserved. I did my UNH thesis on the history and culture of Italian Renaissance cooking. I made ancient recipes for my professor – which he was less than enthusiastic about! I went to Italy many times, visited many regions and saw that what I experienced as a girl in the kitchen was to be treasured.

"My mother always had an abundance of food on the table; she is one of my greatest influences. I remember one time after I had become fairly well-known and she had moved from a house into a condo. She still had two kitchens- even in the condo she put a ‘summer kitchen’ in the basement!

“Well, I called her in Buffalo and I said, ‘I’m doing a cooking demonstration for King Arthur Flour for a couple of hundred people and I need to get your pizzelle recipe. [Pizzelle is a thin, waffle-like cookie]. She said ‘come up to Buffalo and I'll show you how I make them.’

“She took me downstairs to the ‘summer kitchen’ refrigerator. She had removed all of the shelves and the entire thing was jammed with hundreds and hundreds of pizzelle! She said, ‘There are 500 pizzelle in here for you.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘Ma, why did you make so many pizzelle?’ and she answered, ‘Well, you have to have enough so that everybody in the audience can have one!’ That’s the kind of a giving, generous woman my mother was”

Examiner: “We can tell from your anecdotes that love and passion for Italian culture runs in your family: tell us something about your Mary Ann Esposito Foundation.”

Mary Ann: “Even on my travels to Italy, I found that a lot of young people eat just small things like antipasto or tapas with a glass of wine and that’s their dinner. That’s not what I call dinner. I want the next generation to hold onto Italian and Italian-American cooking, culture and traditions. Otherwise these things die out if not passed on from generation to generation.

“Our mission is to provide educational information and digital demonstrations for students who want to become great Italian chefs. We provide scholarships and have already awarded one at Johnson and Wales in Providence, RI. We want to create the necessary resources that will build and maintain a Ciao Italia Italian Heritage and Education Resource Center.

‘The Center will be maintained by a major American university and will be open to any student wishing to research Italian gastronomy. The Center will house the entire catalog of Ciao Italia resources in formats that are accessible for generations of students to come.

“At the moment, we’re looking at Boston as a host city.” [You can help the Esposito family to fund the foundation by contributing under the Mary Ann Esposito tab on her website.]

As our interview time grew short, we mentioned that we, too, had traveled to Italy many times and that gave Mary Ann the opportunity to say to us “You know, I do cooking tours of Italy every year. Why don’t you plan to come along? This year we’ll be in Puglia and Basilicata. There are only 18 in the group, and we’ll be a sell-out again this year. I’ll be doing two hands-on cooking lessons and Guy will do an ongoing course in the wines of the region throughout the tour. And we only stay in all the best places – 5 stars!”

The trip will take place from 21 September-02 October 2014, and you can get all the details at www.italiansun.com. Click the tab on the website for ‘2014 Tour Programs.’

Mary Ann needed to get ready for the evening’s Celebrity Chef Dine Around event in the Mohegan Sun’s Convention Center. She graciously took a few moments to inscribe two cookbooks that we’d brought with us [She has written 12] and she stood up to give us each a hug. As we said our goodbyes to this warm, gracious and accessible lady, we looked at each other and said, “Yes, Mary Ann, you ARE a real person!”

------------------------------------------------------

Visit ‘Ciao, Italia’ online and also send Mary Ann messages and comments on FB at
www.facebook.com/maryannesposito.

Make sure you watch the Video attached to this article and see the slideshow. For additional videos of Mary Ann Esposito's shows go to YouTube and search "Mary Ann Esposito Ciao Italia." And for more of our articles, be sure to Subscribe to our stories on Examiner.com.

Written by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin, Critics On The Aisle

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