“The longest running food show—period!” That’s how Vicky Titcomb introduced Mary Ann Esposito this past Monday, July 8, at the family bookstore, Titcomb’s Bookshop, in Sandwich. It’s true that Esposito is celebrating 30 years of “Ciao Italia” this year, but also of note is the fact that Titcomb’s is celebrating its 50th year in business this month.
Monday’s event featured the release of Esposito’s new book, “Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy.” She sat for a conversation with John Carafoli, author of “Great Italian American Food in New England: History Memories & Traditions.” In addition to their discussing Italian food—in Italy versus in America, guests enjoyed desserts from the book that were baked by PJ Hamel, who also lives in Sandwich.
PJ is a superb baker, now semi-retired from the King Arthur Flour Company as its senior digital consultant. I still miss her Sunday blogs, but they are all available on the KAF website. PJ has also been to Highfield Hall & Gardens to teach with me, where her classes are sold out immediately. For this event, PJ made a Torta Caprese (Capri’s Chocolate Almond Cake) and the Torta di Mele di Mondovi (Mondovi Apple Cake), as seen in the accompanying photo.
Esposito is the author of 13 cookbooks; Carafoli has four (“plus two children’s books” he added). He said that he has had “Ciao Italia” for the past few weeks and has been cooking from it. “She’s the real thing!” he declared. Both authors have known each other for “many years” and seemed to feel right at home conversing in the backyard of the bookshop.
“This book is more than just a cookbook,” Esposito explained. “It’s a culmination of my 30 years of travel—it’s about the regions of Italy. I always tell people that there is no such thing as Italian food; there is just regional food. I included a map in the front of the book, so as you choose a recipe to make, you can see exactly where in Italy the dish came from.”
They also talked about the products of Italy, again something that Esposito focuses on in her book. “Take olive oil, for example,” she stated. “Every oil tastes differently, according to where the olives were grown. You always want to buy cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil, and check the bottle for where it was made. If it just says Italy, it probably was processed on a huge container ship that just sits in Italian waters—the olives could be from anywhere, but they get to say Italy because of where it was made. It should have the name of the region in Italy—make sure of that!”
Then there’s the San Marzano myth. “There is only one San Marzano tomato,” she insisted. “It’s from the ashy soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius, and it’s very special. It’s a plum tomato, with fewer seeds; it’s dense and pulpy, and it is sweeter than any other. Anything that does not say ‘D.O.P.’ on the can is not a San Marzano tomato. Moreover, if the can says chopped San Marzano tomatoes, it cannot have a D.O.P. because they only can whole tomatoes.”
Both she and Carafoli have led food tours to Italy, and they talked about the pork (prosciutto di Parma, also D.O.P.) that is raised in Italy as well as the cheeses (including “the king of cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano”). Esposito encouraged Carafoli to try her ricotta—the recipe is in the book, she said, and it is extremely easy to make at home. “The Italians revere their food products; they protect them and they are hugely proud of their artisanal efforts,” she added.
In addition to creating her PBS television program, “Ciao Italia,” she has also established a foundation. “Its purpose is two-fold: first, to award scholarships and second, to create a digital legacy library of Italian food,” she told the audience. “We want to preserve and protect the traditional recipes of the past—that’s what I think the television show does, and now we can do even more via the foundation.”
The new book has a forward by Jasper White, and the photography by John W. Hession is remarkable. Here are a few recipes to try; the zucchini meatballs disappeared before I could taste one, but the apple cake I tried was simply delicious. The Torta Caprese is a rich flourless cake, sure to please those who want a gluten-free dessert. Recipes from Carafoli’s book have been printed in this paper when I featured his book last year around this time.
Polpette Di Zucchini
2 medium zucchini, shredded
3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ¼ cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 large eggs, beaten lightly with a fork
1⁄3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup minced flat leaf parsley
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fine sea salt
AP flour for dusting
¼ cup vegetable oil
Spread the zucchini out on two nonstick baking sheets and place them in a preheated 350°F oven; turn off the heat and let the zucchini dry out a few hours to remove excess water (this can be done ahead—just refrigerate the zucchini until ready to use). In a large bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, oregano, and salt; coarsely chop the zucchini and add it to the bowl. Mix well and refrigerate the mixture for 20 minutes; scoop small amounts of the mixture into your hands and form meatballs the size of a small egg (to make 18); put the flour in a shallow dish and roll the balls in the flour. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and fry the meatballs, turning them occasionally, so they brown evenly. Transfer to a serving dish and serve hot, with tomato sauce, if desired.
(chocolate almond cake)
13 TBSP unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
6 large eggs
1 tsp rum
2 cups whole almonds, finely chopped
2½ TBSP baking powder
8 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Powdered sugar for dusting
Use 1 TBSP butter to grease a 10-inch springform pan; line it with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Beat the butter with the sugar until creamy; in a separate bowl, beat the eggs until light and lemon-colored, then mix them into the butter and sugar. Add the rum, fold in the almonds, baking powder and chocolate; scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 to 50 minutes—it should still be moist but not wet in the center. Cool on a wire rack, then remove the sides of the pan. Place the cake on a serving dish and dust heavily with powdered sugar; cut into thin wedges to serve.