A Q&A with Mary Ann Esposito, host of ‘Ciao Italia’

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By Paul Giorgio

Ciao Italia is PBS’s longest-running cooking show. Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Mary Ann Esposito, who hosts the show, to talk about traditional Italian food, kitchen disasters and favorite dishes.

Tell me about your career. You have the longest-running TV show on PBS, which you are very proud of. What do you attribute this to?

Well, shows come and go. Ciao Italia is the longest running cooking show in America. Julia Child, for example, had a variety of shows. We are able to get the undivided attention of the viewer on PBS, which is why I like it.

I think we come from the same tradition, the grandchildren of Italian immigrants, and from the same part of Italy, outside of Naples. You talk about wanting American food occasionally. I remember asking my mother to buy Chef Boyardee canned ravioli because I saw it advertised on television. Did you do that?

No, we had hot dogs occasionally on July Fourth. We usually also had homemade sausage. I use the same funnel to make my sausage that my grandfather used. The only difference is that today, I have the butcher grind the meat.

Why do you like to cook?

It’s imbedded in Italians. I always grew up with good food, and now, it keeps me connected to my parents and grandparents. It’s healthier food, too.

What is your favorite meal to cook?

My very favorite meal is aglio olio. (Pasta made with olive oil and garlic). It’s a comfort food with so few ingredients.

How about your favorite non-Italian meal?

Grilled fish ~ haddock with a Ritz cracker topping.

You talk about there being no Italian cuisine like French food, that it is all regional cooking. Is there one thing that unifies Italian cooking?

Cooking with fresh ingredients is the unifying factor ~ and using product that is in season.

What is your favorite region in Italy in terms of cooking?

That’s so hard to answer because I love all the food, but I love the food of Sicily. A great many cultures have contributed to its cuisine, including everything from Moroccan and African to Roman food and French. There’s not a region I don’t like, but the two regions my family comes from ~ Campania and Sicily ~ are special to me.

Do you have a favorite dish from those regions?

Arrancini (a deep-fried rice ball) is high up there. I love any kind of tuna dish. I also love fresh artichokes and fava beans.

What is your favorite place to visit in Italy?

I love the big three ~ Rome, Venice and Florence. But the town of Gubbio, in the province of Umbria, is probably my favorite town of all. I also love Verona, which is a very refined city.

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Let’s talk about your new cookbook. How is this different from the previous ones?

This is the largest one. It follows the cooking of three generations, my grandparents, my parents and me. All the recipes in my cookbooks are doable by the average cook.

How long did this book take?

It usually takes me a year and half to two years to complete a book.

How many times do you cook each meal?

Just once, since I’ve done this for so long.

How do you decide what to include?

First, it has to be doable; has to have a tradition to it. It has to be doable, and you have to be able to find the ingredients. Finally, it has to be easy to make and has to be delicious.

How many cookbooks have you written?

I’ve written 12.

Do you have a favorite one?

That’s like asking me which of my children I like better.

What do you consider to be the bible of Italian cuisine?

I don’t think there is a bible because everything is so local.

Pelegrino Artusi, who wrote Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, comes the closest He wrote it in the late 1800s. It is Italy’s most treasured cookbook. He lived from 1820-1911.”

What is your next project?

I’m working on a book about pasta. It is 365 recipes ~ a pasta dish for every day of the year. I will come out in 2014-15.

It appears that the Maryanne Esposito franchise is a family affair. Your son works for you, and your husband Guy helps out. How does that work out?

Well, my son Chris handles underwriting and public appearances. My husband Guy does the gardening. His garden is 50- by 30-feet, and he grows everything we need. He has 60 tomato plants and 12 different varieties.

Do you cook when you are home?

Why does everyone ask that? I would go out of my mind if I didn’t cook every day. I have three freezers filled with tomatoes.

What do you make?

I’m making rabbit tonight.

What is your favorite non-Italian meal?

I like Chinese food.

Who is your cooking idol?

My mother, Louisa.

What are three ingredients in your home refrigerator?

Lemons, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and hot pepper sauce that I made.

What is your favorite ingredient?
Butter. I hate to say it, but it makes everything taste so good.

What is your favorite flavor?

Chocolate. I’m a chocolate freak.

What is your favorite spice?

Cinnamon.

Have you ever had a disaster in the kitchen?

Oh my goodness, yes ~ it landed me in the emergency room. I was trying to make cookies. I turned the gas on to light the stove, and then I went looking for a match. I had third-degree burns. I’ve improved since then.

I noticed you give a scholarship for culinary students at Johnson & Wales University. Why?

I created The Maryanne Esposito Foundation about three years ago for two reasons: I want students to study Italian regional cooking and I also want to preserve the tradition of Italian regional cooking, which is disappearing here and in Italy.

I think you have a negative reaction to chefs as celebrities. Why?

In my mind, I don’t see myself as a celebrity; I see myself as a cook. Some chefs see it as about them and not the food.

Any last thoughts?

I am just happy to do what I do with a national TV audience ~ it’s been a great ride.