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Mary Ann Esposito standing beside a stack of cookbooks
Credit: Courtesy of Mary Ann Esposito

As she approaches nearly 30 seasons on public television, author and chef Mary Ann Esposito has brought the tastes and traditions of each distinctive region of Italy into our homes through her series Ciao Italia. But as a child growing up in a household that favored the Italian language and food, courtesy of immigrant grandparents, Mary Ann longed to eat like an American. And though both of her grandmothers cooked and worked in the service industry — one worked as a butcher, one ran a boarding house — she never anticipated devoting her career to the food of heritage.

This week, Homemade host Martie Duncan chats with Mary Ann about how her long, influential career came to be. Mary Ann tells Martie about the "four evangelists" of regional Italian cooking, pasta variations, what makes eggplant meatballs her most popular recipe, and her all-time favorite ingredients. Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyPlayerFM, and everywhere podcasts are available beginning August 25.

About Mary Ann Esposito

Born and raised in New York, Mary Ann Esposito grew up under the influence of her Italian-born grandmothers. In 1980, a trip to Italy with her husband, Guy, ignited her interest in cooking, as she attended a cooking class there. Upon returning home, she enrolled in the University of New Hampshire to study the Italian language and Italian history, earning a master's. She went on to teach cooking classes through the university's continuing education program.

In the mid 1980s, she proposed a concept for her TV show to public television, and Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito premiered in 1989. Mary Ann has authored several books, including Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy, Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites, Ciao Italia Family Classics, Ciao Italia in Umbria, Ciao Italia Pronto!, Ciao Italia Slow and Easy, and Ciao Italia in Tuscany.

Episode Transcript

MARTIE: Welcome to Homemade, I'm Martie Duncan. On this show, I like to discuss the backstory or the history behind a particular recipe, and my guest today has made building recipes around history her life's work. She's a chef, a cookbook author, and for an unbelievable 29 seasons, and counting, she's been the host of Ciao Italia — the longest running American cooking show, which has aired on PBS since 1989.

Having watched her forever, I sort of feel like Mary Ann is my Italian aunt who teaches me to cook. Today, she's going to talk about favorite recipes and ingredients, but she's also gonna help us plan a trip around Italy and what we absolutely must experience when we go. I'm excited beyond words to welcome the one and only Mary Ann Esposito to Homemade today. Thank you for joining me Mary Ann. 

MARY ANN: Martie, ciao. I'm your zia for the hour.

MARTIE: Is that how you say aunt? My zia.

MARY ANN: Aunt is zia in Italian. Yes. 

MARTIE: All right. We say aunt, but where I come from, we say ain't. 

MARY ANN: Ain't.

MARTIE: My ain't. My Ain't Bus. I had an Ain't Bus, but now I've got a Zia Mary Ann. 

MARY ANN: That's right. A Zia Marianna. A Zia Marianna. 

MARTIE: Well so was I right? 29 seasons. 

MARY ANN: Twenty nine seasons are in the can and now we're about to do our 30th season this August. So because of the pandemic we had a little bit of a stop gap there. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: And we couldn't really produce anything. So now we're gearing up to produce our 30th year. 

MARTIE: So let me get this right. You do all those shows in about a two-week period every year?

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: And just back to back, boom, boom, boom. 

MARY ANN: Right. 

MARTIE: In the kitchen with your staff, your team, you even have volunteers that come help. I'm raising my hand over here. 

MARY ANN: OK, Martie. 

MARTIE: Y'all can't see me, but I'm raising my hand. I want to come. I want to learn how to cook Italian food. I want to come be a volunteer in your kitchen. I'm raising my hand.

MARY ANN: Any time you want to come, the door is open. 

MARTIE: So I am just fascinated with this whole thing. So you do Italian tours. 

MARY ANN: Yup. 

MARTIE: You do the cookbooks, and then you do this television show that you have done, really literally, for many people's entire lives. And I think the beautiful part is that you bring in guests, you're very welcoming, and it feels like you really are in an Italian kitchen. You grew up with grandparents that cooked. Is that how it started... 

MARY ANN: Oh, my goodness.

MARTIE: ...In your grandparents kitchen?

MARY ANN: Well, it started because I had to live with two grandmothers, who didn't speak any English. So when we were indoors, of course, we were in Italy. We were listening to Italian words. They were making Italian food, the gestures, all of that. The minute I walked outside, I was back in America. And so these women, my grandmothers and my mother, they were all in the food business. So they had a tremendous effect on me. But I have to tell you a secret. In my very first cookbook, Ciao Italia, in the introduction, I tell you that if anyone had looked into a crystal ball and told me that I would be teaching people about Italian food on television, I would have choked on two meatballs. Because that was the furthest thing from my mind. 

MARTIE: I can imagine that if you grew up in an environment like that both — let me just make sure I understand. Both your grandmother's were professional cooks. 

MARY ANN: Yes, they were. For women of that time, that was unusual. My Neapolitan grandmother ran a boarding house, so she was cooking all the time. And I lived in that boarding house. My Sicilian grandmother had her own meat shop. She was a butcher and she had her own shop. 

MARTIE: Wow. 

MARY ANN: Yeah, in Fairport, New York. I still have her cleaver, by the way. I tried to get on a plane with this about 30 years ago. I was bringing my grandmother's cleaver back home she had given it to me. And this way before we had all these rules. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: And I remember this woman, who was going through, you know — we're going through the check line and she goes — 'ma'am, you want to step over here for a minute?' 

MARTIE: It's happened to me too with my mother's cast iron skillet. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: In recent history. They're like, 'what is this?' I'm like, 'I can't go anywhere without it.' And her rolling pin, too. I did the same thing.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: I've read a fascinating story that said your one grandmother that had the boarding house had a bathtub...

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: ...And she would let the neighbors and people in the community take a bath and have dinner for 25 cents. 

MARY ANN: That's right. You did your homework. Brava, signora, brava.

MARTIE: Yes, but I want to know everything about you.

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: And I think that's such an important part of your origin. How you started was in that. And then you didn't want to eat all that food that you would make with the grandmothers. You wanted, like, iceberg lettuce salad...

MARY ANN: Right. 

MARTIE: ...And, you know, American food. I get it.

MARY ANN: Exactly. When I was going to school my Neapolitan grandmother, who I lived with, would pack my lunch. Now, she always made coarse bread on Friday. I mean, coarse bread, you know, whole wheat. And when I would go to school on Monday morning, I could hear her in the kitchen getting the wax paper out and she would fill two slices of this bread with a fried egg. That was my lunch. So the fried egg went between the two slices of bread, you know, and I would gingerly take this thing out of the bag. Well, all my friends were having peanut butter and jelly and fluffernutter and all of that. And here I am eating this, you know, Italian sandwich.

MARTIE: Rachael Ray told me a very funny similar story. And hers was a sardine sandwich. And they took it away from her because it smelled so bad. 

MARY ANN: Right. 

MARTIE: Her Italian grandparents made her lunch, too.

MARY ANN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIE: Her grandfather and she got in a lot of trouble with that sandwich, apparently. So y'all got a lot to talk about. You went to college and then you were doing some cooking classes and then...

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: ...decided — did you do a thesis?

MARY ANN: I did. Well, I got my master's degree at the university on Italian Renaissance food. So I had to translate this ancient Italian manuscript, which was in old Italian. So wasn't even, you know, modern Italian, which is the Dante Italian of today, Tuscan Italian. So I would make these outrageous things from the cookbook, from the manuscript, and I'd bring it into my professor to try. I mean, these were God awful things. So buns that were so hard, loaded with Rosemary and all this stuff, that just — it was awful. But it gave me a real sense of what people really ate, you know, during the Renaissance. And most of it was not very good. But yes, I did my thesis on that. And then when I graduated, I decided that I wanted to go to Italy. Because I was reading a magazine, it was called Medical Economics, and it belonged to my husband, who's a physician. And there was an ad, and the ad said, 'write us a story that's non-medical, and if we like it we're going to give you a prize.' 250 bucks. So I decided I'll write the story and put his name on it. And the story was about going to Sorrento with my husband, Guy, and being in a cooking school in Sorrento. And he was the only man. So I titled this article, 'I Traded My Scalpel For a Spatula.' And so I wrote the story about how he was the only man in the cooking school and what that meant and, you know, how he was uncomfortable, blah, blah, all that stuff. Well, lo and behold, about a month later I get a letter that says, you won.

MARTIE: You won. Oh, how wonderful. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. And the picture on the cover of the magazine showed a physician ready for the operating room with two forks over a chicken. 

MARTIE: Oh, that's wonderful. And so really, that was how it started?

MARY ANN: Well, yes, because when I came home, I realized that what the chef had taught me in Sorrento, I already knew because I had these two grandmothers — I knew all this stuff he was doing. And I thought, hey, maybe I could do this. And actually it was my husband who encouraged me. He says, 'you know what? Why don't you write a proposal for the university? Tell him you'll do X number of shows on Italian food.' Blah, blah, blah. But what you have to understand is that I live in New Hampshire and it is not easy to find an Italian. I think at the time I was the only one. So when you go to put a proposal out and you're talking about foods that they've never heard of, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, osso buco, balsamic vinegar, you get that blank stare. You know, 'ma'am. OK, uh, nice. Nice, nice to see you. Thank you. We'll, we'll be in touch.' And that was the end of that until about a year later when they resurrected my proposal, and they had moved into a new TV station and they were looking for programs. And they called me and they said, would you do a pilot program for us? And I said, sure. So they came to my house — oh, that was a nightmare. A 26-minute program took from eight o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock that night. 

MARTIE: Oh, yeah.

MARY ANN: Yeah. I said this is too mental. It's too physical. I don't want to do this. 

MARTIE: And 29 seasons later, you, obviously, must love it. A thousand episodes or something.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: OK, what was the very first thing you did for that pilot? What did you cook?

MARY ANN: I made what was called an Italian picnic. A, you know, el cibo fresco, fresh food. So I made muffuletta...

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: ...Which Sicilians brought really to Louisiana. So in New Orleans or to the coast.

MARTIE: One of my favorite things in the world. I love it.

MARY ANN: Yeah. So I made that. I made that layered sandwich with a salad and all of that. I forget what we had for dessert. I think it was some sort of a tart. 

MARTIE: OK, what is your number one recipe? You're one that people still talk about. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: All those episodes, which one is that?

MARY ANN: Eggplant meatballs.

MARTIE: Really? 

MARY ANN: Eggplant meatballs are very popular in southern Italy and you would do exactly what you would do. The ingredients would be the same as if you were using meat, but you're using eggplant instead.

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: And believe me, once you make these, you know, you're using cheese and garlic and onions and bread crumbs, but you're using eggplant, cooked eggplant. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: You would never know that this is eggplant and then you cook it in the sauce and yeah, that is my number one.

MARTIE: So you roast the eggplant in the oven, first? 

MARY ANN: You cook the eggplant first. Yes.

MARTIE: And then you take it all out of the peel? And then...

MARY ANN: Yeah. And you can find that recipe on the Ciao Italia website. It's there.

MARTIE: Yeah, you got lots of recipes. 

MARY ANN: Lots of recipes. 

MARTIE: There are a lots. 

MARY ANN: Thirteen hundred, yeah, thirteen hundred. 

MARTIE: Lots and lots and lots of all kinds. There are a lot of recipes. So that's your number one...

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: ...Most requested recipe from your website, from your show, from anything. What's your family favorite? What is your family say, you got to make this one?

MARY ANN: Well you know, my family's very spoiled because they only know scratch cooking. They, you know, they don't know cooking from a can or anything like that. But their favorite is cappelletti. So, you know, I have to make them cappelletti, which is a small round of pasta dough that's stuffed with cheese and with a meat filling. It can be veal, it can be chicken, finely, finely ground. And it's served in a broth, a chicken broth. You usually have it at holiday time, but I make it all the time. You make fresh pasta and then you cut round circles, and you can find this recipe on the Ciao Italia website. And then you're making a very fine meat mixture. Different parts of Italy, they use different things. Some places use veal and bread crumbs. Some places we use mortadella, which is...

MARTIE: Mortadella, yeah. 

MARY ANN: Mortadella, you know, really finely, finely ground. Some people use sausage. Some people use chicken and lemon to flavor the meat. So it just depends. You know, I said this on my very first show, there is no such thing as Italian cooking. There is no such thing. There's only regional cooking because Italy is composed of 20 regions. And every one of those regions cooks what is familiar to them and what is local in that region.

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: So, yeah. So, and once people come to that understanding, I think, you know, 'oh, that's why there is no Italian cooking.' 

MARTIE: I've only been to Italy once and I was there for a wedding only for three days. It's on my bucket list to go back and spend a lot of time. So you take people.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: You do. 

MARY ANN: Every year. 

MARTIE: Every year you do a tour. And do you just decide different places to go or?

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: What do you do? 

MARY ANN: Every — well, I've done this travel with people for the last 18 years. And what I do is I take a group of people, not more than 20, to a different region of Italy each year. Now, this year we had to cancel three trips to Italy because of, you know, the pandemic. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: But they all rescheduled for next year. So every year when I take a group, it's — I take them to a different region because I want them to experience the food of that region. So if we were going to go to the Veneto, for instance, in northern Italy. You want to know all about risotto. You want to know about seafood. You want to know about polenta. You want to know about radicchio. These are the products, key products that come from the Veneto. But if you were down in Sicily, you know, those wouldn't be the products that you would be focusing on. You'd be focusing on things like, again, fish, because, of course, Sicily is an island, but lots of lamb, artichokes, the tomato plays a big role in Sicilian cooking. Different types of pastas. It gives people a real clear picture of, OK, I get it, you wouldn't eat this here and you wouldn't eat that here. It's like Alabama. What is the most famous dessert in Alabama?

MARTIE: Yeah, it does matter where you are. And what you — and kind of what you grew up with. But let me ask you this, so is pasta prevalent in all the different regions?

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: But they're just different pastas. And that would explain why when you go to a restaurant or you go to the grocery store, there's 50 million different ones.

MARY ANN: Yeah. Yes.

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: Pasta could be considered Italy's national dish, let's put it that way. 

MARTIE: It's my national dish. 

MARY ANN: Yeah, right. 

MARTIE: I will eat it every single solitary day. I love pasta.

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: It's my favorite thing. 

MARY ANN: But It's how it's treated in these different regions that makes the difference. For instance, in the Piedmont they make something called agnolotti del plin. It's dialect — P-L-I-N. Plin means pinch in dialect. And agnolotti are very tiny postage stamp size pastas that are filled with veal, lemon zest, and they're served in a very light sauce. That's agnolotti del plin. But you wouldn't have that if you were in Sicily. You would be eating something entirely different, you'd be eating pasta con sarde, which means — this is Rachael Ray's favorite thing — pasta with sardines, because that's what you're going to find in Sicily. If you were in Rome, you'd be having all'amatriciana or you'd be having carbonara. Those are classic pasta dishes of Rome. So, yes, there's pasta everywhere, but it's the way it's treated and the customs.

MARTIE: Seasonally and local. 

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: OK, so you said carbonara, which I love.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: And I got but the one before that, I don't think I know.

MARY ANN: All'amatriciana.

MARTIE: All'amatriciana.

MARY ANN: All'amatriciana from Amatrice. Amatrice is a town, around Rome and there they make something called, all'amatriciana, which is pasta with tomatoes and onions and olive oil.

MARTIE: That just sounds amazing.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: So if I want to start my itinerary for my bucket list Italy trip, would we start in Rome since Rome was the center of the universe at one time? Is that where we should go first?

MARY ANN: Well, that makes sense. If you've never been to Italy. You know, start in Rome because you were taught about ancient Rome in school. I mean that's where a jumping off point is for you. But I would say that the place to really begin is Sicily because Sicily holds the key to the rest of Italy. When you think about where Sicily is located, at the toe, it's surrounded by water. It was the perfect vehicle for foreign invasions from everywhere. So, you know, you had the Phoenicians, you had the Greeks, you had the Normans, you had the Spanish. They were all there. And that's why there is no Sicilian cuisine per se. Sicilian cooking is a mixture of all of these cultures who bombarded that island with their presence over the centuries. But Sicily was the breadbasket of Italy. It was where the Roman armies got the wheat to sustain them as they marched through all of the rest of Italy. At one time, Sicily was very lush with the forests. It had forests. Now it's extremely arid because, of course, over the centuries all that slash and burn happened and the wheat fields were destroyed. But it was considered the breadbasket of Italy because of the wheat that was grown there that could be made into it like a flat coarse bread or even some sort of a pasta which would not be recognizable to us today as the pasta that we know. So I would start in Sicily. 

MARTIE: A lot of people want to do cooking classes when they go to Italy. 

MARY ANN: Yeah.

MARTIE: I think that's just because we've read about it and romanticized it in television shows and movies. Would you say that's a great thing to do or should we just kind of go and soak it up and eat at all the different restaurants and kind of learn from that?

MARY ANN: Well, I think there's advantages to both. If you were to go to a cooking school, you would be exposed to the local ingredients and it would be a how-to experience. So in other words, there you are with truffles from Umbria. You're in Umbria, you've got black truffles in front of you. And you get to look at these truffles, you get to smell them. You get to know how to prepare them. That's a lot different than going to a restaurant and ordering a plate of pasta that has truffles shaved over it. This is one of the tenets of my show is to build the recipe around history. To talk about truffles, tartufi, but what about them? What are they and where do they come from and why do they use dogs? Didn't they use pigs at one time? Yeah, they did, but not anymore because the pigs would eat the truffles. So that was a problem. You know. And how would you, how do you work with truffles?

MARTIE: Yeah, I want to wrestle a truffle away from a pig. I don't think so. No thanks.

You're listening to Homemade. Stay tuned as Mary Ann tells me about her all-time favorite ingredient, and talks about the unofficial 'four evangelists' of regional Italian cooking. We'll be right back after the break!

Welcome back to Homemade, I'm Martie Duncan. My guest this week is the host of Ciao Italia on PBS, Mary Ann Esposito.

What's your favorite Italian ingredient? Like one thing that you just couldn't live without?

MARY ANN: Parmigiano Reggiano.

MARTIE: Of course. Of course. I used to have big fights with my daddy about this and he would say, I'm just going to get the stuff with the green box — I'm like, daddy! 

MARY ANN: Oh, horrors. 

MARTIE: So I put the real Parmigiano on his food and I'm like, OK, take a bite of this one, take a bite of that one. You just tell me. He went, 'oh, wow.'

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: Like, yeah. Wow. It's creamy. And it's meltiness to it. It's nutty. And he would even drive into town to get to the Whole Foods to get that Parmigiano after that. He's like, oh no, I need cheese.

MARY ANN: Yeah.

MARTIE: So, it's your favorite ingredient. 

MARY ANN: It is one of my favorite ingredients. Yes. And a few years ago. Oh gosh. I — several times now I've taken people to the Casa Fico. 

MARTIE: Casa Fico?

MARY ANN: The cheese house. 

MARTIE: In Parma? 

MARY ANN: The cheese houses of — yeah, in Parma and around Parma. So that they could see how this cheese is made and why it's considered the king of cheeses. But you're absolutely right. You know, I cringe when I see people buying stuff that's — it truly is fake, truly is fake.

MARTIE: Cellulose. It has cellulose in it. Some of it, wood. 

MARY ANN: Yeah.

MARTIE: Some of them do.

MARY ANN: Yeah. And they're missing — I mean the whole point — and here they are, they're preparing this nice pasta dish and then they're going to put sawdust on it. I mean ridiculous. It is just.

MARTIE: It's true though.

MARY ANN: Yeah.

MARTIE: But I think starting out a lot of us were guilty of that because we didn't know any better.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: Because it's what we grew up with. But now we know better. We ought to do better, right? 

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: OK, and I want you to help me because I only know one way to do it.

MARY ANN: OK. 

MARTIE: Artichokes. I know they're a big staple in all Italian cooking.

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: All I know how to do is boil one and then pull the leaves off and eat it. But what are some other things I could do with artichokes?

MARY ANN: Oh my goodness, there's so many things you can do with artichokes. First of all, people are afraid to deal with artichokes Because they look at this thing and they go, oh, my God, it's a weapon, you know? And, and they throw half of it away because they think they're only supposed to eat the heart, which is in the center. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: So cleaning an artichoke is a little bit of a work, I give you that, but you can stuff them. One of the classic ways to stuff them is with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated cheese, bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, different kind of spices. And then they're baked in the oven with a little bit of white wine in the bottom of the pan. Absolutely fantastic. In Rome, you really want to go to this restaurant called Il Piperno.

MARTIE: Il Piperno.

MARY ANN: Il Piperno. This is a Jewish restaurant and they really know how to do artichokes because they introduced the cooking of artichokes to a lot of Roman cooking. So what they do with them is that they fry the whole artichoke. It's really amazing.

MARTIE: Really? 

MARY ANN: They take the whole artichoke and they put it in a vat of seed oil and they fry it and it opens like a flower. So then you salt it and you eat it, like, potato chips. You know, it's just fantastic. 

MARTIE: I'm doing that. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. So you want to take the choke out first though.

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: So I've taught people — you could stuff them. I've stuffed them with grains like farro, cut them in half and put sausage in them. Farro or wild rice. There's so many ways to do them. But one of the things I tell people is, OK, you don't want to deal with the with taking out that, that choke. It's a pain. So here's what you do. First of all, don't get rid of the stem. Peel the stem with your vegetable peeler because the stem is edible. 

MARTIE: Delicious, too. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: My favorite part.

MARY ANN: People throw that away. OK, take that off. To take it off use a vegetable peeler and just kind of take the outer skin off. Then you take the scissors and you just go around the whole artichoke and you take off those little pinchers. You know those little...

MARTIE: The tips. 

MARY ANN: The tips, yeah. Just take those off. 

MARTIE: Cause they have stickers on them.

MARY ANN: Right and they can give you a little, you know, poke in your finger. Then you want to take off the first bottom layer of the leaves and you can discard those. Then, you want to cut down from the top of the artichoke about a quarter of an inch down with a sharp knife. Cut straight down. All right. Now you're ready. You've got a pan of boiling water ready. You put the whole artichoke in. I usually add lemon with this, you know, because artichokes do turn gray-ish after a while. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: So I add lemon and I let them cook until I can pull a leaf off. When I can pull a leaf off. I know they're tender. Take them out, they're still whole. And let them cool. Then I take a sharp knife and go right down the center, open them up. Two halves. Now you can see the choke. It's so easy. Just take a spoon and it's very easy to come out. There's no struggling, no things flying all over the kitchen. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: It just comes right out and then you can enjoy it either with melted butter or you can make a cream sauce for it.

MARTIE: Ohh, that just all sounds so good. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: I love artichokes.

MARY ANN: Carciofi. That's how you say artichoke. Carciofi. 

MARTIE: Carciofi. 

MARY ANN: Carciofi. Yeah. 

MARTIE: Ahh, wonderful. So, after we've been in Rome and experienced all the culture of Rome.

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: Where would we go next and what would we eat when we got there? 

MARY ANN: Oh, goodness. Well, you know, this is a hard, hard thing. You would go to Northern Italy, obviously.

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: So you could go to the Veneto.

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: Everyone loves Venice and wants to go to Venice. So go to the Veneto. 

MARTIE: I want to go.

MARY ANN: All right. So you go to the region of the Veneto. Venice is in the region of the Veneto. So Venezia, Venezia is Venice. So what are you going to eat when you're in Venice? Well, you're going to eat a lot of seafood, a lot of fish because Venice is built on a lagoon. It's just all water and a little something holding up those pilings underneath those buildings. And then you're going to have risotto because risotto is a classic dish of the Veneto, which is rice, a certain kind of rice, like an arborio rice or a Carolina, or vialone nano rice. So these are rices that have lots of starch. They're short grain rices and you're adding liquid to them slowly. So they become very, very creamy. You don't want rice that's like a sticky lump that you can't get off a spoon. So, the Venetians have a saying for that. They say that, you know, when you're making risotto, it should be all'onda. All'onda means it should be on the wave. In other words, it flows. You know, it's not — it flows off the spoon. And many things are mixed with a risotto. Risi e bisi. Risi e bisi is a spring dish in the Veneto, which translates to rice and peas. When spring peas are in.

MARTIE: I love spring peas. 

MARY ANN: Yeah, so risi e bisi. 

MARTIE: Risi e bisi.

MARY ANN: Polenta is another big food of the Veneto. Lots of vegetables, which a lot of them have to be trucked in from other places around the lagoon. bitter greens like radicchio. If you go to — there's a town called Treviso and Treviso is the capital of where they grow radicchio. You know the red veins. 

MARTIE: Right. I love radicchio.

MARY ANN: Yeah. Radicchio. And in Treviso, they grow several types. They grow the elongated one, very pretty. And then they grow the round one. And then they grow a speckled one that's a little lighter colored leaf. And this is a vegetable that's used to make marmalade. It's put on the grill, it is put in salads, obviously. In fact, in Treviso they eat just the radicchio. They don't mix it with other greens. They use the radicchio as the whole salad. 

MARTIE: So I was thinking about this the other day. I had my first Aperol spritz of the season. And I was...

MARY ANN: Oh, you can tell us, Martie. You had more than one.

MARTIE: Well, when I had my first one, I said first.

MARY ANN: OK, right.

MARTIE: Because I definitely have more than one. But when I had my very first one of the season, I was thinking about the fact that there are some things in Italian cooking that are bitter and radicchio is certainly one of them.

MARY ANN: Is one of them. Yeah.

MARTIE: But it's extremely prevalent throughout Italian cooking to have some sort of a bitter element.

MARY ANN: Yes. Yes. 

MARTIE: I don't find that in a lot of other cooking.

MARY ANN: No. So radicchio belongs to the chicory family. So, and along with radicchio would be something like escarole. 

MARTIE: Right. I love escarole.

MARY ANN: Escarole is another bitter green that's very popular and it's often stuffed. They'll take whole heads of escarole and then they'll make a filling of raisins, bread crumbs, pine nuts, spices, and they all fill the center of the escarole. Then they'll tie it up, you know, they'll tie up the bundle...

MARTIE: Little bundle, yeah. 

MARY ANN: And then they will braise it in some sort of broth. Like a chicken broth.

MARTIE: Sort of like a cabbage roll.

MARY ANN: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIE: Sounds like a little bit like that, doesn't it.

MARY ANN: So, yes. So bitter greens are very important in Italian cooking. In fact, you know, Italians don't — I mean, they do have iceberg lettuces, that kind of thing, but their salads are mainly on the bitter side. 

MARTIE: Listen, are there things you're learning after a thousand episodes and all these trips to Italy? Are you still learning?

MARY ANN: Absolutely. There is — there's no end to learning about Italian regional food, because, first of all, the history of Italy is so encompassing. And because everything was so localized, the array of different foods and how to prepare them, it's just kind of mind boggling. I often tell people that if you were walking through the streets of, let's say, of Naples and you wanted to know how to make a tomato sauce and you knocked on every door on the street. Every one of these answers would be different. 'Oh, no. Here's how you do it.' 'You use whole garlic.' 'No, you use minced garlic.' 'No, you don't put wine in the sauce.' 'Oh, you'll only have to use San Marzano tomatoes.' That's the beauty of Italian regional cooking is that there is no formula. It's not like French cooking, for instance, where if you ask somebody, how do you make a cream sauce, there's a formula for that. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: And everybody would say this is how you do it. And it would be the exact thing the person down the street said. But for Italian food, it's all up to the individual. 

MARTIE: But does a lot of it start with a sofrito, like French cooking would maybe start with a mirepoix? 

MARY ANN: Sure. 

MARTIE: Does it start with a sofrito? 

MARY ANN: Yes, it does. 

MARTIE: And what is that? I mean, like we have the Trinity. In the South we have the Trinity of cooking. So for the sofrito it is — what is it? 

MARY ANN: Well, it's called the Four Evangelists of Italian cooking. So...

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: You have the Trinity. We have the Four Evangelists. So it's garlic. It's parsley. It's onions. And it's carrots. 

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: So then that becomes your sofrito. 

MARTIE: And you start a lot of recipes with that? 

MARY ANN: Oh, sure. I mean, ragù sauces start that way. Yeah. Yeah. 

MARTIE: Now for a, like, a ragù sauce, like so many of us know ragù because of the jarred sauce, but that's actually a type of tomato sauce. A specific kind. Right?

MARY ANN: A ragù sauce is a meat-based sauce that takes time to cook and it takes time slowly to cook. So, for instance, if you were going to make a bolognese ragù, it's going to be very different than a ragù from someplace else. So for a bolognese ragù, you've got to start with ground beef, ground pork, ground veal. You've got to cook these meats in a sofrito very, very slowly. And then you add your other ingredients. But what people don't realize is that a bolognese ragù is not loaded with tomatoes. There's very little tomato in a bolognese ragù. Just look up how you make a lasagna alla bolognese. On one of my shows one year, we made the lasagna verdi alla bolognese. So lasagna verdi are green noodles made with spinach. I actually took people to cooking school in Italy and I made them do this. This, this is — I don't want to say it's a complicated thing to do, but it takes time. 

MARTIE: A lot of steps. 

MARY ANN: A lot of steps. 

MARTIE: OK. 

MARY ANN: You got to make the pasta. You've got to make the ragù. Then you got to cut the pasta sheets and then you got to boil them. Then you got to cool them down in ice water. Then you got to dry them. Then you got to make a bechamel sauce as well as the ragù. And then you got do the many layers. But it's worth it because in the end, it's absolutely — it's ethereal. I mean, it's not like eating a lasagna that you think is lasagna that's thick noodles and it's just sits in your stomach, you know, the rest of the day. This you don't even know you've eaten this. It's so light. It's wonderful. But then there are people who, you know, they'll make ragùs and you know, they've got, they've got a lot of tomatoes in it and they're different — they're putting whole chunks of meat, maybe short ribs, spare ribs. They call it Sunday sauce, you know Sunday sauce? 

MARTIE: Right. Yes, I do 

MARY ANN: Where you brown all these meat on the bone and then you put in the tomatoes and then you go to church. That's why it's called Sunday sauce because when you come home, it's done. 

MARTIE: It's ready. Yeah. We used to do — my mom would do a pot roast like that. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: I am going to have to go to an Italian restaurant when I leave here. 

MARY ANN: OK. 

MARTIE: Because I'm starving. This all sounds so good. So can we roll around to desserts. 

MARY ANN: Oh, sure. 

MARTIE: Because Italian desserts are some of the best desserts in the world. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: What makes Italian ice cream so darn awesome? What is it? Is it the way they make it? Is it the type of milk? 

MARY ANN: Yes. 

MARTIE: What is it? 

MARY ANN: Well, it's all of that. But it's not called ice cream. It's called gelato. 

MARTIE: Gelato. Yes, OK. 

MARY ANN: There's a difference between ice cream and gelato. Gelato is very creamy. It doesn't have any eggs in it. It doesn't have a lot of air whipped into it, which commercial ice cream does. It's got intense flavor. When you look at true gelato, of course, the best place to have this is in Sicily, because they were the ones who really perfected the art of making gelato, because the Arabs, who were very influential in Sicily, brought sugarcane to Sicily. And what they did was they started first making a type of an ice — a sorbetto. In other words, they would take fruit juices. You know, maybe pomegranates, prickly pear, whatever there was. Oranges, lemons, these are all big, big products in Sicily. And they would use the ice and the sugar — the ice they found in the mountain caves. And they would use sugar and they would make this kind of like a sorbetto. But then that evolved and it became gelato. So when you are in Italy, you can tell the difference immediately. Number one, when you are walking around, you'll see lots of gelato places and it'll say producine artisanale. Producine artisinale means an artisan produced product. So in other words, small batch making. It's locally produced. When you look at gelato, it has almost like a shoeshine look to it. It's very shiny. It's creamy. I think one of the worst jobs to have in the summer is scooping ice cream because you got to dig down into these big tubs and bring it up and put it on a cone. Gelato is like a sweet — you know, you just — it's soft. And the best, as I say, is in Sicily. 

MARTIE: That does it for me. That's where I'm starting. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: You just convinced me. 

MARY ANN: OK. 

MARTIE: I'm starting in Sicily. You had already sort of semi-convinced me, but when you said that's where the gelato is. That's where I'm going. 

MARY ANN: Well, you got to go there for the cannoli, too. That's a great dessert. 

MARTIE: Yes, it is. That's another one of my favorite Italian desserts. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: When I used to travel to New York for my work a lot, we would make a trip down into Little Italy. Just to go for the cannoli because that was not something we had anywhere near where I grew up. Nowhere. So, cannoli, the outer crust it's a cookie, essentially, right? 

MARY ANN: No. It's more of, it's more of a pastry dough. So you, you want to use like a cup of flour, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of butter, a wee bit of salt, and a dash of either white wine or marsala. Now you've made a dough like a pie crust dough. 

MARTIE: Right, it's got wine in it. I didn't know that. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. And then you roll it out and you wrap it around these forms. Cannoli forms. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: And then you have to fry this in seed oil. Now, cannolis in Italy are very different than what you find here. Here the shells are thick. In Italy, when you eat a cannoli, it should shatter down the front of you. That's how thin the shell is. 

MARTIE: Right. 

MARY ANN: It should just shatter down the front of you. It's never stuffed with cream or cool whip or pudding. The classic filling for a Sicilian canola is sheep's milk ricotta cheese, which has a little sugar in it. It has some citron, maybe some pine nuts, some chocolate. And that is filled at the very, very moment that you request a canoli. So you never would pre fill these. You know, you're going to these pastry shops you see...

MARTIE: Because it gets soggy. 

MARY ANN: Oh my... 

MARTIE: They get a little soggy. Yeah. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. All lined up. But if you want to learn how to make cannoli, you can go on our website and find that recipe that I just told you about, where the shells are paper thin, paper thin. They should never be thick, thick like that. In fact, about four years ago, I took people to a place where they do make cannoli. It was a cheese farm and the sheep's milk ricotta — this is the leftover product from making cheese, obviously, from making Pecorino cheese, which is the classic cheese of Sicily. So from the whey, which is the leftover liquid, you add some rennet and you cook that again and you get, you know, the sheep's milk ricotta. So it clots. It clots because of the rennet, you can either eat it fresh or you can salt it and you can eat it when it's a little bit firmer. But that is the classic cheese for a cannoli. 

MARTIE: I didn't know that. Because a lot of times, I think, in America we think it's like mascarpone or something like that. 

MARY ANN: No. Oh no, no, no, no. Not in Sicily. 

MARTIE: We're about to be out of time, but I do want to ask you...

MARY ANN: Oh, no. 

MARTIE: I know I could talk to you forever. Tuscany is another location that people talk about a lot that we didn't touch on. As is the Amalfi Coast. We see it in movies, you know, Under the Tuscan Sun. And so tell me about those two areas. Either one of them. 

MARY ANN: You have never been to Tuscany? OK. 

MARTIE: No. 

MARY ANN: Well, I'm very fond of Tuscany because it's the home of Dante and I'm a student of Dante, so I love anything about Tuscany. But here is a cuisine that is very simple. They say that, you know, if you're in Tuscany, you've got to be a bean eater. They call the people of Tuscany mangia fagioli, bean eaters.

MARY ANN: Really? 

MARY ANN: Yes. Mangia fagioli. So there you would be eating very simple foods like beans. You would be eating wild boar. Classic for Tuscany. Wild boar done, you know, in a wine sauce braised very, very slowly. You could go to the Banfi estate in Montalcino, which is wonderful. You'll find a lot of wine-based dishes. In fact, I was working with a guy in Tuscany once and he made pasta ubriaca. And I said, wow. So he cooked the pasta in wine.

MARTIE: Wow. 

MARY ANN: He cooked it in red wine. And I thought, 'oh, this is gonna be awful.' But it was actually delicious, it colored the pasta beautifully. 

MARTIE: Kind of — yeah. Pink or something, maybe.

MARY ANN: Yeah. It was very nice. They do a lot of grilled meats in Tuscany. The perfect restaurant meal would be a bistecca alla fiorentina. A porterhouse steak that you have to eat rare. If you ask for it well done, they look at you like you're crazy. So it's just warmed on the grill and then it's served with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and on top a little cuff of arugula leaves. 

MARTIE: Oh, nice. 

MARY ANN: Which is an herb. So those are classic Tuscan dishes. In the Amalfi, which is in Campania, the region of Campania. Sorrento, for instance, which is a very beautiful city. You want to eat gnocchi there. Gnocchi alla sorrentina, is a classic dish from Sorrento. Anything with lemons. How about your insalata caprese? That comes from Capri, which is an island off of the Amalfi Coast. So insalata caprese, octopus salad is very, very popular, all kinds of limoncello-based dishes because the lemon there is, like, outstanding — big as grapefruits. There are so many dishes we could talk about in the Amalfi Coast. 

MARTIE: OK, so here's my last question for you. 

MARY ANN: OK. 

MARTIE: If you could wake up with one view of Italy forever, just one, which one would it be? 

MARY ANN: One view of Italy.

MARTIE: You wake up and you look out the window, which one of the areas or views or places would sing to your heart? 

MARY ANN: The city of Gubbio in Umbria, which is a medieval city. And every year they do what's called the Race of the Candles and they're all in costume. I love it. I love the old time feel of it. The narrow streets. The people are very friendly. You can go online and watch the Race of the Candles on our website. That was my very, very favorite episode. And it's probably one of my very, very places to be. The ancient city of Gubbio in Umbria. 

MARTIE: In Umbria. 

MARY ANN: Yeah. 

MARTIE: OK, I want to do that. That is the one I want to do. 

MARY ANN: All right. I'm going to be after you to go to Italy. 

MARTIE: I'm coming. You don't have to be after me. You're going to have to try to get rid of me. I can promise you. 

MARY ANN: OK. 

MARTIE: I can't wait. I feel like I've taken a little trip today and just gotten my feet wet. But now I can't wait to go back and dive in and learn all about these ingredients, the history where they came from, and how they've been used over time and how they're using them today. And, I'm just so fascinated. Mary Ann Esposito, you are a national treasure not just for Italy, but for America because you've brought Italy to all of us. We didn't grow up with an Italian grandmother or two Italian grandmothers to cook for us. So thank you for being that for all of America for all these years. We have loved every minute of it. Me, personally, I promise you, I'm gonna be sitting by you on that plane. 

MARY ANN: I can't wait. 

MARTIE: I'm going. 

MARY ANN: OK. All right. All right. 

MARTIE: Thank you again. 

MARY ANN: Ciao, ciao. Ciao. 

MARTIE: Ciao. 

You can watch Mary Ann Esposito on Ciao Italia, America's longest running cooking show, on your local PBS station. Her most recent book is calle Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy, and be sure to visit CiaoItalia.com for recipes and much more. 

Next time on Homemade, I've selected some of my very favorite tips and quips from previous episodes of Homemade. Hear from Guy Fieri, Carla Hall, Justin Warner, Dorie Greenspan, Duff Goldman, and so many others who offer their best advice to all of us who aspire to become better cooks.

GUY FIERI: I think cooking more than anything is timing. Timing is the key — when do you flip, when do you stir, how much time do you let that pan get hot? All these, kind of, factors of timing. So, please don't be so hard on yourself. Realize that not the first time that any great musician picked up a guitar and started to play a song did it go to an album. Cooking is timing, training, development, growth. I mean, there's just so many facets to it, but don't be so hard on yourself. People are, like, so devastated, 'I suck.' Listen, Martie will tell you, I'll tell you that time and persistence, get back after it, try it again. 

MARTIE: Be sure to follow Homemade on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And please, I'd love your feedback. If you could rate this podcast and leave us a review, I'd really appreciate it. 

Don't forget, you can find thousands of recipes, meal ideas, and cooking how-to's from the world's largest community of cooks at Allrecipes.com.

This podcast was recorded in Birmingham, edited in Atlanta, and produced by AllRecipes with Digital Content Director Jason Burnett. Thanks to our Pod People production team: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Jim Hanke, Maya Kroth, and Andy Bosnak.

I'm Martie Duncan … and this is Homemade.