Mary Ann Esposito is the spunky, approachable host of TV’s longest-running cooking show, “Ciao Italia.” The show’s studio kitchen of 19 years moved recently from New Hampshire to a new kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island. “Emeril had a live band but he didn’t have this kitchen—nobody has this kitchen—it is fantastic!” gushes Esposito about her new digs. The 11-time cookbook author (she is working on number 12!) tapes two shows a day. When she’s not taping in Rhode Island, she lives in the lovely seaside community of Durham, New Hampshire, near the campus of the University of New Hampshire where she got her Masters Degree in Renaissance Food History. (She also went to cooking school in Perugia.)
In 2006 Esposito received an honorary doctorate from St. Anselm College for her dedication to teaching and preserving authentic Italian cuisine. I caught up with the peripatetic, 60-something, multi-tasker at a book signing at Pesce Italian Kitchen + Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There, Mary Ann was signing copies of her latest, “Ciao Italia’s Five Ingredient Favorites”, hosting dinner at a large table for invited friends–and directing the restaurant’s chef on how to prepare her recipes, which were being featured that evening at the sold-out, reservations-only event.
This is your 11th cookbook. How do you keep on finding ideas for recipes after 19 years and 11 cookbooks?
Well, think of it this way: there are 20 regions of Italy and all those regions cook very locally. That neighbor over there is cooking something entirely different from the way you’re cooking. You can never really run out of prospective recipes to talk about in the Italian repertoire. Plus, I have all the valuable stuff at home from both my grandmothers. I’ve got old notebooks and my mother’s old recipe box, and every once in while I dig a few of those out; I tweak them a little bit; I update them; and then they go into a cookbook.
When did you decide that you wanted to make food into a career?
When I made my first trip to Italy in 1984 [with her husband, Gaetano], and everything that my grandmothers had told me was just unfolding in front of me–it changed my whole perspective.
Did you know Julia Child?
Yes, there’s a nice picture of her on our website. Julia was the first person I called when I was going to be doing this show because I wanted to get her advice, And I remember calling her up and feeling intimidated thinking, “my god, I can’t be calling this woman.” But I did, I introduced myself and I told her what I was doing, and she said, “Dearie, get yourself a good lawyer!” Julia was a good egg.
To what do you attribute your success? Your home life? Your role models? Your own ambition? Or just plain good luck?
When I was a kid I hated cooking—hated it, because I was doing it all the time with my mother and grandmother. Hated it. In fact, in my first cookbook I write that if anyone had looked into a crystal ball and told me that I would be doing this, I would have choked on two meatballs. My mother’s mother lived with us, so I grew up knowing the Neapolitan dialect. My grandmother ran a boarding house, so she was always cooking and my Sicilian grandmother was a butcher. She ran a butcher shop and she was always killing chickens and singeing feathers; my mother was always canning and making bread and pasta–and I hated all of this! I was roped into washing the bottles for canning, helping make the bread, singeing the feathers off the chickens, and I said: “you know what, I don’t want to do any of this.” This was in Buffalo. And I would listen to the stories that my grandmothers would tell me about the old country and they would cry about it.
Were they role models? Absolutely: Three Wise Women. In my first cookbook, which I dedicated to my mother, I said that I dedicated it to her because she never took a shortcut to anything. And that was the lesson that she taught us: if you’re going to do something, do it right. No shortcuts. It was a great lesson and it is still with me to this day.
Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
OMG! I worked in a restaurant. I waited table, I made food, I worked in an inn and I worked with chefs. I came up the hard way. Nobody rolled me into a studio.
You have appeared on so many shows: “The Today Show”, “Regis and Kelly”, “QVC”, “The Food Network.” Which was your favorite gig?
Oh gosh…They were all fun and they were all unpredictable. Usually you’re given three minutes to cook something, so you have to have “swap-outs,” things that are done ahead of time. When I was on the Today Show for the very first time (I’ve been on the Today Show several times) I was supposed to make homemade stuffed ravioli with a red pepper sauce—in three minutes! So I remember arriving the day before and I’m out in the hallway of the studio, making the ravioli which were going to be the swap-outs for the next day. Well, the next day we got on the air, I had a pasta machine and I had Arthur Kent spinning out the dough, and it was going literally from this table to that wall, and I remember his comment. He said, ”pretty soon we’re going to be in the Nightly News room.”
What is the best part of your career?
Having to always be challenged and re-inventing myself. When I started out there was only me doing Italian cooking. Now you have lots of other shows. You have to have a hook—you know, there’s got to be something about you that makes people want to watch your show.
Do you know Lydia Bastianich?
I know Lydia. I think she copied me.
There are so many cooking shows and cooking contests on TV these days. Why do you think yours has lasted so long?
Because it’s a very approachable show. People can identify with it. They can do the recipes that I’m doing; my show says: “you can do this; this is fun. Italian food is happy food.’
What was the TV cooking show landscape like when you started your show 20 years ago?
When I started 20 years ago, there was Julia Child with Jacques Pepin and “The Frugal Gourmet.” There was no Food Network. Most cooking shows were on Public Television at that time. So I came along at a time when I think people were beginning to think about the benefits of olive oil. We were just hearing about how olive oil is good for lowering your cholesterol, how you should be eating a Mediterranean Diet. People were hearing all this stuff, in the news. I was just in the right place at the right time.
Any advice to young, aspiring cookbook authors?
You can only write what you know and what you’ve experienced. Every word in every one of those 12 books is mine. Every one of those recipes has been tested by me. So if you are an aspiring cookbook author, you’d better have a good message and you’d better know your story. I’ve been cooking a long time. I know how things are going to taste before I even cook them.
I hear a lot about how Italian culture is being diluted—whether by immigration, or low birth-rates, an aging population, or indifference. What do you think of the state of Italian culture, both in Italy and in the USA?
The culture has been diluted by the infiltration of Albanians and Africans, and that impacts negatively on society. But I think you see more of that in the big cities; you don’t see that in the countryside. The countryside more or less preserves its traditions better than the big cities do. When you go into Rome or Florence, you see hot dogs, Chinese restaurants, but in the countryside you don’t see that. You still see the little mom and pop trattorie. Also, the younger generation in Italy is doing exactly what this generation is doing in this country: they don’t cook. They’re in the work force. The grandmother isn’t at home making the tortellini or the lasagna. Women who are 30-something, they’ve never done that, they’ve been out working. It’s a two-paycheck family. So that lessens keeping traditions alive.
A perfect example is that right now in Italy, the most popular event of the day is the antipasto bar. So now these young people go to a bar and they have a series of antipasti with wine, and this becomes dinner—it was never like this. It used to be that at noon, one o’clock, everything would shut down and you’d go home and have the main meal of the day. It’s no longer true in the big cities, it’s still true in the paese, but not in Rome, not in Venice–you don’t see that anymore. Shops stay open. It’s not the way it used to be. I just read an article that made me really upset. Berlusconi just approved this “McItaly” establishment, being a take-off on McDonald’s! Italy has never been about that at all. It’s more about appreciating what you’re eating, taking your time, engaging in conversation.
What’s a typical evening like in your household—do you cook?
I cook for Gaetano. I do a lot of fish–we do a Mediterranean diet. Every night I cook; tomorrow I’m making a risotto with faro instead of rice.
Was there ever anything else you thought you might want to be other than a chef/cook/author?
I’d love to be an archaeologist. If I had it to do over again? I’d go to Egypt. I’d be brushing off those stones.
Interview was condensed and edited.
Mary Ann is currently working on a new TV series for Ciao Italia, a grouping of twenty-six new shows. In September, she’s taking a group to Tuscany and will conduct cooking classes, visit markets and wineries and “just have a good time.” Her 12th cookbook will be published in the fall of 2011; she describes it as a “family classics cookbook with over 200 recipes.” All the recipes are written and tested by her alone. I wish I had asked her what she does in her down time!