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Elisa's Simple, Secret Recipe

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Elisa's Simple, Secret Recipe

In's Recipe Vault series, celebrity chefs and food bloggers share how recipes preserve our life stories and connect us to those we've lost.

Elisa Costantini is the author of the cookbook "Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table." She came by her kitchen expertise as she cooked for her family for decades, both in her native Italy and in the U.S.

Growing up cooking at the side of her aunt, Elisa learned to cook intuitively, using her knowledge and instincts rather than written recipes. After her husband, Francesco, died, her children urged her to write down her many recipes to share with them and future generations. The result was her cookbook, shared not only with her family but also the world.

I talked to Costantini about her life as a chef – and we were joined by her son and co-author, Frank, who helped translate and elaborate upon Costantini's heavily accented English. As they bantered and laughed together, they wove a story of a lifetime of love expressed through food. Here's our conversation, with an exclusive recipe from Costantini at the end.

Elisa, how did you first get interested in cooking?

Elisa: When I was a young girl, I used to go with my aunt, who was a cook at weddings and stuff like that. And I always liked it.

Frank: I'll try to elaborate for you. When my mom was 5, my grandfather sent her to work with his cousin. Her name was Ida. She was kind of like the city caterer at the time, for weddings and such. So she was sent to work with her as her apprentice when she was 5. The interesting thing is, they were so secretive; they had to work in the middle of the night so nobody saw what she was doing.

Elisa: It's true!

Frank: So at 5 years old she started; she'd go and help with all the banquets that Ida was given to do at the time.

Was this who taught you to cook? Were you learning as you went along?

Elisa: Yes, then I learned, and I always liked cooking. I cooked for my family all the time – I was the only girl.

Frank: She was the only girl with several brothers, so while they were out in the fields or working, of course, she took her role of cooking with her mother for the family. Grandma used to go out and work too, right?

Elisa: Yes.

Frank: So she'd stay behind and prepare all the meals.

Elisa: I had another sister, but she was married already, so I was the only girl with four brothers.

And this was in your native Italy, right?

Frank: Yes.

When did you leave Italy and come to the U.S.?

Elisa: 1961.

Do you have any memories of the first thing you cooked, or the first thing you remember cooking well, as a child?

Elisa: Yes, oh yes, I do. I was 12 years old, and it was for a trip. All my family went to Rome for something, and I was left with two brothers and my grandmother, and I made pasta with a machine.

Frank: When she was 12, the family all went to Rome for some reason …

Elisa: It was for Pasqua.

Frank: It was for a religious holiday. And she was left behind with her elderly grandmother and her two younger brothers. It was the first time she had to cook – to use ...

Elisa: The pasta machine, I made pasta, and I made it with the machine.

Frank: It was the first time she used a machine to make pasta, as opposed to cutting it by hand.

Elisa: I did it by hand before, all the time. We would do pasta every day. In those days, you made pasta; there was no money to go buy it. So every day I made pasta by hand, with a roller, before the machine, and then cut it.

Frank: Before that, she would just use a roller and a knife to slice the different types of pasta – spaghetti, fettuccine. Who gave you the machine? Or did you have it?

Elisa: We had the machine, but I never used it.

So how did it go? The first time you had to use it, you were on your own. Did it work?

Elisa: Yes, it worked! I was able to use the machine to make every kind of pasta.

Frank: So basically, my mother had never touched the machine since they had bought it, but since she was on her own, she pulled it out and used it for the first time. That's kind of funny, because it's like today – how many daughters use a more simplified method?

Elisa: My mama wasn't there, so I used the machine! But my grandma was there.

Frank: What did she say?

Elisa: She was amazed! She never thought somebody my age could do it like this.

Frank: So they left her – and that trip, just so you know, it wasn't like they left and came back soon.

Elisa: Three days.

Frank: Three, four days they left. So they left a 12-year-old with two younger brothers.

Elisa: That's what it was like, I was very active. I would do everything. I had to do it anyway because when you have four brothers, you have to. You don't buy pasta once a week – you make your own every day. That's the way it was.

So today we wanted to talk about a recipe that reminds you of a loved one you've lost. Can you tell me a little bit about what that recipe would be and who it is that it brings to mind for you?

Frank: The pasta that Daddy made.

Elisa: Yes, that's a big thing.

Frank: What's it called?

Elisa: Pasta With Onions.

Frank: Fettuccine With Caramelized Onions.


Elisa: It's a very simple recipe – you can do it in 20 minutes. You slice two onions, and you start to fry them. Then you get two tomatoes –

Frank: You chop two tomatoes –

Elisa: And you start frying that. Then you cook linguine, and you put two cups of milk, and you add that to the pasta. It was the best thing my husband and I cooked.

Frank: So in the last years that my father was alive, he started spending more and more time with her in the kitchen.

Elisa: Yes.

Frank: This was something that they came up with together, and they had quite often. She's never made it since he passed away.

Elisa: It doesn't need to be cooked too much, so when I went to work and went home, it was easy. I would say when I came home, "Oh, I don't feel like cooking tonight." So we'd make the pasta with onions! Anyway, it was good stuff.

Could you tell me a little bit more about your husband, too? What are some of the food memories you have with him?

Elisa: Everything.

Frank: His name was Francesco.

Elisa: Francesco. We met when we were 19 years old. We got married at 20. After we got married, he went to the army – 18 months. I was pregnant with my first daughter. He was in the army for 18 months, and I lived with my mother-in-law and father-in-law. Then, pretty soon, we came here to America. And we did everything together. I would stay home, and he would go out to work, but we did everything else together. Everything, everything – together. He would go outside to provide for the family, and those days I was at home – I didn't work. I was with the kids. But everything I do, I'm alone now. I have nobody, really, because we used to do everything together.

Frank: There are a few stories in the book about how they met, and different events in their lives – and how the food relates to it. It's funny, part of it is like a Hollywood story. They were from different towns, and back then, you didn't stray from your own town when you started dating. She kind of had what you'd call a boyfriend now, and Dad rode into her town for work on his motorcycle one day. They started talking, and one thing led to another.

Elisa: And my other boyfriend was nothing.

Frank: So the other boyfriend went away. One day, Dad found his motorcycle on the side of the road in pieces, all down the road leading to town – kind of like a message. "Take your bike and go."

Elisa: I didn't want to do anything without him.

But he didn't take his bike and go, huh?

Frank: No, he didn't take his bike and go – actually, it's an interesting story. Her mother was born in the United States. My great grandparents had come here to work at the turn of the century, and they actually worked for the Campbell's factory in Camden, New Jersey. So she was born here, and they took her and her sister back to Italy. So during this time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, because her mother was an American citizen, my mother was automatically a citizen. But they had put a decree in that if you didn't come to the United States before your 23rd birthday, you would have to renounce your American citizenship. So that's the only reason they came – they had no intention of ever staying here. That was why they came, just not to lose that.

Elisa: But my husband loved it here.

Frank: At the time, there were a lot of men that wanted to come here, so they were actually arranging for her to meet somebody from Rome, a family that had quite a bit of money and the son had always wanted to come here. That's when my father stepped up and confronted my grandfather.

Elisa: Nobody would talk to my father.

Frank: My grandfather was at church. He waited for him to come out of church and confronted him and said, "I want to marry your daughter."

Elisa: He said, "I want to marry your daughter!" And my father, he did not know what to say. He said, "I don't know anything about that. What are you going to do to take care of her, Francesco?" How Francesco went to him, I'll never understand.

Frank: Yeah, my grandfather was … he was kind of a hothead. In the town, they respected him, but he was also that guy you didn't want to get started, you know what I mean? So the fact that he confronted him, maybe something clicked in my grandfather's head. If he's going to confront me like this, then who am I to fight it? So he brought him home that day for lunch, and that was it. All the proposals were off the table. Then they came here, and they wound up staying.

What made you decide to stay in the U.S.?

Frank: My second sister was born with spina bifida, and they realized they couldn’t go back to Italy because the medical care she needed was here.

Elisa: That was the reason we stayed. That was when we said, I really don't care about going home anymore. When something like that happens, you really don't care – America, Italia, wherever, it will be OK. Everybody said there's more care here. So we stayed here.

As a talented chef, did you find that cooking in America is different from cooking in Italy?

Elisa: No, because we do it the way we cook in Italy.

You were able to get the ingredients you need?

Frank: That's what's interesting. You'll see in her book – nothing in her recipes has any fancy ingredients. It's all very basic, very to the core. Because that's all they had.

Elisa: It's what we had, and my kids wanted me to write this the way I always cooked.

Frank: We said, we don't want you to change the recipes. Do them the way you've always done them, with the simple ingredients. You've got garlic, tomatoes, and some meat. And the things she comes up with are insane.

Elisa: [chuckles]

Frank: It's just the basic ingredients. She's never really changed anything.

The recipe that we talked about, the pasta with caramelized onions – you said you have not made this since your husband passed away?

Elisa: No, I never made it for the kids.

Do you think you'll ever make it again, or is it too much of a memory with him?

Elisa: I don't know. I don't know.

Frank: I've never had it. This all happened when I was living abroad, this recipe. So I've never even tasted it. And to be honest, it's the one recipe we didn't put in the book.

Elisa, I've got one more question for you. Years from now, when your family is looking back and remembering you, if there's one recipe that they will think of when they remember you, what will it be?

Elisa: Really, there are a lot of special things because my family, my grandkids, they love everything I do. But most special is the soup.

Frank: Her holiday soup, which is made with crepes.

Elisa: Crepes, we call them scrippelle. We add some escarole; you chop it very thin. You make chicken broth with a fresh chicken, and then we make – sometimes, not all the time – we make little meatballs. Like a holiday soup.

Frank: It's a version of the traditional Italian Wedding Soup, but a little specialized to the region she's from because she uses the crepes instead of rice or pasta. That recipe is in the book.

Is this something you would make on special occasions for your family?

Elisa: Yes, yes.

Frank: Well, it's funny – when we were little, we only got it on special occasions. When the grandkids came along?

Elisa: Every time!

Frank: They got it on request.

Elisa: [Laughs] All my grandkids!

Frank: So we would look forward to holidays for the soup, but as soon as the grandkids started coming, all of a sudden, the soup appeared out of the freezer 24/7.

Elisa: I have five grandkids, and they really, each of them, the soup is special.

Frank: Each of the grandkids, each has their own –

Elisa: My granddaughter likes ravioli in the soup; my two boys like gnocchi.

Frank: Yeah, the two grandsons favor her gnocchi, the granddaughters favor her ravioli. My son has to be different; he favors this very simple cake she makes.

Elisa: Yes. The spongecake.

Frank: Like a sponge type of cake that they make in Italy, which every woman always has in her kitchen. They eat it for breakfast, like dunking it in tea, and it makes kind of a porridge when you drop it into hot milk or hot tea. That's his favorite. So they each have their own. But ironically, my wife and my brother-in-law, their favorites are vegetables – the peas, right?

Elisa: Oh, yes.

Frank: Yeah, fried peas. It's strange, how the two outsiders, so to speak…

[Frank's wife chimes in from the background] Well, we grew up in a family that boils them!

Frank: Yeah, they grew up boiling peas. Mom sautes them with onions. I never noticed it, but I can't eat peas unless they're my mom's.

I've never tried them that way, but it sounds so good!

Frank: Oh my God, when you get this book, you've got to make them. You saute onions, and you put the peas in some water –

Elisa: The secret to this is, you have to let them cook good. If you just stir fry, they're not cooked.

Frank: Yeah, my mom, her cooking times are a little longer than most people's. She likes to have things cooked through.

Elisa: Absolutely!

Frank: But I'll tell you what, if you make these fried peas, you'll never eat boiled peas again.

I'll do it! I'm going to try it.

Frank: Sometimes I'll get fancy, and I'll chop up pancetta and put it in there, so you can doctor it up a little bit. But it's really good.

Elisa: My son-in-law, he comes from an Irish family. When he married my daughter, I wanted to give him something nice, so fried peas. He said, "I've never had fried peas!" But when you like to cook, you just come up with this stuff.

Frank: There's a meal that she makes, when I was in college I'd come home, and every time I came home, it'd be the same thing.

Elisa: Because you liked it!

Frank: Well, yeah, I liked it. So I came home once, and she had invented this chicken dish –

Elisa: Yes.

Frank: And she had stuffed it with prosciutto –

Elisa: And cheese, because it was my first time, I didn't know what to do.

Frank: Yes, and breadcrumbs, and it's in the book, but it was hard to replicate it exactly. My wife and I tried it, and it's hard to do because she uses this thick sauce on top of it, but the sauce is just the stuffing that has poured out plus water. It is the tastiest thing, the juiciest thing.

Elisa: He likes it.

Frank: It's not really Italian –

Elisa: Yeah, I made it up. I just say, try it! And he always liked it. You know, you try everything. When you have kids, you try everything.

Here's the recipe for the pasta with caramelized onions that Elisa and Francesco loved to cook together during the last months of his life.

Linguine de Francesco 

 A refreshing pasta dish featuring onion, fresh tomatoes, and sausage in a cream sauce

Serves 4 guests.

1 pound dry linguine

2 large Spanish onions, chopped

2 large fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped

1/2 pound of Italian sausage, chopped (optional)

2 1/2 cups of whole milk

1 cup of olive oil

4 basil leaves, chopped

Fresh Parmesan and Romano cheese

Salt and red pepper to taste

Using a large saute pan or wok, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions and saute for 10 minutes. Bring a large stockpot of water and a pinch of salt to a boil. Add the sausage to the onions and saute for an additional 20 minutes.

Drop the linguine into the boiling water and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, half the recommend time on the box. As the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes and half of the basil to the onions and sausage. Drain, add the pasta to the pan, and pour in the milk. Add the remaining basil, a pinch of salt, and red pepper to taste. Toss the pasta through the sauce for about 5 to 7 minutes until the pasta is al dente to taste. 

Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with cheese, additional basil, and red pepper. Serve immediately.