Mary Ann Esposito says she's on a mission to tell people the truth about Italian cooking -- and that truth starts with an enigmatic statement.
"There is," she says, "no such thing as Italian cooking."
That's right, the host of television's longest-running Italian cooking show (PBS's Ciao Italia) just said Italian cooking doesn't exist. And what might she mean by this?
"Well, Italy is made up of 20 regions, and each one has its own cuisine," she says. "When you're in Sicily, you eat fish. When you're in Tuscany, you eat steak. When you're in Venice, you eat rice. Actually, it's the same as in America. Memphis is known for barbecue, but if you were in Boston, you wouldn't want barbecue; you'd want baked beans and lobster. So what's American food, really?"
Esposito, who will be at the Wolfchase Galleria on Saturday as part of a touring show called Simon Super Chefs Live, goes on to point out several features common to all the various cuisines in Italy -- features which are lost to most Americans. They add up not to a shared cuisine but a shared attitude.
"Italian cooking is regional and seasonal," she says. "They eat food when it's in season, and they eat local ingredients. For example, you won't find fish in Tuscany because Tuscany isn't on the coast. In the winter, Italians make soups and stews out of root vegetables like carrots and potatoes and day-old bread."
Another characteristic of the Italians' love of food is that it's still the heart of the family and the community. If you're over the age of, say, 40, you probably remember sitting down for dinner with your whole family on a regular basis. When was the last time you did that -- much less cooked with everyone in the kitchen and spent time talking about how your day went?
"I always think of Americans as eating while reading a newspaper," Esposito says. "How often do you see that? People are like robots -- no idea what they're eating, no time to appreciate it. Also, for many Italians, there's a connection to the food because they may know the person who raised it."
By now, you're probably thinking something like, "Gee, it'd be nice to have local ingredients and the time to hang out in the kitchen to cook fabulous Italian meals, but I have a life!"
Well, this is where Chef Esposito's true mission comes in. What she wants everyone to know -- whether it's from her TV show, her nine cookbooks, her guided trips to Italy, or her in-person appearances -- is that you can create great meals on your schedule.
Consider her latest cookbook, Ciao Italia Pronto!. The subtitle is "30-minute Recipes From an Italian Kitchen," but as Esposito says, "I tell you about keeping staples in your kitchen. I tell you about storing vegetables and other food. I tell you about multi-tasking. I tell you about dividing up the work. I tell you about using leftovers effectively."
The book has some 80 recipes, from pasta, sauces, meats, and sides to pizzas and desserts, gathered from her extensive travels around Italy. So you too can produce from your "pronto pantry" such delights as "Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Orange Marmalade Sauce," dates stuffed with Parmesan cheese and nuts, and pastry tartlets stuffed with ham and cheese.
The message, she says, will be the same when she appears at Wolfchase, where she'll do three cooking demonstrations and sign books. Visitors can also get food and drink samples from various participating restaurants in the mall. "What I want people to get is how easy it is to create wonderful Italian dishes," she says.
Mary Ann Esposito
11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, June 3rd