Preserving Italy’s Culinary History, One Fading Recipe at a Time

Preserving Italy’s Culinary History, One Fading Recipe at a Time

Chef and author Mary Ann Esposito, host of TV’s longest-running cooking show, made it her life’s mission to share and preserve traditional Italian recipes before they disappear.

In late October 2022, chef, author and Italian food authority Mary Ann Esposito and her husband of 50 years, Guy, sit in the former library of St. Mary’s High School talking about zucchini and how she learned to cook. She is minutes from taking the stage as the emcee for a homegrown, Chopped-style cooking competition featuring two local chefs and their assistants—the latter a pair of priests and fellow alumni. 

It’s the second year the Espositos, longtime residents of Durham, New Hampshire, have returned to Western New York to host this local fundraiser for their alma mater, located in the Buffalo suburb where Esposito spent her first 24 years. 

As she recalls her time at St. Mary’s, Esposito decides she would rather be a student in 1956. “The pressure on kids these days is tremendous,” she says. What cooking teaches, though, remains relevant. “You have to be good at communicating, to know how to multitask and do some math,” she adds with a laugh. “I guess my strength is I’m a good communicator. I can talk to a paper bag!”

A Taste for Travel

That personality—part history-geek professor and part extroverted, no-nonsense nonna—has earned Esposito legions of fans who tune in weekly to watch the PBS series Ciao Italia, television’s longest-running cooking show. She hosts and produces each episode, filming most from her home kitchen in Durham. 

Now in its 31st season and supported by 14 cookbooks, Ciao Italia gives Esposito a platform to pass along her love of history and regional Italian cuisine to generations of cooks, both amateur and professional. 

“It’s my national classroom,” she says.

With a master’s degree in history from the University of New Hampshire, but no formal culinary training, Esposito has taught online cooking classes at Boston University’s Metropolitan campus and cooks alongside celebrity chefs and regular folks alike. Recognition of her contributions to Italian culture and cuisine include a Star of Italy Cavaliere award from the president of the Italian republic, the Premio Artusi Award, a lifetime achievement award by the Order Sons of Italy in America, and a 2015 James Beard Award for outstanding cooking series

 The Espositos visit Italy and explore its 20 distinct culinary regions during regular pilgrimages that once led her to declare in the first episode of Ciao Italia, “There’s no such thing as Italian food, only regional food.” She often tapes segments abroad, filming snippets of food and cultural tours open to anyone interested in a deep dive into lasagna noodles, heritage pork or Renaissance frescoes. 

During a recent trip to Umbria, what she calls Italy’s “green heart,” Esposito took viewers truffle hunting and showed them other indigenous products like lentils, black celery, and the pita-like, unleavened flatbread called torta al testo.  

Like Julia Child did with her own travels and public television show, Esposito discovered her life’s work, as well as the joy of sharing her personal history. Half of her family is from central Sicily and the other half is from Naples in Campania. 

Whether the show reaches a budding culinary professional or a home cook, it offers a real experience. “You find the video about Parmigiano Reggiano, and there you are,” she says. “You’re in Parma with the big milk cauldrons, seeing how the curds are formed and brined.”

Beyond Meatballs 

Over the years, Ciao Italia’s Southern Italian roots have evolved “way beyond meatballs,” says Esposito. “We’re at osso buco and soffioni, things many people have never heard of but their grandmothers made all the time.” A tireless researcher, she scours old cookbooks and written histories for ingredients, recipes and their backstories.

Rather than open restaurant chains or sell cookware, Esposito has posted more than 1,500 free recipes from 500 episodes of the show on her website and a no-frills, unpaid-subscription YouTube channel, creating what she calls a “legacy library” of recipes that are threatened with extinction.

Esposito points to Italian women’s shift away from cooking beginning in the mid-20th century, as they were forced to work out of the home and contribute to the family income, as a reason why so many recipes are lost. The country’s aging, declining population doesn’t help, while here in America, viewers lament their own loss of family histories and shared dinner tables.

“People write to me or comment on social media saying things like, ‘My mother made this cake,’ or, ‘It sounds like this recipe. She would put this [ingredient] in, but she never wrote it down and now she’s gone.’” 

“I never cook from recipes, unless I’m writing them for other people,” Esposito says, pausing at the irony. “I just know what to do because I’ve done it for so long.”

Each Italian cook, she says, has her own recipe (written or unwritten), techniques and favored ingredients, making it essential to know what region the family is originally from. 

The namesake Mary Ann Esposito Foundation, a modest but growing nonprofit, funds the website archive and annual culinary scholarships for students at Boston University and Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

Esposito hopes to one day establish a physical repository of primary sources in traditional Italian cuisine, to be housed at a local university or cooking school. Along with the digital archive, it would include her book manuscripts and other culinary research materials. Recently, the foundation announced the creation of the Rebecca Alssid Award, named for the founder of Boston University’s culinary arts program and awarded annually to a student studying gastronomy.

No matter where the archive ends up, Esposito hopes to save recipes that are quickly fading from memory and give culinary students access to Italy’s home-cooking legacy.

Seasons in the Cellar 

In their New England home garden, the Espositos grow a cornucopia of eggplant, lettuce greens, broad beans and garlic, among many other vegetables. Guy serves as the primary gardener, tracking down and growing hard-to-find varieties the couple discovers during trips to Europe. 

Their mantra of “regional and seasonal” helps preserve food on several levels, from the telling of its story to how it’s prepared and processed for storage. Esposito not only cooks Guy’s artichokes for dinner, but showcases them on television and in her latest self-published cookbook, Ciao Italia: Plant, Harvest, Cook! 

In a section titled “Seasons in the Cellar,” Esposito relates how the drudgery of seasonal food preparation shaped her childhood, when she reluctantly worked in the basement kitchens of her Southern Italian grandmothers who filled rows of colorful jars with canned peaches and tomatoes. After first visiting Italy in the early 1980s, she gradually realized how rich her own culinary roots were.

Esposito wrote this book during the pandemic as a modern ode to Italian simplicity and self-sufficiency. With how-tos on creating a home garden, it is woven with stories and recipes ripe with the vegetables she loves to eat. Her minestrone soup, for example, highlights easy-to-grow, readily available summer vegetables that she cooks fresh and then freezes for later, such as beans, corn, zucchini and tomatoes.

She applies the same generosity to her cooking show. “I told myself, keep the gardening part simple, because if you want to plant a radish, you can do it,” she says. “The joy comes in passing on this information. I want people to go into their own kitchen and not look at cooking as drudgery, but something that’s a gift.”

Back at the competition, students dressed in black and white serve the guests Esposito’s recipe for lasagna with Sunday sauce while she jokes with the chefs. Three judges sample the final plates, made from a surprise basket of ingredients including pork tenderloin, spaghetti squash, and—her favorite pick—prunes. As guests sip Aperol spritzes and pinot grigio, the Espositos present St. Mary’s with a $5,000 check to support its Hospitality and Event Planning Academy, one of several vocational academies students can join. Then, the school returns the gift, surprising the couple by naming the hospitality academy after them.

“I get satisfaction from knowing that maybe these kids will have a chance like I did,” says Esposito afterwards. “It’s not about having a building named after you or showing off trophies. The important thing is you do something good with the talent you’ve got.”

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