My first experience with large Italian families was in sixth and seventh grade when my three best friends, with the last names of Vertucci, Cardelli, and Pizza, would invite me to have dinner at their homes. I had never been at such a table, with people yelling at each other in Italian, food in such abundance that I thought the tables would break, and everyone wanting me to eat more. And more. Rocco DiSpirito grew up in such an environment, and I loved reading about his family kitchen because it was just as I described – times ten! Rocco said he could never understand when he went to the homes of non-Italian friends after school, he was never offered food or drink. To him, this was totally bizarre. When his friends went to his home after school, Rocco’s family would fuss over them and be ordered to eat. For school lunches, Rocco would have some Italian bread, soppressata made by his uncle, and a big hunk of provolone, while his peers had peanut butter and jelly on Wonder bread with the crusts cut off, and twinkies for dessert. They would gawk at Rocco like he was an alien. Looking back, Rocco says he was mortified at the time, but now feels lucky and embraces his heritage.
Rocco’s cookbook is filled with stories of growing up Italian in Jamaica, Queens, New York and even stories from his mother, Nicolina, from the old country. Before the recipes begin, the book introduces Rocco’s “Cast of Characters” from his family, followed by Nicolina’s (Mama’s) story, and then Rocco’s from childhood to the present. Reading the book is like watching a movie. If you have ever watched Rocco’s reality show “The Restaurant,” or maybe now enjoy his newest show, “Rocco’s Dinner Party,” you have most likely been introduced to Mama’s meatballs, for which she is famous. Rocco says he cannot pinpoint why they are so special, but he thinks it is largely the fact that Mama mixes and rolls them by hand. And yes, her recipe is in the book.
The book has many chapters with incredible recipes for antipasti, eggs, soup, fresh pasta, pizza, bread, panini, heros, gelato, risotto, and much more. You will feel like Mama is in the kitchen with you. Rocco wants you to try his recipes, but also to experience the good life with good food, and of course, family. Always family.
Now go eat.