“What, you’re not hungry?” she asks, pushing a plate of tea sandwiches across the dining room table, despite the fact that a half-dozen already have made their way into my stomach.
With the city in the midst of a heat wave, it’s too steamy to turn on the stove in her Coraopolis kitchen. Yet it’d be unthinkable for a woman from Abruzzo — or anywhere in Italy — to invite guests into her home without also feeding them. Hence, the late-afternoon lunch of chicken salad, fresh fruit and Italian cookies.
It’s tough to say no to someone who feels so passionately about food. The final count, then, is seven sandwiches, plus a handful of strawberries, a pizzelle and two cups of sweetened espresso because according to Mrs. DiCicco, it’s not Italian coffee without a little zucchero.
“We all defer to her,” says her daughter, Jayne Keffer, with a smile. She lives across the street and has stopped by to chat. “Whatever she says goes.”
If the topic is Italian cooking, you’d best pay attention because to have tasted Mrs. DiCicco’s cooking is to love it, say those who know her. The 95-year-old’s sauce di Pacentro, prepared with ground pancetta and minced hot pepper and served atop light-as-air homemade gnocchi, is the stuff of legend, her son Bob proudly points out. So, too, are her anise-infused pizzelles, made so often when she was younger that she sizzled her way through six of the Italian cookie irons.
“She’s truly a wonderful cook and takes great pride in cooking for family in friends,” says Irene Daily. She has sampled dozens of the cookies as director of volunteer and community services at Heritage Valley Sewickley, where Mrs. DiCicco has logged almost 19,000 volunteer hours since 1959.
No one could blame the petite great-grandmother of 10 if she kept close the family recipes, perfected over the years in the kitchen of the house she built in 1954 with husband, Italo. Yet all three she makes me that day are among the more than 200 in “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners,” a spiral-bound cookbook she self-published late last year ($25 at amazon.com).
Nearly a decade in the making, it contains more than a dozen complete meal menus arranged by season (Winter Wonderland) or event (Super Bowl Party). In a nod to her native Pacentro in the province of L’Aquila, where her parents Maria and Anthony DeChellis owned an estate with olive trees, orchards and a vineyard, there’s also a chapter devoted to pasta and Italian specialties: everything from crostini and lasagna campagnolo to “famous” tripe and a yummy-sounding sunburst eggs (cooked sunny side up in marinara spiked with hot sauce).
“Each dinner is a story,” Mrs. DiCicco says in a voice still tinged with a lilting Italian accent, “because in Europe, that’s how you eat. A complete meal.”
Lest you assume she only knows regional Italian cooking, the cookbook features other cuisines, including a recipe for chili that won her a blue ribbon — at age 90 — in a 2005 cook off co-sponsored by KDKA radio and Kuhn’s Market. It’s still occasionally served in the cafeteria at Heritage Valley Sewickley. Administrators were so delighted to see one of its own win a contest that they quickly put it on the menu.
Preparation ranges from easy to intermediate, and a few of the recipes aren’t recipes at all but instructions on how to prettily arrange items on a plate or bowl. But that’s what makes it so charming. Chatty and informal, it reads like a food diary your grandma added to over the years, with colorful snapshots grandpa took of his favorite dishes thrown in for good measure.
“The aroma of this coffee is irresistible,” she notes in a recipe for cafe espresso. With penne rigate, she advises serving salad “and good wine.”
As if Italians would do anything but.
Mrs. DiCicco started compiling the recipes at her son-in-law John Keffer’s urging. Introduced to her homemade cuisine on an Easter break from Penn State University, he quickly developed what would be a lifelong love affair with her cooking: in the early years of his marriage to Jayne, he’d stop by his mother-in-law’s house on his way home from work for a clandestine first dinner.
How do you do it? he asked again and again. Eventually, she decided to tell him, writing out a few of her favorites in longhand before switching to a typewriter.
After Italo’s death in 2002, she couldn’t bring herself to work on it for nearly two years. By 2004, though, she was once again plugging away, even if her 90-year-old eyes were having trouble seeing the keys, and finding new typewriter ribbons was next to impossible. To keep her motivated, Mr. Keffer, a one-time borough mayoral candidate and member of the local water and sewer authority, bought her a desk top computer on which she taught herself to use Microsoft Word.
“We told her to keep tapping, that she couldn’t break anything,” Mrs. Keffer recalls.
It wasn’t easy, mastering the new technology; early drafts tended to jump between fonts with varying margins. Yet Mrs. DiCicco proved herself a feisty and determined nonagenarian. Kind of like the guy who invented the software that made writing so much easier.
“That Bill Gates, he’s such a genius,” she tells me more than once during our visit.
A bigger challenge was turning something she did almost by instinct into a precise science of measurements, ingredients and step-by-step instructions. Like lots of good cooks, Mrs. DiCicco learned by watching her mother and grandmother prepare the family’s meals and so “never measured.”
Tragically, Mr. Keffer wouldn’t live to see the cookbook he inspired. In 2007, while driving home from a December wedding in New Jersey, he was killed in a car accident.
Once again, Mrs. DiCicco’s work slowed to a crawl. So to bring her out of her funk, her son Bob, an attorney who lives in Glen Arm, Md., suggested turning it from a memoir into a self-published cookbook they could share with others.
With other family members helping to edit, proof and organize the copy, Mrs. DiCicco regained her focus and in 2009, the book — with dozens of Mr. Keffer’s photographs — made its debut on amazon.com. It has since sold a couple hundred copies.
What people also seem to like, says Bob DiCicco, is the book’s authenticity and use of fresh ingredients.
“There’s that connection with the Old World, and how things used to be,” he says.
Mrs. DiCicco has another explanation.
“Italians are all good cooks because they like perfection,” she says. “They taste it, and if they don’t like it, they don’t serve it.”
Zucchini is almost too plentiful this time of year. This appetizer is a great way to put the veggie to good use. They fry up surprisingly light and have just enough cheese flavor that kids will gobble them up. They’re just as good at room temperature as hot from the frying pan.
- 2 small zucchini, shredded
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano cheese
- Salt and white pepper
- 1 cup flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- Quality vegetable oil for frying
Place zucchini in colander. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand 15 minutes to drain excess liquid. Combine eggs, parsley and cheese in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Squeeze zucchini to remove excess moisture. Add zucchini to the egg mixture. Add flour and baking powder, and stir to mix.
Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot. Drop the zucchini mixture by the tablespoonful into hot oil. Shape with spoon. Cook zucchini mixture until puffs are light golden.
Remove with a spoon to a paper towel to drain. Repeat until you have used all the batter. Serve hot or cold as hors d’oeuvres.
Serves 4 to 6.
— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)
Elsa’s Famous Sauce di Pacentro
Peperoncino (hot red pepper) flavors many dishes in Abruzzo. My 16-year-old son called this sauce “incredible.”
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup ground pancetta
- 1/2 cup chopped red onion
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, minced
- 1 fresh hot pepper, minced
- 2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes, crushed
- 28 ounces tomato puree
- 1/4 cup minced fresh basil
- 3 whole McCormick cloves
- 1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- Salt and pepper
- 1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
In a large sauce pot, heat oil and pancetta over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, bell pepper and hot pepper. Saute until tender. Stir in crushed stewed tomatoes, tomato puree, basil, cloves, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, salt and pepper. Lower heat and simmer for 35 minutes, stirring periodically. (Do not burn the sauce.) If sauce is too thick, add water. This sauce can be served in many ways. For meat flavor, add to sauce, cooked meat, cooked meat balls or cooked chicken. Simmer 15 minutes.
Stir in grated cheese just before serving.
Makes about 6 cups.
— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)
This silky-smooth, Venetian-style custard is sometimes cut into squares and fried in bread crumbs. Mrs. DiCicco goes a bit sweeter, serving it with whipped cream and strawberries. We ate it for breakfast, chilled with raspberries and blackberries spooned on top.
- 1/4 cup corn starch
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 1/4 cup milk
- 3 egg yolks, well beaten
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 cup dairy whipped cream
- Sliced strawberries
In a sauce pan, combine corn starch and sugar. Stir in milk. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Take 1/4 cup of the hot mixture and stir into egg yolks, the stir egg yolk mixture back into saucepan with milk. Cook and stir mixture constantly for 2 minutes.
Mix in butter, vanilla and almond extract. Cool completely or refrigerate.
Stir in whipped cream and top with sliced strawberries. Or, if you prefer, pour into a 9-inch ready-baked pie shell and decorate with strawberries.
Serves 6 to 8.