Gretchen McKay

An Italian home-cooking cookbook that you better believe

Elsa DeChellis DiCicco is the quintessential Italian grandmother, a slip of a woman with a big hairdo and even bigger smile who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to her cooking.

“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.

Mangia, mangia!

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 Puffs

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)

Crema Veneziano

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.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Niagara on the Lake, Ontario: The quaint village is a real charmer during autumn

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — Tell someone you’re heading to Niagara, and she’ll probably think of one thing: the fabulous falls straddling the Canadian and U.S. borders that draw more than 20 million visitors a year.

Been there, done that. Time for a new adventure.

Less than 10 miles north of the steel arch bridge that transports visitors over the Niagara Gorge and into Ontario lies a village so quaintly picturesque that if you saw it in the movies, you’d assume its perfectly landscaped streets and gracious Victorian architecture were the work of a set designer. In reality, this small town of 14,000 nestled between Lake Ontario and the limestone Niagara Escarpment — recognized as one of the world’s natural wonders — has been charming travelers for almost 200 years.

Cultural types have flocked here since the early 1960s for the unparalleled theater experience known as the Shaw Festival, held from the beginning of April to the end of October. But the town also appeals for its history. Settled by loyalists at the end of the American Revolution, it was a strategic hub for British soldiers during the War of 1812.

American troops burned the town to the ground after Fort George was captured in the spring of 1813. Yet it quickly reinvented itself as a shipping and ship-building center, and the elegant Georgian homes that line its streets speak to the prosperity of the enterprising souls who brought the town back from the dead.

This time of year, Niagara-on-the-Lake is especially appealing because it’s a great place to enjoy spectacular fall colors. Winston Churchill called the historic Niagara Parkway, which follows the gentle curves of the Niagara River, “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” It’s particularly lovely in autumn, when the leaves on the towering trees at the gorge’s edge turn brilliant shades of crimson and orange and local farms sell apples, pumpkins and other fall foods from roadside stands. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.parkreports.com/fall/.)

Fall also marks the start of the abundant grape harvest. Thanks to its moderate climate, the town in the past 20 years has grown into a major viticultural region, with more than 20 wineries in four distinct growing areas in the Niagara Peninsula producing terrior wines. Of particular interest is its icewine, made from grapes that remain on the vine long after the harvest and are then picked by hand at night and pressed while still frozen. When grapes freeze and then thaw, the fruit dehydrates, concentrating its sugars, acids and extracts. The result is an intensely flavored wine that can cost $50 or more a bottle.

Roaming around town

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a small enough town that you can easily explore all of its nooks and crannies by foot, so long as you remember to pack a pair of comfortable shoes and, if you plan on patronizing the chichi shops on Queen Street, a handful of cash; most are pretty precious. (The exchange rate for the Canadian against the U.S. dollar is almost even, so you don’t really have to worry about changing money.) I spent an entire morning wandering from one quaint store to the next, stopping along the way to peer in the window of the Niagara Apothecary (an authentic museum restoration of a 1869 pharmacy, open weekends only in fall), and to watch kids splash their hands in a fountain bearing a statue of the playwright Shaw.

I also wandered down Regent Street for a closer look at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Lawn Bowling Club, whose iron gates and manicured lawn I’d passed during a pre-breakfast run. It was established in 1877, making it the oldest still operating in Canada. After watching a pair of bowlers take some shots, I continued my stroll through Queen’s Royal Park, where from the gazebo you have a fabulous view of Fort Niagara across the blue-green waters of the Niagara River.

If you’re looking for a more structured walkabout, Old Town Tours offers a 90-minute guided tour through the historic district at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily through October ($20 adults/$10 children). It’s also possible to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through town and along the waterfront; tours start from in front of the Prince of Wales hotel (prices range from $70 for a 30-minute ride to $130 for 60 minutes for up to four adults and two children).

Or, rent a bike and pedal the seven mostly flat miles along the picturesque Niagara River Parkway, past the lovely brick McFarland House (built in 1800, it’s one of the oldest surviving structures in the Niagara district), to the historic village of Queenston. Here, the Riverbrink Art Museum ($5 adults) through Oct. 17 is exhibiting a collection of Canadian landscapes and winter scenes that have been featured on Hallmark greeting cards. Here’s where you also can view historical artworks depicting the falls and Terrapin Tower, a 40-foot stone tower that was built as a feat of daring over the river in 1829, just beyond the lip of the Horseshoe Falls. (It was dismantled in 1872.)

If my teenaged girls had been along, I probably would have splurged on the elaborate ritual of English high tea at the luxurious Prince of Wales. (The hotel offers four options, ranging in price from $32 to $45 per person.) Flying solo and wearing jeans, though, I was too intimidated by the opulence of its Victorian drawing room. I satisfied my afternoon munchies with a croissant from Niagara Home Bakery.

Towns ravaged by war often have spirits associated with them, so rather than do a regular tour of the rebuilt Fort George ($11.70 adults/$5.80 youth), I decided to take an evening Ghost Tour ($12 adults, $6 kids under 12). It was one of the most fun historical walks I’ve ever done. And yes, it was pretty darn scary. Not that anyone in our group of about 30 would have dared admit it.

“We have a loose, no freakin’ out rule,” guide Peter Mitchell warned us as he led us through the fort’s giant wooden gate, with only a lantern to brighten the way.

(The weekend tours quickly sell out in October, so it’s smart to make a reservation. Call 1-905-468-6621 or visit www.friendsoffortgeorge.ca/ghost.htm).

During the two-hour tour under the stars, Mr. Mitchell related stories of footsteps where none should be heard, images of dead people in mirrors and whispery soldiers who still keep guard at the gate. We also traveled into a spooky, 70-foot-long tunnel that connects to two lookout towers just outside the garrison walls, and sat in total darkness in the barracks. Can you feel the hairs rising on the back of your neck? Thank goodness for the pint of Harp I enjoyed with my fish and chips at Irish Harp beforehand.

By now, though, I had ghosts on the brain. So before heading back to my B&B, I stopped by the Olde Angel Inn on Regent Street, the oldest operating inn in Ontario, for a mug of Moosehead Pale Ale (I was in Canada, after all).

Legend holds that the ghost of Capt. Colin Swayze, who was killed in the basement of the inn — either accidentally or on purpose, depending on who’s telling the story — during the American invasion of 1813, haunts the yellow frame building. I looked hard for a shadow on the hand-hewn exposed beams in the bar, and trained an ear for any footless footsteps on the 200-year-old plank floors. I even ventured downstairs to the ladies room, where Capt. Swayze reportedly has been spotted.

But nothing. Guess I’d have to get my jollies the next day with a different kind of spirit: wine.

Exploring the wineries

With so many wineries within a 15 minutes drive of the historic district, a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake isn’t complete without a wine tasting (or two). Wineries range from boutique-small (Lailey Vineyard’s tasting room isn’t much larger than the bar on which wine is served) to grand estates with on-site restaurants, such as the Peller Estates Winery. I was lucky to have a guided tour of one of the town’s founding-family wineries, Reif Estate Winery, which opened in 1982 and now grows more than 20 varieties on 125 lush acres. Being September, the sweet aroma of grapes, just starting to be harvested, greeted me at the door.

Grapes don’t like wet feet, PR director Andrea Kaiser explained as she led me past the vineyards and into rooms where the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and then pressed. But when the soil is full of red shale, like it is in this region, the fruit thrives. The fruit also doesn’t like cold air, which is why giant windmills loom in the distance. They keep warm air circulating over the grapes when there’s danger of frost.

Grapes used in making Reif’s award-winning ice­wines, conversely, welcome the cold air, so long as the temperature doesn’t fall below about 6 degrees Fahrenheit. The winery presses this delicate dessert wine in a wooden screw press brought over from Germany.

Wine goes perfectly with cheese, so my tour ended with a tasting of four wines paired with artisanal Canadian cheeses and some dense Niagara raisins for nibbling ($10/flight without cheese, $25/flight with). The Ermite Bleu served with the signature Vidal Icewine — made by monks in caves under the Abbaye St-Benoit Monastery in Quebec — provided the perfect tangy finish.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Getting there:Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is on the south shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, or 14 miles north of Niagara Falls. It’s about a 41/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh (Interstate 79 north to Interstate 90 east to Interstate 190 north) You also can fly into Buffalo and rent a car, though keep in mind there are no direct flights.

U.S. citizens returning from a trip to Canada by car have to show both proof of citizenship and proof of identity. So don’t forget either your passport, or a valid driver’s license and birth certificate. (Children under 16 only have to provide proof of U.S. citizenship.) You need a valid passport if you’re traveling by air .

Where to stay: The Prince of Wales at the corner of Picton and King streets (www.vintage-hotels.com; 1-888-669-5566), established in 1864 and now part of Vintage Hotel Properties, is the town’s landmark hotel. But you’ll pay a pretty price for its Victorian-style luxury: traditional queen rooms start at about $275/night. Other choices include B&Bs, private vacation homes, boutique suites, small inns (the Olde Angel Inn on Market Street is said to be haunted) and budget motels like the Niagara Residence & Conference Center, where you can get a room for less than $99. The Chamber of Commerce makes it easy to find a room, offering a free accommodation booking service on its website. I tend to like historic properties so booked the Lace Room at the charming Skyehaven B&B ($130/night including breakfast), built in 1787 on the historic side of the lake and just a 10-minute walk from town.

Where to eat: Depends on what you’re hungry for. One of the more elegant choices is the English high tea at The Prince of Wales, served daily from noon to 6 p.m., with sandwiches, pastries and scones ($32/person, $17 for children 12 and under). Or, treat yourself to a waffle cone filled with one of more than 30 flavors of ice cream at Cow’s Store on Queen Street. For dinner, don’t miss the fried haddock and chips ($11.95) at Irish Harp on King Street; it’s fantastic, especially if you wash it down with a pint of Harp ($6.73).

What to do: The annual Shaw Festival, which includes George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” and Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” through Oct. 30 at the Festival Theatre, is an obvious draw, along with sightseeing at Niagara Falls (the Maid of the Mist boat ride near the falls is open through Oct. 24). But there’s also shopping in the Heritage District, golf, biking along the Niagara Parkway and more than 20 wineries at which to sample Ontario wines. History buffs also can get a taste of living history at Fort George, which served as a British headquarters during the War of 1812 (there’s a ghost tour Sunday nights through October) or the Niagara Historical Museum.

A note of caution: If you’re driving, be sure to bring plenty of change for parking. Metered parking is required seven days a week between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and ticket machines don’t take bills.

Info: www.niagaraonthelake.com or 1-905-468-1950.