La Vie Claire Magazine
What she once considered drudgery—the daily lessons on how to recognize a fresh green bean, skin a peach, make ketchup, or “put up” fruit salad for the winter—are now her most cherished memories, and she gladly shares these with thousands of viewers. “My life is thinking about food,” Mary Ann laughs. Now in its seventeenth year, Ciao Italia! is filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, which not only boasts a thriving Italian community, but offers through its markets access to the freshest ingredients for the show.
The story of how Mary Ann came to be one of television’s most popular cooks is as fascinating as the lives of the grandmothers who put her on this unexpected course. From watching her Sicilian grandmother, Anna Assunta Saporito, work long days in the Fairport, New York, butcher shop she owned, Mary Ann learned that chicken feet make good soup and that lard is the secret to a delicious pie crust.
Her other grandmother, Anna Galasso, had immigrated from Naples and opened a boarding house during the Great Depression. A widow with eight children and limited options, she decided to hang a sign that read, “Baths 25 Cents With Meal.” Having the only bathtub in town and the talent to cook memorable Italian food, she was able to prosper during the worst economic downturn in history.
The daily grind of gardening, canning, and preparing meals held little pleasure for the young Mary Ann. When her time of independence came, she studied history and then taught high school in Rochester, New York, for several years. Her life changed with her first trip to Italy in 1980. “After years of living in a household where they only spoke a dialect, I was able to see the life that my grandmothers had known,” she explains. “All the things I had ever been told about Italy came alive. The markets were brimming with familiar foods and ingredients. I loved the people, the history, and the art.”
On a lark, Mary Ann signed up for a cooking class in Sorrento. The first class instructed students on the fine art of fresh lasagna. “I knew immediately that something was wrong,” she says emphatically. “I knew that the sheets of pasta should be very thin, so you could see your hand right through them, but these were very thick. The meal got me right here,” she laughs, pounding on her chest. “Not good….”
When she returned home, Mary Ann was already entertaining possibilities. “I knew I had something,” she says. “I knew I had knowledge that others didn’t, and by combining that with my passion for teaching and love of history, it might lead me somewhere.” She began sending queries to magazines and started writing brief articles on topics like tomatoes and fennel. She soon realized that nobody had heard of using olive oil or of the many benefits of the Mediterranean
diet. To improve her own skills, she enrolled in a writing course and worked on polishing her Italian accent.
As part of her education, she took several more trips to Italy and visited native cooking schools. Mary Ann’s husband suggested that she expand her audience and send a letter to a local cable station proposing a cooking show. The quick reply stated that the station did not have room to set up a kitchen. Mary Ann changed her focus and instead started a catering business for high-end clients, art galleries, and banks. About a year later, a letter arrived from that same television station, which had become the University of New Hampshire’s PBS Channel 11, saying they had a new facility, plenty of room, had stumbled upon her initial query, and loved the idea.
Though she had no television experience, Mary Ann knew she could draw on her years as a teacher to get through the filming of the pilot. “A big truck pulled up to my house, and people spilled out, gelled the windows, stopped the clocks, ran cables everywhere, and started putting on my make-up,” Mary Ann explains. “My kids thought I looked ridiculous, and my son even walked through the room and gave me the thumbs down. I heard them say ‘3-2-1,’ and I just started talking to that camera like it was my best friend.” By day’s end, Mary Ann was exhausted. She climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her head. “I said to myself, ‘I hope it doesn’t happen. It’s way too much work."
The television station loved it. Her first thirteen shows were based on southern Italian family recipes. She told anecdotes about her grandmothers and shared their tips and cooking secrets. By the second season, the show went national, and since then, this dynamic entrepreneur, who insists on calling herself a “cook,” has enjoyed one success after another. Her Ciao Italia! episodes are now out on DVD and include interactive menus as well as beautiful scenes of Italian life.
Now the show’s executive producer, Mary Ann looks forward to celebrating twenty years of Ciao Italia! with an on-air party featuring the guest chefs, cooks, and viewers who have contributed to the show’s two decades of success. To date, Mary Ann has written nine cookbooks, all available around the world.
Her latest, Ciao Italia Pronto!, is designed for the busy cook who needs quick, uncomplicated recipes. For the tastiest results, Mary Ann advocates using the freshest ingredients available. When her own bountiful garden is spent for the winter, she buys organic ingredients at nearby Fiddlehead Farms Marketplace in Dover, New Hampshire. As not everyone has access to organic produce, she shares her suggestions for stocking a pantry, refrigerator, and freezer with what is available locally.
Like those for whom she wrote Ciao Italia Pronto!, Mary Ann finds herself with little extra time. When she does have a free hour, her impulse, believe it or not, is to read books about food. Ruth Reichl’s book, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, is one of her latest indulgences as is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If life were to give her even more leisure, she would dive back into quilting, learn to play the piano, and take a watercolor class in order to capture the sights of Italy.
Mary Ann also loves cooking for and with her family. Getting her daughter, Beth, into the kitchen during visits home from Switzerland is easy when the recipe is timballo. An eggplant “cake” encased with bucatini and filled with veal meatballs, mozzarella, and tomato sauce, timballo is a rich feast day dish that resembles a molded casserole. Beth’s interest in Italian food over the last several years has led her to introduce recipes and ingredients to her European friends, often reviewing them together on her mother’s web site, www.ciaoitalia.com. A teacher, Beth has even formed an after-school cooking club for her Swiss students.
While her daughter is doing her part to keep the family legacy alive, Mary Ann is continuing her work to save the Italian food culture by archiving nine hundred traditional recipes on streaming video. “My grandmothers were my heroes,” she says quietly. “They’d be very surprised that I have kept their names alive. I have a feeling they’d be pleased to know that their recipes and the lessons they shared have touched the lives of so many.”