Cookbook honors Italian family dinners

Sunday, March 09, 2008

By Bob Batz Jr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Theresa V. DeCaria

This family photo of Theresa V. DeCaria shows, from left, her cousin Frank, cousin Tony, mother Virginia, Theresa (standing on table), her cousin Vince, her father Fortunato, her twin brother Tony, and her older brother Frank. Cousins Frank, Tony, and Vince were children of Fortunato's brother Bruno and his wife, Connie. Fortunato and his brother Lawrence later became legal guardians of these nephews after the untimely deaths of their parents from natural causes.

Sunday was one of two pasta days (with Wednesday) in the Fortunato DeCaria household of Weirton, W.Va.

Sunday also was the one day that he did not work at the International Market on Main Street there.

So the extended family -- his and those of his four immigrant partner brothers -- would gather for an early meal, often at the table at the house where he lived with his wife, Virginia, and their three children. That meant 10 adults and 19 children, and so the kids would eat first, then the adults would eat -- pasta and vegetables, meat and salad, fruit and dessert. Not to mention talking and laughing and loving one another.

So was planted the idea for a cookbook that Fortunato's daughter Theresa V. DeCaria just self-published in December after working on it for decades.

It's titled "The Table My Mother Set: A Collection of Traditional Family Recipes from My Mother's Italian Kitchen to Yours." The simple scrapbook motif of the cover, graced with a vintage photo of her parents, continues through the 128-page spiral-bound book, which is sprinkled, among the 81 recipes, with more family photos, tidbits of DeCaria lore and Italian sayings, such as "Una buona mamma vale cento maestre" -- a good mother is worth a hundred teachers.

Ms. DeCaria wanted the book to preserve a lot of that -- not just for her extended family but also for others.

"It's about family, it's about food, it's about culture," says Ms. DeCaria, who still lives in the family home with her mother and who works as treasurer of the Steubenville, Ohio, schools. A former teacher, guidance counselor and principal who graduated from Duquesne University, she has family all over the region including Pittsburgh, which figures in the tale of how she finally printed this long-promised book that relatives had taken to joking about.

A sister-in-law convinced her to work with her mother to put into writing her recipes, a slow process she started in the 1980s.

For her mom, "Everything's by taste," she says. So she'd tell her, "You do it, then I'll measure."

She typed up the recipes into a crude cookbook that she vowed to properly publish. She even started taking photos of all the dishes on her kitchen's blue counter top, a difficult process that went on for several years.

The breakthrough came last year when, through her niece Rita DeCaria who works at Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, she connected with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. After Ms. DeCaria applied, the design studio took on the design and layout of the book as a project of honor student Heather Herleman with classmate Jennifer Wilcox-Weirich and instructor Shawn O'Mara.

Ms. DeCaria, who contributed to the school's scholarship fund, found the Cincinnati publisher that could print the book with an "internal wire-o" binding so it would lie flat, and she had 2,500 copies printed.

So far, she's sold 700 and counting, at a few local stores and on eBay and otherwise online for $24.95 with shipping.

She says the cookbook has hit a nerve with people and made them happy as well as a little sad -- happy to have found a memory or a recipe their own mother made, or sad at what they didn't hang onto and have lost.

Weirton's Judy Shaw is a family friend (Ms. DeCaria's father later worked at her father-in-law's Weirton jewelry store) who had the pleasure of having supper at Virginia DeCaria's table. She treasures her copy of the cookbook, even though it can make her feel "melancholy."

"It just reminds me of my growing up," she explains.

Ms. DeCaria's family still gets together in that same kitchen, on Sundays and other special occasions, a lost art that she believes her book can help bring back.

"It's bringing people together and they're cooking and they're having fun," which is the point. In her family, togetherness always has been the point.

"When you eat together, it's memories you're creating."

Copies of the book are available for $24.95 by check or money order via Box 2315, Weirton, W.Va. 26062 or online, on eBay and Amazon or via Copies also are available at several area stores, including Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and La Prima Espresso in the Strip District and the Aspinwall Bookshop.


To honor the DeCaria tradition, I made a Sunday supper using the cookbook, and wound up with several other suppers, too. The Baked Pasta Supreme is enough to feed an army. And to make it, I made the classic red sauce recipe and the meatballs, and had leftovers of both, as well as a dinner's worth of stew beef that had cooked in the sauce to buttery deliciousness.

-- Bob Batz Jr.



Since Sundays and Wednesdays were pasta days in the DeCaria household, sauce was considered a staple in our diet. Yet, despite the frequency of days in which the pasta was served, we never grew tired of it because of the variety of ways in which it was prepared.

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add meat and, on high heat, brown it on all sides to lock in the juices. Reduce to medium heat.

Add finely chopped onion and garlic and saute until softened. Add  1/4 cup of red wine, if desired, for flavor. Puree the tomatoes by straining them or using a food mill, and add them with their juice to the saucepan.

Fill each tomato can halfway with water (approximately 1 cup for each can), stir to loosen any tomatoes still in the can, and add this to the sauce as well.

Add tomato paste, parsley, oregano, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to incorporate all ingredients and simmer, covered, for at least an hour. (This is where you'd add meatballs, recipe below.) Stir sauce occasionally to prevent sticking. Serve the sauce over any cooked pasta of your choice and serve the meat as a separate dish.

Variation: 2 28-ounce cans of canned tomato sauce or puree may be substituted for the tomatoes and the tomato paste. You may also substitute 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning mix for the dried basil, oregano, and parsley.

Serves 8 to 10.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria



Italian meatballs (the book also gives a recipe for frying them as patties, above) often complemented our Sunday pasta dishes. The mixture was the main ingredient in many other Italian recipes, such as stuffed eggplant and lasagna. Meatballs in the sauce helped flavor it, but the sauce, in turn, also gave the meat a moist and delicious taste.

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

Mix together all the ingredients.

Shape the mixture into round balls about 2 inches in diameter. Drop into a pot of cooked sauce, which has been brought to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook in the sauce for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Serve with pasta, or on an Italian bun.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria



What a special treat it was to have baked pasta at our house. It was like having a whole meal packed into one mouth-watering dish.

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

Spaghetti Sauce (see recipe above)

Italian Meatballs in sauce (see recipe above)

Prepare the sauce. Add Italian meatballs to the sauce and cook about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Cook the pasta as directed on the package.

While the pasta cooks, place onions in a small pot and saute them in butter until they soften. Add mushrooms; cook about 5 minutes. Then add crushed red pepper and one dipper (about  1/2 cup) of sauce to the mushrooms. Set aside.

Drain the pasta. Coat with sauce. In a 9-by-13-by-2-inch lasagna baking pan, spread a dipper of sauce over the bottom of the pan.

Place half the pasta in the lasagna baking pan. Top with the following: 5 mashed sauce meatballs (mashed beforehand in a dish), the mushrooms, 1 sliced hard-boiled egg, Romano and mozzarella cheese. Cover with a dipper of sauce. Add remaining pasta, and top with remaining egg slices.

Dilute  1/2 cup of sauce with  1/4 cup of water. Pour the diluted sauce over the pasta and sprinkle grated cheese over the top.

Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

Serves 8 to 10.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria



Endive is a versatile vegetable in that it can be cooked separately as an entree, it can be used as an ingredient in soups, or it can be served raw in salads.

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

Wash the endive and remove the stems and any bruised or wilted leaves. Cut the endive into bite-sized pieces. Parboil it in a pot of salted water for approximately 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.

In a baking dish (the size will depend upon the amount of endive), add enough oil to lightly cover the bottom of the baking dish. Make a layer using half of the endive; salt to taste. Sprinkle the layer with garlic powder. Top with  1/4 cup of the grated Romano cheese,  1/4 cup of bread crumbs, the diced onion, and the coarsely grated cheese. Lightly drizzle oil over the layer.

Make a top layer with the remaining endive and the remaining Romano cheese and bread crumbs. Cook, covered, in a pre-heated 325-degree oven for 10 minutes or until heated through. Sprinkle some Romano and mozzarella cheese on top before serving. Serve hot.

Serves 6.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria



Because of the meringue crust, this pie needs to be served on the same day as it is made. Also keep in mind that meringue does not hold up well in high humidity.

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

For the crust

For the filling

Making the crust

In a mixer, beat the egg whites slightly, then add cream of tarter and salt. Add the sugar last. Beat until soft peaks form. Place the egg white mixture into a well-greased 9-inch pie plate and form it into the shape of a pie shell. Reserve 6 tablespoons of the egg whites for the topping.

To make the topping, drop the reserved egg whites into small mounds and place them on a separate well-greased baking pan. Bake both the pie crust and the topping for 30 minutes in a pre-heated 275-degree oven. Then reduce the heat to 250-degree (do not open the oven) and bake for an additional half hour. Cool the crust completely before filling.

Making the filling

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave. Add the coffee and vanilla to the melted chocolate. Cool slightly. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Gradually fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture. Fill the pie shell with the filling. Chill at least one half hour before serving.

Serves 8.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria



My parents and uncles swore that the combination of gin and raisins had the medicinal power to heal sore bones and relieve exhaustion. It was important to use only golden raisins and to follow their rule of eating only seven a day -- no more, no less!

-- Theresa V. DeCaria

Place the raisins in a tall jar. Pour enough gin in the jar to just cover the raisins. Let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days to allow the gin to be absorbed into the raisins.

-- "The Table My Mother Set" by Theresa V. DeCaria

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.

First published on March 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

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