by Nick Montesano
My sister says that the writing is the hardest part.
But she writes with respect. Respect for writing. Respect for grammar and syntax. She even puts commas in the right place. And she writes with respect for food and tradition.
When she threw down the gauntlet to me (and some of you) to write as a guest on this blog, it was somehow intimidating. Sure, I respect writing and somehow I respect grammar and syntax and even commas. And I start sentences with the word ‘and’. And I use ellipses all the time. But … she’s an editor … she, can, worry, about, all, that.
The respect for tradition, however, I will also have to leave to her. Ask her. Ask my mother (you know her by now). Me? Baa, baa, black sheep when it comes to tradition. I DON’T worry if I don’t eat Broccoli and Macs on the day after Thanksgiving. I DON’T worry if I don’t eat pork on New Year’s Day. And that Christmas Eve seven fish dishes thing … well … I do that … just because I love the challenge of it … and I love to eat … not because it is tradition.
Food is our lives. Ask my doctor. He has been trying to get me to lose 20 pounds for the last five years.
My partner owns The Starving Artist at Days Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ocean Grove, NJ. (Shameless plug. Get over it and stop by when you are in town.) And I love to cook. Perfect match.
I love to cook for lots of people at once. I am happiest knowing 6 to 87 people are coming for dinner. Mix in a batch of vegetarians (a whole group of my friends toured Europe in the musical HAIR and all these years later they perpetuate that lifestyle) with a few food-issue friends (one who doesn’t eat balsamic vinegar, one who doesn’t like mayonnaise, one who only likes raw vegetables) and it is more fun planning a menu that can please all of them.
But where did I learn to cook?
My sister introduced you to some of the family. I started learning from them. I grew up making deals with my mom that she would cut the grass while I cooked dinner. She would tell me what to do before she revved the engine and would come back to find beef stew cooking. (Boil the veggies separately!) I would be sneeze-free.
Her mom, Grandma Lucy, would teach me to cook and would always start with the phrase, “First, put the Nucco in the pan.” Nucco was apparently some sort of heavily saturated animal fat that came in sticks like butter. “First, put the Nucco in the pan, and then add slices of pepperoni and scrambled eggs.” Maybe if I explain THAT to my doctor he would better understand.
Oh yeah, and ask Grandma Marietta why a tossed salad always has radishes in it and she would have told you that she added them so that you couldn’t see if her nail polish chipped off into the salad. (Toss the salad with your hands. Best method ever!)
That wasn’t all, though. My cooking skills today are a result of endless hours of watching cooking TV — in my earliest years on public television: Julia Child (enough said?), The Galloping Gourmet (as a teen I yearned for one of those flat wooden spatulas and might actually have had one of my first TV crushes; I think it was the accent), and Yan Can Cook (and so can I).
One day, the clouds parted, the heavens opened, the angels sang, and in a scene reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel, God reached out his hand and created the Food Television Network.
I was an apt pupil … early on with Sarah Moulton, Emeril Lagasse, How To Boil Water, the Two Hot Tamales, and later semesters with Tyler, Bobby, Giada, Paula, Michael, and Jamie, while still keeping an eye on public television for Ming, Wolfgang, Daisy, Jacques, and in my eyes, the queen of all things cooking … Lidia.
One more point to note: we travel. Everywhere and every country we visit is as much about learning the foods as taking in the sights and history and people. Our recent visit to Tuscany included a full-day cooking course at a villa with Simone Biancalani. You may not have heard of him … yet … but he is a cooking star.
So walk into my home and hint at hunger … the refrigerator door flies open, the pans hit the stove, and the creating begins. When my mom plows into a plate of pasta with élan for some fresh sauce I have ‘thrown together’, I am ecstatic. (Thanks Sicily and Lidia!) When my friend Jay arrives at a party looking for the pesto chicken salad, I beam. (Thanks, Giada!) When a change of vegetable at dinner turns out to be grilled radicchio instead of steamed broccoli and my partner says “yum,” I grin. (Thanks Osteria da Mario in Rome and Michael.)
So that’s me, one of the brothers. I offer two things. First, a recipe for Sicilian Pasta that I created based on a dish we enjoyed on the shores in Palermo.
Nick’s Sicilian Pasta(Click here to view and print recipe)
And a request. I’d love to return as a guest and tell you about the cooking class in Tuscany. Interested?