Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Seat At Her Table

I'm in a great writing workshop led by Frank Bures and this week's assignment was to write a profile. Since my mom taught me everything about food , I thought I'd write one about her. Here it is:

A Seat at Her Table

Graziella Iacovino wants to feed you. Chances are, if you live in South Jersey, she already has. Graziella has been in the restaurant business for twenty years, nourishing families and making friends in the process. She attributes this longevity to one thing: sacrifice. In fact, she advises people who toy with the idea of opening a restaurant by stating, “Don’t even think of opening the door unless you are willing to sacrifice your life for the restaurant.”
But even before opening a restaurant, Graziella was no stranger to sacrifice. Born at the tail end of World War II in Salandra, a small town in Basilicata, one of Italy’s southern-most regions, Graziella’s earliest memories of food are pleasant, but tinted with sadness. “Even though there was hardly any food, my mother always found a way to make us dinner,” she remembers. “ She would wait until we were full before getting food for herself. Some nights she didn’t eat at all. But each night, she would take the few ingredients what we had and transform them into something delicious. It was magical.”
Though her mother didn’t explicitly teach her how to cook, Graziella’s passion for food developed in the small kitchen of her childhood home. “ I loved watching my mother and sisters cook. It was amazing to see what they could make out of ingredients that most people would discard. Later in life, I realized that I had retained the memory of these recipes. It was my turn to create them.”
Graziella’s first attempt to recreate her mother’s food was at twenty-one, when she was doing missionary work in Africa and missing Italian food. In Zambia, she held her first dinner party, inviting two other Italians that she had met there. The menu was simple: fettuccine alfredo and crema fritta, fried sweet custard. “I think they liked it,” she remembers, “because they left with smiles on their faces.”
Now, seeing smiling faces is her favorite part of owning a restaurant. “My greatest reward is when a customer hugs me on his way out. If people are happy, I know I did well”. It is not uncommon that Graziella receive multiple hugs and even a kiss or two per night, probably because, when people dine with Graziella, they feel like a part of her family. She is the ethereal mother with plump arms and a warm smile. She has the uncanny ability to make people feel at home, even in a crowded, noisy restaurant. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Graziella attributes all of her success as a chef to her family. In 1973, after marrying Joe Iacovino, she moved to America and began cooking. The reason was simple; her new husband liked to eat. But up to that point, her culinary endeavors were limited to cooking for one (minus the African dinner party). Often, as a poor nursing student in Milan, she would eat stale bread rubbed with a tomato and olive oil for dinner. But Joe expected that, since she was from Italy, she would know how to cook. Rather than disappoint him, she buried her head in the one cookbook she had brought from Italy, Il Talismano della Felicita`, (The Talisman of Happiness) and cooked a new recipe each night. Inspired by the rave reviews of her husband, she began hosting dinner parties for all their friends. Still she enjoyed the intimacy of cooking dinner just for him. She advises young women “the secret to a happy marriage is to cook dinner for your husband. Even if you aren’t such a great cook the important thing is to try. If its not that good, at least something is on the table.”
Her advice worked wonders for her. She and her husband have been married for thirty-six years. Even while raising five children Graziella was happy to have dinner on the table. “Making dinner for my husband and kids really fueled my passion for cooking and learning. To me, it was never a chore, but a chance to experiment,” she explains.
When Graziella and her husband opened their first take-out store Graziella’ s in Westmont, New Jersey, in 1989 she didn’t realize how drastically her life was going to change. Her family was used to having her at home; she had been a stay at home mom for fourteen years, the kind of mother who made fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast before taking her children to school. Her older children didn’t seem to mind her absence, but her two younger children took it hard. When they resisted after-school programs and babysitters Graziella thought about closing the doors and going home for them. But after some creative thinking, she found a solution that worked; she converted the dry storage space into a playroom for the kids, stocking it with a couch, TV, video games and a big desk. She missed their family dinners so Joe bought two small card tables and placed them in the large kitchen. Each night, the family met there for dinner. So Graziella had the best of both worlds; she was an entrepreneur and a mom. Even as her kids grew, she maintained these roles.
One summer evening, two customers asked if there was a table available for them to sit and eat their take-out. Not wanting to say no, Graziella invited them into the kitchen to sit at her family’s table. The next night they were back. “They came in every night for the ten days their wives were on vacation.” On the ninth night, the men informed her that the next day they would be bringing eight guests to join them. “We didn’t even have a table big enough,” she remembers. The men didn’t seem to mind. They brought in a piece of plywood to elongate the tables. Graziella rushed to the fish market next door to borrow some chairs then served the men drunken shrimp wrapped in prosciutto, penne puttanesca, veal topped with crabmeat, asparagus and fontina cheese, and ricotta cheesecake. That was August. Word spread and by New Year’s Eve the party was up to thirty. Alas the restaurant was born.
As soon as the lease on the first building was up, Graziella and Joe looked to by a place. They settled on a small restaurant with space for forty seats. Graziella insisted on an open kitchen; she wanted to see people enjoying her food. This personal closeness was what drove the business. A seat at Graziella’s was like at seat at mom’s kitchen table, only considerably more gourmet.
But in 1993, business took a lull. Graziella was determined to succeed. She gave up her one-day off and began teaching cooking classes on Monday nights. “Teaching was a new way for me to get to know my customers. At first, I was nervous, especially because of my accent, but as soon as I saw how fascinated the students were, I got excited.” The original course ran for five consecutive weeks during which the students were taught stocks and sauces, appetizers, pasta dishes, entrees, and desserts. The classes ran from seven to nine and concluded with everyone sitting around a table, eating what they had prepared together. “The first week was always strange because people didn’t know each other, but after eating together, people became more comfortable. By the second week we were having fun. At the end of the course, we were all friends”.
Graziella has maintained friendships with all of her students and regular customers. The back of her cookbook, La Cucina Semplice, which she published in 1994 features letters from people who took her class, detailing their experiences in her kitchen. Toni Ruggeri, one of Graziella’s first students writes, “It was delightful to meet and cook with people from all walks of life, secretaries, doctors, carpenters, plumbers, teachers, lawyers and TV personalities, who all share the same interest in cooking”. Graziella explains, “there is something about food that just brings people together. That is really why I love it.”
Eventually business turned around and Graziella and Joe needed to expand. They bought the building next door, tore down the walls and added an additional 110 seats to their restaurant. They transformed the restaurant into an Italian cultural center, merging Joe’s passion for opera with Graziella’s for food. Soon Graziella’s was known as the “opera lovers rendezvous” because people could dine on gourmet food and listen to up-and -coming opera singers perform arias in between courses. Once a month, they would perform full operas concert style on Sunday afternoons. The opera club that grew from this had nearly eight hundred members, all of whom tried to get one of the one hundred and fifty seats at the performance each month. Many of the young singers went on to great success; two are regulars at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. But the encore was usually a Neapolitan song sung by Joe himself, who brought down the house with his keen narration and charming personality.
In 2003, Graziella helped her youngest son Luciano open Ristorante Luciano, a seasonal restaurant on the Jersey Shore. Two years later, she sold Graziella’s and focused on helping her son full time. “I’m so proud of the business that he has built,” she joyfully brags.
But you won’t find Graziella in the kitchen during service hours there. “It is a closed kitchen and I like to be out with people,” she explains. Instead, she focuses on pastry and specialty items such as homemade cheese gnocchi and chocolate souffl├ęs, making them in the early mornings so she is free at night.
“Right now I am returning back to the traditional dishes that many chefs have lost. We tend to buy everything now in order to save time. But homemade food is so much more delicious. I am focusing on making everything from scratch, the way it was done in the old days.” One such dish is her homemade lasagna; each paper-thin layer of pasta is rolled by hand and topped with b├ęchamel and Bolognese sauce. Her cannoli are another treat; Graziella fries the shells with the same bamboo forms that her mother used when she was a child. “My father made these,’ she says, holding out the tiny tubes in her hand. They are so great for frying cannoli shells because the bamboo stays relatively cool. You can only find metal ones in the stores now, but metal gets too hot.” The result is, thin and crispy shells, the perfect complement to the sweet ricotta filling that is stuffed inside. “They sell like crazy,” she says.
In the evenings, the true Graziella shines on the dining room floor. She is and always was the perfect hostess, bouncing from table to table as if each night were her personal dinner party. At Ristorante Luciano she sees to it that all of her guests are comfortable, happy, and satisfied, just as she would at home. Although she’s given her life to the restaurant, she seems to have it pretty good there, among her family and friends, enjoying the food, sharing laughs and exchanging goodnight hugs.

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