Full Exclusive interview with Ciao Italia’s Mary Ann Esposito
“Ciao Italia” calls itself “Americas Longest Running CookingShow,” making Mary Ann Esposito one of the few hosts still on PBS when the legend who started it all – Julia Child – was still on the air.
KLCS viewers whose guilty pleasure is to religiously watch the Saturday afternoon cooking lineup, probably noticed last season’s older repeat shows with Mary Ann, making us wonder, “Where did she go?” Well, she’s back with not only all new shows, and a new book “Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy” out Nov. 1, but something special this season that’s never been done before.
And for the Italophiles who wait for Mary Ann’s little culinary history lesson, she doesn’t disappoint. Each episode starts with her at the map of Italy in the kitchen as she points to a different region, starting the little Italian cooking lesson that we’ve come to love and rely on all these years by this passionate teacher.
As one of those PBS cooking show nerds who’ve watched these shows from those early years, to get to talk this PBS cooking icon, her enthusiasm for teaching and learning is noticeably as genuine off air as it’s always been for years on TV. While people have called her a legend herself now, with the time she’s logged on PBS and in decades of demos and book signings, Mary Ann happily sees herself more humbly as a home cook, teacher and evangelist of all things food from Italy, rather than TV cooking icon. “That’s part of the longevity of ‘Ciao Italia,’ because people see it as an approachable cuisine,” Mary Ann says.
Last year I noticed we ran reruns from your show from 10 years ago, and I worried you were gone. Finally you’re back now with new shows and I feel like you’re in your home kitchen.
You got all that right. We took a year off and we took 26 past shows and combined them into something called “Cooking with Friends” where we picked people that we cooked with over the years. But now, since then we’ve produced two new series, so you’re watching season 27 which is filmed in my kitchen. We just finished wrapping another season that will air in the spring of 2019. So, phew! I’m so glad you’re getting it.
Why were you off the air last year?
We just thought it was time to take a year off because its so involved. All of our series are given to every public television station across the country for free. So it’s up to the programmers. These come across their desk and they have to decide, “Do I want to run this or don’t I want to run this?” We’re in 95 percent of all the markets nationwide.
I love the new season, you’re always standing at the map of Italy and it looks like your home kitchen. Is there anything you want to say about the season that’s airing now?
(laughs) The season that’s airing now is the very first one that we took out of the studio because my producer Paul Lally wanted more of a home feel. That was all well and good, but if anybody knows anything about producing a cooking show, is that you can’t live in your own home (laughs) when they’re doing that because everything has to be changed, and windows have to be gelled. We did 20 shows in 10 days, two shows a day, 60 recipes, three recipes per show and then we did six shows on location. So there are six location shows. Then we did the same thing this year. We just wrapped another 26 shows. Our cycle is that we film them in August usually and then they go out for post, editing and all that. And then they usually show up on the network May or early June. Cooking in your own kitchen – there are many benefits to that in the sense that you know where everything is, when you’re in a studio, you’ve got to remember the strainer is in that drawer over there, so it’s different. But it is a grind because we can’t even budge. (laughs)
What did you during your year off did you do anything fun?
I wrote this book, which took me 2 years. I took a group to Italy, I taught an online course at Boston University. And then this year I went to Ireland, I took a group to Italy, I finished the book, I did a series. (laughs) You know that kind of thing.
As we all grew up together to watch these shows on PBS, I think you’re one of the only PBS shows now on the air when Julia Child was still on the air, am I right?
She had a show in the mid 90s. Our show started airing in 1989. Actually Julia was on our show, Julia was on a segment. If you go back in the archives online, you can find it. We did a birthday cake for her for her 88th or 89th birthday. But when my show aired, and it was on simultaneously with her, other shows that were on PBS at that time, were Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, Martin Yan and Jacques Pepin. That was it.
Martin’s back, we’re airing him now on the Saturday lineup.
Oh Martin’s back? Oh good, I love him.
So you met Julia obviously, since you had her on your show.
Oh yeah, before that I’ve seen Julia many times because Julia was in Boston in Cambridge and I live in New Hampshire, so I would go to events that she was going to as well. But I remember when we decided to do ‘Ciao Italia,’ the first thing I did was call her. I called her for advice because I’d never done this before. (laughs and talks like Julia) “Get a good lawyer!” And over the years of course and her birthday was in August and mine was in August, so we’d trade birthday cards. She was a force.
Did she give you any other advice about cooking about TV?
She gave me that advice and she just said, “Be yourself.” And that’s right. Be yourself, and I think I’ve stuck to that.
You’re one of the only connections to that time on PBS. What made you originally want to cook on TV then?
I was spending time in Italy in cooking schools. I had written this article about the cooking schools of Italy for a magazine. It was a contest thing and under my pen name, because it was supposed to be written by a physician, but it was written by me because he couldn’t do it. So I did it and never thought he would win (laughs).
At the same time I was teaching culinary classes at the University of New Hampshire and also taught adult education classes. And I had a catering business, so all of that played into it. When I came back from a trip to Italy, my husband said, “You ought to think about doing a local cable show,” because we had a PBS station in our town. I never thought about a national show. I thought about just doing a little local show. You have to remember, this is New Hampshire I live in, so you could hardly find an Italian to try to explain the whole picture, it wasn’t like being in an Italian community in Boston, or New York, places were there big pockets of Italian Americans, this was New Hampshire. It was a hard sell. But I approached the public television station, I gave them a proposal, I said this is what I’d like to do, “I’d like to teach a little local class on cable about Italian food.” They said, “No, we can’t do that, because we don’t have a facility”, it was every excuse in the book. So I just went back to doing what I was doing, and a year later they built a new studio and they kept my proposal and they called me and said, “Would you consider doing a pilot program for us?” I said, “Yes.” So they came to my kitchen and they sent it out to see what kind of reaction it would get and it got good reaction, so they said, “Ok, we’re going to produce a series. Now we have to find the money to produce.” This was local PBS but then in the second season of it, because it was getting good viewership, national PBS picked it up.
The world of TV and media has changed so much since then, what keeps it fun for you? You obviously enjoy doing it because you’re still doing it.
What keeps it fun for me is that the subject itself is too vast for anyone to truly get a grip on it. We’re talking about Italy as a country that’s only been unified since 1861 but has a history that’s thousands of years old. Within that timeframe of unification, you have loosely unified 20 distinct region, all with their own way of cooking and local folklore and all that. So I drew on all of that kind of information, as you know from me going to that map all the time – that these were individual regions and they had their individual way of cooking. So we can’t think of Italian cooking as spaghetti and meatballs and deep dish Chicago-style pizza. And not only that, that it’s such a vast subject, but in my travels in the last 30 years, which is the basis for the latest book, I have met purveyors, artisan cheese makers, pastry makers, bread makers, prosciutto ham curers, but that’s all been a whole new world to me that opened up from the time I started the cooking show in 1989 to the present. What I say in the book – I’m in a very different place now than I was when I did my first television show, because I’ve had this opportunity to really take the shoe laces off the boot and look and see what’s inside. So I’ve done a lot of traveling, a lot of asking questions, a lot of testing of recipes, and all these things go into journals and these journals become the basis for the books that I write.
What kind of feedback do you get from fans in general? I would call us ‘PBS cooking show nerds’ growing up gazing at all of you back then, watching you, Julia and the Galloping Gourmet and others.
I get a lot of feedback. Mostly our audience is women between 35 up to whatever. We do have younger viewers through our Facebook feed, but in general, listen, everyday we have to put something on Facebook for something to look at because they’re hungry for this or that. And I get questions like, “Oh, when you made that, it reminded me of my aunt. And can you find the recipe that she made?” (laughs)
What’s the feedback from L.A. fans? They watch you here on KLCS.
That’s one of our huge markets. Los Angeles is at the top of the list and I’m going to be in Burbank in a few days because I’m going to make an appearance on the Hallmark Channel, promoting the book. I get lots of good feedback from there.
Speaking of different regions in Italy, are cooking show fans different when you go to different regions of our country when you meet them?
Yeah. For instance, if I go to Maine, their knowledge of Italian food is based on Italian-American stuff – spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, but do they have an idea of what speck is or semolina bread? No, because their world is small about knowing anything about Italian good, but if I go to New York City, it’s entirely different, you get people who’ve been around, they’ve traveled more. And now our viewers, they’re smart because they’ve been around Italy, they can relate to what I’m talking about on Facebook or any other social media platforms, or in my books, because, “Hey, I was just in Amalfi and I know what you’re saying about those lemons, they are huge.” You have that now. You didn’t have that in 1989 when people didn’t travel as much. So yeah, depending on where I am. If I’m in Louisiana, and I’m talking about the feast of the seven fishes, everybody knows what I’m talking about. Go to Michigan and mention that and they have no clue (laughs). I think you’re more relevant with your message in places where there are high pockets of Italian-American, not that I’m not saying that non-Italian Americans don’t appreciate Italian food, but the knowledge base of Italian food is more relevant with Italian-Americans, because they know what Parmigiano-Reggiano is. If I said, “What’s the difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino cheese?” maybe they could tell me. But I don’t think most non-Italians could tell you this.
What’s the most popular question you get from your fans?
Do you cook home?
Do you cook at home?
Yes (laughs). Absolutely I test all this stuff. I am the chief designer of the cookbook, I’m the creator of the show, I decide where we’re going to go in Italy, what we’re put in the cookbook, what we’re going to cook, what we’re going to cook for the fans. Yeah, this is an overwhelming consuming job, so I don’t have a slew of testers testing recipes for me because I want my fingers in that pot so I know for sure, I know those recipes are going to work because I made them.
Going back to your show being around when Julia was still on TV, do people give you feedback that your show is like going back to a kinder time for some of us, a different world, a quieter time, do you get that feedback at all about your show taking them back?
Oh my God. I get that feedback a lot and I always say, “It’s a pity that we now have a to cook with a timer at our heads, because if you can’t do it in a minute, five minutes. You look at some of these shows and rush, rush, rush, rush, rush. The difference between then and now, is that then – it was instructional, educational, fun and tasty. Now, it is just chaos, because we’ve turned these shows into entertainment to the point that it’s ridiculous. I’m not going cut a cake with a chain saw. What is the role of that? Who in their right mind is going to do something like this. I would say the difference is that that whole educational slow down learn something about the ingredients that you’re putting together to make something.
Thank God for you still being on the air, because we need more of that kind of philosophy. What keeps you going each season?
I love history, I love research, I love learning something new again. In the cookbook that I just put out, I put a recipe in there for something called La Torta Mimosa. And La Torta Mimosa has everything to do with International Women’s Day on March 8. So, as I was listening to all these women come forward about different things, and trying to claim their place, I thought, “I wonder what Italians do to promote women?” So I did some research and I found out that March 8 in Italy they make this cake. It’s a beautiful cake called La Torta Mimosa, and it’s called that because on that day, women in Italy are given a yellow flower, the mimosa flower. So you make a cake which is a sponge cake, fill it with a pastry cream and then you cut up small pieces of cake and you cover the whole cake. The whole cake is made in a bowl. You make a sponge cake, then you cut it in several layers, and you just get out a Pyrex bowl, push one layer in the bowl that’s line with plastic wrap and fill it with pastry cream and put another layer of cake, pastry cream, cake pastry cream. You wrap it up, put it in the refrigerator and then you turn it over, so now it looks like an igloo and you cover the top of the cake with more pastry cream and you fill in with these small pieces of cake and it’s gorgeous. And it’s easy to do. I know it sounds complicated, but it’s very easy. But I would not have known about that cake, if I had not done some research. And I want to put some things in my book that are relevant, I don’t want the same recipes. There are people who do this, who just repeat the same things, who call it a different title and it’s the same old stuff.
What do want people to know about your new cookbook?
This new book, I titled it “Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy” because it covers 30 years of me traveling back and forth, meeting all these wonderful farmers, cheese purveyors, you name it, and I tell their stories in this book, along with 150 beautiful recipes that promote the regional foods of the various regions of Italy, that you can create in your own kitchen. So this book is part memoir, it’s a recipe book, but it’s a travelogue, and it’s a book where I have collected and written a lot of essays on how the foods of Italy have affected me and my perspective on those foods. So it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a travelogue, it’s a memoir, it’s a history book, it’s got beautiful photography, over 60 beautiful food photos. And then there are scenes of Italy taken by me over the last 30 years that I put in the book, so I made it very personal book.
In your show a few years ago, you did snippets at the very end and you would do a little video from Italy, which opens up a world for those people who don’t like to leave their couch.
I know, that’s a good thing, that’s a good thing.
You’re back in Los Angeles in November to promote your book on Hallmark Channel, but when was the last time you were in L.A. before that?
Oh my god, I was at the Peninsula Hotel when I did my first book, that’s how long it’s been – 1991 (laughs).
Ciao Italia airs Saturdays at 2 pm on KLCS