It’s been three years since KLCS spoke to Mary Ann Esposito, our very first Chefs Corner interview. Her long-running show “Ciao Italia” is still on the KLCS Saturday afternoon cooking block, as well as on Create. We reconnected with her to see what she’s been up to since the pandemic and to see what viewers will look forward to seeing in the new season of her show, which stations will begin to air this spring.
Mary Ann, you were ahead of the game when you started filming in your home kitchen pre-2020 when other PBS shows also went into their home kitchens.
(laughs) Yeah, well the producer said to me, “Let’s get out of the studio and make this really, really, real (laughs) and do it in your home kitchen.” And I thought, “Are you kidding?” That was an ordeal, but it worked.
How was filming the new shows post 2020?
After the pandemic started, we did not film in 2020. We took that year off, so then we filmed in 2021 last summer in a cooking school in Salem, New Hampshire because here we are in the middle of a pandemic and I’m thinking, “I don’t know if I want all those people in my kitchen.” So, we had to start thinking really creatively and there was a new Italian cooking school not too far from here, about 45 minutes, and I know the owner. I called him up and said, “I have an idea; I’d like to film the show in your cooking school.” He jumped at the chance. It was a new cooking school; it was a way to get the buzz out about it. So, we cut down the number of shows, instead of 26 shows we did 12. So that series we filmed in August of 2021 is being post-edited right now and will be released this year.
I thought you had new episodes since the pandemic already because I saw you had guests like your producer’s granddaughter and also visited people at their restaurants.
That was the 29th season. What we just filmed in the summer of 2021; it was our 30th season. You feed these shows to the network six months ahead and it’s up to each individual station to decide to [when] put it in their programming. A lot of these stations could still be airing 29 or 28, 27, but they’re all getting the 30th season in the Spring.
You had one episode at an Italian restaurant in Boston, so that must’ve been pre-2020.
Yes, that was 2019, that was at Davio’s.
What’s a typical day like for you now, post 2020?
Right now, I’m in the pre-planning stages for the next season, Season 31, which we would film this summer. But in between all that, I wrote a new book. During the pandemic, we were not able to film, I decided to write the vegetable book I always wanted to write, which is based on the “Ciao Italia” garden because we always had one or two episodes directly from the garden in each season. So, I wrote a new book, all about Italian style vegetables, and also the book is about how to plant a simple garden because I started thinking about, “What’s everybody thinking about right now?” Everybody’s turning inward, everybody’s at home, everybody’s cooking, everybody’s into – “Where’s my food coming from?” So, I thought a book about the vegetables we grow in our garden, which is over 20 different kinds. Plus, recipes that are Italian-inspired, plus how about some simple information about, “Hey, you want to plant your tomatoes? Here’s what you have to do.” “You like broccoli rabe? Let me tell you what to do.” So, it’s a vegetable garden/cookbook and it’s coming out this Fall. It’s called “Ciao Italia: Plant, Harvest, Cook” with over 120 recipes and beautiful photos. So, I wrote the book, then we had to do all the photography for the book. I just finished doing the photographs for it yesterday. And now I’m re-starting up my tours because of course we couldn’t go to Italy, so all those tours were put on hold, so I’ve got two going this year. One in May to Sicily that’s overbooked and one going in the end of September that is also overbooked because people just want to get out. And I’ve missed not being in Italy because for 19 years I would go every year, a couple times a year. And when we couldn’t go, I started looking at Italy footage online, anything I could read on Italy (laughs), or travel vicariously through the Internet, that’s what I was doing. I was signing up for all kinds of things – art and artists talking about Michelangelo or Dante, virtually, that’s how I was going to Italy, vicariously on the Internet. So now I’m really, really ready to go, so my first tour is in May. Hold on one second, because while you were calling me, I was making bread (laughs), my machine is buzzing. So that’s how I kept my connection, plus I was always talking to my friends in Italy giving me updates on the pandemic. My goal this year is we get all of our funding is to film in Italy sometime this coming year; I’ve got somebody working on that. We did a whole new website, that was another thing we did. I hired people to do our social media platforms. We wanted to beef that up, so we worked on that. Plus, working on my foundation, which is to get money in those coffers for scholarships for culinary students. Money has been slow to come this year to the foundation.
What does the foundation do?
Raise money to help culinary students who are in approved culinary degree programs; to help them financially, so they can realize their goal. We provide scholarships to places like Boston University and New York City Tech, the Italian American Museum in New York City, they have a cooking school. Any student who is serious about learning and studying about Italian food as their goal in becoming a chef, is eligible for funds from the foundation. Plus, the second tier of that is to establish a digital legacy-library of traditional recipes that eventually will be lost to time. Recipes that have lost touch in Italy as well as here can be archived so that there will always be a resource for people to go to, free, to find out about traditional recipes that no longer seem to have a standing. And this is true for Italians as well as Italian- Americans, because there are many Italians, young people who have not been able to devote time to cooking or want to be in a kitchen because their circumstances require them to be in the work force, so they don’t remember how Nona made that Easter pie that I get questions on all the time. So, gathering this kind of feedback, where I’m always getting questions like, “I remember her doing this,” or “I remember we had that, but I don’t know how to make it,” “It comes from Abruzzo, can you help me?” So, this digital library is a focal point for those kinds of recipes that we can identify and say, “This is what you’re looking for.”
You mentioned travel, in the old episodes you traveled to Italy.
The last time we were in Italy, we were there in 2019 when we filmed in Tuscany at the Banfi Vinters in Montalcino. We did several episodes there. And then, of course, the pandemic hit and the rest of the programs had to be stateside and done very carefully. Like when we filmed last year in the cooking school, we had a live audience. That was new for “Ciao Italia.” We’ve had people come in the studio and watch, but never a live audience. This was different. This was John Doe off the street wanting to come in and sit in and watch this show being produced. That necessitated all kinds of protocols. Everyone had to wear a mask, everyone had to be vaccinated. We had to seat you six feet apart, I couldn’t mingle with everyone outside the studio, I couldn’t let anyone take pictures with me. I couldn’t stand next to them. But we pulled it off. We were very careful and we managed to do that season, which I’m kind of looking back on it and saying, “Gee, how did we ever do that?” But we did it. And that’s the season that will air this Spring, probably starting in April or May.
When you take your group to Italy, what do you do?
It’s a 10-day food tour. They are going to be immersed in Italian regional, depending
on the region that we’re in. So, the last trip we took, which was in 2018, was in Sicily.
That’s the tour we’re going to repeat this year. So, you arrive, we get you organized.
On day one you may be going to see how ricotta cheese is made. One day two you might be going to see how Sfogliatelle, from Naples, is made. You do two hands-on cooking classes with me. You go to the market so you can see what are the local products of this region and how are we going to cook them. So, you’re in a cooking school with me for two days, everybody cooks, you have your own station. We do four or five recipes at a time, which then becomes our meal for that day. Everybody’s cooking, I’m running around showing them how to do a scaloppini. And then at the end, when everything is ready, we all sit down at a beautifully-appointed table and the staff of that cooking school then serves us the meal that we have just made! Then Guy, my husband, who is a wine educator, does a wine seminar with them. He will hold a seminar at the hotel explaining the wines of Sicily or the wines of Tuscany, wherever we are. Then there are related cultural things that go on. For instance, the last time we were in Sicily, I said, “Who would like to see a Sicilian puppet show?” Because I love the Sicilian puppet show, this is a dying tradition. There are very few puppeteers left in Sicily. The last time I checked, there were three major ones all in the Palermo area.
Have you thought about filming some of these trips?
We have over the years. So, they get culture; one year when we were in Rome, we decided, “Ok, were going to go the Vatican museums and we’re going to see the Sistine chapel by night, only our group. You have to pay extra for this, but it was worth it. So, there we were – 22 people all by ourselves in the Sistine Chapel without being a sardine in a can trying to look up. They get a lot of that. But it is a food related tour, so we’re thinking about food every day, we’re looking at food, we’re cooking the food, we’re eating the food, we’re talking about the food. That’s how it’s always been designed and this is my 19th year of doing these tours.
This coming trip will be a little tricky because of the protocols.
This trip will be tricky because no one can go on this trip unless they are fully vaccinated, number two, you will have to wear your mask on the bus with me because we’re not taking any chances, even though I keep checking with what is going on in Italy and right now in general, 75 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Plus, they’re getting very strict in Italy because friends of mine who live in Reggio Emilia tell me that randomly they have people on the street, if you’re trying to get on the train or something, they’ll ask you to show you their vaccination card. And the last time I checked, which was over a week ago, you still could not go in a public building, restaurant, without a mask. By May I’m hoping that this damn thing has said goodbye, but we’re still going to be cautious.
Has 2020 changed you and what have you learned, if anything, from it?
Oh my God, of course I have! I’ve learned that the best laid plans of man, forget it, you’re not in charge of anything. Because we have no control, or what control we do have has been, I don’t want to get political, but not everybody sings from the same hymn book, if you know what I mean.
But you must’ve felt safe in your lovely house by the lake.
Yeah, I felt safe but I felt cooped up.
After we spoke to you, we spoke to Martin Yan and he talked about how lovely your house was by the lake.
I know, I love Martin. Martin stayed here; we did an event together at the university. It was called “Mary Ann Can Cook” (laughs), now that I think about it, it was pretty clever. It was like East-Meets-West. And Martin stayed here.
Anyways, you were saying you felt cooped up.
I felt cooped up, it was not easy. Especially in the beginning when we were so unsure of this virus. People were saying, “Don’t go out and buy your groceries,” but that’s not me, I have to look at everything. So, I tried having groceries delivered once and that was the end of that (laughs) because what I got was so poor. We were bringing things in like everybody else, putting them in the garage, washing everything with soap and water, it was nuts. Wiping everything down, it was just crazy.
Did you film some episodes of the new season in your kitchen?
No. they were all filmed in the cooking school, the 12 episodes.
Which ironic, because so many other PBS cooking shows started filming in their home kitchen and you started to go out of your kitchen and with the public.
But with a lot of caution.
But what made you want to do a public show rather than at home if you were dialed in at home before that?
Because I did not want all those people in my kitchen at the height of the pandemic, when I could be in this bigger higher ceiling cooking school.
So, in your house, you can’t just have just one person?
Oh no, we have a crew. We have a sound person, the executive producer. WGBH in April, “Weekends with Yankee,” they wanted to a piece with me. When they came, they had a crew and I had to take a Covid test and we filmed in this kitchen but they all wore masks, they all had to take tests. But for this latest series, besides the pandemic, I wanted to keep it current and new. If you constantly do the same thing over and over, it gets old; so I thought being in the cooking school was a novel idea and people could ask me questions while we were filming.
You always have an Italian twist on a dish, do you ever worry about running out of recipes?
Oh God, no, are you kidding me? I could do this series for another 30 years, if I would live that long, because there’s so much to know about Italian regional food. One of the things I did in the new season, I did an Easter cake from Abruzzo that I had never heard before, and I did a lot of research on this cake. So, I decided we’re going to make it. See, these are the kind of recipes that are going to be in that digital library. These are the old-fashioned recipes that a lot of people don’t make anymore. They go to the bakery and they buy them. So, this is an example of – you don’t know anything, you’ve hardly scratched the surface. Here we are 30 years later and we’re still banging out shows that are all new. I have to say there are cooking shows that just repeat themselves. We don’t do that; we’re always giving you something new.
What keeps you going and doing what you do? You could easily retire if you wanted to.
I could, but why? I hate that word. I love what I do. People ask me if I cook at home, I’m thinking, “Are you really asking me a question like that?” I just took out two beautiful looking loaves of anise bread with figs in it with wild grains, which I made today. I’m cooking all the time. It just gives me a great deal of satisfaction and I just love doing it, so I never tire of it. As long as I have something to say and it makes sense and it helps people and it widens their horizon about what real Italian food is, then why not?
When you don’t feel like cooking, what is an easy healthy dish to make?
Oh gosh, well, I made carbonara yesterday because a lot of people don’t know how to make carbonara. And, it’s easy once you know what you’re doing, it’s only got four ingredients (laughs). But I usually like to make a vegetable soup, in fact that’s what we’re having tonight, we’re having vegetable soup with grains and olive bread and a salad.
How do you make the vegetable soup?
I go down to my freezer I have three freezers, I take out the pureed tomatoes that I did last summer from our garden. So, I take the juice from tomatoes. I start with a sofrito, I dice up an onion, a carrot, a piece of celery, I put it in the pot and get it soft. Then I put in the tomato juice defrosted, I add salt, pepper, cheese rinds from parmesan cheese, I cut them up like little croutons. I cook the grain separately because I don’t want to get the soup too thick. I add them. I’ll use faro or wild rice, I add a squeeze of lemon juice, simple. And it’s delicious. Sometimes I’ll add cannellini beans, I’ll take a can, rinse them well, add them and fresh basil or whatever herbs I have. And a nice slice of homemmade bread and a salad, there you have it, there’s dinner. Easy. And fish is always easy to do, we do a lot of fish cooking. Here in New England, we have all kinds of fish we can utilize. One of the things my husband loves is baked cod with beautiful bread crumbs over the top, moisten it with some butter and on the side have some asparagus and steamed artichoke, something like that. We try to eat the Mediterranean diet because that’s what I’m always talking about. Want to know what we made for lunch today?
I had the heels of bread that I made, so I sliced it and put it in the toaster and had this avocado that was kind of going bad, so I mashed it up, I put it in a bowl and added lemon juice, diced up sharp cheddar cheese, I took some pistachio nuts and chopped them up and mixed it all in. I toasted the bread, I put a little olive oil on it, then I put this avocado mash over the top and we had that with sliced apples and cheese. That was lunch and it was good and healthy. I had sharp cheddar cheese that I grated over the top. It was really good.
I find the challenge with cooking is cleaning. How often do you clean your stove top? Like you, I sauté a lot and it gets grease even on the cabinets around the stove. Any tips?
I clean my cook top after dinner every night because I hate a dirty stove and I’ll wipe around the tiles. I usually use vinegar and paper towels to wipe the tiles down. On the cooktop, Dawn makes this spray thing and it sits on the cooktop for a while and then you wipe it off, because, if you do it every day it doesn’t become a problem. Otherwise, if you have all that grease build up, yuck, yuck, yuck.
So the cabinets don’t get greasy?
I take great care and make sure I’m not splattering things everywhere. We clean them down now and then.
I liked the episodes in 2019, when you were last in your kitchen, and episodes like when the granddaughter of your producer was in the kitchen with you.
Before we started filming the season, I had speaking engagements; I was in a hotel and I had to stay overnight because the next morning I was giving this talk. And I didn’t really care for the room, it wasn’t great, but that’s where they had put me up. So, the next day I go to do the talk and I’m in front of this big luncheon group. And then I drive home. The next morning is the day before we are going to film the first show. We were going to begin filming the new season and I woke up and I had bed bug bites all over me. I had to go to the doctor, who puts me on steroids, and Guy said, “You brought bed bugs home from the hotel, we’re going to have to fumigate this whole house.” “What? Tomorrow, we’re filming ‘Ciao Italia.’” I’m really ticked off and I let this hotel know and it wound up being a $16,000 bill and I had to have people come in here and fumigate. The day they decide to fumigate is right in the middle of filming ‘Ciao Italia,’ so you can just imagine having to keep your mind as if nothing else is wrong, your arms are itching, you’re on steroids, you’ve got these fumigators in your bedroom, but let’s make this cookie! (laughs) People always see a streamlined ending, a beginning, a middle and end. They have no idea what sometimes can go behind the scenes. But that was more than I wanted to deal with.
Is there anything you’d like to add to our viewers?
Your viewers could sign for our free Posta, which is our newsletter that goes out every month. I just wrote the one for March and it’ll give you tips on what we’re doing, special recipes, how you can get the book on a pre-order. And it’s free.
Check out klcs.org/schedule to find the broadcast schedule for Ciao Italia. Keep-up with everything-Mary Ann, including her monthly newsletter Posta, on her website: ciaoitalia.com or follow her social media @ciaoitaliashow on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, and on Facebook at: facebook.com/maryannesposito.