Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Well, I liked the song the first 37 times I heard it.


So, Xavier would escort Graziella in the white limousine to the appropriate Gino Vannelli hosting casino where, according to Graziella, Gino would perform his hits with sweaty, hair-tossing abandon. Her only complaint was about the other attendees: “They’re a all so old! I couldn’t even bum a hit off of any of them. The only thing those broads have in their purses are estrogen patches and jars of Esoterica. And you can’t get high off an estrogen patch. Believe me, I tried! It’s a no good.”

After her return from her first concert, it was fun to hear the stories about the show and the people she had met. Her return from her second trip, well, not so much. I still enjoyed the stories, but on her arrival back to my house, she said, “The show was great, but it’s a so nice to be home.”

HOME!?! I did not know what I was going to do. But then a lovely little thing called You Tube provided divine intervention.

“There’s a this one song that a I love!” Graziella said as she expertly surfed the web. Her fingers flew over the keyboard with the manual dexterity of a technologically savvy teenager as she pulled up the video for “Black Cars”. “You a know, I hear his music and I a can’t sit still” And with this she began to start cleaning my house. She grabbed a dust rag and she started cleaning! It was an act of GOD. Okay, I have never been one to download music off the internet because I think it’s a little pricey and the radio is free, but I have never whipped out a credit card so fast in my entire life! For the low price of $ 8.99, I downloaded her idol’s greatest hits and I have never had a house so clean!

The only problem was that she liked to hear certain songs with a fair regularity. I’m convinced that water boarding would be far less effective as a form of torturing war criminals than subjecting them to 50 listenings of Gino Vannelli’s classic “I Just Wanna Stop” I almost told her enough was enough, but when she said she thought the tile floors could use a waxing, I thought it best to let nature take its course. I tried to put on headphones, but apparently Gino Vannelli was to be a shared experience. She said, ‘No, this is a the best part! Listen!” She wanted to listen with me! So, the best thing I could do is start making lunch and hope the sound of the food processor would provide me with a bit of reprieve. And it did. Lunch was served outside……….in silence…………thank God. 

Basil Pesto
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup pine nuts
⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese
1. Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add ½ cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Well, I liked the song the first 37 times I heard it

I don’t remember saying the exact words “Of COURSE you can stay here!” but some way, somehow, that’s what was understood by Graziella Radioli. And I really didn’t mind. I had the space for her (and her driver, Xavier) but I just can’t pinpoint the exact moment I had invited them to stay at my house. I actually like having house guests. But there are house guests and there are those who simply do not understand the 5 day rule.

The Five-Day Rule:

Here’s the deal. I love my friends and I know they truly love me. I mean, I had a BBQ last week with about 100 people at any given time over to my house and I know that if push came to shove, I had at least 20 potential organ donors in that group. Some friends would give you the shirt off your back, well, I've got friends that would pony up a kidney if need be. THAT is a friend. Well, we all love each other for a reason: this group knows when it’s time to go home!

This is more related to vacations than anything else. My college buddy Jim has always commended me on my internal vacation clock. He lives in New York and has been very kind over the years in allowing me and others to stay at his place gratis. He knows I would rather spend my New York vacation dollars in restaurants than for hotels rooms, so he has accommodated my presence many times over the years knowing it will increase my joy (and waistline) during what is often the few days I take off from work in any given year. He is more than willing to let me stay because he knows that on the 5 day mark, I’m on my way. And even though someone may be a good house guest, there comes a time when the host can no longer comfortably hold in gas and really, really wants to be alone. Graziella Radioli is not one of these people.

As I said, I enjoy having house guests. For 5 days. Not for a MONTH! Unbeknownst to me, Graziella Radioli was a Gino Vannelli groupie and she arrived just in time for the Upper Midwest’s Summer Gino Vannelli Season and my house was equidistance from every Gino Vannelli performance in a 32 day period. In his day, Gino Vannelli was a fairly popular singer, and quite a handsome guy, but recent plastic surgery augmentations have given him the vague appearance of a cast member of The Real Housewives of Istanbul rather than the hirsute pop icon he once was. I really didn’t see the draw, but Graziella said Gino was her first rock and roll crush and, to her, he still looked the same as the first time she saw him. That’s love. 

To be continued

Sunday, November 30, 2014

You'd think my Mother would get tired of being wrong.

.....well, apparently not.

“Italians don’t each Chicken Meatballs!” And that was that. From that moment on, in my Mother’s mind, Italians could not possibly, under any circumstances, for any reason, eat meatballs made with chicken. “It just seems wrong.” My Mom had a tendency to make assumptions with regard to what people should and should not put in their mouths. And as of that moment, chicken meatballs had been added to her ongoing internal list.

It reminds me of an incident that happened during a family gathering in the 80's. (If you happen to play the harp, now would be a good time to run your fingers across the strings in a cascading fashion and provide a musical transition to help launch us back in time.) Anyway. I can't remember the reason, but everyone was at the house for something. I'm not sure if it was a graduation, or a birthday, but I do remember there was cake because I nearly choked on it.  

A lot of us were in the family room watching Oprah. This was back when Oprah was trashy. This was pre-"Ah-Ha Moment" This was Oprah when the topics ran along the lines of "I think my dog is trans-gender" to "Men who lactate and the women who love them." These were not Oprah's finer television moments. None of us was really paying attention until Oprah said the phrase "oral sex."
The room became quiet.


Well, Oprah's guests seemed to have a great deal to say about the subject and with each audience comment, the home audience at the Zila household became more and more uncomfortable. But the cake-choking moment came when my Mother stated with disgust, "People don't do that!" Then my Father, sitting in the corner, shook his head slowly and softly said, "Nope, they sure don't." At that moment, I learned more about my parents' relationship than I really cared to know. Ever.  And I also learned about the hazards of eating dry cake without a beverage close at hand. But now my Mother had made the declaration. And once my Mother made this type of statement, it became fact in her mind.

You see, for my Mom, any type of food she did not grow up eating sounded either exotic or disgusting. When cooking for her I have found that it is best to keep things simple if not completely identifiable. Occasionally I can sneak in new things, but there is always that risk of a culinary confrontation. The problem more becomes trying to explain what it is before the dish gets cold. And God forbid a meal gets cold! By the time I finished telling her what broccolini actually was, it was as cold as ice. I had made the mistake of telling her it was a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale.

“Kale? Isn’t that a garnish?” I knew at that point she would have no part of it. I could see it on her face. All she was imagining was the prickly green with a lemon wedge nestled into it accompanying her favorite TGI Friday’s fried jumbo shrimp. There would be no convincing her that kale, in any derivative form, would be edible. But we had been down this culinary road before so I have been forced to develop covert methods of introducing foods that had been previously deemed as inedible. I had my ways.

And wasn’t her fault really. She was a Midwestern meat and potatoes girl. Most of my friends’ parents were the exact same way. It was a generational thing, I understood this, but being a chef made it not a little frustrating. Although, when I do make her something she has never had before and she loves it, I am a golden god! To this day, my Mom is convinced I invented quesadillas. God bless her.

I tell her I’ll cook for her and she’ll sometimes ask, “Could we have those things?” And by ‘things’ I know she means quesadillas. I have made them for her 30 times over the years and each time she is more thrilled than the last.

Anyway, I have learned my lesson: just don’t tell her what it IS! Mentally, my Mom is sharp as a tack, but culinarily, I have to treat her like a kid.

“What is this?”

“They’re meatballs Mom.”

She started eating and then smiled. I realize I have achieved victory!

“But they’re so light. What’s in them?”

“They’re Chicken Meatballs.”

“You tricked me!"

"I could get you something different if you'd like."

"Not on your life!........So we’re eating like Italians then?”

“We’re getting there Mom. We're getting there.” And I happily watch her devour her meal. Now the broccolini hurdle.

Chicken Meatballs (Polpette di Pollo)
Serves 6
For meatballs:
3 slices Italian bread, torn into small pieces (1 cup)
⅓ cup milk
3 ounces sliced pancetta, finely chopped
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large egg
1 pound ground chicken
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon tomato paste

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

2. Soak bread in milk in a small bowl until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. In a large sauté pan, cook pancetta, onion, and garlic in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with
    ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper over medium heat until onion is softened, about 6 to 8 minutes.
    Cool slightly.
4. Squeeze bread to remove excess milk and then discard milk. Lightly beat egg in a large bowl and
    then combine with chicken, pancetta mixture, bread, and parsley. Form 24 meatballs and arrange in
    another 4-sided sheet pan.

5. Stir together tomato paste and remaining tablespoon of olive oil and brush over meatballs, then
    bake in upper third of oven until meatballs are just cooked through, about 15 minutes or until an
    instant-read thermometer reaches 145ºF when inserted into one of the meatballs.

Monday, November 17, 2014

She walked on to my sidewalk like she was walking onto a yacht

Graziella didn’t walk so much as she glided. I had never seen anyone walk quite like that before. It was elegant and a bit affected, all at the same time, but intriguing. It was as if she knew someone was watching her. And, of course, we were.

Giacomo ‘Jack’ Radioli leaned forward in his armchair to glance outside the living room window. “She looks good,” he commented. “She a always looksa best six weeks after the pull.” He said, nodding. Gina and Laura nodded in agreement.

“Yeah,” Laura said, “the first few weeks after an appointment” she said, making imaginary quotation marks in the air, “Mamma’s so bloated and swollen”

“And TIGHT!” Gina added. “She looks like a surprised water balloon.”

They all nodded slowly in agreement.

Looking over at Jack and then glancing out of the window to the woman approaching my house, it was hard to believe Graziella and Jack were the same age. Jack didn’t look bad, but he looked like a 70 year old man and Graziella looked like a woman who was desperately trying not to look 70 years old.

“Don’t make her ring the doorbell. She hates that for some reason.” Gina said.

But I understood this. We had chatted on the phone the week before and she had given me a fairly detailed time itinerary of her trip. A woman like Graziella expected that you would know she was coming, and if you knew when she was coming, why on earth would you make her wait at the door?”

I opened the door to greet her. “Ciao!”

“Oh Ciao BELLO! Devi essere Terry!”

“Sì, certo.” I replied and was greeted not with the expected air kisses to either side of my face, but two full-contact cheek kisses. I was surprised by the open affection. I had expected her to be a bit more guarded and was pleasantly surprised she was not.

She held my hand as she turned to greet her daughters and ex-husband. She released my hand and extended her arms to commence the familial group hug.

They all started speaking but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Gina must have seen the confusion on my face and said, “It’s Sicilian.” Italian I understood, dialect, not so much.

After the love fest, we all glanced at each other and burst out laughing. Our faces were covered in red lipstick, but oddly, Graziella’s lipstick was not smudged in the least. That was an art.

After I had passed around the tissue so we could remove the residual cosmetics from our faces, Graziella took Jack's arm and we all walked out to the patio to have a beverage and Gina said to her Mother, “Terry has a surprise for you!”

The women made themselves comfortable while Jack opened some Prosecco and I brought out the Lemon Tarragon Sorbetto I had made for Graziella upon Gina’s recommendation.

“È magnifico bello” she beamed, “But a what is that?!” She said pointing her manicured finger to the Espresso Shortbread Caramel Almond Tart I had made that was on the patio table. “I woulda like a piece of that!”

“I thought you didn’t eat dessert like that.”

“My daughters told a you that didn'ta they?. Well, I don’ta like bad dessert, but after this sorbetto, I would trust you with my life! And you know.” Graziella whispered in my ear, “my daughters don’t know everything about a me. We will talk.”

And I could hardly wait!!


Chocolate, Almond and Caramel Tart in Espresso Shortbread Crust

For the Crust:
½ cup powdered sugar
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ cup rice flour
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1 ½ sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

For the Filling:
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
½ cup Mrs. Richardson's caramel

For the Mousse:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9-inch removable bottom tart pan with
parchment spray with a baking spray such as Pam.
2. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse both flours, espresso powder, and powdered sugar until combined.
3. Add butter and pulse until the mixture forms a dough.
4. Empty contents of food processor bowl into a mixing bowl and slightly knead the
dough to make sure all ingredients are fully combined.
5. With floured fingertips, press dough into prepared tart pan and freeze for 20 minutes.
6. Bake crust until golden, about 20-25 minutes.
While crust is baking, prepare mousse:

1. Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler. When chocolate is almost melted, remove from heat and whisk until smooth.
2. In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine eggs, yolks, and sugar and whisk. Place mixer bowl over the double boiler and whisk until the mixture is warm to the touch.
3. Place egg-sugar mixer on the stand mixer and whip at medium-high speed until triple in volume. Fold in melted chocolate.

To assemble:
1. Remove tart shell from oven. Drizzle the caramel sauce evenly over the baked tart shell. Sprinkle with almonds.
2. Spoon mousse mixture evenly over the caramel and almonds, making sure to
spread the mousse mixture to the edge of the crust.
3. Return to oven for 10-12 minutes until mousse has a matte finish and looks dry.
4. Remove from oven and cool on rack for 1 hour

5. To serve, cut with hot, dry knife (place under hot tap water and the dry). Clean knife after each slice.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What does one serve a Diva?


Gina had described her Mother to me in detail over the years, but to be honest, it always sounded like she may have been exaggerating a bit. Seeing how well I knew her Father and sister Laura, I couldn't imagine how these people could have, at one point in time, all fit together as a family. That was the problem: they didn't.

People always make jokes when they see two very ill-suited people who happen to have children. You may see a couple walking down the street that go together like Rosanne Barr and Italian opera, yet they have four kids! “Well,” you’ll hear someone say, “you know they at least had sex four times!” In the case of Gina and Laura’s parents, it was twice.

It wasn't that Gina’s parents didn't like each other. In fact, they were best friends, but they simply had no interest in each other physically. For some reason, Gina and Laura’s parents told their daughters they were not intimate on a fairly regular basis. They felt the need to make this very clear. Gina told me that when she was little, she would ask her parents “Do you two ever kiss?” to which they would respond with variations in the key of ‘No’.

As an adult, Gina would learn that ‘it’ happened twice. Being good Italians, Giacomo Radioli and Graziella Travoli did what they were supposed to do on their wedding night. They did it for the same reason one compliments a homely aunt when she wears a new dress, praises a child for a hideous drawing of an unrecognizable object or when one takes a second helping a friend’s culinary disaster: because it was easier than telling the truth. The Radioli and the Travoli families had so much emotional and, moreover, financial investment in the union of their children that neither Giacomo or Graziella had the heart to tell their respective families that they would both rather date outside of their species than marry each other. Nine months later, or as Graziella would often remind her daughter, nine and a half months after their wedding night, their first daughter Gina was born. ‘It’ occurred again on Giacomo and Graziella’s one-year anniversary. This produced Laura. Two children. Mission accomplished. Done!

So as we were waiting for the arrival of the famed Graziella, I began to think of how I would serve the one dish Gina told me was sure to impress her Mother: Lemon Sorbetto. It wasn’t really that I wanted to impress her. To be honest, I really didn’t care. I may never see the woman again. But, if I made something she loved (and had ice cold Champagne stocked) Gina said I had a pretty good chance of hearing stories of some of her Mother’s adventures.

Gina always said, “Hospitality is the key to unlocking my Mother’s jaw!”

Well, here’s hopin’!!


Lemon Tarragon Sorbetto
Makes 1 quart
Special equipment: Ice cream maker, micro plane zester
6 lemons, well washed and dried and brought to room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ cups water
Lemon zest from 4 lemons
3 tablespoon chopped tarragon leaves
Pinch salt

2 tablespoons julienned tarragon leaves
Fresh strawberries, cleaned, hulled and sliced

1. Using a micro plane, zest the lemons. Cut the zested lemons in half then juice them. Strain the juice of any seeds. Set aside
2. Bring the sugar and water to a boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Cover the saucepan with the lid to sweat down any sugar crystals. Remove pan from heat and stir in the zest. Allow to stand, covered, for 10 minutes.
3. Pour the syrup into a heat-proof glass bowl and stir in the lemon juice, chopped tarragon leaves and the salt. Cool to room temperature, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
4. Pass the sorbet base through a strainer and freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions
5. Serve sprinkled with julienned tarragon and fresh sliced strawberries.

Monday, November 3, 2014

And now arriving....


The pearl white limousine glistened as it pulled up in front of my house. When I lived in L.A., I used to see limousines all the time and never thought anything about it, but now, back at home, the idea of a limousine seemed pretentious. In the Midwest, we really don’t have a great deal of gown-wearing starlets attending gala events or the paparazzi to document the comings and goings of the locals, so limousines tend to signify weddings, funerals and transportation for group drinking events. Now, whenever I see one, I expect to see a gaggle of bridesmaids tumbling out of the limo into a drunken heap onto a downtown side walk followed by the inebriated bride-to-be adjusting her David’s Bridal polyester veil screaming, “Paaaaaarrrrrrty!!!!” Classy.

We all watched from the living room window as the car slowed to a halt. A gentleman with long silver hair tied back into a ponytail wearing a dark suit, sporting Roy Orbison-style sunglasses, got out from the driver’s seat and walked around to the rear passenger side door on the other side of the limo.

Watching the driver reminded me of when I had very long hair. At one time it was nearly to my waist. It actually looked good, but I was starting to see some gray coming in so I decided that, since the 80’s had been over for some time, it was the right moment to shear my locks. Gina used to love my long hair and had suggested I grow it out again. I had to remind her that long gray hair only worked if you were a wizard and you rode a horse to work.

Seeing the driver must have jarred Gina’s memory and she immediately said, “I told you to grow your hair again long before my Mother hired Xavier. I now see the err in my folic judgment.”


“Yeah, Xavier. He’s been my Mother’s driver for years! And I think I have heard him speak maybe 5 times in the last decade. He almost always just sits in the car and waits for her. God knows what he’s doing in there, but it’s probably best we don’t”

“Maybe he’s combing his hair.”

“And giving himself a French manicure,” Gina added wryly .

“So your Mother and Xavier aren’t……”

Hell no! I’m almost positive the last physical contact that man had with a vagina was birth.”

“Safe date?” I asked.

“Alarmingly so.”

Xavier opened the rear passenger door of the limo and out stretched a bronzed, sandal clad foot with hot pink toe nails. As Xavier extended his hand, a hot pink set of nails lay themselves on his palm as he assisted Gina and Laura’s Mom out of the car.

And there she stood. Her long, white-blonde hair cascaded over the shoulders of the cream colored pantsuit jacket. The pant's hems allowed for just a peak at the rhinestone bedazzled stilettos that allowed Graziella tower, even more so, over these suburban surroundings. 

“She looks like a photo negative of Cher!” I said.

“We affectionately refer to her as ‘Donatella’” Gina said without any affection in her voice whatsoever.

“I feel like I should have laid out a red carpet.”

“She would have liked that.”

To be continued………

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Meet the Parents

Nothing could have prepared me for it. I mean, I was given fair warning, but it was an event that no amount of planning would have been adequate to brace me for it: The experience of meeting Gina Radioli’s Mother!

I have known Gina Radioli for years. I even know her Father Jack (Giacomo) and her sister Laura (pronounced Lao-ra… and make sure you get that right) as well as I know my own family. But I had only heard about Graziella Radioli, or should I say Graziella Travoli Radioli Cosetta Bortoli Ostellino Mereghetti Schwartz. Gina’s Mother had married well. Six times. She had begun her serial marriage sequence in Sicily when she became betrothed to Gina’s Dad and then when that ended, she simply married her way up the boot until she hit Milan.

Gina’s parents met near the outskirts of Palermo when they were kids. And when I say kids, I mean when they were 2 years old. They had always known each other. Gina’s Dad used to say he couldn’t remember not knowing Graziella. Gina’s Dad’s family had made a very comfortable living in olives, pistachios and sheep and her Mother’s family owned the adjacent lemon grove. It only seemed natural to both families to encourage Giacomo and Graziella to marry. But encourage is really not the correct word. I’m trying to think of a better word.....forced......that’s it, forced. Gina’s parents had no choice whatsoever with regard to whom they would marry. It's just the way it was in those days. And it made perfect sense to everyone in the village, except for the couple that would eventually become Gina and Laura’s parents.

Jack used to joke, with his thick Sicilian accent, “Ita wasn’t like a we were on an ark. We had a car you know.” But both Gina’s parents knew the reason their families wanted them to stick around. Both families had a very nice life in the country. The government had left them alone for decades and they didn’t want things to change. The trucks would come in, pick up the crops and the wool, pay for the goods and be gone. Life was simple.

But when someone from town got the idea in their heads of finding an adventurous new way of life, things didn't always work out as hoped. All too often, a kid from the region would go off to the big city to make his fortune and come back either wearing far too much jewelry and cologne, return a pale, broken version of their former selves or arrive home in a pine box. Glamour was hard. Olives were easy.

So Giacomo Radioli and Graziella Travoli were pronounced man and wife.

Well, sort of.......

(To be continued........)

While we were waiting for Graziella's limousine (yes, limousine) to arrive, I made Jack Radioli's favorite lunch: Steamed Mussels with a midwestern twist. BACON! I am not Italian, but everytime he would eat them, he'd look at me and say, "Ita just like a home!" Then he would gather the fingers from his right hand to his lips and fan them out with a kiss. "Bellissimo!"


 Steamed Mussels with Smoked Bacon

¼ pound Smoked Bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ pound plum tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup drinking quality dry white wine
4 pounds medium mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
Parmigiano-Reggiano Croustades to serve

1. In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, cook the bacon over moderate heat until crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes.
2. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the shallots and jalapeño, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half, about 4 minutes.
4. Increase the heat to high and add the mussels. Cover and cook, shaking the pan a few times, until the mussels open, about 5 minutes.
5. With a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to 4 large, shallow serving bowls. Remove the casserole from the heat and stir in the lime juice, butter and chopped Italian parsley.

Ladle the sauce over the mussels and serve at once with the croustades.