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Mary Ann Esposito
Mary Ann Esposito '91G spices up public television. Photo by Gary Samson

A Taste of Italy

By Margaret Anne Paine

See also:
An Esposito Recipe

D id you know know that the Roman orator Cicero got his name from the Latin word for "chick pea?" People said the wart on his nose looked just like one. If you did know that, it's likely you're a viewer of Ciao Italia, the popular public television cooking show hosted by Mary Ann Esposito '91G.

Esposito mixes history, stories of the grandmothers who taught her how to cook and simple, clear directions for traditional Italian foods in her half-hour show. That combination has proven a winner for Esposito, as well as for her viewers. Now beginning its 11th spring season, Ciao Italia is the longest-running Italian cooking show on television and one of the most durable of all TV cooking shows. In fact, of all the chefs who have appeared on television, only Julia Child and Martin Yan can claim greater longevity.

What's the recipe for success? "It's mostly Mary Ann and her personality--she strikes a chord with viewers," says Cynthia Fenneman, the show's executive producer. "She creates an emotional connection to food for people and makes it very clear how to be a success in the kitchen, even if you're not of Italian-American descent."

After more than 100 shows and five cookbooks , Esposito is an established authority on traditional Italian cooking -- something she could never have imagined as a child growing up in an Italian household in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1950s. "I learned about cooking by osmosis and innuendo," she says. "It wasn't something I wanted to do. If you'd told me then that I would be teaching Italian cooking on television, I would have choked on two meatballs!"

Yet in many ways, Esposito is carrying on a family tradition. Both grandmothers emigrated from Italy in the 1890s, and both were professional cooks. Esposito's maternal grandmother, "Nonna" Galasso, ran a boarding house in Buffalo, N.Y.; her paternal grandmother "Nonna" Saporito ran a butcher shop in Fairport, N.Y. When Mary Ann was a young girl, she and her parents and siblings lived with Nonna Galasso in her boarding house, where everything was done as it had been in Avellino, the town near Naples where Nonna was raised. In the early years -- long before Esposito's time -- the house was the only one in the neighborhood with a bathtub. During the Depression, Nonna kept the family going by offering a Friday night special: a bath and a hot meal for a quarter. "She had people lined up around the block," Esposito says proudly.

Chickens roosted in the basement, herbs hung drying in the pantry, home-canned fruits -- pears in mint syrup, peaches with cinnamon sticks and cloves -- lined the shelves in the fruit cellar. Mamma or Nonna made bread daily, piling up the flour on a board, creating a well in the middle for the water and yeast and then kneading it by hand and baking it. Esposito's lunchbox was filled with slices of the thick, crusty bread slathered with olive oil, arugula and Nonna's own sun-dried tomatoes. "Everyone else had white bread and tuna fish," she says. "I just wanted Wonderbread and iceberg lettuce like everyone else. I didn't appreciate what I had."

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