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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the December 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Cook Like a Mama and Eat Like a Wiseguy

You would think the legendary code of "omerta"

— that vow of silence sworn by members of the Mafia — would

extend to family recipes. But it appears that the friends of a well-connected

restaurateur in Northern New Jersey are only too happy to share their

secrets for keeping their personal and professional families at the

table and well-fed.

"The Sopranos Family Cookbook" is this holiday season’s runaway

hit, and deservedly so. A deliriously funny send-up of America’s Sunday

television viewing obsession, the book contains Tony’s secrets for

successful grilling and Uncle Junior’s memories of Newark’s Little

Italy, not to mention excerpts from Dr. Melfi’s treatise on "Rage,

Guilt, Loneliness, and Food."

Interviews, essays, photographs, plus more than 100 recipes —

they’ve all been ostensibly compiled in one gorgeous package by Artie

Bucco, who is following up his successful launch of Nuovo Vesuvio

(after a suspicious fire) with a cookbook of his friends’ favorite

Neopolitan dishes. Not surprisingly, Artie lets slip that his publishing

career got jumpstarted by a friendly conversation between Tony and

a literary agent in Essex County.

For those of us enthralled with all things "Soprano," the

book is a goldmine. Who knew, for instance, that Janice dreams about

food, or that Paulie is a germ freak who washes his hands every time

he ties his shoes? Or that Artie went to cooking school in London

— where he learned that Paris is also considered a major culinary

center?

The text of the book was actually written by Los Angeles TV writer

and producer Allen Rucker, who co-authored "The History of White

People In America" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale" with Martin

Mull.

Food writer and teacher Michele Scicolone (pronounced shi-co-LO-nay)

created the recipes, as well as contributed much of the book’s Italian

flavor and lore. Scicolone will demonstrate Soprano family cooking

at Wegmans Food Market in Nassau Park on Thursday, Dececember 19,

from 4 to 6 p.m.

Scicolone says in a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment that

she has written nine well-received cookbooks. Yet none of her other

books has received anywhere near this much attention, she says —

or came close to being this much fun to write. "Usually you’re

all alone when you write," she says, "but with this book,

there was a lot of input from David Chase [the show’s creator, producer,

and frequent writer] and constant interaction with my co-author. He’s

a comedy writer, not a food person, so he’d send me hilarious E-mails

like, `Don’t tell anyone I asked, but what’s gabagool?’"

(It’s the thin slices of meat in antipasto, according to the book’s

"Why Do They Call It Gravy?" glossary — which also includes

"pootsie," Paulie’s scatological term for such culinary atrocities

as California pizza.)

Scicolone got a call over a year ago from representatives

of HBO Properties and Warner Books asking for a sit-down. "They’d

seen my previous books," she says, "and someone connected

with the show is a fan of mine." Her food writing credentials

got her the job — as well as the fact that all four of her grandparents

came from Avellino, the region around Naples that was also home to

Chase’s (and the Sopranos’) own ancestors.

"It’s a sunny, warm area with very rich farmland," Scicolone

says, adding that Northern Italians sarcastically refer to Neopolitans

as "leafeaters" because they grow so many vegetables. "Avellino

is a little bit inland, so you won’t find them cooking as much fish

or shellfish as they might on the coast."

Her first assignment was to sit down and watch 39 episodes of the

TV series, which she had seen occasionally but hadn’t followed. She

then had to create recipes for some of the dishes mentioned, like

Carmela’s baked ziti, her mother’s pear and grappa poundcake, and

Artie’s signature Quail Sinatra. (There’s also a recipe for Carmela’s

pineapple ricotta pie, in case any of your kids need a key college

reference letter.)

Chase also insisted that Scicolone include recipes for both cannoli

and sfogliatelle. "I told him that most Italians never make those

at home, but go to a pastry shop to buy them," she says. "He

replied that they were central to the show, and that people really

respond whenever the pastries get mentioned."

Both are complicated recipes and probably not for casual cooks, Scicolone

points out. But most of the recipes here — for escarole and meatball

soup, for instance, rigatoni with sweet sausage, and torta caprese,

a chocolate almond cake — are simple and rely on common, fresh

ingredients.

"Other than Artie’s chapter where he is showing off his culinary

skills, the book is supposed to be home cooking," Scicolone says.

"All I had to do was think back to the things my grandmother used

to make for us."

One quirk of "la cucina Soprano" — and the characters

eat constantly on the show — is the amount of meat they consume.

"That’s definitely character driven, because it’s macho cooking,"

Scicolone says. "But that’s also very characteristic of Italian-Americans."

Italians who immigrated here with their bean and pasta recipes, she

continues, found that meat was much more affordable and available

than it had been back home.

They also had to experiment with different ingredients. "They

couldn’t find certain varieties of vegetables here, like the wonderful

San Marzano tomatoes that grow on Mount Vesuvius," she says. Instead

of sweet, low-acid plum tomatoes, Italian-Americans had to make do

with tomatoes that had more water and acid — which led cooks here

to use much more seasoning.

Scicolone first tasted the real thing in 1970, when she and her husband,

Charles, visited Italy on their honeymoon. "He was studying for

his doctorate in Byzantine-Sicilian relations," she says. "I

fell in love with the country and the cuisine, and decided to make

it my career." She started working in test kitchens for food magazines,

writing freelance articles, and doing food styling. She published

her first cookbook in 1986 — and since that first trip more than

30 years ago, she and her husband have gone back to Italy about four

times every year.

Through the years, Scicolone points out, foodies latch onto dishes

from different Italian regions, although Artie assures us in the book

that he never "rode in on the Eighties Tuscan boom."

"People are now starting to appreciate southern Italy," says

Scicolone. "The wines of Southern Italy have really taken off."

While she has been perfecting food, her husband became a wine expert

and has for seven years been sommelier at the renowed I Trulli restaurant

on East 27th Street. The restaurant was nominated for the James Beard

Wine Services Award for 2002 — and was the site of the cookbook’s

launch party, attended by most of "The Sopranos" cast.

With such a powerhouse of food and wine expertise, the Scicolones

put on some fabulous meals — but Michele, who says she cooks three

or four days a week, thinks you can’t beat egg dishes for comfort

food. She includes several in the book such as "Nova in Purgatorio,"

Eggs in Purgatory, with a photograph showing two eggs bubbling in

a skillet sea of tomato, dusted delectably with fresh parmesan. In

the book, Carmela is quoted as saying that "food is a language,"

while Charmaine Bucco (who contributes recipes that serve 50 from

her catering business) claims that food is "the glue of tradition,

blood ties, and good health."

What does Scicolone say? "Food is definitely the glue that holds

Italian families together. It’s warmth, it’s nourishment, it’s love."

— Phyllis Maguire

Michele Scicolone, Wegmans Food Market, 240 Nassau

Park Boulevard, 609-919-9300. Italian food and wine writer and co-author

of the new "Sopranos Family Cookbook" (Warner Books), shows

you how to cook like Carmela Soprano and signs her cookbook. Free.

Thursday, December 19, 4 to 6 p.m.


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