Italian upbringing nourishes suburban family

Cook of the Week

  • Ralph Cossentino has adapted well to modern conveniences, but says he sometimes misses the slower pace of meals, and life, from his native Naples, Italy.

      Ralph Cossentino has adapted well to modern conveniences, but says he sometimes misses the slower pace of meals, and life, from his native Naples, Italy. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Updated 1/5/2011 6:59 AM

What a cultural shock it must have been for then-11-year-old Ralph Cossentino when his family moved to Chicago in 1972.

Back in Naples, Italy, the family led an Amish-like lifestyle. They packed their horse-drawn trailer every morning with the equipment they needed for the day, and traveled from their home in town to their land on the outskirts of Naples, where they worked the fields.


"It was very primitive," says the 49-year-old Hoffman Estates resident, describing life in the early '60s. Yes, the 1960s.

"Everything was done by horse. Some people had cows they hooked to a trailer to bring them to the fields," he recalled. "We had no heat in our house or air conditioning, but we had running water and we never went hungry."

And oh, the food they ate.

They grew, raised or made virtually everything they consumed, from wheat for the pasta to potatoes, tomatoes, corn, artichokes and beans.

Living in a compound of several houses with his uncles' families, Ralph's mother and his aunts often joined forces to make pasta, cheese and sausages and bake bread in their outdoor, brick oven. They canned hundreds of jars of tomato puree and the wine they drank -- children included -- was the fruit of their own vineyards.

If chicken was on the menu, Mom slaughtered one from their flock. They butchered their own pig, one a year, and "it would literally last us all year" in the form of prosciutto, pancetta and sausages, says Ralph.

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Food was fresh, abundant, simple and nothing was wasted. Ralph carries those lessons to his own home cooking, as much as the Midwest permits.

"I learned not to overdo things," he says. "In America people use too many spices and herbs and too much sauce on their pasta."

The same is true of pizza.

"Ours had a little oil, some tomato, a little cheese or sometimes none," he says.

As a teenager in America, Ralph worked as a busboy and worked his way up to sous chef in an Italian restaurant. He gave up the late hours and weekend shifts when he got married at 24.

Today he works for an insurance company and is a professional sculptor who also teaches at Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts on Chicago's Gold Coast.

"Cooking is a form of art, too; very therapeutic," says Ralph, who does most of the cooking for his wife, Catherine, and their two children, Sean, 24, and Lauren, 13.


Their table holds the Neapolitan food he grew up with: chicken Vesuvio, steak pizzaiola, mostaccioli and lemon chicken. This week he suggests fettuccine carbonara, a dish his mother made often with fresh-laid eggs and homemade pancetta.

We get his version of chicken cacciatore, too, named for the hunters who reportedly created it.

"When the men went out hunting they would take a quail or pheasant and cook it with onions and tomatoes and make a meal in the fields," he says.

For a Sunday meal, Ralph recommends veal picante.

"We bought the veal from the butcher, but we had our own lemon trees, and capers (grown on bushes) were readily available," he says. "We would eat for hours. Sunday brunch was a big deal in the Italian culture. "I'm an American, but sometimes I miss it; it was a great way of life."