UPDATE: The Davio’s dinner has been postponed to a date to be determined.
When Mary Ann Esposito’s husband, Guy, figured out how to grow artichokes in spite of the short growing season at their New Hampshire home, it was the best gift he could have given her.
“It was better than getting a diamond ring,” says the beloved chef and TV host, whose 14th cookbook, Ciao Italia: Plant, Harvest, Cook!, is a celebration of New England farm-to-table in its most genuine form – the home garden.
The book should be especially treasured here on the North Shore, as Esposito talks extensively about her garden in New Hampshire and offers advice for seasonal eating with a focus on New England’s challenging growing season. But really, with engaging stories and approachable recipes, the book is for anyone who dreams of feasting on food they’ve grown themselves.
In celebration of the new book, and of the chef who has the longest running cooking show on television, marking 30 years, Davio’s Lynnfield will be hosting a dinner on Nov. 30 featuring recipes from the cookbook. The five-course meal will feature dishes inspired by recipes from Chef Mary Ann’s latest book such as Lemony Linguine with Shrimp and Peas, and Scented Geranium Cake for the dessert course.
Northshore chatted with Esposito about cooking, signing books in Kane’s Donuts, and of course, gardening.
What was the inspiration for this book?
I don’t make any bones about it in this book – everything I know about gardening, I learned from my husband Guy. Yes, I had an inkling of what vegetable gardening was all about from my parents, but not to the degree that I gained when I married Guy. He had a garden through medical school, and then we got married and we had our first child and each year the garden got bigger and bigger and bigger, and now it’s 30 feet by 60 feet. We grow enough vegetables to feed not only ourselves, we freeze them, dry them, and give them away.
Do you have childhood memories of gardening?
Yes. We never did anything on a small scale. This is the way Italians think – it’s in their DNA. Everything has to be abbondanza – like Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody else has a turkey. What do Italians do? They have a turkey, they have lasagna, they have roast beef.
And that’s the way it was with my dad and his tomato garden. He always thought big. He put in over 100 tomato plants. Now, imagine what just a couple plants will yield, right? [So at age 16] I’m saying to him, ‘Dad, why do we need 100 tomato plants?’ Well, we have to give a bushel to Aunt Jenny. And then Martha needs hers. There’s Aunt Nancy and Uncle Gus.
Of course, now I do the same thing. I don’t put in 100 plants… but we did put in 70.
It’s early November. What is happening in your garden right now?
We have kale, swiss chard, and about 90 lettuce plants – different varieties which we planted before we went to Italy in early fall. Because, as I tell you in the book, lettuce is one of Guy’s favorite crops. We usually do two plantings because lettuce is a cool weather crop – one in the spring, and then you can plant again in September, when the days are getting a little cooler. We should have lettuce way up into I would say first week of December if the weather holds.
Is there anything that you wish you could grow that just doesn’t work here in the Northeast?
My sister lives in Henderson, Nevada, and she’s telling me about her beautiful pomegranate trees. I’m so jealous, because every time I go to Italy, I admire the pomegranate tree so much, I love pomegranates, and this year they are awfully expensive – like $5.
You’ve got a pretty busy schedule coming up with the book release. How are you promoting it?
I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts. You can do that from the comfort of your home or your home office or wherever, so I’ve done them in New York City, in Kansas City, in Florida, and there are more coming up. I also do a lot of signings in New England at local bookstores. I like independent bookstores, because there you are the focus.
But I’ll tell you the most successful book signing I ever had was at Kane’s donut shop in Saugus. At 7 o’clock in the morning, I think we’re talking like 250 people within an hour because people came in to get their coffee and donut and then I was there.
For book dinners, like the Davio’s event this month, do you choose what is going to be served?
No. I can write a menu if they ask me, but usually they go through the book and they’ll pick a menu that their staff is prepared to do.
Will you be in the kitchen looking over their shoulders?
I don’t like doing that because I feel like it takes away from the confidence of the chef. If I did go in the kitchen, it would be just to say hello, or taste something, or see the plating and that would be it. I trust Davio’s because I know Steve [DiFillippio, owner]. I have even had him on my show before, so I know they’re going to do a good job.
What Thanksgiving is like at your house?
I’m very weary right now because I called three butcher shops asking them if they have capons. I can’t get a capon and I don’t know what to do. Because we don’t eat turkey. This isn’t an Italian holiday [but] I make it an Italian holiday, because capons to Italians are much better than turkey. We spatchcock it and cook it on the grill, and then fold it back together.
I just made the pies. Apple cranberry fig pie is in the freezer and I’ve made the shells for the pumpkin pie and chocolate pie. Tomorrow I’m going to make the cranberry sauce.
If you did do turkey, you should do my rolled stuffed turkey breast that you can find on my website. It is an absolute wonderful thing to do for Thanksgiving. You’re not struggling with bones, and wondering when the thing is going to be done and all this stuff.
The 30th season of Ciao Italia was filmed at the La Scoula Culinaria Cooking School at Tuscan Market Salem. Will you be filming another season there?
We have to get enough sponsors so that we can do it in the cooking school. So if you know anybody who would like to be a sponsor of this show this season, let me know.
The Davio’s Lynnfield dinner will be held Wed., Nov. 30th at 6:30 p.m., $150 per guest including a signed copy of Mary Ann’s latest book (excludes tax & gratuity). Pair the dinner with wines for $200 per guest. For tickets, visit davios.com/lynnfield