When my 94-year-old Neapolitan, no-nonsense, say-it-like-it-is grandmother of five and great-grandmother of ten, Lucia Amoroso, passed from this world a few years ago and some of her belongings were shipped from Tampa to my home in New York, I had one thing that was on my mind. “Are her recipes in that shipment?”
Old recipes. Family heirlooms. Recipes handed down from generation to generation. Memories of sitting at the supper table with family– laughing, talking, sharing, fighting. This is what Julia della Croce, originally from Pearl River and who now resides in Nyack, and who is considered one of America’s foremost authorities on Italian food, has been trying to preserve for over thirty years and whether she is writing about it, teaching it or cooking it, her passion for tradition and the spirit of a people pours out of her.
Julia is the author of over thirteen cooking and travel books, including two for Williams-Sonoma on pasta-making. Many of her books have been translated into French and thirteen other languages, and distributed around the world. She has also conducted cultural and culinary tours to Italy.
Julia began her career as a restaurant critic. Her work has appeared in many magazines, newspapers, and on-line publications including The New York Times, Food & Wine, and The Washington Post. She has been broadcast on countless radio and national television shows, including the Food Network.
Besides working toward the preservation of traditional Italian cuisine through publishing and teaching, Julia has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. She pioneered an award-winning healthy school food program for 200 children at an independent school in New York and developed a nutrition program providing natural food and local farm-raised produce to an emergency food pantry in New York City serving some 900,000 people every year.
I was introduced to Julia through Michele (Micalizzi) McCarthy, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee’s Communications Director (who when we meet at Press Events only talk about the event before us and food). I met Julia at the Blauvelt-Norris-Burr House, a historic house in Blauvelt, New York owned by artist Michael La Placa. Michael designs original pottery that is hand-painted by Deruta artisans and owns a palazzo in the charming hill town of Bettona overlooking the Spoleto Valley of Umbria (more on that later).
Michael’s Dutch home whose main section and south kitchen were built circa 1790-1800, sits on land previously owned by David Bogert. The first known occupant was Garret I. Blauvelt. In 1853 the farm was acquired by John S. Norris, an architect and builder. In 1885 it was purchased by the Burr family who owned it for 56 years. If the walls could talk they would tell some fabulous tales and you can hear the history as you walk through into the magnificent home.
I was invited for lunch.
Michael set the table with his Deruta ceramics and Ginori dessert dishes and his updated kitchen, still rich with all the aesthetics of its previous life, could take your breath away. We started with a salad of arugula, crostini and hard-cooked eggs with anchovies — Insalata di rucola, crostini, uova soda, alice. Julia’s husband, Nathan Hoyt, painstakingly sauteed the crostini in olive oil schooled by Michael who was very busy chopping, washing, preparing and avoiding squishing his two puppies who remained under his feet.
Julia and I talked and she shared with me how she got started in cooking. “I was twenty-five, and the man in my life then, owned a 50-foot ketch that he lived on. Since the decks were, in effect, his living room, I was stuck raising and lowering the halyards while he shouted orders from the helm. Not for me! Better the galley, where I could cook while the crew worked up a sweat. We decided to start sailing cruises on Long Island Sound.” Julia didn’t mind the adventures but as she explained, “I prefer the intimacy of the home kitchen to the pressure of a commercial kitchen.” Chefs are involved in menu planning, purchasing and quality control in addition to many other business practices. Julia moved on to writing about food and exploring the regions of Italy. “In Italy, food is very much defined by regions, most ingredients are simple but these cooks are skilled and have been practicing their craft for years.”
The salad was a bit nostalgic for me (my grandmother used anchovies a great deal in her recipes), satisfying and visually captured the colors that we desperately needed during a very long winter in New York. Next we were served Red Radicchio Risotto — risotto di radicchio rosso. There is no other dish that is more satisfying and comforting than a risotto. With a creamy but al dente texture, it was the perfect lunch pairing after the salad. Our dessert, baked by Michael was a Chocolate Cake in the style of Capri –Torta caprese. It was light with just the right touch of sweetness. This cake is a traditional Italian chocolate and almond or walnut cake named for the island of Capri from which it originates. It is made without flour.
We sat, we talked, we ate and we were enveloped in this historic setting with beauty all around. Michael’s taste for furnishings is superb and I could have heard Julia talk about food until the end of time. Michael opens his homes to cooking classes and culinary tours both in Blauvelt and in Umbria. At the Blauvelt-Norris-Burr House, you can take a three-hour class starting with a traditional antipasti, then on to a pasta or another classic primo, a variety of second courses and finish with a classic dessert. In Umbria, Julia provides hands-on lessons as do other local cooks as you explore all facets of Italian cuisine from the heart of Umbria. Michael’s palazzo was built in the 17th century and in addition to cooking, guests explore the fabled cities of Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto, and Spoleto – to name but a few. Savoring Umbrian cuisine and wine with a mixture of home cooked meals, visits to extraordinary local restaurants, and wine tastings. Pairing with Michael and his homes is a brand new endeavor by Julia and one she looks forward to experiencing for years to come.
To learn more about Julia, go to: http://www.juliadellacroce.com/index.html
To learn more about an upcoming culinary tour August 12-20, 2015, go to: http://www.aweekinumbria.com/