What if we told you that an award-winning chef can help you make his finger-licking Italian recipes in your kitchen? “A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn” by David Ruggerio is all you need to recreate the magic and make each meal extra special. Here’s a candid chat with the renowned chef and author where he spills the beans about his latest cookbook and more.
What was the purpose of writing A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn?
It was for a few reasons; first and foremost, I wanted to return to my roots and share with my grandchildren and future generations a taste of what it was to grow up in Brooklyn in a very different era. My generation was still recognizable to my parents and my grandparents–we have now entered a period that is extremely different than my childhood. My time was colorful and raw, a period when the family got together often to share great food, long-tenured traditions, and pass on our culture. Lastly, at a time when the Italian culture is under assault in this country, I wanted to stand tall and express my pride for being Italian.
Who is your inspiration?
The women of my family. I was orphaned when I was five, witnessing my pregnant mother’s death. I went to live with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. These were women who hailed from Sant’Angelo Dei Lombardi, a storied village outside of Naples. They epitomized being Italian in Brooklyn. Like Brooklyn itself, they were extraordinarily resilient while sharing their heritage, customs, and of course the food. At our kitchen table, fresh pasta was made, homegrown vegetables were preserved, and stories were told. From that table, I understood what it was to be Italian.
Will beginners find recipes they can cook from A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn?
These recipes are straightforward, home-grown dishes that any person who wants to experience the Italian American cuisine can enjoy and get a taste of what it was like in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
What’s your favorite recipe from the book? What makes it unique?
“Pasta’ Ncasciata,” which is a “Baked Pasta with Eggplant with Caciocavallo.”
I adore this recipe. This was brought to Brooklyn by Sicilians. It is traditionally made with annelli pasta, or ‘little rings,’ dressed in a meaty tomato ragu made with spare ribs (It can be made with beef, pork, or even sausage). My grandmother added tiny meatballs to the ragu with the spareribs-though I thought it a bit much for the recipe. It is emblematic of what made Italian American cuisine in Brooklyn so special—that Sicilians lived next door to Neapolitans, who lived next door to Calabrian’s, who lived next door to Abruzzese. Over years, they shared recipes and they progressively melted together to create our own cuisine.
Do you grow your own vegetables in your backyard in Brooklyn? What’s your tip for the readers?
I grow nearly all the vegetables that we eat during the year. My garden is alive and producing twelve months out of the year, with not only the holy trinity-tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants- but also figs, apples, pears, blueberries, lettuce, escarole, cardoons, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, onions, potatoes, and of course, garlic! My tip was best expressed by my great-grandmother, Antoinette Quagliarello Pesce. She taught me that we don’t grow vegetables, we grow soil. By enriching the soil with many long-held traditions and tricks developed by the Southern Italians, that marvelous land made extraordinarily tasty produce that fed us throughout the seasons.
You’ve won so much recognition for your work. What do you enjoy writing the most, horror or cookbooks?
I love them both and do them both nearly every day. I work till late into the night, and during those dark, late hours, my imagination wanders into dark, scary places that make writing horror quite easy. During the glorious days, wandering in my garden or hand making cavatelli pasta on a wooden board, or making pizza in my backyard brick oven with my grandchildren, my heart burns Italian, writing about food is easy and consoling.
What has been the highlight of your cooking career? What about your writing career?
My professional career was spent in glorious French kitchens. There are two highlights in my career. The first was as a teen finding myself at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountain, where I found an elf-like chef, Michel Guerard who taught me how to spell magic. He was the greatest chef of the twentieth century who changed me as a person. The second, was when the famed fashion designer put me in charge of his restaurant; Maxim’s, and I garnered three stars.
Time for our rapid-fire round. Here are your questions:
Pasta or pizza
Pasta! I can eat it every day
Cooking or writing
I was created to cook!
Jazz or classical music
Come on, I was raised in Brooklyn during the 70s! Disco!
Patio or Candlelight dinner
Outdoors on my patio, with my family
What’s your favorite cheese?
Pecorino Romano, I can put it on everything!
One dish you love
Linguini with Clams
One restaurant you frequent
I adore Di Fara’s in Brooklyn when Dominick, an old friend and the owner, is cooking. The best pizza in America