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Every Sunday, Mo Rocca's grandmother made homemade ravioli for the family dinner. He says he deeply regrets that he never learned her recipes before she passed away. But the humorist, actor and familiar voice on NPR has taken that regret and turned it into an opportunity to expand his culinary horizons. In his new TV special, My Grandmother's Ravioli, Rocca travels to the homes of grandparents with a culinary flair and learns how to make their signature dishes.
Rocca says his idea for the show came out of a particularly embarrassing dinner. "I had a friend over for takeout," Rocca tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Since I don't cook, that's all I could serve him. And he said, 'Do you have any salt? I need some salt.' I said, 'Uh, yeah. I think in the cupboard over the oven that I never use.' And he said, 'That's sugar.' And I realized I didn't even have salt in my apartment. I mean, it's pathetic!"
Rocca says that if he had a time machine, he'd go back 30 years and shadow his grandmother in the kitchen as she prepared bounteous Sunday meals for her family. "She made extraordinary meals," he remembers. "I don't have her anymore, so I'm doing the next best thing, which is learning from the old masters — from grandmothers and grandfathers across the country."
Rocca's first stop was in New Jersey, where he learned how to make paella from Mila Alb, a Filipina grandmother who enjoys sipping champagne and singing over the stove. As she brought out the frozen black-eyed peas, she switched her tune: I got a feeling / tonight's going to be a paella night. "She actually sang that. She's a 73-year-old Filipina grandmother singing Black Eyed Peas parodies. You can't beat that," Rocca says.
Rocca was also instructed in the art of sausage-making by Alb's Romanian husband. "He and I made sausage together with his own Transylvanian grandmother's meat grinder," says Rocca. "What I didn't know until we were actually working the meat grinder is that he escaped from communist Romania clinging to the bottom of a train and then swam across the Danube — and he had his grandmother's meat grinder."
These details charmed Rocca, who loved seeing how natural and at-ease these grandparents were in their kitchens. "It wasn't shtick," he says. "They were just doing what they do in the kitchen."
Rocca also becomes a culinary apprentice to Frank DiGregorio, an Italian grandfather from a tiny town in Italy where everyone shared one communal stove. DiGregorio is a retired doctor whose wife always handled the cooking. When she died five years ago, he interned at a local restaurant to learn how to cook the dishes his wife once made for him.
As they prepared rabbit cacciatore (you can find "Pop's" recipe below), they schemed up a little conspiracy for people who might be squeamish about eating rabbit.
"What are we going to tell people we're serving them?" Rocca asks.
"Chicken a la cacciatore," DiGregorio says cagily, like he's straight out of The Godfather. "You don't say nothing, I don't say anything."
When Rocca replies with the standard mob movie line, "Capisce," DiGregorio quickly corrects him: "Capito! You gotta talk Italian, you gotta talk it right."
None of the show's dialogue was scripted, Rocca says. "I don't even know if they really wanted me to come to their homes, but they're going to become stars whether they like it or not."
At the end of each show, the grandparents serve the meal they've lovingly created, and their family gathers around to eat it together. "I think that it's an important way to conclude," Rocca explains, "because I think it's why people like these grandparents cook: Because the best thing of all is to bring their families and their loved ones, their friends, together around a table."
Rocca, who's currently single, says he wants to settle down and start a family. "I think frankly that's why I was drawn to the idea," he says. "Maybe when I was younger I would've thought, eh, I'm not really interested in that. But at this point in my life, it's an idea that draws me and that moves me, frankly."
Total time: 55 min.
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 rabbit, cut into 8 pieces (about 3 1/4 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound tomatoes, chopped, with seeds and juices (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 1/3 cups dry white wine
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 lemon, cut into thin round slices
Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the rabbit with salt and pepper, and sear until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes and white wine. Cover and simmer until the rabbit is cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the herbs and top with lemon slices to finish.
Reprinted by permission of The Food Network/The Cooking Channel.