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Those endeavors are labors of love: her cookbooks. The notoriety is well-earned, as they feature more than a half-century of Italian recipes that go back to her roots in Poggio Valle, Italy. The first cookbook, “Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table: Classic Homestyle Italian Recipes,” was published when Costantini was 77; the second, “Italian Moms: Something Old, Something New: 150 Family Recipes,” when she was 80.
To get to the cookbooks, you first have to know her story. We were more than honored to chat with everyone’s favorite nonna, who currently lives in Newtown Square, and to learn more about how her authentically crafted family recipes came to be published.
You immigrated here, by yourself, at 23! How scary was it to take the boat to America?
You cannot imagine. I had no choice but to leave my one-year-old infant behind with her father and our families. If I would have postponed, my U.S. Visa status would have been revoked. My parents, husband and cousin, Perinia, who had already been in the states and had returned to Italy to marry, brought me to the ship. My father was terrified, in general, because not too long before my trip, an Italian ship had sunk in the Atlantic. My father was also not pleased that I was paired in a cabin with an unmarried woman traveling alone. I wish I could find her today and see what became of her life.
My mother gave me 50 cents, all the money she had, to buy watermelon onboard, because she knew I loved it. She didn’t know that the buffets would be abundant with fruit, so I used the 50 cents to purchase a photo taken of onlookers as the ship sailed away — my parents, husband and cousin are in the photo. My cousin had given me some clothes to wear so I wouldn’t “look like a third-class passenger,” to maybe blend in with the Americans onboard and to be able to stroll along the upper decks. Still, I didn’t have the guts to try, and instead spent most of my time with other women traveling alone, in the chapel and in the third-class common room. We were worried about the threats of war, due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and feared something would happen at sea. Most nights I cried myself to sleep, worried about my baby girl, Nadia.
How soon after you did your husband and daughter arrive in America?
When I left, Francesco and Nadia were still waiting for paperwork, so we didn’t know how long it would be until they could follow. However, the day after I departed, the paperwork came through, and my husband, against my wishes, decided to take an airplane instead of the 10-day ship crossing. He planned to arrive before me so he could surprise me. Fortunately, the ship picked up time due to favorable winds, and I arrived a day early. When my brother came to pick me up in New York I told him I had letters that I’d written on the ship that I needed to mail to Francesco. He tried to ignore me, but I was insistent, so he had to spoil the surprise and told me we didn’t have time: We needed to get to Philadelphia because Francesco and Nadia were arriving in the evening. I threw the letters in the air, rejoiced with the friends I had made on the ship, and ran to the car. That is why I never got the contact information for my roommate!
I was there when Nadia and Francesco stepped off the plane, and I was the happiest woman alive — then I gave Francesco a good pounding for taking my baby on the plane against my wishes! He was indeed sorry and regretful: You see, he didn’t pack any diapers because his sisters had cared for Nadia when I was not there, and Nadia had gone through the only diaper he had within 15 minutes of takeoff. It served him right!
We hear you’re still working four days a week at Divine Providence!
Yes, I went to work at that organization [in Springfield, PA] a few months after my daughter Agnes died in 1981, and I’m still there. I was in the kitchen for 20 some years, a housemother, and now I manage the laundry services. During the COVID-19 lockdown, my grandkids wouldn’t let me work, but after a few weeks at home, I went back to work; it gives me purpose. The adults with special needs there have been a part of my life for 40 years, and I will not abandon them.
How did your kids convince you to write that first cookbook?
It had been six month since Francesco had passed away, and I was depressed. I’d lost any desire to live, really. Frank was constantly at my house, pushing me to do this and that, and one day he pulled out all my recipes, written on scraps of paper, and told me that that if I was so content in giving up, then I needed to organize them before it was too late. Tough love, but he meant well, and it worked.
Someone suggested he start a Kickstarter campaign to fund a real book, as that would force me to move into action, especially in the kitchen again, since I’d lost the desire to cook: $27,000 later, and with a three-month production window, we found ourselves working day and night, translating recipes, testing them with measuring cups for the first time, and having friends who are wedding photographers take the pictures. Everything was done on Frank’s home computer! We prepared all the food in the pictures over the course of two days.
Did you see that first book as a tribute to your husband, as well?
Of course. Frank asked a friend who is a writer to record my stories to share in the book. Most of them revolved around my life with Francesco, and I could feel him pushing me to do this. Just talking about him and our life together made me want to finish and share as much of my passion for food with anyone who wanted to hear about it. I wanted people to know Francesco, as well, and what a wonderful man he was.
How exciting was it to see the Kickstarter campaign come up with the funds to self-publish?
I couldn’t believe it: Strangers rallied around me. It reassured me that there was good in the world — and we had supporters from all over the world. I didn’t really understand how it worked, but people told me it was a big deal, and that it was an honor. It’s what made me then want to pay it forward and donate most of the proceeds to local schools and charities.
You’re a bit of a celebrity! We understand there are some irons in the fire.
I was excited to be an extra in “The Irishman!” I enjoyed my “Rachael Ray Show” appearances and other TV spots. Right now, we’re still working with some marketing companies and food distribution companies testing the recipes for retail. However, the pandemic slowed these processes down, and we don’t have a timeline. My story is in the hands of some local producers, but we’ve not formally committed to any projects. A work in process. My kids would love to see “Lifetime” pick up my story.
What’s the secret to great Italian cooking?
Easy, fresh ingredients, and keeping things simple. Most of my recipes are simple and require very few ingredients. The processes, for some, may be time-consuming, but that was the way we did it years ago, and I continue to do it that way. In my second book, the kids modernized some of my recipes, offering both the old way and the modern way of making some staple dishes. You have to remember, we had very little to work with back in the day, so fresh, simple dishes were all we knew. For example, buying nuts for cookies was only for holidays and special occasions, and in order to purchase them, we often went without something else that we needed.
What are must-have ingredients in an Italian kitchen?
Olive oil, basil, salt, garlic, cheese, eggs, flour, breadcrumbs and tomatoes. That’s all you need to make an amazing pasta dish!
What’s your favorite thing to cook for family and friends?
Well, it depends on which grandkids are coming for dinner! It’s usually gnocchi, ravioli, chicken cutlets, roasted red peppers, a hearty stew with fresh bread, and anything with my crepes.
These are difficult times. Do you have any advice for moms and dads who are trying to work from home, school their kids at home, and put a good meal on the table?
I think this is a great time to put the computers away, turn off the TV and pull out my book. Read one of the stories at the beginning of the chapters, then pick a recipe to make together. Family always comes first. During this pandemic we’ve cooked a lot of dishes together. My grandchildren finally had the time — well, forced time — to watch me make some of their favorite dishes, and now my grandson, who is back at college, is making those dishes for his roommates. A much better choice, then some takeout, I think anyway.
What’s an easy recipe we could share with our readers?