Lessons with Rosetta Costantino
story and photos By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
We’re making orecchiette, a pasta shape whose name in Italian means “little ears.” It requires a deft hand, we discover, as we roll the dough into long snakes and cut thumbnail-size rounds, attempting to drag each one with the knife across the cutting board to create the delicate domed shape. As we work, Maria Dito, our teacher’s mother, comes by with a critique in Italian (understood mostly by her hand signals), showing us how our little ears are a little too fat and not domed up in quite the right way. We continue our pursuit of perfection, working toward what eventually turns out to be a delicious orecchiette con cime di rape (little ear pasta with broccoli raab sauce), made entirely by hand.
“Made by hand” takes on deeper meaning for me a bit later in the class, as we are preparing the sauce, which starts with sautéing minced garlic in olive oil along with a couple of anchovies that we mash into the pan. I had learned from another cook some years before that the anchovy in the saute pan is the big secret of southern Italian cooking, so this is not the epiphany. Rather, it’s that one can preserve anchovies oneself, as our teacher, Rosetta Costantino, does. In the spring or summer when she can obtain the little fish freshly caught from local fishermen, she guts them and then layers them in a crock with lots of salt. (I tried it and used the resulting home-preserved anchovies in dishes like cime di rape for a good two years until they were gone.)
“You can buy salt-processed anchovies from Sicily that are just as good,” Rosetta tells us, explaining that the processors put their best fish under salt. But clearly, for her, it’s not just about having the best quality. In Rosetta’s kitchen, things are made by hand because they can be made by hand, because that’s the way her family has always done them, and because she and her parents, natives of the southern Italian province of Calabria, prefer the food they make themselves to what they can buy.
Rosetta has lived here in Oakland since 1974, when she arrived from Calabria with her mother and father, Maria and Vincenzo Dito, who now live a block away from her on the same southeast-facing slope overlooking the trench of the Hayward Fault. The fault-sheared hillside, which was denuded by the huge Oakland fire of 1991, provides a sunny exposure that’s ideal for growing food. And growing food is what Rosetta and her parents (mostly her father) do. They grow more than they can eat in a season, preserving the excess to enjoy throughout the year.
Rosetta brings out some zucchini that was sliced and sun dried in her back yard last summer. She has now reconstituted it and sauteed it in olive oil with garlic and pepe rosso (paprika), which the family makes each year from a long, sweet Italian pepper that her father grows from seed. The flavors and texture of the zucchini are richly satisfying to my palate—better than fresh zucchini and reminiscent of wild mushrooms. Tomatoes from the summer garden are preserved using an array of methods, from drying to canning and pickling, as are eggplants, figs, oranges, and many other garden produce items. For wine grapes, Rosetta’s father goes to other growers, oftentimes old friends from Calabria now living in Lodi. From the wild landscape the family gathers mushrooms, herbs, and berries, and Rosetta says they have sometimes harvested olives from landscaping trees for home curing and pressing.
“We didn’t forage because we were poor,” Rosetta says as she talks about a way of life that the family brought with them from their home in Verbicaro, a small hill town in the remote southern Italian province of Calabria. Rosetta’s father worked there as a winemaker, and also kept a herd of goats on a mountain property that was accessible only by foot. It took two hours to climb with a supply-laden donkey up the steep trail, so it was not feasible to make the trip daily. Up there on the mountain, Vincenzo maintained a homestead where he processed the goat milk into cheese that he would sell when he brought it back to town.
On a recent visit to Rosetta’s garden, I finally get to meet Vincenzo Dito. As his wife comes up carrying one of the family egg-layers, Vincenzo laughingly explains (in Italian) that Maria named the black and white striped hen Faveta because the chicken somehow reminded her of a fava bean. As I look at Maria cradling the chicken, I think about how quickly she might wring its neck if she wanted it for a meal of chicken with fava beans. As I admire the bird, I listen in on a discussion Rosetta is having with local best-selling author Novella Carpenter (Farm City, published in 2009), about slaughtering a baby goat for the rennet needed for cheese making. Novella has swiftly and almost singlehandedly made urban husbandry fashionable. I think about how much has changed since 2006, when Rosetta first commented to me that in the U.S., people can’t get beyond dismay over the slaughtering of farmraised bunnies, much less baby goats. For her, these were just things people had to learn to do in the remote mountain villages of Calabria, since those towns were cut off from trade routes until well into the 20th century.
Nibbling on one of Rosetta’s beautiful home-baked cookies, I admire a small hand-woven basket Rosetta shows me. She explains that such natural-fiber baskets were traditionally used to mold ricotta, but have been replaced with plastic models. I can’t help wishing that the hand-woven baskets would return to favor, but guess this is something that just had to be abandoned, much the way the hand-woven reed mats once used in olive oil extraction have been replaced with new and better technology. The message here is that the old-fashioned ways are not always better. It’s not about nostalgia— again, it’s about good food.
Rosetta tells me that for much of the past two decades she has held a full-time job in Silicon Valley. Having two wageearners in the family has allowed Rosetta, her husband, and their son to enjoy this nice home in Rockridge, but she also says she likes the intellectual rigors of her job. It was only very recently that she took a hiatus in order to complete work on her first cookbook, My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South. Those of us who before this were only able to learn from Rosetta via her cooking classes, which she holds at Paulding & Company in Emeryville and other Bay Area locations, are gratified that she took the time off to write the book, but frankly, we can’t imagine how she ever had the time to make all this fabulous food while also being a mother and working full time.
For several months I’ve been perusing a preliminary copy of My Calabria, and can honestly say that any armchair traveler who reads this book will be overcome by the impulse to jump up out of that armchair and go looking for his or her passport. But an
even more splendid journey awaits the reader eager to spend time in the garden and kitchen, learning from Rosetta about the time-honored Calabrian traditions of food crafting and preservation. This is a collection of profound riches from a life in food made by hand.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay. She first learned the pleasures of food made by hand through her mother, and also from her mother’s father, who came from Puglia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org