Tantalizing Italian family recipes start with a palazzo
Terri Bert has the recipe for a cookbook.
You start with a palazzo.
Seriously, a lavish place overlooking the Arno River and Florence is part of the story. And it ends with a place in Michigan where finding good Italian cooking – at least in a restaurant – is next to impossible.
The story of how Terri and Dr. John Bert published “The Italian Way,” a richly illustrated cookbook containing 61 recipes, is as good as the book.
You won’t find “The Italian Way” on Amazon or the shelves of Barnes & Noble. But on Dec. 1, the Warwick Neck couple will hold a book signing at Dave’s Marketplace in Smithfield from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. They will be at Barrington Books the following day at 1 p.m. Their cause is St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence with $5 of each $15 sale going to the facility that provides outpatient services to traumatized children.
Terri finds the kitchen more than just a place to prepare food and finds food more than just a means of providing sustenance.
She grew up in an Italian family in the Bronx, where Sundays were spent in her grandmother’s small apartment and even smaller kitchen.
Those Sundays made for memorable times that contributed to the recipes that are part of the book, but also to her outlook on food. She described it in the book’s opening pages.
“Preparing and serving a meal is a way of nurturing those we love,” she writes, and notes, “memories are made at the dinner table.”
But publishing a cookbook, one that her husband illustrated with mouth-watering photographs, was neither of their plans. She has worked as an ob-gyn nurse practitioner since 1986. Also born to an Italian family and raised in New York, John is a faculty member at Brown University School of Medicine and a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist.
Enter the owners of the palazzo – Robert Hesse and Jane Fortune.
They are good friends and the Berts have visited them on occasion. Hesse and Fortune also own property in Michigan.
After living in Florence, they found it hard to come by good Italian food in Michigan, where they have a summer home. They sought to solve this problem by opening a restaurant, staffed with a chef they would recruit in Italy.
This plan was outlined at a wedding of a mutual friend in Rhode Island in June 2011. In the course of discussion, Hesse asked whether Terri could jot down a few old time family recipes, things that might have special appeal in this country.
Terri had a few suggestions and Hesse soon was looking for more. It wasn’t long before he was proposing she do a cookbook.
Hesse went along with his restaurant, Bella Fortuna North [a play on his wife’s name] at Lake Leelanau, although he found someone locally to be the chef. The restaurant opened last June.
Terri went to work on the book and soon confronted what she already knew: A lot of her cooking did not come from following a written recipe. It was from memory, and intuitively knowing what quantities would be needed for the number of people she was cooking for. Writing a cookbook would require measuring everything and, quite naturally, as a consequence, having to cook everything before she wrote down the amounts.
“I had to make everything to get the measurements,” she says.
John, who is an amateur photographer, signed on to record her creations. He found it one of his easier assignments.
“The beauty of food photography is that it doesn’t blink, and it doesn’t move,” he said.
John also found that food was best photographed in natural light. That put everything on a daytime schedule with Terri cooking up two or three dishes a day.
It didn’t end there, either.
In order to lend variety to the settings of the photos, the Berts borrowed plates from neighbors. And of course, as John observes, “We had to eat the props.”
“None of the recipes are fancy,” says Terri. She says ingredients can be easily found at Dave’s or Stop & Shop and there is not much of the kind of things that would get used once and never again.
“Most of it is just comfort food,” she says.
John’s unqualified favorite is braciole. Terri introduced him to the stuffed meat roll, an episode he recalls in the book. John sampled the dish before dinner and found it so good that Terri had to make another for that evening’s meal. She now makes at least two at a time.
It’s Terri’s memories that accompany many of the recipes that enrich this book and make it so nourishing on several levels.
Take, for example the recipe for ricotta gnocci. Terri remembers making them in her grandmother’s tiny kitchen. The three-room apartment left little space to spread out the gnocci, so her grandmother set them out on her bed using her special linen macaroni sheet.
“She could take nothing and make it fabulous,” Terri said.
If you can’t make it to either of the signings, “The Italian Way” is also available at St. Mary’s Home for Children, 420 Fruit Hill Ave., North Providence. Or you could visit the Bella Fortuna North in Michigan. They carry it in the gift shop.