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Elisa Costantini Shares Family's Italian Recipes

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In 1961, at age 23, Elisa Costantini left her native Abruzzo in Italy for Philadelphia, bringing with her a slew of family recipes representative of traditional Italian cuisine. Over 50 years later, after raising three children with her late husband, Francesco, Costantini has compiled her signature dishes in her new self-published cookbook, Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table.

“I never remember when I wasn’t [a] cook,” Costantini says, her Italian accent still hearty and warm. She reminisces about her childhood often, recalling her Aunt Ida allowing her to help prepare secret family recipes in the kitchen before Costantini was even tall enough to reach the countertop. Her cookbook is a combination of recipes, anecdotal interludes and pictures of her scrumptious dishes, which range from breads to sauces to desserts, all found in small-town Italy.

The idea for book came at the urging of her son, Frank, after Costantini’s husband passed away in December 2014. Frank worried about his mother’s “listless” behavior and wanted to “rip the band aid off” by giving her a project to work on. As they collected and compiled her many recipes, Frank saw a potential in them. Not only were they giving his mother a sense of significance to rival her husband’s popularity on the Main Line, they were representative of the cooking of so many other loving Italian mothers, as well. Costantini’s cooking exhibited the authenticity of her home country and the family dynamic it is known for. Frank began to imagine her personal collection turning into a resource for Italian Americans whose mothers and grandmothers might not have had the opportunity to pass down their own family recipes.

Inspired, Frank turned to popular crowd funding company Kickstarter to see if a cookbook would be of interest. Overwhelmingly, it was. Over the course of a month, 825 strangers pledged $27,000 to the project. Promising donors a finished product within six months, the Costantinis got to work.

The elements came together with the help of family friends, who took professional photos, and a kindly gentleman who volunteered to listen to Costantini’s story and help her compose it. “It became a stone soup kind of thing,” Frank says of the composition process. “Everyone brought to the pot what they could.”

The cookbook has a richness and warmth. Reading it almost gives the sense of Costantini’s calming presence. Every few pages, her commentary partners with a dish, offering a relevant history, the time of year it is usually made, or an explanation of what it is. She offers specifics on how to make certain doughs and beautifully decorate cookies.

While Costantini doesn’t have a personal favorite, she loves preparing her grandchildren’s favorites, namely, her pastas, which range from handmade gnocchi to ravioli to linguini she used to prepare with Francesco. Frank’s favorite is his mother’s fried chicken, stuffed with prosciutto and cheese and crusted in breadcrumbs with sautéed zucchinis and roasted potatoes on the side.

Costantini will soon return to Italy to teach a cooking class at an artist resort in Tuscany. Last summer, she was invited to offer lessons for the resident artists. “It was a blessed, blessed time in my life,” she recalls.

This trip to Italy will also serve as research. Costantini will try “finding those meals that [she] missed within this book” so that she might publish another cookbook in the future, an endeavor her son supports. Frank says that this first cookbook has opened up his mother’s life so that she might leave a legacy behind. The authentic Italian recipes have already made an impact on the four thousand purchasers of the book, offering “family treasures,” as Frank refers to them.

Costantini’s passion for cooking has not yielded to her newfound popularity. Her life is busy, taking her places likely not possible before. This fall, she will appear on a Food Network show about talented home cooks who have escalated to professional chefs or authors. Costantini will also give cooking demonstrations locally on the Main Line, with Luigi & Giovanni Caterers and at Dante & Luigi’s. She will also be featured at the TASTE food show at Valley Forge.

Since the book’s release, Frank has been amazed that a simple project has developed into a professional, polished book. Adding to her legacy, proceeds from book sales are being donated to the ministry of St. Francis in Philadelphia. No matter how many people it reaches, the book has proved successful, but more importantly, given the Costantinis a shared family project reflecting on their history and heritage.

Italian Moms is currently available on Amazon.