Tina Fiore: What are your earliest memories of cooking and
being in the kitchen?
Minnie Giraldi: Before I was even married, when I was a
young girl, my mother always set up a very nice table for us.
My father was very fussy and that was another reason she fussed
a lot. He owned a butcher shop with all the best meats you could
eat. It was one of those old-fashioned meat stores where the meat
would be hanging and they would strip it themselves. My father
always used to say, "Everybody had nice clothes, but we always
ate well." So this is what I remember as a child - my mother was
great; all the relatives around were great. It was sort of in
the family - we all liked to cook, even my boys liked to cook.
My brothers liked to cook. My mom was so great with her Italian
cooking that you just picked it up as you went along.
TF: Your mother was born in Naples…
TF: Did you ever go back to Italy and visit the area where
she was born?
MG: No, I've never been to where she was born. But I've
been to Italy a few times. I went to school in Italy with Bugialli
(Chef Giuliano Bugialli) for one course. But I went to Italy a
lot because I liked Italy. It never even entered my mind to investigate
where my mother came from. You know it was very odd with my mother.
Being that she was from Italy and my father was born here (in
America), she didn't dwell too much on that part of herself because
in those days it wasn't that great to be Italian. Even my grandmother…
my mother's mother used to come visit us all the time and she
would really get mad at me because I didn't speak Italian. I never
spoke Italian… my brothers and I all didn't speak Italian. My
mother never wanted to speak Italian in front of my father. My
mother was really in love with my father and I guess she thought
she wasn't Americanized enough for him. But by the time she passed
away, she knew everything about banking, American checkbooks and
everything else. (Laughs.)
TF: How did your parents meet?
MG: The story I heard is he used to see her go to work (in Paterson,
NJ) and he sort of fell in love at first sight as she was passing
by. My father worked for his father (Minnie's grandfather) in
a butcher shop until he got married and then he had his own butcher
shop. The whole family was in the meat business. My mother always
thought she was doing a big thing by keeping silent about the
Italian part of her life because of my father. One time she told
me that she wanted to be Americanized… learn to write, learn to
read. My brothers and I used to teach my mother things.
TF: At what age did your mother come to America?
MG: She came over as a young girl, 15 or 16.
TF: When you traveled through Italy, where did you go?
MG: Well, I went to a lot of places; I took a lot of different
trips. I wanted to be there. I liked every part of Europe I ever
went to. I thought it was very interesting. I remember eating
outside at some restaurants with husband. We used to follow the
young girls who had Communion on Sunday - we would watch where
they went to eat and we'd follow because we figured that it would
be good. (Laughs.) And it was always great - people would include
us in their party. It was a very nice thing about Italy. I liked
every part of it, but I couldn't speak Italian and I had a lot
of problems with that because I went to Italian classes (in the
States) and they said save your money because I wasn't very good
at it. My brother Ralph learned Italian while he was in the army.
The women there adopted him. (Laughs.) It was really a strange
time. It was bad times (for Italian-Americans). When I got married,
they didn't even want to rent me rooms because I was Italian.
I was a young girl - that was a shock to me. But it never changed
my way of life.
TF: How did you meet your husband?
MG: I met him at a party when I moved into a new neighborhood
in Paterson (NJ) and the girl across the street was my age. She
came over and introduced herself… she was having her 16-year-old
birthday party and she invited me. My husband happened to be there.
I didn't know him by name, it was by numbers… they called me 'number
8.' He started to court me as 'number 8.' (Laughs.) It was a very
TF: How did you like studying under Chef Bugialli (in Italy)?
MG: I loved it. Everybody was so nice and there were so
many different people in the classes. We would discuss food. I
went by myself. I thought if I'm going to teach it, I want to
know a little more professionally.
TF: You started teaching cooking classes at Fox Lane High
School in Chappaqua (NY)?
MG: Yes, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me.
I never thought that would happen. I met the nicest people - young
people, schoolteachers… Young men took my class over and over
again. I'm still friends with three of my then students.
TF: Had there been any kind of culinary program there before
MG: Yes, but they didn't want Italian - they claimed that
they had had enough of the spaghetti and stuff. But that isn't
the way I cook… I have my own way of doing things; I do a little
bit of everything. I like all kinds of food. So, they took a chance
with me and they were pleased and I was very happy with them.
I stayed as long as I could and then I did some catering from
my house for people that worked.
TF: You came to call this business Mezzaluna Catering?
You were teaching and catering at the same time?
MG: Yes, it was all a part of Mezzaluna. I would do the
catering at night. I also had a class at my house, but it was
a private class. It was wonderful. I had about 6-8 students in
the class. I would set the dining room table before they came.
Then we would sit down and have wine. It was like a party every
week. It was wonderful for me because at that time my husband
had passed away and I was very lonesome, and that was the greatest
outlet for me. All my programs were fun; the people enjoyed it.
And they liked me - they inspired me to do more. It was a happy,
happy time for me.
TF: Did you ever think of opening up your own restaurant…
becoming a professional chef?
MG: I often argued with my husband that I wanted a bed
and breakfast in Vermont. My husband was an accountant, worked
in the city, and he felt he was giving up a very good job to take
a chance of making a life in Vermont and I couldn't convince him
otherwise. I sent away for newspapers for stores for sale and
buildings for sale that I could have opened a business in, but
he wouldn't take a chance. I really, truly wanted to do something
like that for the family. I had visions of my children when they
got bigger working in the restaurant and my grandchildren, nieces
and nephews. I thought it would be a great thing. But my husband
worked for the housing authority in the city… I couldn't take
that away from him.
TF: Let's talk about your book, Minnie's
Kitchen - for how long were you planning on doing this book?
What was the inspiration?
MG: I always wanted to have a remembrance of what I did.
There's so much that has happened in my life. For example, I had
the greatest father-in-law in the world, I just loved him and
he loved me very much. He was a manager of an insurance company
and he would always help me out. If I was painting my walls, he
would come down to help me. My husband wouldn't do that kind of
work. He used to tell me about his niece who taught Italian and
French. He just thought she was the living end because she was
so great with her languages. I can't speak a word of Italian!
(Laughs.) I was always a little envious of that; I wished I could
tell him that I could speak Italian. I wanted to look great in
his eyes. This whole experience (pushed) me forward - I had to
be a teacher; I wanted to be a teacher in his eyes. The funny
part about this is my father wanted me to be a teacher as a young
girl, but I didn't want to be a teacher then. I wanted to be an
interior decorator, and my father didn't want me to be an interior
decorator. But I really liked decorating.
TF: How did you choose the recipes for the book?
MG: I always liked to go to good restaurants and if I went
I would decipher what they put in the dish. They didn't even have
to give me the recipe. I had good taste buds. Then I would experiment
in my own way; I would do the same things, but my way. Maybe (I
would) use tomatoes, maybe I wouldn't use the same thing they
started with. I also read a lot… I always had magazines and books
about food. I must have been one of the first with Gourmet magazine.
I made these fancy dishes from the magazine, and my children would
be upset because it wouldn't be Italian; it wouldn't be something
they would fancy.
TF: I loved the parts of the book where you reveal your
cooking secrets for each recipe, Minnie's Secrets…
MG: I am very observant about certain things like the oil,
the cheeses, the lard… things like that. I would experiment with
those. It would have to have a certain taste. If I liked it I
would use it again. This was the only way I could feel that it
was my recipe.
TF: What are some of your favorite dishes from the book?
MG: My roast lamb was one of my favorites. One of the first
young men who took my class, Tony, who was a schoolteacher, gave
that recipe to his brother. His brother entered a contest with
the roast lamb recipe and won a prize for it. And he (Tony) said
to me, "Please don't be mad at me, I gave the recipe to my brother."
And I said, "Why should I be angry? I'm thrilled that somebody
thought it was good enough to give him a prize!" I never took
anything like that seriously.
TF: I find that one of my favorite dishes is pasta… I make
it every other night…
MG: There's so much you can do with pasta! You can be so
creative with pasta. It doesn't all have to be the sauces either.
It can be the oils… you could do it with sausage without tomatoes.
You can take the sausage out of its casing and sauté it, make
it nice and crispy… mix it with the pasta. You sort of learn as
you go along with things like that. Like my mother's Easter Pie,
(Minnie's Kitchen, page 14) she
would use a whole can of ricotta or a whole mozzarella cheese
- nothing was ever measured. I tried to stick to that. Like the
carrot cake recipe (Minnie's Kitchen,
page 84), which I had for years and years. I gave it to a friend
of mine and she's still making it and her kids now do it. It makes
me so happy to hear that. And I even forgot it myself - I have
to look at my own recipe. (Laughs.)
TF: Who are your favorite Italian purveyors? You mention
Arthur Avenue (Italian neighborhood in Bronx, NY) in your book?
MG: Arthur Avenue is very good. I like everything about
Arthur Avenue - their cheeses, even their canned goods seem to
be better than anywhere else. When I moved up here (Chappaqua,
NY), after taking Bugialli's course, I wanted to get pancetta,
I couldn't find pancetta around here at all. I would go to stores
and they didn't even know what I was talking about. I would get
it in New Jersey - in the real Italian neighborhoods. But now,
up here you can get anything.
TF: How are the restaurants up in Chappaqua?
MG: Not bad. I've made friends with a couple of the owners.
Antico in Mount Kisco is very good, and Spaccarelli's in Chappaqua.
There are a few good ones.
TF: Which basic ingredients do you always have in your
MG: I always try to have the best tomatoes you can buy.
I like very good tomatoes - like plum tomatoes. They are very
important. And if I'm going to have tuna fish, it has to be very
good tuna fish. I also have anchovies… these are things that you
can put on spaghetti or anything. I don't use tuna fish too much
on spaghetti. Also, basic, good chicken broth is essential - in
cans or jars. I never add water to my food; I always add chicken
stock for the flavoring and to make more of it. That's one of
the basic things I always do. Cheese is also very important to
me. I try to have one or two kinds of cheese - Parmesan or Pecorino.
TF: What are your favorite kitchen tools?
MG: I always use scissors to cut up herbs - I just love
it. Snip, snip, snip… and the little pieces are all ready, and
I don't have to worry about cutting my fingers off. (Laughs.)
Also, I don't buy cheese that's already grated. I always grate
it myself and then I put it in jars. The same goes for breadcrumbs.
If I have old bread, I toast it, then I grate it down, add some
garlic and put it in a jar. I use it up quickly.
TF: Are you planning on hosting any upcoming holidays?
MG: I don't do as much cooking anymore, but I used to have
all this company - and I did have a lot of company during the
holidays. I always entertained my father too. I tried to imitate
my mother a lot - she was a marvelous cook. But all mothers seem
to be. (Laughs.) I think it's more love than cooking. So, I don't
have these big dinner parties anymore. I go to my children's house.
TF: Do you cook with your grandkids?
MG: I used to when they were small. They'd be around a
lot. I would make cards with them. I did a lot of projects with
them. They made me the happiest when they would say to me that
they had been waiting to come over so they could do a project.
I enjoyed them very much and they made me very happy. And they
all like food…
TF: What are your plans for the future? How about doing
another cookbook for kids
MG: I would love to do something spectacular for all the
kids in the family. I really would like to do that. If I could
only think up something of what I would like to do… how I would
like to do it. I don't like being idle… it's frustrating. I like
to be on the go, and I like to be with people. I definitely would
like to do something. I've been doing a little painting recently.
TF: Your cookbook is really like a family album…
MG: That's what it is… it's something my children and I
will love, and people will enjoy it as well. It's like an heirloom.
I would like to do something like that for all the kids.