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…

MG: Yes.

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 interesting time.

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 you arrived?

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 pantry?

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.