Harvest Time is Almost Here

We are in the dog days of summer, which means it won’t be long until it’s time to start the annual preserving of the harvest. Crushing and jarring beautiful plump tomatoes; roasting peppers; pickling eggplants; making pesto; you get the point.

It’s one of my favourite times of the year, not just because of the beautiful ripe produce. It’s more about the process than the product. Getting together with family, the smells, the sounds. It’s all a reminder that food is not just about taste; it’s about emotion.

Does Italian Cuisine Exist?

What is Italian cuisine? Frankly, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “Italian Cuisine”.  Which, considering that I claim to provide “real Italian food”, should give me pause. Allow me to explain.

 What do you think of when someone mentions “Italian cuisine”? Pasta? Pizza? Risotto? Polenta? All of the above?  Any one of those would be a legitimate response; but is it fair to say that they, or any other category of “Italian food”, represent the cuisine of all of Italy? Personally, I don’t think so.

 Perhaps more so than any other type of cuisine, Italian culinary traditions are extremely regional. Dishes and ingredients typical of the south are very different than those typical of the north. This is partly because of obvious reasons like geography and partly because of less obvious reasons, like the influence of other cultures that settled throughout the Italian peninsula over the centuries.

 And the differences are not only between north, central, and south.  There are incredible differences even within the regions themselves, with certain dishes or use of ingredients differing literally from town to town.  For example, ‘nduja, a spreadable sausage from Calabria, which is currently quite trendy on North American menus, is something that my Calabrese parents never made, purchased or ate.  In fact, they likely never even heard of it. That’s because it has its origins in the southern parts of Calabria and my parents are from the more central-northern area of Cosenza. Two areas that are, geographically, quite close to each other, but nevertheless often have very different culinary traditions and styles.

 So, is there such a thing as “Italian cuisine”? Well, as one of the most loved and well-known types of cuisine in the world, it would be difficult to say no; but I think an accurate response to that question has more to do with what you consider a cuisine to be characterized by. If it is characterized by a homogeneous and consistent culinary traditions, then Italy likely does not qualify; but I think it is more than that. I think Italian cuisine is defined more by its focus on fresh ingredients, prepared simply; and about the important role that food plays in its cultural traditions, as well as its culinary traditions.  These are the characteristics that truly define Italian cuisine.

Buona Domenica

It’s Sunday morning.

I love Sunday mornings. Call me old fashioned, but, to me, Sunday morning means time with my family, time with my faith at Church and simple pleasures like a cappuccino at the local Italian Bakery, or time to do some writing, like what you are reading right now.

Growing up, Sunday mornings meant that the house was filled with the smell of simmering sugo on the stove as my mother prepared the one meal of the week that was sacred: Sunday lunch. Attendance was, if not quite mandatory, definitely expected.

Like most kids, I didn’t really appreciate the importance of those meals at the time. Nevertheless, they seem to have done their part in making me what I am today.

I sincerely hope you can enjoy your Sunday.

Buona Domenica!

My list of hidden gems (I’m terrible at keeping secrets! I hope you are too.)

Am I the only one who loves being tipped off about hidden gems around Toronto or the GTA?  I’m sure you know the kind of place I’m talking about: it’s that amazing restaurant that is somehow unknown to the food critics; the take-out joint that has been serving the best burgers/pizza/whatever forever; or the mom and pop shop that genuinely makes you feel at home.

 So, I’ve been thinking about some of the great places that I frequent and realized that they would be considered hidden gems by anyone not familiar with them.  So, why keep them a secret?  I’m happy to share them with you; but before I do, I hope you’ll do the same for us. Don’t keep Cucina Mauro a secret!  Tell your friends and family about us, and if you are so inclined and you’ve used our services in the past, we would be eternally grateful if you could take a minute and give us a review on google, if you haven’t already done so.  All you have to do is click here to go to our Google profile and then click on “write a review”.  Thanks in advance!

 Now, without further adieu, for the first time, my list of hidden gems (in no particular order):

 Rustic Bakery, 318 Rustic Road, North York

Easily one of the best old-school Italian bakeries north of St. Clair Avenue.  Amazing bread, and even better old-school Italian atmosphere, both inside and out, nestled in a residential area full of many first-generation Italian immigrants.  When Cucina Mauro clients ask to include buns in their order, this is where it comes from.

 Nonna B’s, 2 Blue Springs Road, North York

 If you’re in Rustic Bakery’s neighbourhood, then be sure to walk up the street and just around the corner and say hello to John at Nonna B’s, a full-fledged butcher shop tucked into the back of his residential property (don’t worry, it’s legit and has full public health inspection posted right on the door).  John makes the best speducci in town (the only ones Cucina Mauro uses if schedules don’t allow time for us to make our own), not to mention other amazing prepared meats and preserves.  Ask him about his connections in Toronto’s restaurant scene.  You’ll be amazed.

 San Antonio Seafood Market, 8383 Weston Road, Woodbridge

Heading north to Woodbridge, you’ll find this gem near Langstaff and Highway 400.  Amazing selection and quality of seafood, and an even more amazing little seafood restaurant tucked in with their market. You will not be disappointed.

 Cosenza Bakery, 471 Jevlan Drive, Woodbridge

Once in the Langstaff and 400 area, you’ve hit the motherload, including Cosenza Bakery, named after the region in Calabria, Italy that my parents emigrated from.   This no-frills bakery is about as old-school as it gets.  Nothing fancy here, which is precisely what makes it great. This is a bread bakery. Period. Full Stop.  Sure, there are some other things for sale, but this is where the nonnas and nonnos are stopping to pick up some loaves of traditional Calabrese pita bread to have with their Sunday pranzo.

 Sweet Boutique, 471 Jevlan Drive, Woodbridge

Right next door to Cosenza Bakery, is Sweet Boutique, which is the yin to Cosenza Bakery’s yang.  If Cosenza Bakery is great because of its no-frills authenticity, then Sweet Boutique is amazing because it has all the charm of a classic street-side café in Rome, with stunning displays of house made pastries and cookies, cornettos stuffed with prosciutto, and so much more.

 Grande Cheese, 468 Jevlan Drive, Woodbridge

Directly across the street from Cosenza Bakery and Sweet Boutique, you’ll find the Woodbridge location of Grande Cheese.  As soon as you step in the front door, you’ll be struck with the odour of an amazing selection of fresh cheeses, many of which are house-made.  They also feature a great pizza bar with one of the best deals for a party-size pizza anywhere in the GTA.

 Quality Cheese, 111 Jevlan Drive, Woodbridge

Head a little further south and you’ll find Quality Cheese.  Another great purveyor and producer of amazingly fresh cheeses.  They are renowned for their fresh ricotta. Get there at the right time and you can grab some while it’s still warm!

 Eddystone Meats, 245 Eddystone Avenue, North York

North-west Toronto is full of first-generation Italian immigrants, and this is where many of them come to get their meat. This family-run establishment is one of those places that you would never expect to find where it is. There is a huge meat counter with high quality cuts of all kind. A deli counter with all of the Italian standards, and a great hot-table that has the lunch crowed lining up every day.

That’s it, for now! There are many more that could be added to that list and to those I’ve missed, I apologize.  We’ll do a part two soon! In the meantime, if there are any that you think I’ve missed, feel free to let me know below in the comments.

Happy shopping!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories of Casu Marzu

As I write this, a long-time friend is currently on vacation in Sardegna, Italy, where his family originates from. For those of you who don’t know, Sardegna is a beautiful island north of Sicily, which has a very distinct culture of its own, including its cuisine, which brings me to the point of this post: maggots. Yes, you read that correctly.

Food shouldn’t just be eaten; it should be experienced! Possibly my favourite and most memorable food experience was 10 years ago, when the above-mentioned friend chose to get married in his father’s home town in Sardegna. It was such a pleasure and honour to be there with him to celebrate.

There are too many amazing memories from that trip to recount here, but there is one that definitely stands out: casu marzu. Casu Marzu is a pecorino cheese specialty of Sardegna, made with a very special process. More specifically, it goes beyond typical fermentation to a stage of decomposition, resulting from the digestive action of fly larvae (aka maggots), which are deliberately introduced. Through this process, the texture of the cheese becomes decadently soft and almost liquid. The larvae themselves can actually be seen wiggilng about when the cheese is cut into.

So it was that we found ourselves, two nights before the wedding, in a somewhat remote community gathering place on the outskirts of my friend’s family’s home town for an amazing “spuntino”; a casual relaxed evening of non-stop food and wine. The menu included malloredus pasta (another Sardegnan specialty), deep fried smelts, and wood oven roasted lamb; but the star of the show was the casu marzu. It was brought out late in the evening, with fanfare as the dozens of people in attendance literally cheered, and then gathered around to watch as it was ceremoniously cut into. I’ll never forget as my turn to taste came and to make sure I got the full experience, we dug around looking for one of the maggots. The taste was pungent and creamy and quite delicious.

It was truly a special experience; but not because of the taste of the cheese. It was special because it was experienced with friends at a special time in life in a special place.

Giovanni Ritacca, RIP, March 16, 1940 - August 11, 2018

Those of you who know me or have worked with me, know that the importance of family is a philosophy that I try to live and work by. So, it is with a very heavy heart that I say good bye to my father, Giovanni Ritacca, who passed away on Saturday August 11, 2018, at the age of 78 years. Giovanni will be lovingly remembered by his wife, Francesca, of 55 years, his children Maria, Anna, Gaspare and Mauro, his sons-in-law Des and Marco, his daughers-in-law Sonia and Jill, and his grandchildren Alex, Claudia, Laura, Sara, Nicholas, Emma, Thomas, and Clara.

Giovanni will be remembered as a loving father, husband, and nonno.  Family was always the most important thing in his life, and he often remarked that he felt like the wealthiest man in the world because of the family that he and Francesca raised.  There is nothing that he was more proud of than his children and grandchildren.

Before coming to Canada, he apprenticed as a tailor, gaining an appreciation for style and fashion, which was always obvious in his personal appearance. After immigrating to Canada in 1958, he worked to make a good life for himself and his family, first as a tailor and then with a long and proud career in real estate, touching many lives as they created their own homes.  He was always a man ahead of his time, teaching his children the importance of education and encouraging them on to successful professional careers.

He loved to spend time outdoors, especially when tending to his vegetable garden and fruit trees. Without a doubt, his home-grown tomatoes were his favourite meal. When not outside, he would often be found in his cantina, and was always proud of his home-made sausages, capicollo, and soppressata. He proudly passed on these traditions to his children.

He will be gravely missed, but fondly remembered. We love you Johnny, and we will carry you in our hearts always. 

Sundays

I may be dating myself by writing this, but I remember when it used to be against the law to be open on Sundays.  For those who have a little less “life experience” than me, it may seem strange to imagine that stores and services would all be closed and that you would have to wait until the next day. In our current 24/7 world, we have all become used to immediate access, but I'm not so sure that is a good thing. In fact, recently I made the difficult decision to close shop every Sunday, to allow one day a week to put other priorities first.

It wasn't an easy decision. Sundays are often the day of family celebrations and gatherings, which, in the catering world, means opportunities for work. Closing up on Sundays means saying no to these opportunities and potentially losing revenue.

But it also means saying yes to my family. It means saying yes to dedicating one day a week to make sure that my kids have time with their father and that my wife has time with her husband. It means saying yes to going to church. It means yes to being there for my own family celebrations. In short, it means saying yes to everything that really matters.

But it means even more than that. It means staying true to what the Cucina Mauro philosophy is all about: the importance of family and being real.  That means truly putting my family first; not just paying lip service to it. That philosophy is why Cucina Mauro Catering is successful. We treat you like you are part of our family.  But we can only do that if we take care of our actual family first.

So, here's to Sundays with family! May you enjoy yours too!

Channeling My Inner Nonna

So, running a business means always keeping an eye on costs and in the food service industry, portion control is very important.  So it is that I constantly find myself with an inner struggle between my inner accountant and my inner nonna. Nonna usually wins. 

See, I was raised in a family where declining a meal would mean that you only got one serving instead of two. To this day, usually one of the first questions I get asked when dropping in to visit my parents is "Have you eaten?".

So, I seem to have inherited a predisposition to making sure everyone has enough (read "too much") to eat; which could explain why our clients are often getting more food than they actually ordered. It's not unusual for our clients to find a few extra cutlets thrown in, or a dish upsized from a medium size to a large size.  We try our best to provide advice on quantities to order based on the number of people a client is feeding, but sometimes they choose to err on the lower side, and that's when nonna takes over. Just can't help it. 

I hate to think of a client running short of food. Just can't let it happen.  

Boiled Egg in Lasagna? Yes!

A quick look at the lasagna description in our menu reveals what many consider to be an odd ingredient: boiled egg.  We have received many client inquiries about this ingredient, usually because they don't understand why it's there.   The answer is simple: because we use a traditional and authentic southern Italian recipe.

The issue here is larger than just lasagna. It's really about the difference between Italian cuisine, and what North Americans perceive as Italian cuisine.  While it may seem strange to include hard boiled egg in lasagna, it is actually a very common ingredient in southern Italy.  My mother has always included hard boiled egg in various versions of her pasta al forno, including lasagna, cannelloni, or rigatoni. She would often include slices of boiled egg, but I prefer it minced. It adds a wonderful texture and flavour to the lasagna.

We have received requests to make our lasagna without the egg because it just seems so foreign to some people. That's no problem. We don't mind omitting it; but, if you enjoy authentic food, I would encourage you to give it a chance. 

 

Privileged to be Part of Your Best Day

Someone once told me a story about a friend of their's who was a firefighter and decided to change careers because, as he put it, "he was tired of his every day, being everyone else's worst day".  It's definitely not difficult to sympathize with that kind of rationale, and it's a reminder of the debt we all owe to our first responders. 

It's also a reminder of how blessed we are at Cucina Mauro Catering.  That's because more often than not, our "every day" is everyone else's best day.   We have the privilege of being part of so many milestone celebrations and it always brings as much of a smile to our faces as it does to our clients.  In just the last couple of weeks, we've had the honour of serving clients for a wedding reception, a 50th birthday celebration, TWO 40th birthday celebrations, TWO baby showers, and more.

These are the happiest times in their lives and for a short period we have the opportunity to become part of the family and enjoy the celebration right along with them. It's a true honour, and not one that we take for granted. We know how important these events are, and that's why we put our personal touch into everything we do.