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. 

Italians Love Veal So Much They Named Their Country After It!

It's no secret that I have a soft spot for veal sandwiches. I've written about it in this spot in the past.  So, to say that I enjoyed a recent conversation about the relevance of veal to Italy's culture, with Professor Michael Lettieri, who has taught every level of the Italian language program at the University of Toronto, would be a bit of an understatement. 

You can learn more about Professor Lettieri's amazing academic accomplishments by clicking here. For the purposes of this humble blog posting, all you need to know is that I am lucky enough to say that he is part of the family (married to a cousin).  So it is that we had the opportunity to catch-up at a recent family wedding and it was a true pleasure to soak up every anecdote and bit of information, about various aspects of Italian culture, that he was willing to dispense with. Not the least of which was how Italy got its name.

It's a little known fact that Italy is, in fact, named after veal!  The origin goes back to ancient times before the Roman Empire. The name Italy (Italia) is an ancient name for the country and people of southern Italy, coincidentally where my family originates from (Calabria). Originally, it was spelled Vitalia, probably from the same root as the Latin vitulus (a one-year-old calf), thus literally meaning 'calf-land' or "Land of Cattle".  According to various academic texts, the area was rich with bovine, and as such, the people took the name as it identified them with their land. Eventually, the "V" was dropped, and it became just "Italia".

So, their you have it! It's only fitting that a country and culture that is so influenced by it's cuisine, would have a name that is also.

On Bakeries, Delis, and Butchers...

An interesting anecdote from a recent encounter: I was visiting one of my favourite local Italian bakeries and I came across a couple making some inquiries to the staff about catering options, which the establishment’s signage prominently indicates that they offer.  More specifically, the couple was asking if there was a catering menu that they could order from.  As I watched, much to my dismay, the couple was rudely told that they should just order from the hot table menu displayed on the wall, which was followed by head-shaking by the staff person. The nerve of them to ask for a catering men (insert sarcasm)! As I watched this, I realized that I was witnessing what makes Cucina Mauro Catering different from the other options for authentic home-style Italian food:  our combination of professionalism and customer service in addition to the quality of our food.

I have long believed that some of the best Italian food available (for sale, that is – nobody can beat nonna’s), is from local Italian bakeries, cheese shops, and butchers.  Many Italian bakeries are just as famous for their “hot tables” as they are for their bread; and where better to get a classic salumi or cheese platter than an Italian cheese and deli shop? Similarly, some of the best porchetta I’ve had (other than my own, of course) has been from Italian butcher shops that not only sell the pork, but also roast it!  Not only do these places provide authentic Italian food, but they have the added charm and character that often comes along with these types of establishments.

Unfortunately, what these establishments are often lacking is a dedicated and professional focus on catering services.  Now, don’t get me wrong, that is not intended as a criticisim. Bakeries, delis, and butchers may have great catered food, but at the end of the day, they are still bakeries, delis, and butchers; they are not caterers.

At Cucina Mauro Catering, our philosophy is simple: provide the same authenticity Italian food that you would get from genuine Italian establishments, but with focused and dedicated professional catering services and customer attention.  That means providing personalized attention and customer service, offering delivery services, providing full-on site service if needed, coordinating event services like décor and equipment rentals, and most importantly treating you like you are a member of our family, from start to finish.

We look forward to serving you.

No Risotto. No Carbonora.

A quick browse of this web site makes it quite obvious that at Cucina Mauro Catering, authenticity is one of our most important guiding principles.  So, you might be a bit surprised that our menu does not include some of the most classic Italian dishes, like risotto or pasta alla carbonara.  How can we profess to be authentically Italian without offering such classic options?  Ironically, it is exactly because we believe in being authentic that we will not offer such dishes.  Allow me to explain.

As a catering operation, we are often called upon to feed dozens, if not hundreds of people.  Sometimes we are asked to simply prepare the food and have it delivered ready for serving, and sometimes we are asked to provide full on-site service.  Either way, there is significant prep work that occurs in our kitchen. Even though we use industry standard methods for transporting food at the proper temperature, there are simply some dishes that cannot be properly prepared and served under these conditions.  Risotto and Pasta alla Carbonara are two perfect examples of this. 

To prepare a risotto properly, one key ingredient is necessary: time. It must be slowly cooked and nursed along to develop the beautiful creamy texture that it is known for. Conversely, once ready, it cannot be allowed to linger before being served; it must be enjoyed immediately, otherwise it loses its characteristic creaminess.  It cannot be effectively transported for delivery, and batching it up for large groups is similarly challenging.  Given both of these constraints, we choose to not offer risotto as part of our catering menu, because we believe that if we cannot prepare it and serve it properly, then we should not serve it at all. 

The same holds true for Pasta alla Carbonara.  This is such a simple classic dish, but it is so often done incorrectly.  The creamy texture of the sauce should be solely from the eggs added to the hot freshly cooked pasta.  There should never be any cream added. So, like risotto, to truly enjoy the carbonara sauce, it must be prepared and eaten immediately.  It simply cannot withstand the time it would take to go from our kitchen to your table. The addition of cream to the sauce could help solve this problem and could be why some establishments add it, but, as mentioned, authentic carbonara never includes cream and we refuse to compromise on that. 

So, if you are looking for risotto or carbonara, I apologize, but you will not find it on our menu. That said, I'd love to prepare it for you personally, the way it was meant to be. If that's of interest to you, don't hesitate to contact us to inquire about our personal chef in-home service for your next dinner party. 

 

What's In a Name?

As Juliett, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliett, so eloquently put it, “what’s in a name?”.  I’m not ashamed to admit that, when it comes to the name “Cucina Mauro”, the answer is: not much.

“Cucina Mauro” translated literally means “Mauro’s Cooking” or “Mauro’s Cuisine”. In so much as I am the name sake of Cucina Mauro, it is accurate; but, quite frankly, there are many more people behind Cucina Mauro, than just me.

For starters, just about every dish on our menu is my mother’s recipe and cooked the way she taught us. So, in some ways, a more accurate name might be “Cucina Francesca”.

The family involvement doesn’t end there. Firstly, my wife deserves sainthood for tolerating the long hours that the job often demands of my time; but beyond that, she is often the face of Cucina Mauro, when we are on-site, managing the “front of house”, while I manage the kitchen.  You will not find a more professional, polite, and customer service oriented person than her.

Then there is the rest of the family. I am one of four children in the Ritacca famiglia, and believe me when I tell you that the other three have poured much of themselves into this; everything from business advice to working in the kitchen, and on-site at events.  If that’s not enough, their children (my nieces) are a part of the Cucina Mauro team, too!

Last but, certainly not least, is staff.  While I am proud of the family-oriented roots and pedigree of Cucina Mauro, and will always make a point of ensuring genuine family involvement (no matter how large we grow), we couldn’t do what we do without staff; everyone from  the part-time staff that get called in for larger events, to the crew of servers, bartenders, and hosts from the event staffing agency that we are partnered with.  We are proud to work with a team of individuals dedicated to authenticity, quality, and customer service.

So, yes, it’s my name on the web site and business cards, but this is far from a one-person operation.  A very big thank-you to everyone who has helped to make Cucina Mauro Catering what it has become!