Nonna, the chef & the Sicilian way

Though they learned to cook many years apart, chef Joey Baldino and Graziella DiFulco, a Sicilian grandmother, forged a connection making arancini, stuffed rice balls that are deep-fried. (Keith Muccilli)
WHAT HAPPENS when a grandmother from Sicily hosts a dinner for a renowned Sicilian chef? Graziella DiFulco and Joey Baldino had never met, but Inside Jersey thought perhaps they should. Our story shares details of that day.

Graziella DiFulco grew up in Sicily. She married in Italy, and, in 1965, she and her husband, Sal, came to America. In 2005, after they retired, they moved to a small working farm in Sussex County. They tend a few grass-fed cattle, a smattering of chickens, some sheep. They grow some vegetables. Raspberries thrive in front, a few stray canes dangle over the steps. The Wantage farm doesn’t provide everything, but the DiFulcos live with a certain level of pioneering self-sufficiency. And it allows DiFulco to do what she’s done since her first days in the States — to fiercely preserve, with homemade Sunday sauce and pasta with peas, the traditions of her childhood home.

Joey Baldino is a James Beard nominee and chef/owner of Zeppoli in Collingswood, a tiny, welcoming space where the demand for seats nearly rivals the demand for the chef’s deeply intense seafood stew. Baldino is a Marc Vetri protégé and spent six months in Sicily, at Anna Tasca Lanza, one of the most famous cooking schools in the world. The cooking school is attached to a grand working farm and teaches the value of local and fresh. Yet, the chef saves his culinary reverence for his own Italian family, his mother and his aunt, and the lessons learned from their kitchens. That hasn’t changed, no matter his years of professional expertise. “At home, I just let Mom do everything.” And if she makes a mistake? “If I see it, I don’t mention it. I don’t like to be a back-seat driver.”

Joey Baldino coddles an egg, one of the dozen or so that sit alongside the stove. “Wow. They’re still warm.” The gleam in his eye is a chef’s appreciation. The eggs were laid just a few hours ago; the chicken coop is just out back.

By the end of the visit, after the arancini tutorial and the leisurely, everyday celebration that is dinner, after the loquat cordial, the iced espresso and the miniature pignoli pastries, another treat appears, direct from the farm. This time it’s a squash — one with the circumference of a baseball bat and taller than a man — which becomes dinner theater, its incredible height a show-and-tell moment amid laughter and drinks around the table, everyone talking over each other, another evening gone well.

And by the end of the visit, Baldino is one of the family. Witness the treasure trove of gifts when he leaves, which includes a batch of arancini, big as bocce balls; about a dozen of those farm-fresh eggs; and a jar of homemade cucuzza caponata, which is passed to him with reverence and care. Two hands, two hands.

Such are the gifts for a son. Especially the caponata, which looks bold and lush — even in an unopened jar, even at dinner’s end, even with a full belly. The cucuzza, a squash that grows skinny and recklessly lanky, and is usually as annoyingly abundant as any other squash, fizzled this year. Aside from the one, that trophy cucuzza with its spectacular award-winning size, the harvest has been surprisingly scant. The jars of homemade caponata are precious and rare.

Graziella DiFulco hurries to the garage. Wait. A jar of cucuzza seeds. Joey will need those, he’s just bought a house. Start them in a pot in April, then move them outside. They’ll grow like weeds.

When Baldino was invited to DiFulco’s house for dinner — Sicilian grandmother opening her doors to Sicilian chef — he was prepared to work. He was also prepared to sit. He knows from Italian mothers.

DiFulco’s arancini are a signature dish, a special occasion dinner, an important Sicilian tradition. “My desert island food,” says son Pasquale.

Arancini are stuffed balls of rice, deep-fried, the literal translation is “little oranges.”

DiFulco’s arancini are not so little. She starts with ground beef — straight from her own farm, its provenance so sure she’ll name the cow, one born and raised on the land, with no last-minute fattening-up to hasten the process. “They have a great life,” says her son Peter, who manages the farm. “Up until that last day.”

The beef — with a flavor so clean and pure, even the chef remarks upon it — is mixed with onions and tomatoes to become a sauce. The arborio rice is made in advance (butter, salt, saffron). then mixed with eggs and cheese, maybe pecorino Romano, maybe Grana Padano. The peas are in a separate bowl.

To make a rice ball is to be on an assembly line. You cup your hand and make a bed of rice, then fill it with sauce, peas, cubes of mozzarella. One trick is to start with a wet hand. The other is to beware the ratio of rice to filling. Too thin and the stuffing falls out. Too thick and the rice overwhelms. No one wants to eat a ball that’s mostly rice. The ball is rolled in beaten eggs, wrapped in bread crumbs, deep-fried.

DiFulco demonstrates; the chef reacts. “That was impressive. It was fast and organized. She does it with such ease.”

Now, it’s the chef’s turn. DiFulco immediately stops him. “No, no, too small.”

He tries again, but runs into another problem. “What do you do when the cheese starts to come out?”

DiFulco’s answer is the answer of an expert, one baffled by the very nature of the question: “It’s not supposed to come out.”
By the third try, Baldino is getting it right. The grandmother approves.

What you don’t guess is that DiFulco didn’t begin to cook until she was 28, when she arrived in America. In Italy, the cooking was done by her mother and sister. Once here, she failed even the basics. “The first time I made pasta for my husband, I put in so much salt that he couldn’t eat it.”

DiFulco is too stubborn to forfeit her heritage, which, frankly, was done easily enough: American convenience foods, TV dinners and soup from a can, were readily available. Instead, she studied Italian cookbooks, breathlessly awaited air mail from home, packages of espresso and saffron. In Sicily, espresso is a necessity, but it’s also served frozen; the hot winds that blow in from Africa demand it.

Talk of saffron continues through dinner; it’s a small group, but with multiple conversations. One minute, it’s the price of beef and the proper way to make sausage. The next, it’s a shared yearning for the blood-red tomato paste of Sicily, a coveted, life-giving game-changer for any ragu, intense and impossibly sweet, made by drying tomatoes for days in the sun. You just can’t get something like that in the States.

And then, stories of snails eaten with sticks. And other stories of snails — how, in Sicily, you learn that you just can’t put snails in the fridge, you’ll open the door and find them crawling up the refrigerator walls. Baldino is laughing. “I have that story, too.”

Talk continues. Secrets are revealed for DiFulco’s homemade limoncello and Baldino’s miniature cannoli, which feature handcrafted ricotta sparked with orange blossom and dusted with roasted pistachios. And how growing up in an Italian family in Jersey meant you never — ever — went out to dinner, even when you hit the age of girlfriends. What was the point? Baldino is laughing again. He has that story, too.

The DiFulco farm is within spitting distance of Pennsylvania, and the summer nights are often cold enough to warrant a fire in the fireplace. But inside the house, the marble floors are the warm, bright color of fresh cream, and iced espresso is in the freezer nearly year-round. You might as well be in Sicily.

DiFulco brings out another after-dinner drink. Loquat liquor, which she makes herself. She explains the process, so easy, really, as long as you have loquats. She tells the story of this season’s batch — that as soon as she heard loquats were in, she raced to Corrado’s in Clifton (a 60-minute drive) to be there the minute the store opened.

Baldino, after two arancini, which is not a family record, but impressive nonetheless, half-heartedly refrains. But the liquor — nespolino — intrigues him, and he’s surprised by its depth and complexity.

DiFulco shares the recipe, but no one writes it down. Who could replicate it? The complexity of that drink is the complexity of her — her wedding day and her first American paycheck, the mother she mourns and the sister she loves, her twin who lives in Pennsylvania but is still too far away. It’s saffron and espresso, and the hot winds from Africa casting spells on her village. It’s baby lambs being bottle-fed in the basement, opera music in the kitchen, a half-glass of Stella at the end of the day. It’s her father’s eyes, her granddaughter’s first step, 50 years of a well-tended marriage. It’s that crazy, collapsing rush of relief to learn that her son survived Sept. 11.

As the conversation wanes, you feel all that, past and present converging, the village in Sicily to the farm in Sussex. Such a sacred, generous gift — of family, of history, of tradition — given away as casually as dinner. At the end of the night, amid the haze of nespolino and limoncello and sweet iced espresso, no one wants to be first to leave the table, not even Baldino, who has a three-hour drive home.

This is it, isn’t it, chef? This moment, this feeling, this is why you went into the business?

And Joey Baldino, silent, nods.

It’s as if all of Sicily has your back.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Inside Jersey, a Star-Ledger Magazine.