When I first met Lisa Caponigri, it was at Tosi’s, the 75-year-old restaurant with a fantastic Italian garden in Stevensville, Michigan when our mutual friend Don-Nee German invited us to dinner. Don-Nee knew I wrote about food and Lisa, who lives in South Bend, Indiana had just written “Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinners,” her fond recollections of when people gathered at the dinner table every Sunday night. It sounded super, filled with recipes created by Lisa or passed down through the generations in her family, it reflected her Italian heritage.
For some reason life was so busy, that neither she nor I connected to talk about her cookbook. Flash forward to now and Lisa has written a second book, “This is Sunday Dinner: 52 Seasonal Italian Menus” published by Sterling Epicure.
“I decided to divide this book into four seasons and four regions,” says Lisa, who spent her childhood in Naples, visiting her grandmother in Sicily during the summers, and also spent two years outside of Milan and ten years in Florence where she worked for Gucci and also traveled to Piedmont in winter. “Italians have had to eat seasonally. You just buy from the farmer’s markets—I had one in my neighborhood–and use the ingredients available there.”
According to Lisa, farmers’ markets abound in almost every neighborhood and each one carried vegetables and other food specific to the area where they’re established.
“We have vegetables in Sicily that they don’t grow in Tuscany,” she says, noting the differences between American supermarkets where so many vegetables and fruits are always available, even if not the same as locally grown and in-season offerings.
The chapters in her book, Winter in Piemonte, Spring in Campania, Summer in Sicily, and Autumn in Tuscany showcase the local foods of those areas during specific seasons through a series of 5-course menus Lisa crafted for each. The recipes are very simple, something that isn’t always typical for Italian cookbooks, and each can be enjoyed by cooking the entire menu or picking dished that most interest you.
For example, in Spring in Campania, Menu 44 includes Torte di Risotto (Risotto Cakes), Zuppa di Spaghetti Spezzati (Broken Spaghetti Soup), Giambotta con Uove Fritte (Giambotta with Fried Eggs), Insalata del Nonno (Grandfather’s Salad), and Albicocche in Miele or Apricots in Honey. As elaborate as the menu sounds, each individual recipe is easy to make.
“So simple and so many recipes–I’ve never seen a recipe for an orange cake like the one in the book,” she says about Torta Napoletana di Aranci con Glassa di Arance, the Neapolitan Orange Cake with Orange Glace (Spring in Campania: Menu 22) that has more words in the title than it has ingredients or in the instructions.
To make cooking even easier, she now has four of her sauces available at Whole Foods stores in Indiana. Called Lisa’s Italian Sunday Sauces, she uses all organic ingredients and only San Marzano tomatoes—what she says are the only tomatoes we use in Italy for sauces. Her Three Meat jarred sauce, based on her Neapolitan grandmother’s recipe, is the only three meat sauce bottled in the United States and is perfect for such dishes as lasagna.
“My Classic Red sauce is my Sicilian grandmothers recipe, my Vegetable Primavera is an invention of mine that I started making when my children were small so they would be eating veggies in their sauce and not know it,” she says. “It contains fresh organic carrots, organic sweet onions, organic celery, fresh herbs and spices. This sauce is wonderful on pasta but also with chicken and fish. My fourth is my Creamy Vodka which I perfected while living in Tuscany. It’s tomato based with cream, vodka and just the right amount of crushed red pepper.”
While Lisa knows how to cook the traditional Italian dishes we’re all familiar with—after all she learned from her grandmother—she says there’s so much more to Italian food than we might typically eat in the U.S.
“So many people go to Italy and take cooking classes and I wanted to explore that in the book,” she says, explaining why she included so many unique recipes.
She describes both of her books as being not only about good food but also about lifestyle and tradition.
“It’s about gathering those you love in the kitchen and cooking together, eating together, and building memories together,” she writes. “These are traditions that never grow old, that never go out of tyle. They’re classic, timeless—what memories are made of.”
Lisa has lived in South Bend for the last decade.
“We’re the quintessential Italian family, we never move far from each other,” she says. “All three of my children live nearby and my 97-year-old mother lives next door,” she says.
But she still gets back to Italy, finding that despite all the years she lived or visited there, each trip teaches her more and more about the country and the food.
The following recipes are from “This is Sunday Dinner.”
Torta di Pomodoro/Tomato Pie
For the Pasta Salat a (Pastry Dough):
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 tablespoons cold water
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
For the Tomato Filling:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 white onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon Sicilian sea salt, fine
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 cups Roma tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons unbleached flour
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
To make the dough: Place flour, butter, salt, and garlic into a large bowl, and mix together until it forms a coarse dough. Drizzle in some of the cold water and stir the dough gently with a fork until it comes together. (Add a bit more water, if needed; it’s better to have dough that is slightly wet than too dry.) (The dough may also be made in an electric mixer or a stand mixer.) Separate the dough into 2 balls, one that is approximately 3/4 of the dough and one that is about 1/4 of the dough. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 15–30 minutes at room temperature.
In a large frying pan, melt the butter. Add the onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook the onion and garlic until they are translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the flour, stirring the mixture to thoroughly incorporate the flour. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.
Roll out the larger ball of dough and line a 9–9 1/2-inch pie pan with the dough. Pour the filling into the pan. Roll out the second ball of dough into a rectangle, and then cut it into 1/4-inch strips to form a lattice on top of the tomato filling. Bake the pie in a preheated 350°F oven for 30 minutes.
Broken Spaghetti Soup/Zuppa di Spaghetti Spezzati
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
8 cups vegetable broth
1 herb bundle (1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley and 1 bunch fresh thyme, tied together)
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a 6- to 8-quart pot, melt the butter and heat the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic. Sauté until translucent. Add the broth and bring it to a medium boil. Add the herb bundle to the mixture and let it cook for 5 minutes. Then, remove the herb bundle.
When the broth comes to a medium boil, break the spaghetti into 1-inch pieces and drop them into the broth. Add the pepper. Cook for 7 minutes. Serve with warm focaccia or Italian bread.
Neapolitan Orange Cake with Orange Glaze/Torta Napoletana di Arance con Glassa di Arance
1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the cake pan
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Juice of 2 oranges (approximately 1 cup)
Zest of 2 oranges
Preheat the oven to 350°F and butter a 9-inch cake pan.
Melt the butter in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of boiling water. Set the melted butter aside.
In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, and 1 cup of the confectioners’ sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the melted butter and slowly stir in the flour, baking powder, orange zest, and 1/2 cup of the orange juice. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes.
To prepare the glaze: In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 1/2 cup of orange juice and the remaining 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar. When cake has cooled, place it on a cake platter and drizzle the orange glaze on top of the cake.
I like to poke holes in the cake with a toothpick before I glaze it, so that some of the glaze goes into the cake as well.