Three Sicilian Cousins: A Story of Food and Family

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Interview by Isabella Del Rosario

Three Sicilian cousins from Ohio, Angela Siciliano, Corrina Siciliano, and Mary Kovach Ph.D., created Cugine in Cucina in 2020. “Cugine in cucina” is Italian for cousins in the kitchen. These three women share multigenerational recipes from their family to your family in their new cookbook, “Don’t Cut the Basil: Five Generations of Authentic Italian Recipes.” Angela, Corrina, and Mary bring Cugine in Cucina to life with their authentic Italian spirit and their determination to bring you this cookbook that your family can cherish for many generations. Outside the kitchen, each cousin has her own unique background and are all first generation college graduates. For example, Angela is the owner of Adapted Fitness and Yoga Plus as well as an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified instructor and a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT). Her business Adapted Fitness and Yoga Plus focuses on her passion for helping individuals with disabilities and making fitness a part of their lives.

Corrina graduated from Baldwin Wallace University and earned her BA in business management. She is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and has gained tremendous respect from her peers working in the corporate financial industry for more than 20 years. Mary earned her Ph.D. from Miami University. She also has an MBA from Cleveland State University and a BA from Baldwin Wallace University. She established Ciao Down Italian Cookies in honor of her grandmother, which highlights her Italian heritage through homemade Italian cookies. Mary is a tenured professor with multiple publications.

Together, they created their new cookbook, “Don’t Cut the Basil: Five Generations of Authentic Italian Recipes” which earned a #1 Best Seller status in four countries (U.S., Italy, Canada, and the U.K.) and earned total of 34 Best Selling categories and twelve #1 rankings! Angela, Corrina, and Mary included recipes from multiple generations, including what they learned from their mothers and grandmothers. This book incorporates the importance of their family traditions and the appreciation they have for Italian cooking. In this interview, these three cousins elaborate on their inspiration for writing the cookbook, the hard work it took to deliver such a successful outcome, and what their hopes are for the future.

How did you come up with the title for your cookbook and what is the significance of the phrase “Don’t Cut the Basil?”

Kovach: It was so fun to think about all of the things our grandmothers and mothers repeatedly said to us over the years, we thought they were not only fun to share but helpful in the kitchen. I initially came up with a list of 10 things to share across generations to include in the cookbook. Then I shared the list with Angela and Corrina, and there were more and more. We narrowed it down to 15 things we learned and incorporated them into its own section, even before the recipes were completed! Our last task was to pick the title. We had a number of options, but we wanted something that was easy to remember and different from your typical “Authentic Italian” or “Italian Family Recipes” cookbook. To continue to draw on our family heritage, I looked at some of the phrases from the 15 things we learned, and I provided Angela and Corrina with a top five list. From there, we picked “Don’t Cut the Basil” and added our subtitle “Five Generations of Authentic Italian Recipes” to give the reader a little more detail about our cookbook.

How did you come up with the idea of writing a cookbook?

C. Siciliano: Corrina, Mary, and I had “Sicilian Sundays” where we got together to cook our family recipes. We had so much fun enjoying our family recipes together that we said, “We should put our recipes into a cookbook, to pass on to future generations,” and from there, the idea was born! We took advantage of the time in 2020 when people weren’t really going out, so we stayed in and made our cookbook.

Knowing the Italian way of cooking to taste, was it difficult writing the recipes?

C. Siciliano: One of the challenges of trying to write the recipes, specifically when we learned from taste, smell, and look, was really nailing down the right measurements. We had to re-create the recipes several times to make sure we got the measurements to a reasonable amount to get it to the taste that we are used to. That’s the reason we use the phrase “quanto basta”, which means “just enough,” so people can adjust the recipes to their liking.

What is the story behind your creative subheadings in the book, for example, “Eat it While it’s Hot: Main Dishes?”

Kovach: When we decided on the title of the book, we still had other options that we liked. All of these phrases we used were what Nonna Mary would tell me. I may have a habit of eating too fast, and she always told me to “slow down, chew [my] food, and enjoy every bite” so we subtitled our Desserts section “Enjoy Every Bite: Desserts.” Our mothers would always say, “It smells ready!” so the subtitle of that section became “It Smells Ready: Side Dishes and Appetizers.” Nonna Mary also made sure we were ready to eat as soon as it was ready, and our subtitle became “Eat It While It’s Hot: Main Dishes.”

In the About the Authors section, it says that your mothers were major influences in your journey to learn to cook. What is one memory that you have with your mother that shaped your love of cooking?

Siciliano: At a very young age, one of the first memories I have of my mother in the kitchen was on Sundays smelling homemade sauce cooking on the stove. Our mother always asked us to taste the sauce as it simmered throughout the day. I remember her telling us, “You need to learn to make the sauce!” Around the age of 10, she started showing us the steps and ingredients to make it on Sundays. Sundays in our Italian house is the day to make homemade sauce and be together as a family.
Kovach: I don’t know if there was one moment in particular for me but my favorite memories in the kitchen were about taste testing. Everything from sauce on the stove, to cookie dough, to making sure the pasta salad tasted just right, and everything in between; then of course, eating the finished product at the end. Sometimes I was invited to the taste test, and other times, I wasn’t able to resist! I always enjoyed the family stories my mother and grandmother would share about our family. Looking back, it was more important for me to carry on my grandma’s tradition of making Italian cookies. C. Siciliano: Most of my memories of my mother revolve around her being in the kitchen. This is something I knew she really enjoyed and found relaxing. Although she really preferred to do all the cooking for our family, I would spend all day watching her make meatballs and sauce with the anticipation of eating pasta for dinner. My favorite memory is standing in the kitchen with her and tasting the food as it was being cooked during the day and listening to her stories about how she learned from her mother.

Of all the recipes in “Don’t Cut the Basil,” which one is your favorite and why? Does this favorite dish have any significance to your childhood and upbringing, or is it just that delicious?

A. Siciliano: I am most excited about our family’s pasta sauce recipe because it’s a classic. It was the first thing I was taught to make, and that has special meaning. Most importantly, when I think of Italian food, I think of a good pasta sauce. It can make or break an entire meal!
Kovach: I think I’m the most excited about Nonna Mary’s biscotti only because that’s what I enjoyed every time I saw my grandma. She made them by the dozens every day, and shared them with everyone she knew, including all of my close friends from grade school, who I still keep in contact with today. My father was a fireman for nearly 32 years, and my grandma often sent her cookies to the fire station. I was frequently told by other family members to be sure I knew how to make them, to carry on her tradition.
C. Siciliano: My favorite item is my Caponata Siciliana because the ingredients are simple. It takes very little time to make, and I love that in a dish. It makes the house smell fantastic. It is something you make in large bulk, and it stays well for days. It’s delicious and you can put it on anything!

How did you manage to work together in creating this book, and how did you keep from having, quite literally, too many cooks in the kitchen?

C. Siciliano: We’ve had a lot of fun working together and getting to know each other, our mothers, and our grandmothers more through the creation of this book. We each brought different perspectives and ideas to the table, bounced them off one another and are really proud of our finished product, “Don’t Cut the Basil.”

Simply put, what does being Italian mean to you?

C. Siciliano: We were raised to be proud of our Italian heritage. Generations before us worked hard to give us what we have today. For us, being Italian means sharing food together, spending time at the kitchen table, enjoying one another’s company, and holding true to our family traditions. Everything we do is because we’re Italian!

Who do you hope will pick up your book and get inspired by it?

A. Siciliano: First and foremost, this book is definitely written for the home cook. It is for anyone who enjoys cooking at home and making family memories. It’s for Italian food lovers and for those who may think homemade Italian food is hard to make. Secondly, we hope to inspire the next generation of Italian cooks and encourage them to keep their own family traditions intact. In the Italian culture, food is love, and we think it is extremely important to carry on that message.

Each of you are known for specific recipes you make in the kitchen. Corrina, what do people expect you to bring wherever you go?

C. Siciliano: I am pretty sure I only get invited to parties to bring my pepperoni roll! When people think of me, they think of my pepperoni roll, which is why it was included in the cookbook. My famous party-favorite pepperoni roll is something that is truly a delicious appetizer to have at every event. I am asked frequently to make it and bring it wherever I go.

What do you hope in passing these recipes down to the next generation?

Kovach: As we write in our cookbook, our grandmothers were raised on the most important ingredient—love. They shared that with their daughters who shared that with each of us. It’s our hope that the next generation cherishes what we learned, celebrates who they are as Italians, honors our family traditions, and continues to pass on what they learn.

How does it feel to launch a cookbook and earn a #1 Best Seller in the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Canada?

All: Honestly, it’s both exciting and humbling. Of course, every author wants to hit the top of the charts. We put in countless hours; we worked really hard and well together to make it successful. It is our first cookbook, and our publisher’s guidance was very helpful.

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