Italian cuisine

Foodstuffs: How an NH cooking show brought authentic Italian cuisine to the United States

New Hampshire is home to the long-running cooking show Ciao Italy. The program has been produced in Dover and broadcast on the country’s public television channels since 1989.

During a recent taping of the show in Windham, a television crew turns a kitchen into a television. They erect umbrella-shaped lights, while a woman standing nearby introduces herself as Mary Ann Esposito, the show’s host.

On the counter is a loaf of freshly baked ciabatta bread and Sicilian olive oil – a pre-shoot snack. Esposito and the crew stood around a steel sink planning this episode of Ciao Italythen they were ready to cook.

This episode is filmed in the house of guest conductor Rose Faro. On the menu: asparagus fritters, eggplant parmesan and lamb stew. The whole thing is improvised, with the two chefs simply chatting on camera as they prepare the dishes.

In each episode of Ciao ItalyEsposito cooks authentic Italian cuisine using only ingredients her audience can easily find, while she provides elements of Italian history, culture and culinary wisdom in the manner of a parent passing on family traditions.

Credit Ben Henry/NHPR

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NHPR

Mary Ann Esposito (right) and Rose Faro on set during a recording of “Ciao Italia”.

Executive producer Paul Lally says the show is improvised so Esposito can focus on being herself. “My job, as executive producer, is to keep the glass plate as clear as possible, so Mary Ann can reach out and teach people how to cook, and be joyful about it.”

Esposito hadn’t always planned to be on TV, and she certainly hadn’t planned to launch a show that would last nearly three decades. “If someone had told me I was going to do a cooking show on TV, I would have choked on two meatballs,” she says. “I wanted to be a teacher, it was my calling.”

The inspiration to create a show, says Esposito, came when she first visited Italy. She grew up watching her two Italian grandmothers cook and then studied the culinary traditions of the Italian Renaissance. When she finally visited Italy, her connection to the country stood out.

“I realized that I had received a legacy of Italian cooking from my grandmothers,” she says.

Esposito wanted to share this heritage. In the mid-1980s, she was teaching cooking at the University of New Hampshire and pitched the idea for a television show on New Hampshire Public Television. On a sweltering day in the summer of 1989, they shot the pilot episode. She was nervous being in front of the camera, but confident in her cooking.

Viewers liked his style. Part of the appeal, Esposito says, is that the show offers Americans a chance to slow down. “We’re a fast food, fast food nation. We don’t know the word piano, how to slow down,” she says. “Italians come from a culture in which food is central. Food is what holds the family together.”

The United States has changed a lot since then. Ciao Italy didn’t – and Paul Lally says his ratings have remained at the same level. Viewers keep coming back.

“People are watching Ciao Italy for various reasons,” he says. “Some want to learn how to cook, some want to learn more about the history of food, and the third group – it’s my idea – the third group wants what Catholics Romans call transubstantiation – water into wine. When you take eggs, salt, butter and chives, and five minutes later it’s an omelet, you turn those elements into something new, and that’s a very powerful feeling.”

Today, you can enjoy authentic Italian cuisine in restaurants in New Hampshire and throughout the county, in large part, Lally says, thanks to cooking shows like Ciao Italy.

“I think without Ciao Italyit would take a lot longer to talk for people to appreciate the value of the Mediterranean diet and Italian cuisine,” he says.

You can watch Esposito and Faro fry those asparagus fritters during the show’s 27th season.