Ciao Italia At 25 Years -- Bravo!
America's Longest-Running Cooking Show In TV History
Mary Ann Esposito has been hosting Ciao Italia on PBS for 25 years. Doing anything well for a quarter century is a triumph but doing it in today's whip fast changing food world may be close to a miracle. And yet here she is, once again producing a new season of 26 new cooking programs, which 5 million viewers will watch each month on 390 stations in 165 media markets in 45 states (plus Canada, New Zealand and Japan). Wow. Each program, featuring Mary Ann cooking either in a studio or on location in Italy, is welcoming, appetizing, and will make whatever comes out of your kitchen -- Italian or not -- more successful.
When you watch Ciao Italia and see her standing behind the counter of her studio kitchen, the optics of television mask the fact that Mary Ann is quite petite. But it's no matter as she has stature, and both on screen and in person she is engaging, very likable, warm and smart, as well as acutely focused, all essential for anyone intent on creating and building Ciao Italia into a television, book, travel, and culinary education achievement.
I think one of the secrets to Mary Ann's longevity is how she manages to keep fresh and new a cuisine that is defined by tradition and said to be the most popular in the world. This is not so simple to do since Italian food can easily become either a red sauce cliché or else an alta cucina of fancy finishes and obscure ingredients. But when I watch her television programs or use one of her cookbooks (I own three of them, my favorite being Ciao Italia: Slow and Easy), I know that I'm getting insight into the real Italian kitchen, one dish at a time.
After twenty-five years, 1,300 recipes and another 1,000+ cooking videos, you'd think she might lose a little enthusiasm but it seems to be just the opposite. I spoke with Mary Ann recently about her long-held passion for teaching about Italian food and asked her how she has sustained her interest for so long.
"I get inspiration from three sources; first, my family roots and the fact that both grandmothers were in the food business and my mother ran a food service in western New York. Second, the academic research I did for my Masters degree about the foods of Italy. Third, my travels all over Italy.
"My focus has always been on combining the history of traditional and regional foods and that has made for some very in-depth study of the way Italians cook. Since there are twenty regions [in Italy], the subject is vast and that is what keeps the show fresh. It is ever changing."
Unlike many other recent food stars, Mary Ann is a serious person; as much an expert as a personality (although she is charming), and not at all like the food-as-entertainment hosts that have used gimmicks to out-blast many former television cooking shows. Does she ever feel the need to do things differently?
"Our audience has been a loyal one and I have seen changes in what people want to cook, such as wanting lighter and gluten-free ingredients. But I have also encountered more people wanting those old recipes from the past; the ones they recall from home but never had the recipes. They want that connection and also want to cook and eat healthier today but they also want it to be fast. My approach, which surprises many, is that fast is part of the beauty of Italian cooking which is based on the quality, not the quantity of ingredients."
Food, Culture and Family
She's also created the Mary Ann Esposito Foundation to preserve authentic Italian and Italian-American cuisine using education and training for students who want to become the next generation of great Italian chefs. There's a long list of organizations that have recognized the work she's done outside of the kitchen to promote Italian food and certainly that's always nice to receive. But clearly Mary Ann has a mission.
"Food and culture are central to the Italian-American experience. For generations, Italian-American families have come together around the dinner table where parents and grandparents have passed on their traditions and values. Gaps between generations have been bridged by home-cooked meals.
"Holding these traditions dear, the mission of my foundation is to preserve authentic Italian and Italian-American experience by providing educational information and digital demonstrations for students who want to become the next generation of great Italian chefs."
As she cooks the country, she sometimes takes viewers with her on the road. This year she's leading a tour to the Veneto as she's done in the past to Tuscany and others parts of Italy. Together they travel some, sightsee a little, cook locally, and eat well.
Ciao Italia is also a family business. Since creating the program in 1990, Mary Ann has always worked alongside her husband, Guy, who is not only an expert in Italian wines but also the gardener in the family.
"Guy is a wine educator and balances the world of Italian food with its appropriate regional wines. There is no separation between the two; you just would not have one without the other as Italians think of wine as food. In addition, he demonstrates with our garden episodes the importance of knowing where our food comes from, something the Italians are well aware of. Our garden is mainly devoted to Italian vegetables and it is a dirt-to-dinner concept feature of the [Ciao Italia] series of showing not only where our food comes from but also how it is utilized in the kitchen."
Like any career or life's work that reaches a twenty-five year milestone, there are memories and a satisfying body of work. Mary Ann has also worked with many of the same television professionals from season to season, including executive producer Paul Lally who sent me photos from the show's first season in 1990. But after hundreds of episodes, could she have a favorite?
"I have many favorite episodes; the ones featuring my mom. The episode tracing my grandfather’s entry into Ellis Island. The episode in Gubbio featuring the race of the candles, which to this day I find so inspiring. "
25 Years of Cookbooks
Then there are the cookbooks. Twelve of them, with eleven still in print.
Ciao Italia Family Classics
Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites
Ciao Italia Slow and Easy: Casseroles, Braises, Lasagne & Stews From An Italian Kitchen
Ciao Italia Pronto! 30 Minute Recipes From An Italian Kitchen
Ciao Italia In Tuscany: Traditional Recipes from One of Italy's Most Famous Regions
Celebrations, Italian Style: Recipes and Menus for Special Occasions and Seasons of the Year
Nella Cucina: More Italian Cooking From the Host of Ciao Italia
What You Knead
Mangia Pasta! Easy To Make Recipes For Company and Every Day
Ciao Italia -- Bringing Italy Home
The word is overused, but it is fitting to describe Mary Ann as authentic, a trait increasingly rare among television cooking stars. Certainly this is why her viewers keep coming back, season after season. And this is how you get to a quarter century with audiences still watching and reading. No small part of her authenticity is that when she shows you how to prepare a dish, it's because she, too, is a home cook.
"I cook dinner everyday, except when I am traveling or invited out to someone’s home, which is not often! One of my favorite dishes is a timballo of eggplant with tiny veal meatballs, pasta and cheese all encased in a mold. To me it represents my Neapolitan heritage on a plate."
You can watch Ciao Italia on many PBS stations. Here's a link to a PBS channel finder where you can then search for a broadcast in your area. In the New York area, for example, you can watch Ciao Italia on WLIW21 and NJTV Public Media.
If you prefer watching videos from her past seasons, you can find them at YouTube on the Ciao Italia channel plus there are regular recipe updates and cooking tips at the Ciao Italia Facebook page.
Mary Ann has shared with us a recipe for Garden Lasagne. See our link.
Or visit CiaoItalia.com.