If you really want to learn how to cook authentic Italian, you should follow Lucia Facco around the sprawling commercial kitchen of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church in Bethel Park.
Two or three times a week the Italy native cooks for Father James Wehner and Father James Farnan and their staff -- something the group undoubtedly counts as a blessing, but a culinary experience their parishioners could only dream of. Until now.
A much more public display of Mrs. Facco's talents will unfold in the weeks leading up to Easter. Each Friday during Lent, which started yesterday and ends April 11, she'll prepare three signature pasta dishes for the parish's weekly fish fries, starting with a heavenly Linguine con Salsa di Gamberi (Linguine with Shrimp Sauce) at tomorrow's kick-off dinner.
It might seem odd that the marquee dish at a fish fry is pasta, especially for a church as large as St. Thomas More, which counts more than 7,000 parishners. But as hospitality manager Rebecca Zirpoli explains, the parish deep fryer is simply too small to accommodate the 400 or so diners organizers expect each Friday evening, and fabulous as it is with Mrs. Facco's homemade bread-crumb topping, baked cod alone won't cut it.
"So I suggested to Father Wehner, 'Why not offer pasta with the fish?' " says Ms. Zirpoli.
He didn't need much convincing: Having lived in Italy for 8 years, Father Wehner appreciated Mrs. Facco's handmade pastas and soups as the real deal.
"If she wanted, she could be in Pittsburgh's top Italian restaurants with professionally trained chefs. She's that good."
Designed to mirror Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the desert, Lent for Christians is a time for reflection, self-examination, repentance and spiritual discipline.
Many believers abstain from eating meat to remind themselves of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross; some also fast by limiting themselves to one meal a day.
It might seem a stretch going from preparing dinner for a few to cooking for the masses. Mrs. Facco, though, insists she was "born cooking." Every December, the Upper St. Clair woman gets together with good friend Phyllis Loffreda Mancinelli to make pastas for the traditional Christmas feast.
And what a feast: Mrs. Mancinelli deftly folds small squares of dough into 300 cappalletti, little "hats" of pasta served in broth, while Mrs. Facco cranks out 1,000 meat-filled ravioli, which she serves with her mother-in-law's recipe for a hearty Genovese winter ragu sauce.
They're such skilled pasta artists, in fact, that Chris Fennimore invited them to appear on "QED Cooks" in a episode titled "Ravioli Ladies." The video can still be seen on OnQ on Demand at wqed.org/ondemand/onq.php?cat=12&id=74.
Non-fish-filet items pop up now and again at local fish fries. Holy Spirit in West Mifflin, for instance, has lobster ravioli on this year's menu, while St. Therese of Lisieux in Munhall will offer vegetable and four-cheese lasagnas; St. Regis in Oakland is featuring a Mexican sweet bread sale. And old-fashioned favorites such as macaroni and cheese and haluski are pasta, too.
Pierogies are another increasingly popular side: Over the six-week course of Lent, Holy Family in Creighton will prepare close to 19,000 of these mashed potato-stuffed dumplings, requiring a whopping 400 pounds of potatoes each week.
But pasta as the entree? That's still pretty rare. And Mrs. Facco over the course of Lent will prepare not just her shrimp recipe but seven other pasta dishes (three each night), including linguine with salmon or three peppers or clam sauce or mushroom and asparagus; penne with marinara or four cheeses; and linguine with a pesto-like broccoli sauce. (She'll sell recipes for $1.)
Many of the dishes have their roots in her tiny birth town of Parghelia (population: 1,400) in mountainous Calabria in southern Italy. Each town boasts its own distinct specialties, but as a rule the food in sun-drenched Calabria -- the "toe" of Italy's boot -- is humble and honest, and includes simple fresh pastas that incorporate fish and seafood from the coastline. Cooks also make good use of locally grown peperoncino (sweet and hot chili peppers), olive oil, mint, figs, San Marzano-style tomatoes and fresh vegetables. For instance, Melanzane all Parmigiana, or Eggplant Parmesan, was invented in Calabria, where the dry climate and low-calcium soil are ideal for growing eggplants. Others reflect her childhood in Genoa, famous for its pesto, seafood stew and olive-topped pizza.
Like many Italian women of her generation, Mrs. Facco -- who moved to the U.S. with her husband, Giuseppe, to New York in 1979 and to Pittsburgh in 1982 -- cooks the way her mother and grandmother before her cooked: with passion and reverence.
"My mother always said, 'Food is like God,' " she explains, her Italian accent so lovely that you hardly care what she's saying so long as she keeps talking. "You have to respect it."
In a nutshell, that means using only the freshest seasonal ingredients, judicious seasonings and simple but pretty presentations.
The delicately seasoned bread crumbs she uses to thicken her shrimp sauce before tossing it oh-so-gently with cooked linguine come not from a cardboard can but direct from her food processor.
Five slices of two-day-old bread are ground into moist crumbs, along with 1 clove of garlic, 3 tablespoons of chopped Italian parsley and a little pepper. When possible, she also sautes the shrimp in their shells to protect the delicate meat from getting overcooked and tough. (For the church dinners, she'll use peeled and deveined shrimp to save time.)
Her "Ninna" also impressed upon her daughter the importance of adding ingredients and spices slowly -- a little salt here, a little more dry white wine there, only fresh oregano on top after everything's done cooking -- to allow the flavors to slowly build before finally blossoming into something that delights the taste buds. Perhaps that's why there's such an intensity of flavor in her sauces, no matter how simple the recipe.
"I always tell my friend, you just have to put a little bit of love in it," she says.
Which is not to say her pastas take a long time to prepare, because they don't. Mrs. Facco whipped up her shrimp sauce on the parish's huge US Range commercial stove in less than 15 minutes, or roughly the same amount of time it took me, who didn't even know I was hungry, to eat it.
And yes, I thought about asking for seconds. That's a common reaction to Mrs. Facco's cooking. Her Pitt grad student son Giovanni, who, unlike his older sisters Francesca and Annachiara, was born in the States, inevitably complains there's "nothing to eat in the house" if Mom doesn't have pasta sauce simmering on the stove.
Speaking of which, Italians don't use a spoon and fork to roll their pasta, says Mrs. Facco. Nor do they shower it with cheese, regardless of whether the preparation calls for it or smother it in so much sauce as to drown the delicate taste of the pasta.
Rather, they toss the drained pasta with just enough sauce to coat it, assuring diners that they get a wonderful taste of both with each and every bite.
It's all about respect.
St. Thomas More Parish, 126 Fort Couch Road, Bethel Park, will offer its Lenten pasta/fish dinners on Fridays during Lent (except Good Friday). Cost is $7 and includes a salad, roll, beverage and dessert; takeout is also available. Hours: 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call 412-833-0031.
For a full list of parish fish fries, visit www.pittsburghcatholic.org.
Linguine with Shrimp Sauce (Linguine con salsa di gamberi)
The key to this delicious pasta dish is to add the ingredients slowly. For extra flavor, cook the shrimp in their shells.
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3/4 pound raw shrimp, deveined
- 2 tablespoons bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons water
- 4 large ripe tomatoes, diced, or 1 cup crushed tomatoes
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 pound linguine
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Saute olive oil in large skillet on medium heat, then slowly add half the parsley and half of the minced garlic. Allow to cook for a minute.
Dice about 6 of the shrimp and add to pan, then continue to add the rest of the parsley and garlic, along with all of the bread crumbs. Continue stirring and saute for about 3 minutes.
Add 2 tablespoons water. Add tomatoes and cook for another 4 minutes. Add the rest of the shrimp and let cook for another 4 minutes. If the sauce appears too thick, add additional water. Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cook linguine in a large pot of boiling salted water, following package directions, until it is al dente. Drain the pasta and transfer to skillet.
Mix well on medium heat and finish with a garnish of chopped parsley and a few diced tomatoes.
Sprinkle with cheese. Serve at once.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- Lucia Facco, Upper St. Clair
Gretchen McKay can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1419. First Published February 26, 2009 5:00 AM