The Interview: Maria Provenzano
You can't help but like someone who lives her life channeling Julia Child's mantra: ‘Everything in moderation... including moderation.’
"La famiglia, il cibo, ... e più cibo."
"Family, food… and more food."
That’s because this proud Italian-American product of Saginaw, Michigan grew up in one of those irresistibly delicious smelling homes where fresh, bountiful, homemade delicacies were always on the menu.
Her mother? A prolific, detail-oriented German/Irish baking wizard, putting out from scratch cookies, pies, and jam by the loving dozen. Maria's paternal "nonno", Frank? Proud, 100% full-blooded Sicilian.
With an antipasto/primo/secondo/contorno/dolce approach to dining to match.
~ Los Angeles, California ~
For fifty years, along with his parents and brothers, Frank ran one of Saginaw's most beloved, longest family-owned businesses, Provenzano's grocery store.
Known as the place to get the freshest produce, prime meats, and fresh-baked sweets around, it attracted legions of loyal customers from all over the region.
Frank even bottled and sold his own deliciously authentic spaghetti sauce long before bland, mass-produced brands like Ragu and Prego started hitting the shelves. And just how good was it?
According to the "Pure Saginaw" website:
"You know you’re from Saginaw when... you went to Provenzano’s for spaghetti sauce and got fresh donuts from the doughnut machine."
How's that for respect?
We think not.
A conversation with Maria Provenzano...
First of all, even though it's 80 degrees here in California in November, are you getting into the holiday spirit yet? Or do you find yourself missing that brisk Midwestern weather more than usual?
Well, I have to say, to me it doesn't always feel like the holidays when you're in warm weather. It'll be Christmas Day here and sunny, and my husband will ask if I'd like to go to the pool. Noooooo! I want to be in boots!
Do you have any go-to recipes that help you recreate that Michigan-like feeling for the holidays?
Does Mom the Baker approve?
Well, she was here recently helping my family move, and she's picky. And I mean, very picky, quite set in her ways in terms of what she likes... and doesn't, especially when it comes to baking. So I made some of those scones I had in the freezer, and she loved them. That was my answer; I must be doing something right!
What's your favorite "Mom-made" treat?
Her German pancakes, they're amazing. And every summer, she and my grandma would always make the most delicious jelly with fresh Michigan berries and currants. I had that homemade jelly all the way up until I went to college, and then suddenly realized, "Wait a second. Now I have to actually BUY jelly?"
Okay, you've just been shipwrecked on a desert island, and your life raft contains only three ingredients. They are...?
Surprise! The raft also includes a never-ending supply of your favorite all-time food.
Oh, please let it be cookies. If I had to live off one thing the rest of my life, that would be it.
We like your style. What kind?
A classic chocolate chip, for sure. I grew up in a house full of pasta and cookies, and baked all the time, so that's what I love most. Friends would always ask 'Given what you eat everyday, how are you not, uh, very large?' And I would say 'That's because I eat real food. It's all real.'
Just like your grandfather used to make.
Definitely. It's in my blood.
Lucky you, which comes from both sides of your family tree.
It's the best of both worlds, really. I always love to be free-spirited and experiment when I cook, which I get from my Italian side, but my mom's German side really comes through when I'm baking. So I have that balance.
Food-wise, what's your favorite holiday?
My mom and I always used to make those crazy huge boxes of cookies, so I love love love christmas and making christmas cookies. On the other hand, nothing beats her thanksgiving dinner. I think that would be my deathbed meal. It's either that or my grandpa's spaghetti and meatballs.
What's your most important advice about holiday cooking + entertaining?
Planning ahead of time. I get that from my grandpa and mom, always planning ahead of time and writing everything out. People cooking anything at home often struggle with the timeline. Especially if you're dealing with one oven, like most of us are. But that is the thing, planning ahead of time. There are so many things you can make the day before; for instance, we would always do our stuffing the day before. Like spaghetti sauce , it's always better the next day. I think writing it all out, having that visual structure... and ASK FOR HELP! Don't try to do everything on your own. My mom used to try that, especially around Thanksgiving, and I used to have the same problem myself. Sometimes I have a very hard time asking for help.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, what's your go-to table design strategy?
I like to use as much freshness as possible because that's the way I grew up. My aunt was a florist, so I learned a lot from her too. So having the fresh pumpkins, beautiful flowers; that's my first step.
In terms of food + entertaining creatives, whose work do you admire most?
I know a lot of kids watched cartoons at a young age, but I grew up watching Martha Stewart with my mom. And we really loved watching Martha with her mom. We always got the biggest kick out of that; what a great dynamic. I also have a bunch of old recipe and design books from way back in the day. I love going through them, looking at recipes and entertaining ideas. All that old-school stuff is still so good.
There are also some really great people on Instagram`creating beautiful things. There's one site where some city people built a faux-fireplace for their apartment. And I'm thinking, how brilliant is that?! I think there's so many creative people out there on social media sharing some many great ideas. It's incredible.
If you had to name one of your favorite restaurants...
French Laundry. Thomas Keller is god. I love Napa, so we went there for my birthday not long ago and they let me sneak into the kitchen. One thing I really respect is that he uses everything; makes fresh stock from the bones and all those good things.
And closer to home?
I love Manhattan Beach's Fishing with Dynamite from Chef David LeFevre. He's amazing. His respect for food, his touch, the way he mixes things. A little further north, I really like Farm Shop and Pizzeria Mozza.
Ah, Mozza. It's one of our Hollywood favorites too.
True story: about three years ago, right before I had my baby, my husband and I had dinner reservations there for my birthday... but I ended up going into labor that afternoon. So we headed over to the hospital, and I was rushed into a room and hooked up to all the monitors. I kept looking up at the clock, and at around six I said to the nurse 'Um, we have reservations at Mozza for 7 PM. Anyway we can go and come back?' And she looked at me like I was crazy and said 'No. Have some clear broth instead.' I was very sad.
But what an important message to send to your baby. Like, hey, learn this: good food is important!
Do you have a signature dish?
I guess if I had to choose -- besides sweets -- I make great stuffed meatballs with smoked mozzarella. A little bit smaller than my grandpa's, and a little spicier too. Before I got pregnant the first time, I was never really into spicy food. But after I had my son, I was like "Oh my god! I want spiiiiicy everything!"
Last question: how did "From Scratch with Maria" get its start? Besides your original recipes, how do you dream up such great DIY craft and entertaining ideas?
My mom always used to throw big parties for kids when I was growing up, and she'd have all these crafts for us to do. So I don't know how not to do it. So I was home with my son after he was born, and I needed a creative outlet. So it just evolved from that. And I love this. People always ask "What would you really like to do, even if you didn't get paid for it?" And this is what I would do. I just live for it. I can't imagine not doing it.
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