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Peppercorn's Mama Cialfi: She Showed Her Love Through Cooking


November 16, 2012

To the customers of Peppercorn's Grill in Hartford and Piccolo Arancio in Farmington, the lobster-stuffed ravioli is just as tender, the Sicilian cassata just as creamy and the almond cookies just as chewy.

But there's something missing, a major change in the kitchen. Carmela Cialfi, chief pasta and pastry maker for both restaurants, is no longer elbow-deep in flour, no longer issuing exacting instructions to the sous chefs.

Cialfa died suddenly on Sept. 26, just two months before her 78th birthday. The exact cause is not known.

Carmela called Mama Lina by almost everyone who knew her was born in Floridia, Sicily, on Nov. 11, 1934. Her father, Salvatore Giarratana, came to Connecticut after World War II and brought his family over a year later. They lived in New Britain.

Lina, who was 16 at the time, went straight to work in a sewing factory, where she made dresses, and then she went into manufacturing. Her mother, Concetta, raised the six children while Salvatore worked at Fafnir Bearing in New Britain.

Lina learned English slowly, but wasn't afraid to try to express herself. "Water go, pasta stay" was the way she successfully shopped for a colander.

When she met Andrea Cialfi, he was awed by her beauty, but too shy at first to speak. In addition, he came from Abruzzo, a region in central Italy, east of Rome, and he spoke a different Italian dialect.

But they got together, and they married in 1958, raising four children in New Britain. Grandmother Concetta lived next door and took care of the children, ensuring that they grew up knowing Italian.

At the Cialfi house, food reigned.

"Every night was a major meal," said Tina Autunno, Cialfi's youngest child.

"We thought it was normal," said Cialfi's son Sal.

Dinner consisted of three courses: pasta, to start, then meat or fish and then a sweet.

The children used to help. "We would just watch and try to do it with her," Autunno said. " We would always ask for the recipes, and she would say, 'There is no recipe. A pinch of this and a pinch of that.' It was so aggravating."

When Dino Cialfi, the oldest child, turned 15, he visited Italy, and met some relatives of his father who owned a restaurant. By the time he was 19, he was sure that the combination of Italy and food was irresistible, and decided to open a restaurant. Eventually, after a year of college at the University of Rome, he opened Al Piccolo Arancio "the little orange" in 1985, in a hole in the wall in Rome near the Trevi Fountain. "You could afford to do it," he recalled.

The place had broken chairs and ugly walls, but as he gained customers, he renovated and expanded. His mother came over to help, staying for six months at a time, and she made the gnocchi, the lasagna noodles, the bread, the ravioli and the myriad shapes of pasta Italy is known for.

"Everyone loved her," Dino Cialfi said." There was nothing she couldn't do."

In 1989, Dino decided to come back to the States and see if he could import his sophisticated Italian cuisine to a public that thought Italian meant spaghetti and meatballs, or greasy eggplant parmesan, everything smothered in the ubiquitous red sauce. His cousin took over the restaurant.

He bought the Peppercorn's Grill in downtown Hartford, kept the name, and tried out his menu. At first, some people walked out after seeing artichoke ravioli on the menu, or his signature dish, ravioli with spinach, orange rind and orange butter sauce. The cooking was "simple, crisp and clear, and not so many flavors", he said.

In 1994, his brother Sal opened the Piccolo Arancio in Farmington with a similar menu. (The brothers are co-owners of both places.)

At first, Mama Cialfi made the pasta for both restaurants by hand. Eventually they bought a dough machine, but she continued to make the ravioli.

For a time, there was a restaurant promotion called "The Book and the Cook," in which a famous chef would come to a restaurant to cook and to promote a cookbook. When celebrity chef Todd English came to Peppercorns, he prepared gnocchi, but it didn't meet Mama Cialfi's standards.

"She was secure and opinionated," Dino said. "She told him to make it the right way."

English got the message, but there are still slightly bruised feelings the family felt that English appropriated a raw artichoke recipe from Mama's repertoire, without giving her the credit she was due.

"My mother didn't make easy food," Dino said. The younger cooks used to watch and tried to learn from her. "She did not accept mediocrity. She corrected hygiene. She corrected when they were doing it half-assed."

She made sure that the last grain of sand was washed off the spinach, the brown spot cut from the potato and the counters sanitized.

"She showed her love through cooking," said Lidia Onisco, Mama Cialfi's youngest sibling. "She was the greatest baker. She had hands of gold."

Cialfi was always game to participate in fundraisers, and especially enjoyed "Les Chefs Femmes," a collaboration of female cooks held at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Just this summer, Cialfi and her daughter Tina laid in supplies for the winter. Together, they canned 120 jars of sauce.

"It's so simple," said Autunno. She strained it twice, added basil, olive oil and salt. "You just open the jar and make pasta. It's so easy."

Mama Cialfi's Almond Cookies

>>1 pound almond paste

>>1 cup sugar

>>2 egg whites

>>Zest of 1 lemon

>>1 teaspoon Tia Maria (or liqueur of choice)

>>About 30 whole almonds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In the bowl of a food processor, combine almond paste and sugar, blending well. Add egg whites, lemon zest and Tia Maria, and process until combined.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls (you should get about 30). Space them 2 inches apart on a baking sheet, and press them slightly flat. Insert a single whole almond into the middle of each cookie . Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes about 30 cookies.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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