An Italian mom's cookbook born out of grief, brought to life on Kickstarter

Author Elisa Costantini in her Newtown Square kitchen, making scrippelles. The crepes, popular in her home province of Teramo, are said to date to the French occupation in 1798. She will be at the Italian Market Festival.

On Christmas Eve 2013, Elisa Costantini lost her husband of 55 years. Her life more or less stopped.

After more than six decades of cooking the ravioli, ragu, and risotto of her native Abruzzo for family, friends, and strangers, she barely had energy to make mac-and-cheese.

"All I did was sleep. There was no way to go on. See, my husband and I, we were kids when we got married," said Costantini, 77, a petite woman with a thick accent and a helmet of brown hair. She'd been in love with her husband since he rode into her village on a motorcycle. "I said, 'How am I going to do my life?' "

Her son, Frank, 42, who had been living abroad, returned the next June to find her house in chaos.

He began helping her get things in order, cleaning out his father's things. When they got to her boxes of recipes - creased, sauce-stained scrawlings in Italian on receipts and envelopes - he stopped. "I said, 'We need to organize this for the grandkids.' "

They began putting together a cookbook.

"Little by little," she said, "I started to live."

When they put the project on Kickstarter, they found an audience. The campaign, posted on a whim, raised $27,000 and presold 1,200 copies of Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table.

They celebrated - then realized how much work was ahead. They began testing recipes and hired a photographer, designer, and narrative writer. They released the book over the winter, and are now on a second printing, with 4,500 copies sold. Costantini has been booked for appearances from California to Tuscany, and will be at the Italian Market Festival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday for a signing at Fante's Kitchen Shop (1006 S. Ninth St.).

Of all the recipes in the book, Costantini said, the most quintessentially Abruzzese are the scrippelle. She invited us into her Newtown Square kitchen - the "show kitchen," not the back kitchen where the messy work is done - to see the process.

The thin pancakes, especially popular in Costantini's home province of Teramo, are said to date to the French occupation in 1798.

"The women in the town were forced to cook for the troops, so they learned to make crepes," son Frank said. According to lore, when a plate of crepes fell into a pot of soup, it inspired the women to experiment with decidedly Italian uses for the French staple.

They developed scrippelle 'mbusse, crepes rolled around grated Pecorino and served in chicken broth; a version of Italian wedding soup, made with squares of crepe, escarole, and meatballs; a lasagnalike timballo of crepes layered with red sauce and mozzarella; and baked scrippelle, filled with ground meat or cheese and rolled like manicotti.

Scrippelle 'mbusse is a particular favorite, Frank said. "There's not a holiday or wedding or celebration that doesn't start with this soup, even in the hottest days of the summer."

To start the process, Costantini mixed a thin batter and heated a Teflon pan.

She let each crepe cook over moderate heat for a few minutes, then snatched it out of the pan with her bare hands. (A running joke in the family is her rejection of such niceties as spatulas - not to mention oven mitts and aprons. "There's no time to waste!" she said.)

Occasionally, before pouring in more batter, she'd grease the pan with a little butter. In Italy, there was no Teflon, so she used a swipe of lard after each crepe.

The scrippelle piled up into the dozens. (If you have extra, she advised, you can freeze them, sandwiching about five at a time between layers of parchment. You can also cut them up and toss them into your favorite soup, or smear them with Nutella and fruit for dessert.)

You can make the crepes a day in advance.

But in this case, Costantini pressed on: She had made chicken stock from scratch for the scrippelle 'mbusse. She was ready to make baked scrippelle, too: She'd made besciamella sauce, from flour, butter, milk, and cheese, to pour over crepes stuffed with sautéed ground beef with celery, onion, and parsley.

To collect these recipes for the book, Frank and Elisa Costantini spent a few months of Sundays standardizing recipes from the scribbles she had collected over more than four decades.

She bought measuring spoons, a first for her, and tried to capture on the page the instincts she had cultivated since age 6, when her aunt, a caterer, brought her on as an assistant. "We'd stay up all night, cooking," Costantini said, "because she didn't want nobody to see how she did it."

Costantini, on the other hand, was eager to share, though the idea of a complete recipe was foreign to her.

"We'd finish" listing ingredients, Frank said, "and I'd be like, 'Mom, salt?' And she'd be like, 'Of course, salt! You have to tell people salt?' "

Costantini still works full-time, at Don Guanella and Divine Providence, homes for people with intellectual disabilities.

On the weekends, she cooks.

The showpiece is the timballo, made of layers of scrippelle, mozzarella, pecorino, and pork-and-tomato sauce, plus liberal pats of butter, if your cholesterol can withstand it.

She pulled a commercial-size bag of shredded mozzarella from the refrigerator and smeared a round pan with butter before lining it with parchment. Then she began building the layers. The whole thing is baked covered, and then - if you're trying to impress dinner guests - flipped onto a platter.

As she plated a timballo the size of motorcycle tire, she and Frank debated the main point of tension in the family: Costantini's tendency to cook - and serve - way too much food.

In her book, though, she offers helpful advice for such occasions: "Being Italian, my serving size for 4 to 6 people may translate to 8 to 10 people. But that is OK. Just offer your guests seconds, and serve it to them before they have a chance to say no."

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

Continue Reading