Foodstuffs: How a N.H. Cooking Show Brought Authentic Italian Cuisine to the U.S.
New Hampshire is home to the long-running cooking show Ciao Italia. The program is produced in Dover and has aired on public television stations nationwide since 1989.
At a recent taping of the show in Windham, a television crew transforms a kitchen into a television set. They erect umbrella-shaped lights, while a woman standing nearby introduces herself as Mary Ann Esposito, the show's host.
On the countertop sits a freshly-baked loaf of ciabatta bread and Sicilian olive oil—a pre-filming snack. Esposito and the crew stood around a steel sink to plan this episode of Ciao Italia, and then they were ready to cook.
This episode is filmed in the house of guest chef Rose Faro. On the menu: asparagus fritters, eggplant parmesan, and a lamb stew. The whole affair is unscripted, the two chefs simply chatting on camera while they prepared the dishes.
On each episode of Ciao Italia, Esposito cooks authentic Italian food using only ingredients her audience can easily find, while she supplies pieces of Italian history, culture, and kitchen wisdom in the manner of a relative relaying family lore.
Executive producer Paul Lally says the show is improvisational so Esposito can focus on being herself. "My job, as executive producer, is to keep the plate of glass as clear as possible, so Mary Ann can reach out and teach people how to cook, and be joyful about it."
Esposito didn’t always plan to be on TV, and she certainly did not plan to launch a show that would run for close to three decades. “If anyone had told me I would be doing a cooking show on TV, I would have choked on two meatballs," she says. "I wanted to be a teacher, that was my vocation."
The inspiration to create a show, Esposito says, came when she visited Italy for the first time. She grew up watching her two Italian grandmothers cook, and later studied Italian Renaissance cooking traditions. When she finally visited Italy, her connection to the country sunk in.
“I realized I had received a heritage of Italian cooking from my grandmothers," she says.
Esposito wanted to share this heritage. By the mid-1980s she was teaching cooking at the University of New Hampshire, and she pitched the idea of a TV show to New Hampshire Public Television. On a sweltering day in the summer of 1989, they shot the pilot episode. She was nervous to be on camera, but confident in her cooking.
Viewers liked her style. Part of the appeal, Esposito says, is that the show offers Americans a chance to slow down. "We are a fast-food, fast-track nation. We don’t know the word piano, how to slow down," she says. "Italians are coming from a culture in which the food is the focus. The food is what cements the family."
The U.S. has changed a lot since then. Ciao Italia hasn’t—and Paul Lally says its ratings have stayed level. Viewers continue to come back.
"People watch Ciao Italia for a variety of reasons," he says. "Some want to learn how to cook, some want to learn about the history of food, and the third group—this is my idea of it—the third group wants what the Roman Catholic called transubstantiation—water into wine. When you take eggs, and salt, and butter, and chives, and five minutes later it’s an omelet—you transform those elements into something new, and it’s a very powerful feeling."
Today, you can get authentic Italian food at restaurants here in New Hampshire and all over the county—due in no small part, Lally says, to cooking shows like Ciao Italia.
“I think without Ciao Italia, it would have talking a lot longer for people to appreciate the value of the Mediterranean diet and Italian cooking," he says.
You can watch Esposito and Faro fry those asparagus fritters during the show's 27th season.