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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | TIDBITS

Sardines, Pasta Pair Up for Annual Feast Day

Actor Vincent Schiavelli will rely on his grandfather's Italian recipe to prepare a dish for the Sicilian celebration.

February 29, 1996|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're planning on preparing baked pasta with fresh sardines any time soon, you might be well advised to attend actor Vincent Schiavelli's cooking class Saturday at Amestoy House Cooking School in Ojai.

Schiavelli, a native of Brooklyn now residing in Los Angeles, will create the fish dish, straight from his grandfather's century-old Italian recipe, to mark the annual Sicilian celebration of the Feast of St. Joseph.

"Fresh sardines are rich and oily and really quite wonderful. In Sicily this dish changes every three miles in the way it is prepared," said Schiavelli, whose acting credits include "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus," "Ghost" and "Batman Returns."

"My grandfather's version is baked," he said. "It starts with a fumet of fish heads, onions and wine, used as a stock, which is mixed with a little melted anchovy to make a sauce. The bodies of the sardines are layered in a pan with the pasta, moistened with the sauce and baked."

When prepared correctly, Schiavelli said, the dish can be fabulous. When cooked incorrectly, it is an entirely different kind of dining experience. "If the dish is badly prepared, I must say, it has a tendency to taste like you are eating a piece of the dock," he said.

At Amestoy House, Schiavelli will prepare and serve an entire menu for the Feast of St. Joseph, a day observed annually on the vernal equinox, which falls this year on March 19.

The menu will include an artichoke pie made with eggs and a variety of cheeses, and an orange and fennel salad made with garlic, salt and olive oil. The salad will be accompanied by St. Joseph's bread, a semolina variety covered with sesame seeds.

For dessert, Schiavelli will prepare a cream puff pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese, powdered sugar, candied fruits, chocolate chips and maybe even some orange liqueur.

"St. Joseph is not only the patron saint of fathers and of spring," said Schiavelli, "but also of pastry chefs."

All of the recipes, except for that of the bread, were passed down to Schiavelli from his grandfather, Andrea Coco, a chef in Sicily at the turn of the century. In 1993, Schiavelli published "Papa Andrea's Sicilian Table: Recipes From a Sicilian Chef as Remembered by His Grandson," a book of Schiavelli's own recipes, inspired by his grandfather.

"I grew up with my grandfather in Brooklyn. I would sit at one end of the kitchen table and do my homework, while he would cook at the other end of the table," said Schiavelli. "He was really very specific about showing me particular approaches, techniques and ways of dealing with certain foods and flavors and about handling food . . . and about life as well."

The cooking class will begin at 1 p.m. Cost is $45 per person. Call 646-7970 for reservations.

*

It was in 1936 that Jose and Josepha Diaz, husband and wife and migrant farm workers, came up with the idea to open the Las Quince Letras cantina, or bar, on South 10th Street in Santa Paula.

It was a pretty good idea.

Nearly 60 years later, the establishment, now a dining spot known as the Familia Diaz Mexican Restaurant, is still going strong. It is in the same location it has always been--though expanded--and it is still being run, as the name would suggest, by the Diaz family.

On Monday the restaurant will host a private party celebrating its 60th year of operation, with the actual anniversary date next October. Each month, through the year, the restaurant will feature specials from a different region of Mexico.

"Back in 1936 my grandparents wanted to have their own business, so they would work in the fields by day and at night they would work in the bar," said grandson Dan Diaz, who has been running the restaurant for 16 years.

"My grandmother, probably to keep an eye on my grandfather, would come down to the cantina. At night she would be in the kitchen, and if anyone wanted something to eat she would cook it from scratch."

In the early 1950s, Diaz said, his grandmother convinced his father, Tony Diaz, to help her establish a restaurant within the bar. The bar, as a separate entity, closed in the mid-1950s, as which point the restaurant began serving drinks. In 1984, the restaurant expanded its capacity from 60 diners to 150.

Through it all, the restaurant has been a family-run operation.

"We have many fourth-generation employees working here, basically aunts and cousins who now have children here," said Dan Diaz. "At one time we had a fifth-generation employee."

Much of the menu stayed the same over the years as well, Diaz said. "My mother and my father's sister have made tamales for the last 40 years," Diaz said, "with the same recipe."

The Familia Diaz Mexican Restaurant is at 245 S. 10th St., Santa Paula; 525-2813.

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