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The Everyday Life of an Incurable Romantic

September 12, 1996|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Searching for romance? TV chef Nick Stellino knows how to find it. Of course, Stellino thinks of romance in the broader sense--injecting magic into everyday life--not just hearts and flowers.

"I call romantic a meal at which the whole family sits together and shares their stories of the day," says Stellino, star of the PBS cooking show "Cucina Amore," which begins its new season Saturday at 11 a.m. on KCET (Channel 28).

That's the way it was as he grew up in Sicily. But his parents were romantics to begin with. On their 10th wedding anniversary, his father had roses sent to Stellino's mother every 10 minutes. So Stellino just naturally blossomed into a romantic guy.

Imagine lunching with a man who asks, in dashing Italian, for a quiet table, orders a magnificent wine, selects a wonderful meal and presents each dish to you first, apologizing when he inadvertently samples something before you try it.

"My mother taught me respect," he says. "She taught me what women like." So he leaps to open doors and to show little considerations. Spooning pasta onto his companion's plate, he says, "I am going to serve small, ladylike portions. After this, attack it as you will. If this is all you want to eat, don't think you are offending me in any way."

In whispers, he confides that he knows the secret ingredient that gives extraordinary flavor to the pasta, rigatoni with mushrooms. He knows this because he once worked at the restaurant, Farfalla. And he reveals the secret, making his guest feel as if she had just received a precious gem.

Romance is so vital to Stellino that it appears in the subtitle of his second and latest cookbook, "Nick Stellino's Glorious Italian Cooking: Romantic Meals, Menus and Music from Cucina Amore" (Putnam; $24.95).

On the cover, you see Stellino, print ascot tucked poetically into his shirt, a glass of champagne in hand. He's gesturing toward a table set with a richly patterned cloth, lighted candles, napkins on which float gilt-edged gossamer ribbons and plates of sophisticated food like scallops in saffron sauce.

What better to accompany this meal than Italian love songs--the "music" referred to in the book title.

"Food is a wonderful carrier of romance," says Stellino, now talking about romance in the, well, romantic sense. "When a man or woman makes a meal, this in itself is a romantic act."

Stellino spurs lovers on by providing menu and wine suggestions alongside each main dish and recipes that focus on simple ingredients assembled in simple steps. (It takes only 15 minutes to produce the scallops on the cover, for example.) "I believe I am empowering people with the ability to make a romantic meal out of every meal they prepare," he says.

No one knows more about the chanciness of romance than Stellino. He opened a door by mistake and met the woman he eventually married. Fifteen years later, he talks about his wife, Nanci, with as much enthusiasm as he felt then.

Discussing the futility of searching for a partner in obvious channels, he says, "Sometimes love walks into your life in a very unorthodox fashion. We are given opportunities. And we do not always see them for what they are."

It pays to be prepared, though. To function as a romantic, "you have to look at life with optimism," Stellino says. "Even in the darkest of all situations, there lies a truth you are not seeing. By focusing on something that is good, you can change the reality around you."

When things go wrong, Stellino focuses on cooking: "I look at food as a fun moment, a moment of relaxation when nothing else matters."

Pressed to suggest menus that will foster romance, he chooses two from his book: one for the accomplished cook, another that is easy. The culinary adept can try pasta incaciata, baked pasta wrapped in eggplant slices. "This is a baronial dish, popular with the elite of Palermo society," he says. "It is wonderfully seductive. You're going to steal somebody's heart with this dish."

The menu starts with crostini and ends with a lusciously romantic dessert, pears in rum syrup drizzled with chocolate sauce and topped with sweetened whipped cream.

The easy menu is pasta with asparagus and mushrooms, pan-fried Chilean sea bass, green salad with balsamic vinaigrette and fresh fruit. It's nice, but what really sells it is the florid prose on the same page: "As I held her in my arms, looking around the big empty place while dancing the perimeter of the dance floor, I felt the music fading into silence, the shimmering lights darting in the background. Looking at Nanci, all I could see were her eyes. I drew her close and we kissed."

This is not a passage from some romance novel. It's Stellino describing an evening with his wife in a deserted Sicilian restaurant. We aren't told what they dined on that evening, but in case it was the sea bass, here's the recipe.

PAN-FRIED CHILEAN SEA BASS WITH FRESCA SAUCE

FRESCA SAUCE

1 (28-ounce) can peeled Italian tomatoes, drained and chopped

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

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