Elisa Costantini had barely moved from the couch in weeks, and her son, Frank, was starting to get nervous. He wanted to give her space to process everything that had happened, but still, for a woman who was always moving, cooking, working—this wasn't anything like her.
Then again, it was hard to imagine anything being like the way it was. Elisa and her husband, Francesco, had met when they were "kids," she says, moving from Italy to Pennsylvania when she was just 23. They'd spent all of their time for the past 55 years together, raising a family in a small town outside of Philadelphia. Together, they faced any challenge life threw their way, including Francesco's gastric cancer diagnosis. Then, on Christmas Eve 2013, Francesco passed away, and Elisa faced her greatest challenge so far: Living without him.
"My world was gone. It was finished," she said.
The grief was all-consuming, and after several weeks, it seemed that old adage that time heals all wounds was a big, fat lie. Her son, Frank, had been living in Shanghai on a special assignment, and wasn't fully prepared to see her so lost.
"I didn't expect her to be over the grieving process, by any means, but she hadn't stepped out of the heartache," he said. "Nothing had been touched in six months."
He started going through his parents' things, to help Elisa sort through what she wanted to keep, and found her recipe tin. It was stuffed with receipts, envelopes and other scraps of paper, all covered with vague recipes and notes about cooking. It inspired him.
"I told her, 'let's spend some time every Sunday and we'll write out these recipes really nice, so we can share them with the grandkids,'" Frank said. "If nothing else, I realized, it'd give her something to do and get her off the couch. She always loved cooking."
"MY WORLD WAS GONE. IT WAS FINISHED."
At the time, it was just a project to help Elisa see the world beyond her grief. What they didn't realize is that her homespun Italian recipes would become a hit on Kickstarter, turning into a whole new career—and creative outlet—that's taken the 77-year-old grandmother around the world.
'THIS SHOULD BE A BOOK.'
Growing up in Poggio Valle, Italy, Elisa cooked a bit differently than what most people think of when they think of traditional Italian fare. Pasta, vine-ripe tomatoes and olive oil are staples, sure, but when it comes to certain dishes, there are key differences, like her crepe-based lasagna.
"It comes from when the French occupied the Abruzzo region of Italy," Frank explained. "Chickens were everywhere, so eggs were plentiful, and they were already making sweet crepes, so using the crepes in savory dishes instead of pasta saved time."
As friends started hearing about the project—and many of its recipes—one suggested turning it into a book that others could buy too. At first, Frank and Elisa laughed at the idea. "We don't have any money for that," he said. Then the friend introduced him to Kickstarter. On a whim, they created a post, sharing it on Facebook, but not really expecting much. Maybe a couple friends would donate, and they could create a few hardbound copies.
In less than 36 hours, they'd raised $4,000.
By the end of the 60-day campaign, they'd hit $27,508, with most of the money coming from total strangers. It motivated Elisa to really focus on the cookbook, which they'd named Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table.
"It was very hard for me, at first, because I was not in the mood," she explained. "I was not interested in nothing, but then I saw my kids were really, really working hard for this. They tell everyone, 'my mom is the best cook in the world,' so I thought to myself, 'I will do what I have to do.'"
THEY HAD TO START FROM SCRATCH.
Knowing how many people cared about this project, the two got to work. Frank had to buy his mom measuring cups—she didn't have any, nor did she use them.
"She uses the same glass for all of her measuring, so we'd let her use that, then pour it into a measuring cup to see just how much it was," Frank explained. "We had to think about every detail, like are those jumbo eggs or large? Does it need salt? Okay, let's specify that."
The two made a list of her go-to dishes and began testing recipes, 6 to 7 dishes at a time, then hired a freelancer to design the book. With each dish, Frank saw more of his mom's vibrant, lively personality come back. In the meantime, she was building more and more buzz online, as people clamored to order a copy of the cookbook. She was overwhelmed by people's support.
"I didn't want to make everybody disappointed," Elisa said. "So many people were excited, and in the end, it came out so good."
Frank and Elisa spent six months working on the cookbook, which has sold more than 4,500 copies and is now in its second printing. To build momentum, Frank started researching Italian heritage groups on Facebook, promoting the book there too.
"I'm a high school business and marketing teacher, and my class, actually, was the biggest help," Frank said. "They would tell me, 'you're not wording this catchy enough.' They were rewriting my tweets and posts. Everyone got into it."
IT'S NOT A COOKBOOK, IT'S A CONNECTION.
Elisa was used to cooking massive, multi-course meals where everyone went home with at least one Tupperware container full of food. "If they didn't, she would be upset that there wasn't enough food, no matter how stuffed people would be when they left," Frank said. Now, as she tested recipes, she found herself cooking for pleasure more often. Her cookbook was covered in the local news, and before long, people would stop her in the grocery store to say they'd seen her story on TV.
"I never thought it'd get this big," Elisa said.
Then a resort reached out. They wanted to invite her to Tuscany to host cooking demonstrations, showing guests how to make dishes, like handmade gnocchi and her crepe-based lasagna, in the classic Abruzzo style. It was so rare to find someone who knew these recipes that they thought it'd be a special treat for their food-focused clientele, Frank said.
Elisa couldn't wait to go. "They wanted to hear all about the way we cook 50 years ago, and I wanted to show them how," she said.
She just wrapped her second visit to Tuscany, teaching people of all ages her rustic way of cooking. With each trip, she takes notes, coming up with new recipes—and old ones that didn't make it into her cookbook—that she could share with others.
"One girl cried when she met my mom," Frank said. "Her mom was from the same region, and hadn't written down any of her recipes before she passed away. Trying my mom's recipes was like getting back a part of her that she'd lost long ago."
Elisa feels the same way. "It makes me so happy to do this," she explained. "It's not just about the food. It's the people."