From 5th grade to CHC honorary doctorate for 78-year-old humanitarian
By Len Lear
At Chestnut Hill College’s 90th Commencement on Saturday morning, May 13, Elisa Costantini, who only has a fifth grade education, will be awarded a Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. And if there was such a thing as a doctorate degree for being a selfless humanitarian, Constantini would certainly qualify for that also. And the day before Mother’s Day is a perfect time for the award.
Elisa’s life story could make a compelling Hollywood movie (and it may be made). Born 78 years ago in the town of Teramo, the capital of Abruzzo in southern Italy, Elisa came to Philadelphia at age 23 and raised three children with her husband, Francesco. She was a conventional stay-at-home mom who was perfectly content to create the hearty recipes handed down from her own mother for her well-fed family.
How Cooking Helped One Woman Survive A Heartbreaking Loss
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."
Delco woman turns her passion for Italian cooking into lifeline of purpose and hope
NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP>> If ever there was a bad year for Newtown Square resident Elisa Costantini, 2013 was it. After the loss of her best friend, sister-in-law, brother and mother-in-law, the year was drawing to a close when her husband of 56 years passed away. Her only son Frank was working in China. He came home for the funeral but then had to return to Shanghai. Elisa, overcome with grief following the sequence of deaths in her family, plunged into an overwhelmingly deep state of depression.
When Frank returned to the States six months later, he was shocked by what he found. His once-vibrant mom was in a fragile state. Nothing in the house had been touched and everything in the house was exactly how his dad had left it before passing away. He and his sister Nadia, a resident of West Chester, were worried.
Frank, who calls himself “a typical Italian momma’s boy, " says he moved back to the area and immediately began organizing things and selling off some of his dad’s possessions. When he came across a drawer full of old world recipes scribbled on scraps of paper, he stopped in his tracks and waited for his mom to come home from work.
Elisa has worked in the dietary department at Don Guanella Village in Marple Township, cooking and caring for individuals with special needs since 1981, recently transferring over to Divine Providence Village. When she walked in the door, Frank had the pieces of paper on the kitchen table and told her that they needed to sit down together to organize the recipes or they would be lost forever to future generations. Her son knew if anything would lift Elisa out of her doldrums, her love of cooking would. As mother and son went through the piles of paper, Elisa would become animated, talking about the origins of the recipes, her family memories, occasions when she served the dishes and other topics. The conversations invoked by the recipes became so interesting, Frank joked that they should write a book.
Months later, Frank and Elisa put aside the joking and began compiling the recipes for a possible cookbook. Like most exceptionalcooks, a pitch of this, a pinch of that, is traditionally the way around a stove, so Frank said the process was challenging.
“Many recipes were in my mom’s head so we had to get them down onto paper before they were lost forever.,” Frank explained. “Getting all these recipes written down and organized was extremely frustratingand exhausting at times. Some of those ‘challenging’ moments were recorded on video and are actually available for viewing on my mom’s YouTube page. They are humorous now—not always sofunny then.”
Most recipes Elisa had to make 2-3 times to figure out the true measurement of each ingredient because like most first-rate cooks, she was used to measuring by eyeballing most ingredients .
While working on recording the recipes, Frank told a friend about the project which was still in its raw infancy. He wanted to help his mom put the book together, he said, but finances were tight after his dad’s death and he wasn’t sure how they’d swing it. His friend suggested Kickstarter, an online site that helps artists, musicians, filmmakers and other creators find the resources and support to make their ideas become a reality. In only a week, the project garnered $8000 in support from strangers who read about the cookbook idea and wanted to support the effort. By the end of the campaign, strangers donated a whopping $27,000 to get the project off the ground and running.
Elisa was overcome with emotion that people she never met or laid eyes on, were kind enough to offer her this generous amount of monetary support. The generosity of strangers motivated her. She wanted to produce the best cookbook possible so she would be able to share it with those who believed in her. Elisa put aside her sadness, put on her apron and got down to business.
Through the Kickstarter campaign, the Costantinis got more than just financial help. They were contacted by a printer, a professional book marketer and the owners of an exclusive resort in Tuscany, Italy who offered Elisa a two week gig last summer to teach cooking classes at the Culterra Magica Resort. While there, she said, she mettop chefs and “had two of the best weeks of her life.”
In less than a year’s time, Elisa and Frank published a 248 full color book with recipes, stories and photos, established a full marketing plan and website (as well as an Elisa Costantini Cooking Facebook page which already has almost 4000 likes and an @ItalianMomsArt Twitter account) and were planning a full array of book signings, including the deluxe trip to Tuscany.
Today, the cookbook is spreading quickly in popularity and basically selling itself. With traditional and classic recipes from the Abruzzo region, Elisa highlights her tried-and-true Italian favorites like pizza, pasta, desserts, breads, main entrees, antipasto and soups. In addition to the easy-to-follow recipes, Elisa's new cookbook also contains traditional sample menus (including holiday ones), a few recipes from close Italian friends and other family members, her recipe for a happy marriage, as well as stories and snippets about Italy and growing up Italian. Elisa was born in 1938 in Poggio Valle, Italy. The daughter of farmers, she learned to cook at 6 years old from her mother and later as an apprentice to a local chef using simple, fresh ingredients. At the age of 23, she immigrated to the United States with her late husband, Francesco, and 18 month old daughter, Nadia.
What sets her recipes apart from many other Italian cooks and cookbooks is the simplicity of her recipes and ingredients. Unlike so many fussy, complicated recipes that rely on specialized ingredients and techniques, Costantini's rustic, authentic recipes call for only fresh, simple ingredients available at local markets.
“Not too many foods in my cookbook are fattening,” the author explained. “I always use the freshest ingredients. With the Mediterranean – style of cooking, I use simple ingredients without a lot of empty calories in them.”
The Italian Moms Spreading Their Art To Every Table is written in clear language by narrative writer Bryan Bechtel to allow even novice cooks to bring the old-world charm of the Italian countryside to their home dining room tables. VersanoPhotography captured the beauty of presentation and visual appeal of many dishes on the pages. Naturally, the book, authoredby Elisa and compiled by Frank, is dedicated to her late husband, Francesco Costantini (1937-2013).
To enhance the marketing of the cookbook and pay it forward after receiving the initial outpouring of support from virtual strangers, Elisa donates portions of her book sales to local schools and charities in her community. She was awarded Second Place in NIAF’s (National Italian American Foundation) 2015 Preserving Italian Culture Contest. Soon after the cookbook was published, Elisa branched out and began doing fundraising at area schools, beginning with a successful partnership with St. Francis deSales in Philadelphia. Local schools can partner with the Costantinis and sell the cookbook, keeping half of the proceeds from every book. Frank, now employed as a teacher at Pope Paul II High School in Royersford, said his mom will be “up for auction” at an upcoming Savor the Flavor fundraising event there. She will cook one of her authentic Italian meals for 12 at the home of her highest bidder.
With word spreading in just a few months since publication, venues to purchase are also expanding. The “Italian Moms” cookbook is available through Amazon.com, as well as stores like Luigi and Giovanni’s and Colonial Village in Newtown Square andFante’s on 9th Street in the Philadelphia Italian Market. In another few weeks, the book will be in Barnes and Noble and other local book stores. Autographed copies of Italian Moms Spreading Their Art To Every Table are available at wwwItalianmomscooking.com/. The book created a buzz andsold over 3000 copies through Facebook and word of mouth, before it was even marketed to stores, Frank said.
Life has been a whirlwind for the local cook-celeb in the last few months, with plans brewing for appearances at South Philly’s 9th Street Italian Festival in May, the Delaware County Italian Festival at Rose Tree Park in June and several others. She has also been invited back to Tuscany this summer for another two weeks of teaching cooking to guests at the prestigious resort. Through all of this, the 77 year old with a passion for cooking and baking continues to work at Divine Providence Village andshower her son Frank and his wife Tina, her daughter Nadia and her husband Bob, and grandchildren Sebastian, Lily, Bobby, Sean and Amanda with all the delicious, traditional foods they have come to expect and love from their mom and nonna. Soon she will have her first great-grandchild who will also hopefully gather around the table to enjoy the same classic food.
“They’re the reason I did this cookbook,” Elisa confided. “I want them to know how to make my family’s recipes. I am blessed that I was able to write them down so when I’m gone, generations to come will know the recipes of the family and treasure them like I do.”
Life is very different today for Elisa than it was just two or three years ago, says son Frank.
“She looks different and feels different and she’s much, much happier,” he stated. “Before this all started, my mom was in full shut-down mode. Now, her life is full of purpose and passion again. This cookbook has given her a whole new lease on life.”
- “The message we hope to get out is that life does not end with the passing of others,” Frank continued. “You have to find the strength from within to go on. Seniors who are able should take a chance at dreams and get out of their comfort zone and go for it. No one is ever too old to try something new. That’s what makes life worth living. It keeps us all vibrant. My mom and I also want to stress the importance for people to blindly help each other. You never know just how much a small gesture can mean to someone. It can literally change the world for some people. Look at my mom—she’s living proof!”
The region of Abruzzo sits east in Italy’s long, narrow peninsula. About two-thirds of the region is mountainous, but also boarders the coastline along the Adriatic Sea. It is considered part of Southern Italy.
The province's economy is supported by the farming of local fruits, olives, and livestock. The ventricina teramana is produced between the mountains and hills of the Gran Sasso; an especially fat salami which is fine-grained and spreadable, light in color and spicy. The Millefiori mountain honey is especially tasty. Extra-virgin olive oil, also harvested in Abruzzo, seasons many typical dishes of my region. One of the most recognizable symbols of the Teramo Province's cuisine is the sheep arrosticini, little pieces of mutton cooked on a skewer. Abruzzese lamb in general is considered superior in flavor to other meats and lamb found elsewhere because of the animals’ mountain-grazed diets rich in herbs. The steep mountains in part of the countryside lend themselves well to sheep and goat herding. Pork is an omnipresent meat staple and a particular favorite in Italian sausages, as well as smoked and cured meat products. Chicken, turkey and wild fowl are plentiful. Parsley, rosemary and garlic hold prominent places in the flavoring of dishes.
Also famous in my region are the spreadable sausages flavored with nutmeg, liver, garlic and spices. They are made with large pieces of fat and lean pork, pressed, seasoned and encased in the dehydrated stomach of the pig itself. It is then sealed in jars, and serves as lunch with some fresh bread for those working in the fields. Mortadella is another famous product from my region, a small cured meat, with a longish oval-shape. Inside, the meat is married with white columns of fat. They are generally sold in pairs. Together, they are about as big as two cupped hands put together. Another name for Mortadella in Italian is "coglioni di mulo," or donkey's balls.
Several flavors and dishes rise far above the others to help define Abruzzese cuisine. In this cheese-loving region, mozzarella and scamorza are very important to the dairy market. Both are cow’s milk cheeses, they are mild, creamy and sweet with a smooth texture that allows them to hold up equally well in baked dishes or on their own as table cheeses. Although tasty, these cheeses play second fiddle to the Pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk in the most remote mountain towns, like that of my hometown Poggio Valle.
Ragus are quintessentially Abruzzese, and refer as a generalized term to any type of meat-based sauce. Ragus are heavily associated with the cooking of Southern Italy as well, and seem to have begun their migration southward from this particular region. Pairing perfectly with hearty Abruzzese dishes is a locally-loved table wine, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, made from Montepulciano grapes grown in Tuscany but employed heavily in the winemaking of the Abruzzo region. From the basics – olives, grapes and pasta – to the bizarre – lamb’s intestines cooked with intentionally rotten cheese – Abruzzese cuisine is beginning to again capture the attention of cooks around the world seeking to return to the heart and soul of Italian cooking.
The most flavorful local recipes started out as necessity, ways to use readily available ingredients and leftovers to produce food that was both practical and pleasant. Almost every edible part of any ingredient is utilized somehow in Abruzzese cooking. Nothing is wasted, and little is lost. The people are frugal, but hearty. Today’s Abruzzese dishes hold true to their past, and marry earthy flavors with spices to make the palate sing. Isn’t that what we really want from Italian food? It is how I have prepared meals for my family and friends for decades. Along the coast, it is possible to taste the seafood hors d’oeuvres, typical of Giulianova; it is based on prawns, squids, clams and sole. On Christmas Eve it is traditional to cook stockfish, a very tasty dish based with oil and spices that requires hours of preparation.
Many travelers came and went through the center of Italy, through Abruzzo’s provinces of Teramo, Pescara, Chieti and L’Aquila. Some left influences from distant parts of Italian culture and from other countries as well. Travelers and pilgrims came and went, and some stayed, lending more and more diversity to the heritage of Abruzzo, and to its cuisine. The region’s history of variety has culminated in contemporary times to produce some of Italy’s most unique and interesting dishes.
Today, the Abruzzo region of Italy lies somewhat outside the country’s normal tourist route, and many travelers who come choose to visit the beaches of Pescara and Giulianova. Other travelers take the more traditional tourist attractions in the Lazio region (home to the country’s capital of Rome) adjacent to Abruzzo over the Gran Sasso Mountains or a pilgrimage to the shrine of San Gabrielle in Isola, my husband’s hometown.
Abruzzo, then, is a perfect destination in which to discover the time-tested flavors of old-world Italian food unencumbered by the normal tourist trappings. While Abruzzo is fascinating year-round, August is full of festivals, family gatherings, and food preparation for the winter months. It is when we prepare our most important pantry ingredient, tomato sauce!