The “Ciao Italia” host and “Weekends with Yankee” guest shares tips on giving your garden some Italian flavor.
By Amy Traverso
Feb 22 2022
Ciao Italia host Mary Ann Esposito.Photo Credit : John W. Hession
When Mary Ann Esposito began filming Ciao Italia, her PBS cooking show, in 1989, Americans had just begun to discover that there was more to Italian food than pizza and red sauce. The Food Network didn’t exist (that would take four more years), but Esposito’s travels throughout Italy, combined with her love of cooking and teaching, inspired her to pitch New Hampshire Public Television a show about how to cook authentic regional Italian food. Today she still hosts Ciao Italia, the longest-running TV cooking show, produced in her hometown of Durham, New Hampshire. But during the pandemic, she turned her attention to gardening. This led to her newest book, her 14th in all, called Ciao Italia: Plant, Harvest, Cook! It will be published in October. —Amy Traverso
Q. How did you get your start as a gardener?
My Neapolitan grandmother had a little garden in the backyard. She grew mint and green beans and those kinds of things. But I was really introduced to gardening through my husband, Guy. He was always growing gardens, even when he was in medical school.
Q. What do you love to grow?
The big highlight are the Piennolo tomatoes grown at the base of Mount Vesuvius. They look like a cross between cherry and plum tomatoes and are very, very meaty. We picked up seeds in Italy and were thrilled that we could grow them in New Hampshire!
Q. Do you plant a lot of Italian varieties?
Yes, absolutely. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine carries some Italian seeds, but we also order from Italian seed companies like Franchi. We’ve grown their fava beans, a winter squash called Zucca, different eggplants, zucchini, Romanesco broccoli, and beautiful elongated sweet peppers called Corno di Toro, or “bull’s horn.” The Meraviglia di Venezia is a very elongated pole bean that just keeps on producing—we were picking those well into October.
Q. What do you do with all the bounty from a big garden?
That’s what inspired the book. Once the hot weather hits, you’ve got tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant coming in all at once. So I have to decide what I’m going to cook and what I’m going to put up. I’m thinking about things I can freeze, like minestrone and eggplant Parmesan. And then I put up giardiniere, which are pickled mixed vegetables, and caponata.
Q. What advice do you have for new gardeners who want to plant a cook’s garden?
My first commandment is to start slow and small. Get your soil tested so you know what you’re working with. Find out what zone you’re in, and use seeds that are appropriate for that zone.
Q. A lot of people took up gardening during the pandemic. Do you think the trend will stick?
I do, because people are much more cognizant of their food and where it comes from, especially millennials. People stuck at home began to learn to cook, which led them to think about ingredients and where they were going to get them. They saw the limits of our food system. How we gain control is by raising our own food.
Mary Ann Esposito is featured on season six of Weekends with Yankee, which debuts this April on public television stations nationwide. To find out how to watch, go to weekendswithyankee.com.