DURHAM, N.H. — We were sitting outside at a white-cloth-draped table at Ciao Italia, enjoying a swirled nest of house-made linguine, flecked with velvety prosciutto di parma and bright sweet peas, bound with a light cream sauce that was brightened with a touch of tangy lemon. Deceptively humble. Crystal clear flavors. We also tried the deconstructed eggplant parmigiana: a simple, fresh take on the often-served heavily layered and sauced version. This one had slices of crusty eggplant, next to wedges of soft mozzarella and a side swirl of tomato basil sauce. Buono!
This was a delicious, delightful discovery, this little authentically-Italian restaurant in downtown Durham, N.H., home of the University of New Hampshire’s main campus. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ciao Italia is the first restaurant collaboration for well-known chef, author, and television host Mary Ann Esposito. Esposito started the PBS “Ciao Italia With Mary Ann Esposito” cooking show in 1989, which was filmed out of her historic home in Durham, and is now the longest-running TV cooking program in America. Her latest venture is a restaurant in her hometown.
“I’ve been asked to do a Ciao Italia restaurant many times over the years, and I’ve always said no,” Esposito says. But this time it was to be in her hometown, where she could keep close tabs on it. And there was another personal connection. The owner of the restaurant, Doug Clark, is the son of Dr. Charles Clark, Esposito’s one-time professor and mentor at the University of New Hampshire, when she was pursuing a master’s degree in history. “Fast forward and a couple of years ago, I get this phone call from Dr. Clark’s son, asking if I’d consider a partnership with a restaurant in Durham,” Esposito says. “I told him I’d have to think about it, but the idea appealed to me, especially when he agreed that the restaurant, like the show, would highlight regional Italian cuisine.”
Today, there are entire food networks highlighting regional dishes from around the world. But when Esposito started her show 30 years ago, she was a ground-breaker. “When ‘Ciao Italia’ started, it opened the door to understanding that there’s more to world cuisine than we’d been exposed to,” she says. “Specifically, I wanted to bring awareness to the fact that there is no such thing as Italian food. I made that statement on our first broadcast, and I stand by it today. There are 20 different regions in Italy. Italy is all about regional food.”
“Ciao Italia” will shoot its 30th season next spring (it was delayed this year due to COVID-19), churning out 20 shows in 10 days, shot in her kitchen in Durham, and another six shows shot on location in Italy. For years, the production had moved to a studio, but she’s brought it back home. “Cooking shows are moving to more of a home atmosphere, so the last two years we produced the show in my home kitchen,” she says. “It’s fun, but oh boy, you don’t want to see my kitchen during production!” (Note: Esposito and her family moved from the home where the original shows were produced to a new home, still in Durham.) Most of her small crew have been with her since the beginning, and by now, she says, “It’s a well-oiled machine. We all know the dance.”
At 78 years old, Esposito has no plans to slow down. She’s the author of 13 books, including the award-winning “Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy,” published in 2018, and is currently working on a new garden vegetable cookbook. And she cooks — these days, while everyone is stuck at home, three meals a day, every day. And she rarely, if ever, follows a recipe.
“Even though I write cookbooks for people — and you have to have a formula for that — I don’t cook that way myself,” she says. “I cook like a painter; the ingredients are my paints. This is how Italians cook. They cook with ingenuity and they cook with what they have on hand. My mother and my grandmother, they didn’t have recipes, they just cooked — a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
So, we wanted to know, what would she be cooking for dinner that night? That evening, she told us, they may have some sweet Italian sausage, from a 50-pound batch she and her husband, Guy, had made and frozen a couple of weeks before. And, “I have half an eggplant left in the fridge, What am I going to do with that?” she said. “I’ll cut it into thin slices, use some herbs on hand, maybe a little of that leftover artichoke spread, coat it with panko, and fry it and use it like pieces of sandwich bread for the sausage.” The day before, her husband brought in a batch of just-picked Swiss chard, and she had some fresh ricotta in the refrigerator, so she made a ricotta Swiss chard pie. “This is what I mean by cooking off the cuff.”
Of course, you can’t run a restaurant like that. It takes meticulous planning, and well-curated and executed recipes. Esposito worked for months with industry veterans Deb Weeks, owner of the former Green Monkey in Portsmouth who is the restaurant’s general manager, and Jeanne Clements, who has helmed several New England restaurants and is the Ciao Italia executive chef. The opening was pushed back months due to the pandemic, and the original winter menu was ditched for the current one. There are a few outdoor, street-side tables, and a limited number of the 106 indoor seats are now open for dining. There’s also a small Italian market in the front of the eatery, with Italian products. There’s also a Curbside Cucina menu, with take-away sandwiches, pizza, and more. The menu will expand, too, to include more regional specialties.
“I think it will be a nice, casual but authentic dining experience,” Esposito says. “It has to be good; it has my name on it.”
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com