NEWTOWN — How many Delaware County chefs can say that they’ve published two cookbooks, appeared on "The Today Show," been an invited guest on the "Rachel Ray Show" three times, taught cooking at a winery in Italy twice, and had a role in "The Irishman," sitting next to Robert DeNiro?
With the turn of the decade this week, octogenarian Elisa Costantini of Newtown Square reflected back upon the past ten years, and talked about accomplishing all of these extraordinary feats and many more.
Costantini was born in Poggio Valle, Italy. The daughter of farmers, she learned to cook at a very young age using simple, fresh ingredients. In 1961, at the young age of 23, Costantini left her native Abruzzo, Italy, for Philadelphia, bringing with her an exceptional talent to cook, along with her treasured family recipes. For half of a century, Costantini led a mostly happy life, married to her late husband Francesco and raising their three beloved children. Distraught and heartbroken in 1981 after her beloved second child, Agnes, who was born with a medical disability, died, Costantini took a full-time job as a cook and housekeeper at Don Guanella Village in Marple.
Over three decades later, in 2013, Costantini lost her best friend, sister-in-law, brother and mother-in-law. As the same year was drawing to a close, still reeling from month after month of extreme loss, Elisa’s husband of 56 years died. 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 of those so close to her, plunged into an overwhelmingly deep state of apathy and sadness.
About six months later, son Frank, now a teacher at Bishop Shanahan High School, returned home to the Philadelphia area with his wife and two children. He and his sister Nadia Erb of West Chester became worried about their mother’s out-of-character listless behavior. In an effort to bring some zest back to their mother’s life, they tapped into her passion for cooking.
Frank encouraged his mother to begin putting her recipes down on paper, compiling them for family and friends to follow and enjoy, hoping the project would put a bit of the glimmer back in his mother’s eyes. Frank knew if anything would lift Elisa out of her bad case of prolonged blues, her love of cooking would. As mother and son went through the piles of paper, Elisa slowly became slightly animated again, talking about the origins of the recipes, her family memories, occasions when she served the dishes and other topics.
As Elisa began working on the project, little by little, son Frank not only saw his mother regain some joy in her life, but he also saw the potential to share her wealth of cooking knowledge beyond their immediate circle of friends and relatives. Her signature recipes and her personal stories of her home country would not only be of interest to the Costantini family, and leave a legacy for her two children and five grandchildren, Frank thought, but the unique recipe and anecdote collection would most likely have an appeal to all Italian Americans, as well as non-Italian Americans. Guided by her son, Elisa created the highly successful self-published cookbook, "Italian Moms: Spreading Their Art to Every Table."
Costantini’s inaugural cookbook, dedicated to her late husband, is full of family recipes, coupled with intriguing personal stories, sharing the scrumpious dishes that she learned to make when she could barely reach the countertops in the kitchen of her childhood, to the dinners and desserts that she makes to this day, perpetuating the culinary traditions of her family. Her cookbook is a combination of unique recipes and pictures of her mouth-watering dishes, which range from old-world Italian entrees, breads, holiday specialties and desserts.
Needing some capital to fund the initial project, Frank turned to Kickstarter, the crowd funding platform based on creativity, to see if a cookbook would be of interest. In just one month, 825 strangers pledged $27,000 to the project which spurred the Costantinis to get busy and produce the cookbook that they had promised their 1,200 donors.
The cookbook, published in 2015, was not only well received locally, but internationally as well. As a result of her published cookbook, Costantini was invited to Italy to teach a cooking class at an artist resort in Tuscany, followed by another invitation to offer cooking lessons to resident artists there. She also was invited and went on a Food Network show about talented home cooks who have escalated to professional cookbook authors. Thanks to a boost in sales after appearing on the "Rachel Ray Show," Costantini’s calendar became a whirlwind schedule of cooking demonstrations locally at different restaurants and food shows, as well as appearances and book signings at the Ninth Street Italian Market in South Philadelphia, and Italian Festivals in Delaware County, Philadelphia, and other places. She was invited back to appear on the "Rachel Ray Show" two more times, making a pasta soup on her most recent appearance.
“Rachel and I really hit it off,” Elisa said with a warm smile. “I felt like I knew her for 100 years.”
Once the sales of the cookbook took off, Costantini donated proceeds to various local schools and charities in the community.
Throughout the past five years of celebrated fame as a cook and an author, Costantini remained working with adults with special needs. Employed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for 28 years, the well-liked Costantini made a voluntary switch from the dietary department to the laundry department. She continues bringing her wealth of talents and compassion for those with special needs to her career at Divine Providence Village in Marple.
“Working with the special men and women at Don Guanella and Divine Providence Villages has given me a sense of purpose after I lost my daughter Agnes, and again after I lost Francesco,” Elisa said. “They need me and I need them. I can’t explain it to people, but this is a really important part of my life. This is my second family.”
After their self-published cookbook sold over 15,000 copies and scored Elisa an appearance on "The Today Show," the Costantinis were approached by Sterling Publishers, a division of Barnes and Noble, to co-author a second cookbook. In her second cookbook, Costantini includes more treasured family recipes. Some of the recipes in Elisa’s second cookbook are influenced by her childhood in Abruzzo, while others are reinvented classic dishes that pay homage to newer generations of Italian Americans.
In the wake of her first book, Elisa received dozens of emails from readers asking her to identify recipes they remembered from childhood, but were unable to find. Elisa, with her profound understanding and fondness of Italian culinary traditions and ingredients, painstakingly reconstructed these beloved dishes from letters, notes, and memories — and developed many new ones. While creating her second book , professionals came to the Costantini kitchen to take photos and record the cooking as it happened. In April 2018, “Italian Moms: Something Old, Something New: 150 Family Recipes” hit the book market, again taking cooks by storm.
As if the decade has not been exciting enough, in May 2017, Elisa received an honorary doctor of law degree from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia for her lifetime achievements, service to those with special needs and her work with charities. The award honored her “as a woman, mother, grandmother, compassionate caregiver, entrepreneur, philanthropist and chef extraordinaire.”
“I have seen many great things in my life from unbelievable joy and happiness to moments of sadness and hardships,” Elisa said. “Through it all, I have found meaning and purpose in my family and my ability to care for them. Whenever you cook, each time you put food on a plate to share with whomever is gathered at your table, it means you give a little of yourself. Food is love.”
To top off a decade of amazing experiences, last year, Costantini also scored two small parts in film, "The Irishman," spending time on the set up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Ray Romano, Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, whom she said was sitting right next to her.
“I wasn’t really allowed to talk about my role until after the film came out, but now I can. To be honest, I never watch movies, so I wasn’t too familiar with DeNiro, but he was a very nice person,” Costantini said. “But I watch Raymond on his show in reruns so I was really thrilled to see him in person like that. And I also met Joe Pesci who was very nice, too.”
“I wanted to meet Ray Romano though, so much, but I was afraid to move or I’d get thrown off the set,” she joked.
Daughter Nadia, who drove her mother to Brooklyn, was able to watch the filming action, while sitting next to Ray Romano’s son, revealed a starstruck Elisa.
“They treated me like a movie star,” Costantini said incredulously, chuckling as she related the story. “They did my hair and makeup and all I did was laugh and say to myself in disbelief, how did I even get here? How did all of this happen?”
Viewers of "The Irishman" can catch a glimpse of Costantini in a Baptism scene at church, playing “somebody’s wife,” she said.
Despite all of the hoopla and all of her celebrated successes, Costantini still reaps the greatest joy from cooking for her children, her grandchildren and other family members. While Costantini says she doesn’t have a personal favorite, she loves preparing her grandchildren’s favorites, namely, her homemade pasta. Frank’s favorite is his mother’s fried chicken, stuffed with prosciutto and cheese and crusted in breadcrumbs with sautéed zucchinis and roasted potatoes on the side.
“Frank can make all these dishes himself,” said Elisa proudly. “He is as good a cook as I am!”
Asked what mother and son prepared for their recent Christmas dinner feast, and Elisa named everything from antipasto, Italian wedding soup, ravioli, spaghetti, lamb, and roast filet of beef to broccoli rabe, green beans, salad and more. On Christmas Eve, the family celebrated with the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Elisa, humble, down-to-earth, and still speaking in her warm and homey Italian accent, shrugs off her rise to cooking fame.
“My children and my grandchildren were the reasons why I first decided to record these family recipes.” Elisa remarked when asked to reflect on all of the exciting things that have occurred this past decade. “I have been blessed with a talent for cooking and I am very grateful because God has let me live a good life, sharing this talent with my family and many others. I cook because it makes me happy to make my family - and whoever else is sitting at my table - happy.”
“Italian Moms Spreading Their Art To Every Table” and “Italian Moms: Something Old, Something New: 150 Family Recipes” are available at www.Amazon.com, on Amazon Kindle and at local bookstores and retail shops. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or "like" Italian Moms - The Art of Classic Italian Cooking & Tradition on Facebook.