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Rocco DiSpirito’s Tasty Success

He shares his inspiring story of how his mother helped him find his way.

Rocco DiSpirito's inspiring story of success

It’s a question I’m asked often: “Why did you become a chef?” People who’ve seen me on TV figure I do it to be famous. Or they hear about my new cookbook and think I’m in it for the money.

For me, cooking has never been about those things. My desire to be a chef goes back to something I learned from a great cook many years ago, in the small kitchen of a two-story red-and-white house on 90th Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, a rough, working-class neighborhood of New York City.

Mama’s kitchen. It was a long ways from where she grew up, the small Italian village of San Nicola Baronia. There, her family prepared their meals in a pot hung over a fire pit. Mama’s mother, my nonna, worked with what she had, which wasn’t much. Yet Nonna would always make something delicious and nourishing. When Mama came here to the States at 24, she brought those culinary skills with her.

My earliest memory of watching her in the kitchen is from when I was about six. My brother and sister were much older and out hanging with their friends; my father worked all day as a carpenter, so Mama was home alone with me.

She was making her frittata, a kind of dense Italian omelet. I reached up to the counter to grab a piece, still warm from the stove. I couldn’t help myself; the delicious aromas of gooey parmesan cheese, sautéed onions and peppers and eggs wafted through the air. “No, no, Rocco,” Mama scolded me. “Don’t you touch; this is for the Rosary Society.”

That was another thing Mama brought with her from the old country—her faith. For her, cooking wasn’t only about filling stomachs. “Food is love,” she always told me, and Mama shared her food, and love, with others in our neighborhood. The Rosary Society wasn’t exactly the place a restless kid like me wanted to be, but where Mama and her food went, I went.

The smell of the frittata kept escaping the covered pan as Mama carried it to church. By the time we arrived, I was ravenous. And I wasn’t the only one. “Nicolina, did you bring your frittata?” one of the ladies asked.

“Of course,” Mama responded. But before we could eat, we had to pray. Everyone stood together and bowed their heads, reciting the prayer. It seemed to last forever. But Mama’s food was worth the wait.

“This is just like the frittata my mother used to make,” one woman exclaimed. “I need the recipe,” said another. Seeing the women smile and thank my mother showed me for the first time the power of food to bring people together. Prayer nourished the soul, food nourished your body and, when prepared with a lot of love, both could make strangers into family.

I began to spend more time in Mama’s kitchen. My first “dish” was a simple one. Mama handed me a little rolled-out piece of dough and showed me how to fry it up in a skillet. When it was golden brown, we’d drizzle some honey on it and top it off with a sprinkle of sugar. Pizza fritta, she called it. She’d make them into shapes like her mama used to do.

Those little pieces of crispy dough seemed so easy to make. Until I tried to make them by myself one day and set the hot pan down on the wooden counter. My heart sank when I picked the pan back up to find a large black circle burned into the surface beneath it.

“What have you done?” Mama yelled when she saw the damage. But she forgave me. She was grateful I’d found something that held my interest, because, in our neighborhood, there were a lot of distractions.

Few kids in our neighborhood went to college or got good jobs. A lot of them sought out cheap thrills and easy scores. More than once, I got shaken down for money by drug addicts and dealers on my walk back from school. Mama wouldn’t let me fall into the quicksand that claimed so many kids.

When I was 11, there was a record I really wanted to buy, so I asked for a raise in my allowance. Mama looked at me like I was crazy. “You need to get a job,” she told me. “You must work for what you want.”

Mama knew a thing or two about that. The very day she came off the boat from Italy, she went straight to work at an uncle’s tailor shop and worked for the next nine hours. For three years she was a seamstress. After marrying my father, she took a part-time job knitting sweaters—getting seventy-five cents for every dozen she made. Yet she saved enough money to help bring our whole extended family to America.

So I got work at a pizzeria—thirty dollars a week sweating in front of a hot oven, covered in sauce and grease. I loved it. Here was my chance to do what Mama did, make people happy with my food—even if it was just pizza.

We moved to Long Island a few years later, and Mama got a job as a school lunch lady—appropriate, I thought, for a woman who loved cooking for her kids.

I moved on from making pizza. At 15, I went to work for the New Hyde Park Inn, an award-winning restaurant, and I started to think seriously about culinary school. Mama had never gone to college, and still couldn’t speak English that well, but she encouraged me.

At 19, after graduating culinary school, I traveled to Paris. I struggled for a while, working at a burger joint and sleeping at a friend’s place, but eventually I landed my dream job working under a Michelin-starred chef. Success there led me back to New York, where I became head chef at a restaurant called Union Pacific and started getting great reviews. Then NBC offered me a reality show that would chronicle the creation of my own restaurant, Rocco’s.

I knew my restaurant had to be a place that served my family’s food. Who better to help me than my own family? I hired my uncle to make the wine and the sausages, my aunt to make the fresh pasta. There was never any doubt that Mama would be involved. She was retired when I made her the offer to be Rocco’s meatball maker. I worried it might be too much for her, at 77.

Mama became the star of The Restaurant, both in the kitchen and on TV. Fans stopped her in the street and asked her for autographs. It was like that scene I’d witnessed as a little kid at the Rosary Society—people finding joy in Mama’s cooking. It may have been my name on the sign, but Mama was the place’s heart and soul.

When the restaurant closed, I think Mama was more disappointed than I was. “Aren’t you happy to be able to retire?” I asked her.

She just shook her head. “At my age, I’m happy to be able to get up in the morning and do something for people.”

This year, Mama turned 83, and she’s still my greatest teacher. She was given a great talent, one that she passed along to me. She also passed along the important duty that comes with any of God’s gifts to us—to share them. It’s why she cooked that frittata for her Rosary group. Why she worked as a lunch lady. Why she even gave away her secret meatball recipe in one of my cookbooks. It’s why I became a chef. I’m just following her lead. 

Check out one of Rocco’s pasta recipes!

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