When Jimmy Cozzan enters the kitchen, he draws on inspiration from his grandmother and tips from friends and family.
And Cozzan, 47, of Egg Har-bor Township, has spent a lot of time in the kitchen lately, canning dozens of jars of marinara sauce made from his grandmother's recipe.
"My friend says it looks like I'm cooking for the Eighth Army, but that's just my upbringing," Cozzan said. "I must have done about 260 pounds of tomatoes this year. It's been a lot of fun giving it all out to my family and friends and colleagues."
Cozzan said in addition to being enjoyable, his harvest-time canning project also brings back memories of when he was a boy.
This was the time of year Cozzan's mother, Jaqueline, and grandmother, Anna Colafante, would head into the kitchen to can a winter's worth of tomato sauce and vegetables for the family.
"It was a staple, it was a way of saving money. That way, during the winter months, when times were tough, they just had to pop open a can and they were good to go," Cozzan recalled.
Cozzan grew up in northeast Philadelphia, the son of an Italian mother and a Greek father. Jaqueline Cozzan made sure her five sons were steeped in their Italian heritage, while Anna Colafante made sure the boys knew what Italian food made from scratch tasted like.
"She was a pistol," Cozzan said of his grandmother. "She always cooked fresh food all the time, homemade pasta, pizza, homemade sauce. It was all great."
Colafante also was fond of repeating favored sayings. One of those served as the inspiration when Cozzan was making up labels for his tomato sauce.
"The label says Jimmy's Jersey Fresh 'Mangia E Zitto' marinara sauce. That's a famous saying my grandmother used to say, it means eat and shut up," Cozzan said.
Kitchen sayings weren't the only thing Cozzan got from his grandmother. When his mom and grandmom were in the kitchen, Cozzan was often nearby, picking up tips on cooking from the two women.
"I always paid attention in the kitchen when she cooked. I helped along. She taught me the basics," Cozzan said of his grandmother.
One thing his grandmother taught him to do was to experiment with recipes and make them his own. He remembers her, in her 80s, being inspired by cookie-maker Wally "Famous" Amos and beginning to tinker with her own cookie recipes.
"She had always been big in baking. When she was in her 80s she saw Famous Amos and then she started getting inventive," Cozzan recalled.
When he later moved out on his own, Cozzan also got some tips from his brother, Joe, who graduated from the culinary program at Atlantic Cape Community College and is owner/operator at Don Jose Rosa Tacos in Ocean City.
"I get tips from him and other friends who cook. I have a dear friend was a baker, another friend is an accomplished sous chef, I ask questions when I want to make something different," he said. "I still think of myself as a novice kind of cook."
Unfortunately, Cozzan lost his mother while she was still young. Jaqueline Cozzan passed away 19 years ago after suffering lung cancer. She was 56. Colafante followed about a year later.
"My mother had been her only daughter. She probably died of a broken heart," Cozzan said.
Cozzan worked a variety of jobs - bartender, waiter, landscaper - before going to work as a home health aide. That led him to a career as a registered nurse at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point, where he's worked for the past eight years.
Cozzan has long made his own marinara sauce, following his grandmother's advice of keeping the recipe simple. When serving it, he usually adds meatballs made with his grandmother's recipe.
"It's fantastic. You couldn't go to the store and buy anything better," said brother Michael Cozzan, 53. "People are always telling him you have to sell it, you have to sell it."
Cozzan said his brother not only shares his marinara sauce with family, he delivers complete meals.
"Everybody in the family will get this care package with meatballs, sauce, some nice rolls and parmigiano cheese," said Michael Cozzan, who shares his birthday with his brother. He says the food brings back fond memories.
"It was a tradition and honor to sit at our table when I was a kid, and Jimmy's got it down. It tastes just like what my grandmother used to make," Michael Cozzan said.
This year was the first time Jimmy Cozzan tried canning to preserve his efforts. He spent about $150 buying the materials needed to get started and got his produce from Reeds Farm Market in Egg Harbor Township. He learned how to can by searching the Internet for instructions, watching videos on YouTube and picking the brains of employees at Reeds.
He figures he put up about 70 jars of marinara sauce, which turned out to be a bigger job then he'd anticipated.
"You have to remember that first you have to make the marinara sauce. Then the canning is a big project too," he said.
Still, all that work has its rewards. Cozzan has gotten a lot of good feedback from folks who have tried his sauce, and word-of-mouth reviews have made him grateful he put up so many jars.
"I bring it to work to give out, and people, when they see the jars, they say 'Where's mine?' I'm like 'Oh, I'll bring it in tomorrow,'" he said. "I like sharing. I guess I get that from my grandmother. She loved feeding people. I saw the joy she got out of feeding the neighborhood, she enjoyed that. Now I know what it is like."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Jimmy Cozzan's Jersey Fresh
Mangia E Zitto Marinara Sauce
Note: I prefer using a 2-quart stainless steel food mill, approximately $30. (Some people use a blender, which is frowned upon by Granny)
•20 pounds tomatoes (about 60 medium)
•1 cup chopped onion (about 1 large)
•1 tablespoon olive oil
•8 cloves garlic, minced
•1/2 cup finely minced, fresh basil
Cut tomatoes in quarters, removing the core, and place in 4-gallon pot. Cook on low heat for 4 to 5 hours, stir frequently, until tomatoes are in a semi-liquid state and you are able to stir easily. Use no lid to evaporate as much water in the tomatoes as possible. Place food mill over another large pot (the mill has hooks to make sure it stays on), using a small pot fill the food mill to the top and turn the handle. Only the skins and seeds will be left. Using a spoon, scrape mill clean and repeat. When done, immediately rinse food mill clean with brush. Place sauce again on low heat uncovered, for 4 to 5 more hours. Now all the excess water is gone and you are left with a nice sauce. Caramelize onions in olive oil until cooked evenly brown and soft, add to sauce, you can deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup red wine and cook for 2 minutes more and add that as well to sauce. Add chopped garlic and minced fresh basil next. Simmer for an hour. Serve over your favorite pasta, Mangia!