Cooking started out as a hobby for Bill Vittorini. But it's now a daily job for the 55-year-old Upper Township man, after it became apparent his schedule made him the best candidate for getting family meals on the table every evening.
"With three kids, you can't be starting dinner at 6:30 in the evening," Vittorini said. While his wife, Beverly, "is a great cook, it just doesn't work with her schedule" as manager of Grace Realty office in Ocean City.
Vittorini, on the other hand, works as the frozen-foods manager at the ShopRite store in the Marmora section of Upper Township. On a typical day, he's working at 5 a.m. and home in time to greet Nicho-las, 18, Joe, 16, and Maggie, 9, when they are done with school and work.
And then he gets started with dinner. The family seems happy with the arrangement, Vittorini said.
"My name isn't Dad. It's, 'Yo, what is for dinner?'" he said. "I'm not fancy or anything, I'm just your typical cooking dad, but I could make 30 or 40 things off the top of my head without opening a recipe book."
Beverly Vittorini appreciates the arrangement.
"He is a good cook. If it was not for him, we probably wouldn't eat," she said, referring to her work schedule.
Many of the meals Vittorini prepares are based on recipes he learned from his mother, Margaret.
While Vittorini wasn't all that interested in learning his way around the kitchen while growing up in Bridgeton, he did get interested after moving out on his own.
Cooking became more of a hobby during his first marriage, and Margaret Vittorini was there to give her son advice and recipes.
"She is Czech, but she learned to cook Italian because that is what my father liked," Vittorini re-called. "Over the years, she gave me a lot of different pointers."
Things got a bit more serious when Vittorini got divorced and shared joint custody of Nicholas, who was 4 at the time. For the next six years, Vittorini polished his cooking skills, taking his mother's recipes and adding his own touches to them.
Like many dads, Vittorini enjoys grilling. He says he also tends to have separate summer and winter menus, depending on the produce and meats available at his supermarket.
"Working around the ShopRite makes it easy. I'm friends with all the meat cutters. I know what's on sale, so I can get the most economy-wise," he said.
One dish on his summer menu is a creamed cucumber dish he learned from his mom.
"It is more of a Slovak dish," Vittorini said of the recipe's origins. "It's a great side summer dish. If you are making burgers on the grill, it's easy to do - and you don't have to run the stove to do it."
Another attraction of the recipe is it features produce easily grown in local gardens, he said.
Vittorini said he tries to make whatever he cooks as heart-healthy as possible.
"I don't use any salt in any of my recipes, or butter," he said. "I have a cholesterol problem so I try not to add to it if I don't have to."
He also tries to keep things simple, in both preparation and cleanup.
"I'm always pressed for time, and I'm usually tired at the end of the day, so I try to plan a tentative menu for the rest of the week. Usually it's stuff that is easy, quick, and I try to do stuff that doesn't require a lot of cleanup," he said. "I've been doing this for so long, I can do a lot with a little."
And, while Vittorini might have gotten his recipes from his mother, she is appreciative of what he cooks and the twists he puts on her old meals.
"Oh, she likes whatever I make. My in-laws also like whatever I make. If I call them and ask if they want to come to dinner, they are here," he said.
Vittorini enjoys his kitchen chores, but he doesn't feel chained to the stove. His wife will cook if need be or the family will explore other options.
"Some days, I get wiped out from work and I don't feel like hassling, so I'll pick up the phone and order a pizza," he said. "But when I'm on vacation, I'll cook. It's relaxing to me."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
• 1 zucchini, quartered
• 1/2 onion, sliced thin
• 1 bell pepper, cut into strips
• 2 long hot peppers (optional)
• 1/2 teaspoon garlic
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 12-ounce can of stewed tomatoes
(or fresh tomatoes, diced)
• 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Saute garlic, onions, peppers and zucchini in olive oil for about 15 minutes, or until desired tenderness. You may have to add water. When desired tenderness is reached, add stewed tomatoes and parmesan cheese or your favorite pasta sauce. Simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes. Serve over rice or pasta.
• 1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
• 1/4 onion, sliced thin
• 3 to 4 tablespoons white vinegar
• 2 cups water
• 4 tablespoons regular sour cream (not light or fat-free)
• Salt and pepper, to taste
Soak ingredients in a small dish with water and white vinegar for about 30 minutes. Drain cucumbers and squeeze excess water with hands. Add sour cream. Mix together; add salt and pepper.