Rosaria Iovino has earned her chef's knives.
The Chef at Girasole in Atlantic City says she has loved working in kitchens "da piccolina," which is diminutive for "piccola," an already little girl. Her father was a butcher and by age 7, she had her foot in the door - or at least on a stool - for her first job.
"That's how they do it over there," she said, of growing up in and around her family's business in Napoli, Italy. "I had a little stool (to reach the counter). My dad would tell me, 'You're not ready,' but I wanted to try."
She used that early knowledge of meats and knives to help her cousin-in-law Rosalba - who trained at the Cordon Bleu School in Bari, on the Adriatic Coast - develop the meat-based menu at the family-owned and -operated restaurant. But first, her hardworking ways led her to her new family.
She met her husband of 34 years while riding the bus to work - he was the driver - when she was just 15. She thought he was cute, but she wasn't about to be late for work because she was waiting for his particular bus to come.
So, "He waited for me," she says, gesturing emphatically.
"That's why the buses run late all the time there," grumbles her brother-in-law, Gino Iovino.
But he doesn't mean it. He's glad of his sister-in-law's work ethic, even if it's not the most traditional thing where the Iovino family comes from. But she learned the traditional way how to make the fresh, homemade noodles used in every pasta dish - except spaghetti, which is always dry - at Girasole. That's how she knows just how "calosa" the pasta should be - and when a light, meatless sauce of seasonal vegetables will enhance the delicate flavor of the pasta instead of overpowering it.
"She learned from her mother and grandmother at home and then in her own kitchen. That's how women do in Italy," Gino says of his sister-in-law. "But Italian women stay home. She's always worked, she's a hardworking woman."
Now retired from his transit job, Antonio Iovino is the stay-at-home spouse while Rosaria works with her sisters-in-law, sons, nieces and nephews in the restaurant where 17 out of 24 employees bear the last name Iovino.
"He's mad," Rosaria says of her husband, "because I taught him some simple meals and how to do the laundry. Now he doesn't want to learn any new jobs."
But he's not serious, either. Because in this family, everybody works together, each doing their part. Like his brother Gino, who works in fashion - and chose the rich royal blues and golds that decorate Girasole - but is always happy to lend his palate to taste test any new creations his sisters-in-law come up with.
At Girasole, Rosaria is the head chef, but she still consults with Rosalba, who is home in Italy while she cares for a sick loved one. Rosaria's son Salvatore, 27, works in the family business in Philadelphia while Giovanni, 26, is an assistant manager at Girasole. Maria tends the brick pizza oven while her daughter, Assunta, 29, runs the bar and trains her young cousin Martina, 20, who has worked summers since she was 14. Maria's son Carmine, 25, manages the Atlantic City restaurant and his aunt, Carla, handles all the reservations and seating. Carla's son, Gennaro, 26, is a server and Martina is her daughter.
They say they love working together, and when they're all gathered around the bar chatting before dinner, it certainly seems so. When they sit down to eat what their aunt or mom has prepared, it's usually authentic Italian food - not Italian-American - from the Adriatic and Mediterranean region.
One example is this signature dish - homemade guitar-string pasta, or tagliolini, with fresh tomatoes and basil. The key ingredient is the homemade pasta, which always tastes different than the dry, packaged stuff and using fresh spices. But once you've mastered it, the rest is simple enough anyone can reproduce it - even a retired bus driver.
Contact Felicia Compian:
•3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
•5 large eggs
•1 pinch salt
•7.14 ounces (about 1 cup) semolina
Pour the flour on a wood board and make a well in the middle, leaving some flour on the side. Add eggs and salt in well and beat with a fork. Working from the inside out, slowly combine the flour and eggs until you have a roll of dough. Cover with a bowl and let rest about 10 minutes.
Fold the roll and stretch it out to an oblong shape and let rest another five minutes. Fold it again until nice and smooth. Cut into seven pieces and make each the shape and size of a small panino roll. Flatten each piece with a rolling pin and add semolina and extra flour on both sides.
Set your pasta machine to the thicker level and roll out dough, dusting each piece with flour so it won't stick. The pasta should be about 12 to 15 inches long after processing through the machine. Cut each sheet in half and lay on a clean cloth for five minutes each side, to allow it to dry. Put the pasta through the machine again and then slice thin, so each string is a little thicker than cooked spaghetti.
•2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
•3 cloves garlic, cut in thin quarters
•1 medium onion, chopped
•35 ounces crushed, blanched tomatoes
•2 basil leaves, chopped
•1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
•1 pound fresh tagliolini pasta
•Salt and pepper to taste
•Grated Parmiggiano Reggiano
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and cook onion and garlic until golden. Add tomatoes, then basil, salt and pepper to taste and cook until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to boil and add one tablespoon salt and the tagliolini pasta. Cook, covered, over high heat until "al dente."
Drain pasta and cover with sauce and Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese to taste.