Sometimes, a great family recipe can skip a generation.
That's the case with Jim De Francesco's favorite lasagna.
De Francesco, of Ship Bottom, grew up in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, the son of an Italian father and a mid-western mother who meant well, but was really never at home in the kitchen. De Francesco remembers his mother, Helen, primarily serving up frozen food and other easy-to-prepare meals.
"When I was growing up, mom would make generic house-brand pasta, which was fine, but my dad always wished we could have something a little more original and folkloric than stuff from cans and jars," De Francesco recalled. His father particularly loved his family's special lasagna recipe. Helen De Francesco tried to make it, but her skills never were able to do the meal justice.
But De Francesco's culinary luck changed early in his life, thanks to some friends looking to play a practical joke.
De Francesco, who owns Hogpenny Studios on Long Beach Island, had settled on his career path in electronic media early on in life. He'd gone into television and radio broadcasting immediately after graduating high school in 1960 - first working at what is now WPHL-TV 17 when it was broadcasting Evangelical Christ-ian programming as WPCA-TV and later working as a radio DJ.
He was working as a DJ on Memorial Day in 1962 when a friend set him up on a blind date with a girl who was a dancer on "American Band-stand."
"She'd go down to the Channel 6 studios every day after school, roll up her skirt and jitterbug on TV. A friend thought it would be an immense prank to get Jim and Ellie together. Well, 50 years later, it's been a great roller coaster ride," De Francesco said.
The couple married in 1964. Ellie De Francesco not was only a good dancer, she was also a great Italian cook. Her father owned a butcher shop in Philadelphia's Italian market and she grew up learning to be comfortable and experiment in the kitchen.
"I was shocked that food could be that good," De Francesco said. "It didn't take long for me to realize there was a world of difference between house-brand supermarket cuisine and the European type that Ellie can replicate in a heartbeat."
It wasn't long before Ellie De Francesco learned about her husband's family lasagna recipe. Soon she was serving the Lasagna Abruzzese Romantico the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
"She said she'd never seen a richer lasagna," De Francesco said. But Ellie De Francesco made the lasagna even richer, tweaking the recipe by adding "a lot more cheese, a lot of fresh basil and parsley," her husband said.
"She used two full pounds of ricotta," he said.
The improvements got the DeFrancesco seal of approval when Jim and Ellie shared the meal with his father, who proclaimed it as good as the lasagna he'd grown up on.
The couple moved to Long Beach Island in 1975 after making a weekend visit and falling in love with the place.
It was there they raised their two children, Danielle and James, and started their production company, which gets its name from a coin used in Bermuda, another place the couple visited and fell in love with.
DeFrancesco is now 68. His wife is 70. The couple still serve the lasagna, particularly when they are entertaining or on special occasions.
"Served with a hearty red Italian wine, a salad and a loaf of bread, Lasagna Abruzzese Romantico makes a simple and filling meal," De Francesco said.
Ellie De Francesco also continues to make incredible Italian meals, but also tremendous desserts. The couple also enjoy "really good steaks and ribs" prepared on their in-ground outdoor grill.
The couple's two children are now living on their own, but the DeFrancescos continue to make meal times special. She currently spends three days per week in Philadelphia, caring for her elderly mother, but when she is in Ship Bottom, the couple makes sure to enjoy their meals together.
She comes in Thursday through Monday and dinner is still kind of a big deal," De Francesco said. "We do candles and tablecloths and we toast each other with a nice pinot grigio. I will toast 'To us and another 50' and all that corny stuff. But, after doing 50 years together, I'll tell you, there's nothing corny about toasting to another 50."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Lasagna Abruzzese Romantico
A very special family recipe for Lasagna, direct from the mountains of Abruzzi, Italy
•2 pounds lean ground beef
•1 large onion, minced
•2 garlic cloves, minced
•1 cup extra virgin olive oil
•4 29-ounce cans stewed tomatoes
•2 6-ounce cans fine
•2 teaspoons sugar
•1 teaspoon salt
•2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
•2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
•1/4 cup Romano cheese
•4 eggs, beaten
•2 pounds ricotta cheese
•1 pound mozzarella cheese
•1/2 pound cottage cheese
•1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
•1 teaspoon parsley flakes
•1 teaspoon salt
•Pinch of pepper
•Pinch of nutmeg
•1 teaspoon oregano
•2 pounds lasagna noodles
•10 quarts water
•4 tablespoons salt
•1 pound mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
•2 teaspoons light
Brown meat and drain off fat. Heat, but don't brown, onion. Stir in remaining sauce ingredients. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
Bring 10 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add lasagna noodles, making enough to cover two 11- by 13-inch baking pans three to four layers deep.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease inside of baking pans with vegetable oil. Line each pan with overlapping layers of noodles to cover the bottom. Spread 1/4 cup of the ricotta mixture on noodles. Sprinkle with a handful of mozzarella cheese. Top with 1/2 cup of sauce. Repeat process twice more, making a total of three layers. Bake covered for 35 to 40 minutes or until bubbly and hot.
Remove foil and continue baking for 10 more minutes. Cool for 5 t0 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with a hearty Italian wine.
Serves: 8 to 12