Elaine Cacia inherited a slew of recipes from her mother and mother-in-law.
She also inherited their tradition of entertaining.
Just about every Monday, Cacia and her husband, Joseph, welcome a small crowd of family, friends and other guests to a sit-down meal in her Ventnor home.
"I've been doing it for here for about 20 years," said Cacia, a Philadelphia native who now spends most of her time at the New Jersey Shore. "There are usually 16 or 17 people for dinner - but you never know who is going to show up. I've had the mayor of Philadelphia, who invited himself."
Whoever does come finds no shortage of food at the Cacia house - all of it prepared by the energetic 71-year-old mother of three - a daughter and two sons.
"I have no help, I cook all day Monday," Cacia said. "Some of the meals are things that my mom and mother-in-law made years ago. Others are more modern - I will see something on television, or see something in magazine and say 'This recipe is interesting.'"
The one thing Cacia doesn't spend a lot of time on is dessert - but that's usually not a problem as her husband owns a string of Cacia's bakeries in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey, including one in Hammonton. Her daughter, JeanMarie and her son-in-law, are owners of the Liscio's Italian bakeries chain.
Cacia has been eating with a crowd for her entire life. She was raised in south Philadelphia in a "great big house" owned by her parents, Mary and Domenico Martino. It's a good thing the house was big. In addition to the Martinos, the house also was home to Mary Martino's unmarried brother, two unmarried sisters, a married sister and her two children and her widowed father.
"My grandmother died before I was born. My mom was the oldest child, so she became the head of the house. We were a big family, we all lived together and there was always a lot of cooking going on," Cacia said.
With all that food preparation, it wasn't long before Cacia learned her way around the kitchen.
"The typical Italian things that are considered gourmet now were peasant food back then. Skate - now its a delicacy, we used to eat it all the time. The same with broccoli rabe. We ate them as peasant food," Cacia said. "Polenta - my husband won't eat it today. He ate enough of it as a child to last him a lifetime."
As she got older, Cacia began experimenting with dishes and trying different kind of cuisines. After marrying her husband, she became a stay-at-home mom so she could take care of her children.
It was Joseph Cacia's mother who started the tradition of big Monday night meals.
"When her five kids got married, she wanted the children to come over every week with the grandchildren - so she'd invite everyone for dinner," Cacia said. "When she got older and couldn't do it anymore I started doing it. First in Philadelphia and then here."
The Monday night dinners worked well with Cacia's life at the shore. Many of her friends worked weekends in the casino industry, so Mondays were a time to get together and relax.
She always tries to serve a meat dish and a fish or fowl dish, two or three vegetables and two or three other other dishes.
During 20 years of dinners, there have been good times, fond memories and some things that didn't go quite as planned.
Cacia tries to change up the menu as frequently as possible. She will try new dishes, often serving her creations for the first time on Monday nights.
"I usually make it and hope for the best," she said. One time, she tried to thicken a sauce with corn starch but accidently added powdered sugar instead. Undeterred, she added some broth to cut the sweetness and served it anyway.
"Nobody knew the difference," Cacia said with satisfaction.
One dish she is known for is her Osso Bucca, which her husband loves and guests proclaim as "fall off the bone tender." Other favorites are her hot crab dip and her prosciutto and fig tortillas.
Cacia's guest list is almost as varied as her menu. Children and grandchildren are always invited, as are old friends. But Cacia also has hosted friends from Las Vegas and Florida. Sometimes she's even surprised who shows up.
"People will stop me and say 'I've heard about your dinner parties. What's the chance of getting invited?'" she said.
Once, while attending an event in Philadelphia, she was making small talk with Mayor John F. Street. Cacia mentioned her dinner parties and Street said he'd like to attend one.
"I said 'Come any time.' I didn't really think about it until I got a phone call 'His honor would like to come to dinner,'" Cacia said.
Cacia was in for another surprise when Street showed up with his bodyguards and she learned that he was a vegetarian.
"I did not know he was a vegetarian. I never know the idiosyncrasies of who is coming for dinner," she said.
With enough side dishes and vegetables on the menu, Street got a good meal at the Cacia house.
While Cacia likes to cook the meals herself, she is more than willing to accept help when it comes to cleanup. Her guests are usually happy to pitch in.
"No one leaves until the house is spic and span," she said. "I clean up as I going along when I'm cooking, and if you have six or seven women helping at the end, everything is clean within 20 minutes," she said.
And with two decades of dinners underneath her belt, Cacia is in no mood to stop entertaining. She enjoys the weekly ritual and the times spent with friends over good food.
" I enjoy the cooking. I enjoy the company. When I don't, I will stop," she said.
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