Joe Pettinati has enjoyed cooking as long as he can remember. Pettinati, an assistant vice president at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment who lives in Fairless Hills, learned his love of food from his parents. (His father was an excellent baker.)
He and his wife, Helen, belong to a 20-year-old gourmet club, a group of five couples who make elaborate dinners together at one another's homes.
Pettinati is famous for his pies. "Particularly around the holidays, I bake everything," he said.
His latest interest is cake decorating, which he pursues with enough gadgets to fill a fishing tackle box he bought just for that purpose. "I like to use tools that make my life easier," he said.
"This summer, we must have had 3,000 cherries on our cherry tree," he added. "I wasn't going to waste the opportunity, so I decided to make pies."
Enter one of his favorite tools: a cherry pitter.
"It works great, and it's very easy to use," he said. "Stick the cherry in the cradle, squeeze the handle, and you're good to go."
About 10 years ago, Pettinati discovered another must-have: a marble rolling pin. "The weight does the work for you," he said. "And my crust comes out thinner than if I use a wooden rolling pin."
Also for piecrusts, he loves his set of three flat plastic measuring rings, which allow him to roll dough just the right size to make a 9-, 10- or 11-inch pie.
"Since I make my own ravioli, the other gadget I couldn't do without is a PastaFacile, an electric motor that plugs into the hand crank of my pasta roller," he said. "Using that, I can make 75 ravioli in two hours."
Andrew Richman cooks four or five nights a week in his University City apartment for his girlfriend, Sara Archambault, with the couple's Neapolitan mastiff, Emma, at hand hoping for a morsel.
Richman, who coordinates advertising for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp., learned to cook when he was in high school. "My mom worked, so I'd cook by trial and error," he said.
These days, Richman frequents the Clark Park Farmers Market at 43d Street and Baltimore Avenue, buying fresh ingredients to create healthful, seasonal dishes. "We eat a lot of vegetables, fish and seafood," he said.
His essential tools include a Henckels chef's knife, a Cuisinart Mini-Prep food processor, and an 8-inch enameled cast-iron Le Creuset skillet.
"The food processor is just the right size to prepare dinner for two," Richman said. "It's easy to clean up. And I love the way Le Creuset distributes heat. Its nonstick surface is also easy to wash."
On the high end, Richman adores his $500, taxicab-yellow Italian Francis Francis! espresso maker. "Every morning, we have cappuccino and lattes," he said. "It's the best."
Graphic designer David Hodges likes to cook so much that he started a side business making croutons - which he kiddingly calls olive oil delivery devices - under the label Palazzo Foods. Hodges, whose company is based in Collingswood, started cooking when he got his first apartment after college.
Since he's often home before his wife, Donna, Hodges usually makes dinner, with a heavy emphasis on grilled fish and vegetables.
"One of my favorite gadgets is a wire, flat-bottomed sieve basket, which I fill up with vegetables and put right on the grill," he said. "I don't think that's what it was intended for, but it works really well."
Hodges also loves his nonstick grill pan, which sears perfect grill marks on salmon, eggplant and the like. "I usually sear the salmon, skin-side down, in the grill pan, then transfer it to a saute pan to poach it in wine and lemon juice," he said.
Thilo Marg Bracken, a Hamburg native who lives in Belmont Hills, saw his grandfather do most of the cooking at home in Germany. "That was uncommon in those days," said Marg Bracken, a senior technology manager for the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp. "That made a big impression on me. He was also an excellent baker. From him, I picked up the basics."
After finishing high school, Marg Bracken spent a year on a sailing ship, where one of his duties was cooking and baking for a crew of 12. Later, he lived in Venice for 18 months, an experience that made him forever enamored of the Italian table. "I never looked back," he said. "That changed my whole culinary life."
Marg Bracken likes to cook for his wife, Heather, and their daughter, Ariadne, and to entertain friends. "When I'm home in time, I make dinner. Heather and I collaborate."
He tends not to follow recipes, but has the basics in his head and improvises from there. "The tools I use most are simple and replaceable," he said. "One is a $10 Chinese cleaver that I got at an Asian supermarket on Washington Avenue. And the other is a non-stainless-steel, flat-bottomed wok pan that I bought years ago very cheap in Germany. I'm using it for 20 years now."
Jon Bilhuber of Haverford is another guy who honed his cooking skills afloat, in this case on his sailboat, Brazen. A lover of flavors bold and big, Bilhuber always has a pepper grinder close at hand.
He also uses a handheld wooden lemon squeezer to juice lemons, a key ingredient in the marinades he uses to flavor meat and chicken.
Ward Smith enjoys cooking for his wife, Elizabeth, and whipping up gourmet feasts for friends in the couple's Center City apartment.
"Basically I like good food, but for most of my life I couldn't afford to go to restaurants," said Smith, a lawyer. "I started reading cookbooks and cooking from recipes while I was in college. Back then, I'd go out to a restaurant once or twice a year and then calibrate, against that experience, how my cooking was progressing."
Smith, who cooks at home three or four nights a week, calls his Wusthof knives indispensable. His plastic laminated cutting board is another must-have.
Then there are the 20 small glass bowls he picked up for about $1 each at Fante's Kitchen Wares Shop in the Italian Market. "They hold maybe a half cup apiece, which is perfect since I cook for two most of the time," he said. "As I finish cutting each ingredient, I can put it into the bowls, set them aside, and maintain a sense of order and calmness in the kitchen."
Paul Macks, a member of Joe Pettinati's gourmet club and executive director of the Kardon Institute for Arts Therapy, definitely did not learn to cook from his mother.
"My mother was a terrible cook - she's dead, so she won't be offended," he said. "My wife, Barbara, really taught me to cook."
He tends to make Italian, Mexican and Asian dishes, and prizes his one-piece stainless-steel Global knives.
"I dropped enough hints and finally one Father's Day, I got a set of three," he said. "I love them." His Calphalon pots, which he religiously cleans with Bon Ami, are equally cherished.
Fancy knives aren't part of Josef McGregory's recipe for success. McGregory, program director for the Educational Development Institute, swears by two knives he bought at a dollar store. "I keep them really sharp, and they do the job," he said.
McGregory, who likes to cook for friends and his motorcycle buddies (he's known in some circles as Phat Daddy), also stands behind his old set of cast-iron skillets and a wok-type pan he uses to cook just about everything. His stainless-steel nesting bowls complete his culinary tool set.
Freelance writer Colin Keefe held restaurant jobs while in high school and college, and still cooks for his girlfriend, Holly Drauglis, four or five nights a week. He uses an immersion blender - which he calls a food processor on a stick - for everything from vinaigrettes and emulsions to sauces and marinades.
"Since I'm usually cooking for two to four people, it makes more sense to use a mixing bowl and the hand blender instead of the big food processor," he said. For grilling, he's thankful for his long-handled metal tongs, which work best for turning meats, fish and veggies.
Mariella Esposito, who owns Fante's cookware store, says that when it comes to cooking gadgets, her male customers are the best consumers.
"I've definitely seen a change in the past five or six years, as more men are cooking and come in to buy," she said. Mandoline slicers are a popular item, and the more attachments and cutting edges, the better.
"Whatever the guys come in to buy, they want the best," she said. "Women look more for aesthetics. But the men want top of the line."
Contact freelance writer Beth D'Addono at firstname.lastname@example.org.