"The rest of the family said I was just a straniero, a foreigner," said Michaud. They said, " 'He'll break your heart and leave.' But Pina really wrapped her arms around me."
Perhaps it was because Carrara, whose father was a butcher, saw straight into Michaud's food-loving soul. His appreciation for history, for the ingredients, for how food brings family together, struck a chord with her.
"The younger generation in Italy isn't as involved in the food," says Michaud. "It all has to do with tradition, passing it down." The complete cook is the Italian version of the perfect husband every American mother hopes her daughter brings home.
"With Jeff, it keeps my tradition alive on another continent," says Carrara, 63.
Michaud seems to have effortlessly absorbed her food philosophy: "Here, we get all fancy, we try to play with the food, try to manipulate it. There, it's just good food. A steak tastes like a steak. A zucchini tastes like a zucchini. When they don't have zucchini, they don't use it."
That spirit imbues Osteria, from the raised planting beds outside to the sage and pancetta-spiked rabbit "casalinga" entree - a dish he learned in his mother-in-law's kitchen.
This Mother's Day, Carrara, who speaks little English, is in Philadelphia for an extended stay, as Claudia is due to deliver their first child this week. Michaud hopes that she'll not only be helping with the new baby, but cooking as a guest chef at Osteria, sharing the spirit of her homeland with his customers.
Michaud longingly recalls the Carrara family home, perched on the verdant side of a slope in the small Lombardy mountain town of Cene, Italy.
Sour cherries, pomegranates, figs, persimmons, prunes, stinging nettles, and apple trees populate the sizable property. Michaud describes walking through the chestnut forest to pick wild asparagus and to seek out porcinis and chanterelles. Claudia's brother hunts wild boar that eventually winds up on the table. Rabbits that her nonna kills on Friday are the highlight of Sunday's family meal. Tiny game birds are caught, cleaned, wrapped in pancetta, cooked with sage and butter, served over polenta, and eaten whole, a regional dish called polenta e osei.
"Everything you need is right there," Michaud says. "Here they call it farm-to-table; there, it's right outside your door."
Her crepes are pan-fried until golden, layered with ricotta, fontina, and spinach, and baked in a tomato and porcini sauce. Risotto or pasta always have vegetables straight from the garden, and polenta is a staple. "Besides coleslaw, I never really had a raw cabbage salad," Michaud says. "She mixes it with lots of vinegar, olive oil, and parsley. She grows cabbage in the garden, and we'd have that for lunch all the time."
"She's also great at braising; she puts it in the oven and forgets. By the time she remembers, it's done," Michaud says with a laugh.
So much has Carrara influenced Michaud that when he organizes his culinary tours through Italy for friends and customers, a day spent at his mother-in-law's is always on the itinerary. They do pay, after all, to see his version of Italy. "Every time I visit, I come back with something new. One time, Claudia's brother made this duck with roasted grapes. I came back and put it on the menu."
On May 23, he's going to turn Osteria's kitchen over to her for a collaborative dinner. "I can't wait. It's going to be me and her in the kitchen, cooking all of her food. It'll be simple. She's nervous, but it'll be great."
On the menu, he hopes, will be some of his personal Giuseppina favorites: ricotta, tuna, and chickpea fritters; zucchini flowers that are stuffed and baked; and cherry peppers stuffed with pureed tuna that are preserved in oil. The dishes are some of the very same that Claudia, who learned to cook from her mother, whips up from time to time, as well.
"Claudia is my biggest critic and biggest fan. I get the 'tsk, tsk, tsk' if I don't make things a certain way. She's very traditional," says Michaud.
"Food is kind of one of those passions that I have, and my wife has, and my mother-in-law has. It's not about the food, it's about bringing family and friends together," Michaud muses. "Food does that. Food, wine, family."
Spring Asparagus With Pancetta and Sage
Makes 4 servings
20 asparagus spears, washed and trimmed
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup medium diced
12 sage leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt. Set up a bowl with ice water, and set aside. Blanch asparagus in boiling water, for 3-4 minutes, then shock in the ice water.
2. Meanwhile, in a saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of butter, pancetta and sage over medium-low heat. Cook slowly until the pancetta is rendered and crispy. Remove pancetta mixture and set aside.
3. Heat the remaining tablespoon of butter in the same pan, over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from pan and set aside.
4. Crack the eggs in the pan and cook sunny side up. Arrange the asparagus on a platter, top with the eggs and pancetta mixture. Serve immediately.
- From Chef Jeff Michaud, Osteria
Per serving: 270 calories, 14 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 232 milligrams cholesterol, 473 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
5 ounces butter, cut into chunks
4 ounces pancetta, cut into ½-inch cubes
1/3 bunch sage, stems
1 sprig rosemary
1 whole rabbit, broken down into 2 to 3 ounce pieces, (ask butcher to break it down)
5 ounces white wine
Salt and black pepper to taste
1. Heat butter, pancetta, sage and rosemary in a heavy-bottomed pan or Dutch oven over high heat. Cook until butter is browned and the pancetta is rendered.
2. Generously season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then add to pan, spreading the pieces out evenly.
3. Cook, without disturbing, for 5 to 7 minutes, until slightly browned. Stir the rabbit, scraping the bottom of the pan, and continue to stir until all sides are nicely browned.
4. Add white wine to pan, scraping up all the brown pieces, which will add a nice dark color to the sauce. Once wine is reduced, add enough water until the rabbit is ¾ covered, reduce heat to low, and cover pan. Allow the rabbit to cook for 45 minutes to 1½ hours until rabbit is very tender.
5. Transfer rabbit to a covered pan and keep warm. Turn flame to high, and cook sauce until reduced to a dark glaze. Return rabbit to sauce, gently toss. (At Osteria, it is served with polenta.)
- From Chef Jeff Michaud, Osteria
Per serving: 600 calories, 35 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 47 grams fat, 107 milligrams cholesterol, 861 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.