What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"I wasn’t looking to get into TV. My family was in the movie business, so I was never interested in that world. I had been helping my friend who was a food stylist and, well, I really basically got my break from Food & Wine. I was styling for one of F&W’s Thanksgiving shoots, and someone at the magazine asked to do a story on my family and their food-lunch with the De Laurentiis family. Well, an executive at the Food Network found the article and read the recipes, and called me up saying he was looking to do an Italian cooking show and asked if I had experience. He said he had seen my recipes and seen me but didn’t know how I’d be on camera, so he asked me to put together a demo. Nine months later I did it, and Everyday Italian was born—purely accidentally. I really thought I’d become a food stylist and then went in a completely different direction. The first year it aired was 2003."
What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"Most of my cookbooks really relate to the show, and I think the best recipes hinge on their simplicity and the fact that they look pretty and taste good. My goal is to make Italian food clean and accessible and beautiful and tasty, with simple ingredients that people can find at a local grocery store, because people don’t want to go to a gourmet shop in search of items that will sit in their pantry for years after they use just a teaspoon or pinch of them."
Any specific recipes that have been really successful?
"I made lemon spaghetti in an early season of Everyday Italian, and to this day people still come up to me and say they love it. It’s very, very simple. Basically, you cook the pasta and mix together Parmesan cheese, olive oil, lemon juice and zest and pour it over the pasta. The nice thing about this dish is its versatility: You can top it with chicken or serve it alongside a roast; you can serve it hot or cold. That’s why it has become so popular. The trick with this recipe is to use pasta water to create the sauce-you’ll get a much more flavorful sauce. Swordfish spiedini is another great one. I love these kebabs; I like to grill them using rosemary sticks, and I do it with diced lemons. You just cut the swordfish into one- to one-and-a-half-inch pieces and then put lemons between them on the skewers-that will caramelize the lemons while also flavoring the fish, and the rosemary sticks will also infuse it with flavor."
What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"In my opinion, Everyday Italian is different from all the other shows the Food Network was doing at the time, because those other shows were all shot in a studio. Nothing was really shot on location, and all of them were in New York City. One of my main concerns about agreeing to do the show was having to leave Los Angeles, where my husband and family are. I thought it was going to be hard enough for me to be on TV, and if I didn’t have the support of my family, then I didn’t think I could do it. Plus, I don’t have the personality to do a studio show. So the Food Network said, ’OK, we’ve never done this before, but let’s try it,’ and they rented a house to shoot in. So we weren’t in my own home, but it was close by, and it gave the show a warm, homey feeling, and I could bring my family and friends in and do fun entertaining on the show. My show goes beyond the food and incorporates Italian culture and lifestyle, and you don’t get just tips and recipes, you also get my family stories and stories about my culture and the lifestyle where I come from. I try to have a lot of fun with what I do and smile and laugh as much as I can-that’s what gives warmth to the show, and it shows people how much fun it can be in the kitchen. I think you can tell the food is close to my heart, too, because I’m doing what I do best."
What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"The one big thing that sticks in my head most was when, for the first time ever, I did a live morning show. It was the Today show. I’d never done it before, so I already had butterflies in my stomach. It was only a five-minute segment, which they whittled down to three minutes, and there was a food stylist who prepped for me. I was making chicken with spinach and pesto. The host came out and did the demo with me, and he went to taste it, and for some reason they didn’t put a knife out for us, so he used a fork to cut it. He put it in his mouth, and it was completely raw—the food stylist had just seared it. He went in the back, and the camera followed, and he spit it out. I wanted to crawl into the back and cry. He said to me, ’The pesto is really good, but I think you’re trying to poison me with raw chicken.’ I was so humiliated. Five million people watch that show, so they got a lot of e-mails. People don’t realize there are food stylists there, so they probably thought I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And I was so green that I had no on-air comeback. I just stood there. That ended up on the blooper reel for the following year."