A South Philly native cooks in Italy
I wrote this story while on a teaching assignment in Italy. It was the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News food section on June 29, 2006.
CAGLI, ITALY -- THE TELEPHONE RANG as Donna Galletta was preparing the potato dough.
“Pronto!” she bellowed into the phone while continuing her gnocchi-making demonstration. She gently brushed small spheres of soft dough against a fork, creating parallel grooves – perfect for catching sauce.
Then she launched into Italian for a few minutes and the ten people watching eagerly waited, basking in roasted onion and garlic smell of the stewing sauce. Galletta’s use of the language only added to the atmosphere of the cooking class, set in the comfortable kitchen of her hillside home in the Le Marche region of Italy.
“Sorry,” she said in English after hanging up. “That doesn’t happen on television shows.”
But cooking shows also don’t let you roll your own pasta or eat the fruits of your labor while the green, rolling countryside of the Apennine Mountain range sprawls outside the windows - another special feature of the South Philly native’s culinary classes.
Galletta, 52, grew up near 17th and Porter but has been living in Italy since 1988. She and her Italian husband, Franco Mansi, operate The Atrium, an Italian language and culture institute in the charming medieval town of Cagli. Mansi teaches the language to visitors from around the world and Galletta offers hands-on cooking lessons with recipes ranging from regional specialties like olive ascolane (fried, stuffed olives) to classics like tiramisu.
“I love to cook,” Galletta said with a smile. “I always have.”
Food has been a focus of her family’s life for several generations. Galletta’s great grandmother owned a trattoria and her grandfather had been a butcher in the Abruzzi region of Italy. In the 1920’s, the family immigrated to America - like many Italians who fled their then impoverished homeland - and they brought their traditions with them.
In South Philadelphia, the family opened two bakeries - M&M at Wharton and Warnock and Tally-Ann at 9th and Snyder. Galletta’s mother later opened Galletta’s Galley, a restaurant in Princeton Junction, NJ.
Along the way, Galletta’s mother taught her how to cook in the traditional Italian style. Many of the utensils Galletta now uses in her own kitchen – knives, spatulas, the ricer, etc - were brought to Italy from America by her mother, who now lives in Yardley.
Galletta cooked her way into her husband’s heart while he was a graduate student at Rutgers University and she was studying at nearby Douglass College. They have been married for 30 years now. Their two children, Gabriella, 28, and Antonio, 20, were both born in New Jersey.
When Galletta and her bi-lingual family moved to Italy, she became a chef at a restaurant and pizzeria.
“My life has come full circle,” she laughed. “My grandmother couldn’t wait to get away from Italy and here I am.”
Now Galletta strolls to work every day through the ancient city gate, down narrow cobblestone streets and past the bustling piazza, to the stark, former seminary where The Atrium (www.istitutoatrium.com) is located. She knows practically everyone in the small city of 10,000 people and she regularly stops to chat on the way to the school.
She handles the business side of the institute and she freelances as a translator for companies throughout Italy. In the evenings, she shares her passion for food with visiting students.
“You’re my Italian mom,” Elise Berry, 21, a college student from Knoxville, Tennessee, told Galletta.
As Galletta and her students shaped the small potato dough sacks, Berry gently placed the pasta into a large pot of boiling water.
“You drop them in, they sink to the bottom and when they pop to the top, they’re done,” said Berry, who was attending her second cooking class of the week - both of which featured gnocchi.
When the pasta was ready, the students sat down at the long, wooden dining table and started passing plates around. Salad, wine and fresh, unsalted bread (a regional tradition) circulated around the table.
“As long as you keep holding up plates, I’ll keep filling them,” Galletta told the ravenous group.
“I want you to be my Italian mom, too,” Carolyn Kennington, 20, of Tom’s River, NJ responded.
Galletta’s husband ambled into the kitchen in time to get a few scoops of gnocchi - lightly draped in the red meat sauce, and then a cup of homemade lemon cream with fresh fruit for dessert.
“You lucked out – gnocchi twice in one week,” Galletta said to her husband.
“We should eat like this every day,” he joked.