, Newburyport, MA

March 6, 2013

Pasta, with a side of memories

For Port mom, dinner is the most important meal of the day

By Katie Lovett
Features Editor

---- — On the window sill in her Newburyport kitchen, Pam Federico keeps a small frame holding photos of her grandmothers.

As Federico prepares and cooks her favorite Italian dishes, she often has conversations with her beloved Nana and Nonie, continuing a ritual that started years ago in another kitchen. While Federico’s grandmothers both passed away more than a decade ago, they left Federico with some impressive culinary skills, pride in her heritage, countless memories of cooking lessons, and a book full of carefully transcribed recipes.

“I was really fortunate to have them for so long,” said Federico, 49. Each woman lived into her early 90s.

When Federico grew up in Stoneham, it was common for families to hold a big family dinner on Sundays, she said, and her Italian household was no different. Each week, Federico’s two grandmothers would arrive at the doorstep ready to attend church with her family, and then return to begin making the meal.

“I would sit in the kitchen and watch her cook, and we’d talk,” Federico said. Over a table full of ingredients and pans, her grandmothers would share stories of their childhoods growing up in Italy along with tips and advice on preparing chicken cutlets, pasta, meatballs and sauce, and other classic dishes.

“We just learned by watching them and talking,” she said. “Everything starts with olive oil and garlic.”

By age 9, Federico was helping to prepare chicken cutlets by rolling the pieces in egg and breadcrumbs. It’s a dish her own four teenage sons enjoy today, she said.

It wasn’t until she arrived at Westfield State College that she realized that macaroni-and-cheese can be purchased in a box, or that there was this food called ramen noodles, Federico said with a laugh.

Today Federico easily and quickly prepares family dinners; but she will always keep her well-worn first cookbook nearby — it holds stacks of carefully laminated recipes penned by her grandmothers. Frequently, in the early years after Federico married her husband, Rick, 25 years ago, she would pull a pile of mail from her mailbox and find envelopes from Nana or Nonie containing handwritten notes accompanied by a recipe card.

A a new bride, Federico also got some tips on how to create the dishes her husband loves, such as veal limone and stuffed quahogs.

“When I got married, my mother-in-law taught me how to make a few of his favorite things,” she said.

These days, as Federico divides her schedule between work as a part-time special education teacher and seeing students through her private tutoring business in Newburyport, her husband shares much of the cooking duties. Her sons, 20, 17, and 14-year-old twins, all cook as well, she added.

On summer afternoons, groups of teenage boys can be found in the Federicos backyard using the pool and eating food cooked on the grill. With four teenage sons, Federico is used to making lots of food on a family budget. She searches for sales and stocks up when she finds them, she said. Shelves full of items like cans of sauce, coffee, pasta, and olive oil, can be found in her basement.

“Buy in bulk,” she said.

When she cooks, she will make large trays of food, she added, and then freeze the extra portions to use later. Marinara sauce, pasta, salad and bread will feed large groups of people, she added.

“We’re very fortunate living here, to have farmers’ market, and (specialty food stores), but we’re also fortunate to have both Market Basket and Shaw’s,” she said.

As her sons grow older and Federico watches time fly, she hopes to pass along some of her treasured childhood memories onto her boys. Each Sunday, Federico follows in her mother and grandmothers’ footsteps, and heads into the kitchen to prepare homemade meatballs and sausage with sauce.

“I want them to remember some of that,” she said.

Federico and her husband make it a priority to spend time with their sons, and work to ensure that one parent is always at home. As a young mother, she rejected well-intentioned advice from an older neighbor who urged her to find a regular Saturday night baby sitter so the couple could get out on weekends.

“I don’t regret that; it goes by so fast,” she said. “We really wanted to make sure that we were around to enjoy them.”

Most weekends the Federicos can be found right at their kitchen table, sitting down for the usual Saturday dinner with their sons: steak tips.

“We make an effort to sit down and eat as a family as often as we can,” she said.


We’re looking to share the recipes and secrets of amateur cooks who have a knack in the kitchen and consistently amaze their family and friends with their culinary skills. If you know a great cook or are one yourself, email Katie Lovett at

Broccoli Rabe-Rapini

2 heads of broccoli rabe (rinsed and chopped)

2 cloves fresh chopped garlic

1/4 C olive oil

Saute all ingredients in a frying pan until soft and tender.

Add salt and pepper (regular or hot) to taste.

This is great as a side dish, with crusty Italian bread, or served over pasta.

One Dish Italian Sausage Dinner

2 lbs of potatoes (any kind), chopped into chunks

3 lbs of Italian sausage (hot or mild or a combo of both) cut into pieces a little bit bigger than the potatoes

1 large chopped yellow onion

4 peppers (any color) chopped

1/4 C olive oil

Combine all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes or until sausage and potatoes are thoroughly cooked.

Quick Fettuccine

1 medium chopped onion

1 stick butter

2 C light cream

1 C grated cheese (Romano or Parmesan)

1 lb. pasta (fettuccine or a kind you prefer)

In a skillet, saute onion in butter.

Add cream and cheese and stir until thickened.

Serve over pasta. Add cooked shrimp, broccoli or chicken if you like.

Caesar Salad Dressing

To make the dressing, mix the first five ingredients in a blender or a food processor:

1/2 C olive oil

1/2 ounce anchovy paste (at Market Basket)

1 clove fresh chopped garlic

Juice from 1/2 lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

1 head romaine lettuce

1 package Caesar croutons

1 C grated cheese (Romano or Parmesan)

Mix dressing and cheese over a head of torn Romaine lettuce. Add in croutons.