Happy St. Joseph’s Day

first appeared on Ciao Pittsburgh on 3/18/2014

zeppole4Buona Festa di San Giuseppe, Happy Feast of St. Joseph.

St. Joseph’s day is celebrated on March 19th. It is a Catholic feast day commemorating the life of St. Joseph. He is the Patron Saint of several regions in Italy and therefore is the protector of many Italian and Italian-American people.

In the Italian –American community that I grew up in, this was an important feast day. When families gathered together to celebrate this holiday, you were honoring the saint that watched over you, your family and many times the birth land of your relatives. It was a day when you were particularly prideful about your Italian heritage.

In many families as an homage to the Catholic Church, children were often named after Roman Catholic Saints. In many Italian families, so the story was passed down through my family, a child was always named after St. Joseph.

Growing up, we were always mindful of the importance of March 19th. We were taught not only to understand the religious significance of the holiday, but the broader meaning of this day as well. For many of us in the Italian-American community, the pride we felt about hearing stories about our relatives coming over from Italy and finding a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, this was a day of reflection on such accomplishments.

For us, a typical St Joseph’s day was a simple celebration, you went and visited relatives who were named after this saint, and wished them “Happy Name Day”. You wore red colored clothing and ate Italian food for dinner. After dinner you would have an Italian pastry called a Zeppole for dessert.

Every family had their own twist to this holiday, but this is how we did ours. It is a pretty sublime celebration. The holiday seemed to revolve around the food and the symbolism of the feast day.

We were lucky because we had a relative named after this saint in our immediate family. My grandmother’s name was Josephine, her Italian name was Giuseppina but everyone called her Josephine or Jo.

We would make the pilgrimage to Nana’s house every March 19th to wish her a “Happy St. Joseph’s day and Happy Name Day”.

There was always so many people coming over and wishing her well on her special day. Everyone always had some piece of red clothing on. Nana always wore her special red scarf for this day, it was only brought out on this special occasion.

zeppole2We would all gather for at her house and have dinner. I will always remember the vast amounts of Zeppole’s that people brought. Every time someone came over, each one came in with a new box of Zeppole from the bakery. That was the fun part because each bakery had a slight variation on this dessert.

I realized that when I speak about Zeppole, there are many different variations of this treat. I am talking about the classic Neapolitan version of this dessert.

What is a Zeppole? Zeppole (pronounced ZAY-poe-la) is a St. Joseph’s Day Cream Puff. The shells are pastry dough, like that of a cream puff. They can be baked or fried then filled with cream. The filling can be traditional custard or a cannoli like (ricotta) filling. It is garnished with a sweetened cherry and dusted with powdered sugar.

A traditional Zeppole is piped through a pastry bag so it has the disincentive ridges in it. The shape of the Zeppole is important. It is round and fashioned after a carpenter’s tool because St. Joseph was a carpenter. This is how you can distinguish it from other desserts.

They taste just like cross between creampuff and an éclair, but so much better. Honestly, words are just not able to describe this luscious treat. Weather you eat them baked or fried, with a cooked cream or ricotta filling, they are just a heavenly treat.

Perhaps due to the fact they only come out once a year, and when they are gone you have to wait until next year. Maybe that is what makes them so delicious. I am not sure, but I highly recommend that you try them if you can.

So on every March 19th, this is what I do. I whip up a batch of Zeppole, make a delicious Italian meal and wear red. We all gather around the table, have a big family dinner and have a Zeppole in Grandma Jo’s honor.

I have learned through the years how to make these tasty treats and I wanted to share my recipe. The recipe is for the basic Zeppole shell is a simple one. I fill it with chilled vanilla pudding mixed with whipped cream. You could also fill it with a cannoli style filling or a cooked cream.

A Zeppole is a perfect ending a St. Joseph’s day meal. Remember you don’t need to be Italian to celebrate this this holiday or make this dessert. Like Grandma Jo used to tell everyone, “we are all Italian on St. Joseph’s day, now come and eat a Zeppole”.

Try a Zeppole if you have never had one, you might just like it.

Buona Festa di San Giuseppe to all.

Mangia Bene,



Cream Puffs

From the Betty Crocker Cookbook

1 cup water

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1 cup Gold Medal® all-purpose flour

4 eggs

Heat oven to 400ºF. In 2 1/2-quart saucepan, heat water and butter to rolling boil. Stir in flour; reduce heat to low. Stir vigorously over low heat about 1 minute or until mixture forms a ball; remove from heat. Beat in eggs, all at once; continue beating until smooth.

On ungreased cookie sheet, drop dough by slightly less than 1/4 cupful’s about 3 inches apart. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until puffed and golden. Cool away from draft, about 30 minutes.

I don’t pipe the dough through the pastry bag, if you have one you can use it to get the perfectly round and ridged shape like they do at the bakeries.

To make the Zeppole: Cut the shells in half, scoop out any soggy dough. Spoon in the filling, garnish with a maraschino cherry and dust it with powdered sugar.

Nicky D Cooks is the owner and operator of Nicky D Cooks Authentic Handcrafted Italian Biscotti and Pizzelle.

Follow her on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/nickydcooks

Her website can be found at http://www.nickydcooks.com.   

Also, check out her Facebook page @ http://www.facebook.com/nicky.d.cooks for more information and great recipes.

Replicate Your Favorite Pittsburgh Restaurant Dishes at Home

first appeared on ciao pittsburgh (2/21/2014)

I admit it, I love to collect cookbooks. I buy them and I read them like I would any other book that I own. I have been doing it for many years now and have quite an eclectic collection of books.

I am always looking to expand my cookbook repertoire. I was very excited when I saw that the Pittsburgh Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from the Steel City, was finally published.  It is the second book written by the bloggers from eatPGH. This book is magnificent! The pages are filled with incredible recipes and mouth-watering pictures from some of the best chefs and restaurants in the city.

The book is more than just a cookbook, it is a culinary map of the city. It showcases the epicurean diversity that has always made Pittsburgh a great city to eat in.

The chef’s stories are witty and engaging. They provide an insider’s perspectives into some of the best eateries in and around the city. What stands out is the assortment of the chefs and stories that are in it. The spectrum runs from top tier eating establishments to bakeries, pubs and gastro pubs, cafes, deli’s and food trucks.

The recipes that the chefs have shared range from the simple to the sublime. Many of the recipes can easily be duplicated by a home cook. There are a vast array of them so readers have a variety to choose from.

Showcasing the gastronomic potpourri in the city is a definitely a theme in this book and it is evident in the recipes that are presented. There are the familiar recipes for foods like Beans and Greens, Macaroni and Cheese, Post Roast and Mashed Potatoes and Tomato-Fennel Soup and Chocolate Bread Pudding. If you want something more challenging there are recipes for Pâté De Champagne, Roasted Butternut Squash Chocolate Ravioli with Lobster Basil Cream Sauce and Duck Cannoli with White Chocolate Cardamom Beurre Blanc, Candied Orange Peel & Pistachio Dust. 

There are appetizers, main course, desserts and cocktails recipes to choose from. This book covers it all.

The women of eatPGH have created something special with this book. It is an amazing cookbook and coffee table book; it a visual depiction of the diverse food scene happening in Pittsburgh. The food culture is changing in the Steel City, it is morphing and ever expanding. Many of these new chefs are putting Pittsburgh on the map and are making a name for themselves in the culinary community.

Yes, Pittsburgh will always have their traditional foods: Pierogies, Primanti Brother Sandwiches, Iron City Beer and Chip Chopped Ham.  These are the foods that helped define the city and the people in it. However, Pittsburgh is just so great that you can have these staples and at the same time have a blossoming food scene. It is a great time to be a foodie in the Steel City.

In the book, I was instantly drawn to the Pittsburgh classic Italian American dish, Beans and Greens.  Growing up we only made a dish like this but we called it Escarole and Beans. We only used escarole- no other greens in our dish and small white beans. Also our dish was a soup, or soup like and served as a soup course. When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, it was then I discovered my beloved Escarole and Beans had a new name: Beans and Greens.

I discovered that this dish was it not a soup and it was served as a side or as a meal. It has a variety of greens in it and that cannellini bean were used in it. What I loved most about the people in Pittsburgh, they were bold and took my beloved childhood dish to another level of deliciousness- sometimes cured Italian meats or Italian sausages were added. After my first bit of this dish, I became hooked.

It is a quintessential Italian peasant dish; simple, minimal ingredients cooked together that will give you a delicious flavorful meal.

I do adore this classic dish and I will go out of my way to get a good plate of it. Pittsburgh has so many iconic foods, but to me Beans and Greens is one of the best foods that this city has to offer.

I make my own version of Beans and Greens, but I decided to make it Pittsburgh style.

I used a combination of fresh baby greens (kale, spinach, chard) and escarole, the blend of these really makes the dish flavorful. I like the small white beans, but cannellini beans may be substituted. I small amount of stock is required, but if you want to make this soupier add more stock. If you have some cooked Italian Sausage, throw it in because everything taste better with sausage.

This is a very forgiving recipe, so have fun with it. It is a quick meal that is perfect to make anytime.

I hope that you enjoy it.

Mangia Bene,


 Nicky D Cooks Pittsburgh Style Beans and Greens

4-6 cups of fresh greens

2-3 Tbsp. olive oil (2 times around the pan)

3 Cloves garlic (1 minced and 2 whole)

1 14 oz. can organic white beans, drained and rinsed

¼ cup chicken stock

Salt & Freshly ground black pepper

Crushed Red pepper (optional)

Freshly grated Italian Cheese

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium low heat. Add the whole garlic until the garlic becomes golden brown- remove and discard the garlic.

Add the greens and stir to coat with the oil. Add the minced garlic and the red pepper flakes, sauté for a minute or two. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the greens begins to cook down. Now add the beans and cook for a few minutes until beans have absorbed some of the oil.

b&g1Add the stock, season with salt and pepper and cook until the beans are heated. Garnish with the grated cheese.

To Serve:

Garnish with more grated cheese and red pepper. Serve with a slice of good crusty Italian bread to make it a complete meal.

Nicky D Cooks is the owner and operator of Nicky D Cooks Authentic Handcrafted Italian Biscotti and Pizzelle.

Follow her on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/nickydcooks

Her website can be found at http://www.nickydcooks.com.   

Also, check out her Facebook page @ http://www.facebook.com/nicky.d.cooks for more information and great recipes.

NFL PLAY 60 Training Camp

This post appeared on Ciao Pittsburgh (1/17/2014)

I will be teaching another cooking class at the Heinz History Center and I am very excited about this one. 

On Saturday February 1st the NFL PLAY 60 Training Camp is coming to the Heinz History Center.

Play60The NFL Play 60 is the National Football League’s health and fitness campaign to encourage young fans to be active for at least 60 minutes a day.

There will be various activities football themed activities happening throughout the museum that day. This event is presented in partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers and sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods.

I will be in the Weisbrod Kitchen Classroom, doing live cooking demonstrations. The theme of the class is healthy and fun tailgating and party foods.

I will do Italian American inspired foods which include Mini Caprese Salad Bites, Grandma Rosie’s Italian Bread pizza, and Game Day Pizzelle.

Yes, there will be plenty of samples of these tasty treats to try! I promise it will be a good time for all who come.

The NFL PLAY 60 Training Camp will be held at the Heinz History Center on Saturday, February 1, 2014 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. For more information, follow this link to the Heinz History Center events page.  

Or contact Sarah Rooney at 412-454-6373 or serooney@heinzhistorycenter.org.

Nicky D Cooks visits Cocina Mendoza

On New Year’s Eve, the husband suggested we go out for Mexican food.

“Sure, why not” was the thought. I like a low key evening and it was early enough. We found our way to Cocina Mendoza. It is a small family run restaurant in the South Hills.

It was a small place along a set of strip malls on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard in Castle Shannon. When we walked in, I thought it was a quaint little place. The staff was friendly and seated us quickly.

They immediately gave us some chips and salsa, and the taste of this salsa just exploded in my mouth. It wasn’t the chucky whole garden on the chip type, just a light kind perfect for dipping.

cheese and chorzioFor an appetizer we had the Cheese dip with Chorizo. Amazing! It has the right amount of cheese to meat ratio. A perfect accompaniment with tortilla chips that were served with them.

Tamale plateFor my main course I had the tamales and the husband ordered a combination plate (Mexican Plate #4) which included a tamale, a shrimp fajita, chili rellenos, and a beef taco.

A plate arrived with 3 big tamales on it, they were wrapped in a banana leaf and dressed in a Mexican Mole sauce.  The flavors were incredible, and the banana leaf added an extra layer of flavor- a smoky sweet taste.

combination plateThe combination plate was really delicious as well. The tamale on this plate came with a verde sauce which was very good. The chili rellenos was cooked perfectly and so delicious. Everything was just so fresh tasting. This main dish also came with a side of rice and bean. This is a hearty side portion of food which is also quite good.

If you have a chance, got to try this place. I like going to these small type of “mom and pop” places because you do tend to get really great food!

Mangia Bene,


Christmas 2013

I have always enjoyed Christmas. I love, love, love it- the music, the shopping and all of the chaos that the season brings. I become bouncy with enthusiasm at the thoughts of the foods that come out for the holidays.

The pinnacle of this holiday season for me and my family is what is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes or simply known as La Vigilia (The Vigil). The Feast of the Seven Fishes is celebrated on Christmas Eve and it is a dinner that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes.

It is a meat free meal, in anticipation and remembrance of the midnight birth of Jesus. Why fish? Well it is tied to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays during Lent and holy days.

Why the odd number of fish dishes? In my family the rule of thumb was 7 fishes or 5 dishes. The number seven is often linked to the seven sacraments. Some families do only three fish to symbolize the Holy Trinity or 13 to represent Jesus and the 12 Apostles.

In our house we mix up the dishes- there is combination of traditional family recipes and more contemporary ones. We make traditional dishes like fried smelts, baccala soup, seafood crispelle (fried seafood “puffs” or balls), linguini and clam sauce and baccala salad. Some of the modern dishes we make include baked stuffed shrimp, crab cakes and Italian tuna bruschetta.

Do I make a list and make sure that there are seven different fishes represented at the dinner- you bet I do.

I do love mussels and I look forward to Mussels Zuppa being made on this night. It is a scrumptious dish that sounds so much more difficult to make than it really is. It is a versatile dish that can be eaten alone in a bowl with some bread, or thrown over a big dish of warm pasta.

I have used both frozen and fresh mussels, and they work wonderfully. This is a quick dish that can be eaten as an appetizer or served as a main course (over pasta of course). I have included my recipe for my Mussels Zuppa.

I hope you enjoy this recipe,

Mangia Bene,


mussles zuppaNicky D Cooks Mussels Zuppa


 3-4 cloves garlic- chopped

1 small onion- chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

Crushed red pepper- to taste

28 oz crushed tomatoes

White wine (about ½ cup)

Clam juice 1 cup

Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Italian flat leaf parsley- small handful

Mussels: 1-2 lbs



Clean the mussels and remove the beards. Heat some olive oil on a medium/low heat.  Add the onion and cook until softened. Add garlic and crushed red pepper and sauté 1-2 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and cook- let the tomatoes absorb some of the oil (about 1-2 minutes). Add a splash of dry white wine.  Add the clam juice (it should have the consistency of a soup at this point). Add salt and black pepper to taste. Raise the temperature to medium heat.  Simmer the zuppa for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add more clam juice if necessary. Add a small handful of chopped Italian parsley. Add the mussels in their shells. Cook the mussels for about 10-15 minutes until all of the mussels have opened up.

Holly’s Ricotta Egg Biscuits

first appeared on Ciao Pittsburgh 12/20/13

Sometimes individuals come into your life for a reason. People’s paths cross and they are meant to know one another. This is was most certainly the case with my friend Holly. I met her 20 years ago in high school, I did not know then what an important role she would have on my life later on.

Holly Schmitt Costa is my baking mentor, she is my go to person when I have a question about Italian American cookies and biscotti’s.

Is she a trained pastry chef, no? Does she have any formal training in the culinary field? Not really. However, Holly has something that trumps a degree from a culinary arts school. She had an Italian mom who owned a cookie business.  She learned all of the tricks of the trade and knows all of the secrets there are to making amazing cookies. Her knowledge can rival that of any bakery shop owner when it comes to the subject of Italian cookies.

Like many Italian children, Holly grew up in her mother’s kitchen, watching her make cookies. Gladys Scalesi Schmitt, was a beautiful baker who turned her passion into a successful business. Much like her daughter, Gladys had learned to bake from growing up in her own mother’s kitchen. It is these recipes that Gladys used when she began baking and started her business.

Holly told me that at the age of four, her parents bought her an easy bake oven so “I could bake in the kitchen alongside my mom”. Around the age of nine that Holly started to actually help her mom bake cookies.

Gladys’s cookies were famous, and soon the word about these tasty treats spread. Holly recalls growing up and seeing “cookies all over the house and there were always cookies around”.

During the holidays, Holly told me “it was a crazy time because there were cookies and baking supplies everywhere in the house”.

Gladys Scalesi Schmitt never had a formal business back in Rhode Island, it was all word of mouth. She made cookies for friends, family and loved ones. There were cookies trays made for weddings, communions, holidays and various celebrations. If you wanted good homemade Italian cookies, Gladys was the person you wanted to see.

Holly never brought a store bought cookie in her lunch while we were in high school; that is just something that was not done. She grew up eating the most wonderful cookies, just like her children are doing now.

Holly possesses these magnificent baking genes and she is an amazing baker. She is carrying on the tradition of making Italian cookies like her mother and grandmother.  At the holidays Holly gathers her children, Isabella age 11 and Jacob age 9, to bake the cookies.

Holly Costa with her children Jacob and Isabella baking cookiesFor Holly this is very important to her. Not only is she is keeping up the holiday traditions but also passing along the family recipes and baking secrets to her children.

There is one particular cookie that Holly and her children really enjoy making, it is the Ricotta Egg Biscuits (Ricotta Cookie). Using her mother’s recipe Holly will make this cookie for holidays, it is a family favorite.

Holly tells me that when she makes the Ricotta Egg Biscuits, she will usually have to make a double batch because her children love to eat them so much.

These little confections can go by either name, Ricotta Egg Biscuits or Ricotta Cookies. There are also two ways to eat them as well; frosted or unfrosted. It all depended on how you were raised and how your family made them. Some families never frosted them while others did. The cookie is not an overly sweet tasting one. The ricotta cheese blends well in this recipe and provides a light, palate- pleasing cookie. Whether you eat them frosted them or not, eating one of these cookies is truly a delicious treat.

According to Jacob Costa, who is the official taste tester in the family, they are better with the frosting. Isabella Costa, who is second in command in the kitchen when it comes to baking the Ricotta Egg Biscuits, also likes the frosting on her cookies. 

Holly will make a simple frosting made of confectionary sugar and milk that will lightly coat the cookies; it adds an extra layer of flavor and texture to it. She will also dust them with decorative sprinkles once the frosting is applied.

These cookies are easy to make and will be the perfect addition to any holiday tray. Frosted or not, they are a delicious cookie with their light vanilla flavor. They freeze very well, so you can make a big batch and keep them in the freezer. They go perfectly with a cup of coffee because of their mild taste, so pull some out when you have company over for a visit. They make the prefect cookie to share for a cookie exchange, or whip up a plate of these and they make a phenomenal hostess gift.

Trust me when I tell you that your friends and family will love these cookies.

Holly was kind enough to share her mother’s recipe for the Ricotta Egg Biscuits (Ricotta Cookies). I hope that you enjoy making and eating this cookies as much as I did.

Mangia Bene,


 Ricotta Egg Biscuits ( Ricotta Cookies)

Holly’s Ricotta Egg Biscuits (Ricotta Cookies)

1/2 pound butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

15oz ricotta

2 tablespoon vanilla

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda


Cream butter, sugar & eggs; add ricotta & vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder & baking soda; blend into cream mixture

Roll dough into teaspoon sized balls, (Holly use a cookie scoop so they are uniform) and arrange on in greased cookie sheet

Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes or until lightly browned

Frost when cooled. Frosting is powdered sugar and milk mixed until thick consistently

You can substitute vanilla extract with anise or lemon flavoring!!!