Keeping it all in the family

Pasta with Curry Sauce? Preparing such an iconoclastic dish requires real culinary chutzpah. But confidence underscores Italian chef Nick Stellino's work. In fact, the former college linebacker has made tackling bold cuisine - and life's challenges - part of his repertoire

Fans of public television's "Cucina Amore" know Mr. Stellino as a warm, articulate host whose zeal for Italian cooking is matched by his passion for life.

But readers of his latest book, "Nick Stellino's Family Kitchen" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $27.95), are provided a fuller portrait of his humble epicurean beginnings.

Steeped in Sicilian tradition, Stellino's recipes are both a testament to his flair for adventurous creations and a tribute to his family, whose influence he credits for his culinary heritage and ambition.

A family atmosphere, in fact, is what Stellino says distinguishes his book. "I want readers to feel like they're in my kitchen back in Palermo, Sicily, smelling the same aromas that captivated me as a young boy."

Despite this early love affair with food, Stellino left his hometown to complete his studies in the United States and eventually became a stockbroker. Equipped with Armani suits and an Audi 5000, he thought he was living the American dream. But two events abruptly changed his hard-earned lifestyle.

In a casual game of football with "fellow old-timers" years ago, Stellino injured his knee. Told he would never walk properly again - let alone play football - Stellino marshaled his inner reserves in a determined effort to rehabilitate his knee. "That experience was a gift from God," Stellino recalls. "It forced me to focus. It made me stronger and gave me the confidence I would later need to change careers."

That change came "like a bolt of lightning" to Stellino on a trip to Sicily in 1991 to visit his dying uncle, Zio Giovanni. As he recounts in the book - one of several narratives about his family - Giovanni whispered the words that would shape Stellino's destiny: "Nicolino, you should not die without following your dreams."

Armed with confidence and his uncle's impetus, Stellino left the business world to become a dishwasher, a job for which he paid the head chef $5 a day. "The chef thought I was crazy," Stellino recalls. But his quixotic determination paid off. Within a year, Stellino was head chef. And in 1995, "Cucina Amore" made its PBS debut.

Stellino chose more than 125 recipes for "Family Kitchen" based on two simple criteria: "The recipes had to be simple," he explains. "I want people living in South Dakota to have access to all the ingredients. And they must taste great."

For the novice in Pierre, S.D. - or anywhere else - who may struggle with his recipe for Sole Fillets With Capers and Lemon Sauce or Broiled Zabaglione with Berries, Stellino includes nearly two dozen pasta dishes, ranging from the common Pasta with Broccoli to the more exotic Pasta with Sausage and Pumpkin Sauce.

Pumpkin and sausage? On pasta? "[NBC's "Today" show host] Katie Couric just loved that dish," Stellino says with a laugh.

Stellino pays homage to his family with such appropriately titled dishes as Grandma's Polenta, and My Mother's Cake - part of a surprisingly diverse dessert section. One cake, Ricotta Torte with Two Chocolates, holds special memories for Stellino.

After trading stocks for a dish-washing sponge, he returned to Sicily to announce his dream of becoming a chef to his father. Hearing the news, the elder Stellino stomped out of the dining room, incredulous that his son was throwing out his education with the dishwater.

Heartfelt conversation and a tender hug went a long way toward calming tempers. But Stellino claims it was his mother's special ricotta torte that healed the breach between father and son. The elder Stellino blessed his son's dream with the admonition that he must "never do it halfway."

With a newly formed production company bearing his name, Stellino seems to have taken his father's words to heart. Ever the entrepreneur, he is planning a series of Stellino restaurants to be launched by 2005.

Though success has allowed him to again wear Armani suits, Stellino remains committed to the conviction he learned in the kitchen long ago: "Money comes, money goes, but family is forever."

Pasta with Sausage and Pumpkin Sauce

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound spicy Italian sausage, casing removed

1 cup chopped onion

10 cloves garlic, thickly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

1-1/4 cups canned pumpkin puree

3 cups chicken stock

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Salt and pepper to taste

1 pound penne, penne rigate, rigatoni, zitti, or tortiglioni

6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a large, deep saut pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the sausage and cook until brown, about 3 minutes. While sausage browns, break it up into bite-size pieces with the back of a wooden spoon. Turn off heat; remove sausage to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Cover and set aside.

Keep 1 tablespoon of the oil in the pan and discard the rest. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, and sage, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring until the onion and garlic start to brown. (If you like things spicy, sprinkle in the red pepper flakes now.) Add the sausage and cook for 2 minutes, stirring well. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup chicken stock and cook for 8 minutes, scrap pan well to dislodge any browned bits.

Add pumpkin puree and cook for 2 minutes, stirring well. Add the rest of the chicken stock (and cinnamon, if desired), bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water, with the 1 tablespoon salt added, to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the instructions on the package. Drain well and pour pasta back into the pot. Add the sauce and cook over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, add Parmesan before serving.

Serves 6 To 8

- Adapted from 'Nick Stellino's Family Kitchen'

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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