CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My husband Vic and I recently attended an assembly of the Sons of Italy lodge hosted by Tony and Prudence Majestro at their Charleston home.
It was a covered dish, and given that it was a meeting of Italians, the covered dishes covered the outdoor deck picnic area.
Many dishes stood out among the surplus of outstanding potluck food. One hit of the evening was Mary Ellen Providenti's superb pasta fagioli (Italian bean soup) from a newspaper recipe that she improved upon.
Lending a capable helping hand with both setup and cleanup were some of the Majestro grandchildren.
Gina, daughter of Anthony and Cindy Majestro, caught my attention in particular because she not only assisted with the chores, but contributed another popular Italian staple -- her praiseworthy eggplant Parmesan.
Only 20 years old, the junior at West Virginia University proved she can hold her own in the kitchen as well as we who are ... um ... let's say ... more mature in experience.
She's pursuing a psychology degree toward a career in helping people. That's a natural for her, because she was given an award upon high school graduation for outstanding public service during her school years at Charleston Catholic.
I was impressed with her casserole because it was an awesome healthy bite. The eggplant wasn't breaded; there wasn't any mozzarella to ooze from inside or gloppily drip down over the top; no oil slick could be found on the surface, the Parmesan cheese amount was kept to a light touch, and she made her own tomato sauce. What capped the winning vote for me was the layer of crushed pepper flakes she sprinkles on with the Parmesan.
"I've been cooking as long as I can remember," Gina said. "I discovered early on that in my family, if you cooked, you didn't have to do the dishes. To this day I still hate doing dishes."
It isn't a stretch to understand that Gina loves to cook, coming from a family of wonderful Italian cooks. Her ability to work with fresh vegetables is inherited, too. She has plenty of produce to work with.
Evidence of that lies in the picture-perfect fruit and vegetable garden of her grandparents, Prudence and Tony. As Gina grew up, the garden has always been literally under her nose, situated on the terraced hillside extending beyond the lower deck of her grandparents' home.
Grandfather Tony is mainly responsible for all that comes from that garden and for the hands-on upkeep. Already a longstanding, highly respected orthopedic surgeon, he gave a brief history to the lodge members of how he also became a bit of a Mr. Green Jeans.
His Charleston city-farmer role began with his roots in McDowell County from a father who believed in productive outdoor labors. Majestro confessed that at that time he preferred the football field to the cornfield. His father's persuasion prevailed.
He has a layered squash, onion and tomato dish of his own that he likes to prepare and will readily share the easy recipe.