The cooking life

Metro Times: When did you start cooking? 

Elvira Saragosa: I cook all my life. My mother taught me to make pasta when I was 5 or 6 years old. I went to school only three classes. That's it. No more. I was born in Detroit in 1923. They took me back to Italy when I was 6 months old. Stayed back till 1939. 

MT: How often do you make pasta?

Saragosa: Pasta I make almost every day. Fresh pasta, tomato sauce and meat sauce, and the fillings for the lasagna, shells, manicotti and ravioli, homemade fettuccine, homemade lasagna, homemade spaghetti.

MT: Do you have some advice about making pasta?

Saragosa: You get the flour. Put it in a dish. Break three or four whole eggs. Put a little water in there. Mix it all together. It makes the pasta.

MT: Does fresh pasta have to be cooked on the day it is made?

Saragosa: Fresh pasta, you make it today, you can keep it for five days. If you don't know what you're doing, you can overcook it and it turns to mush. Some people like it that way. My mother used to eat mush. She lost her teeth, so she liked it mushy. She died in her sleep — 98 years old. I had her with me all that time. She didn't give me one trouble. She didn't tell me, "Do this for me." Nothing. She used to say, "I'm gonna give you no trouble." She used to do everything herself. When she takes a bath, you think she tells me to wash her? She says, "No. Close the door. Give me pan of water, a rag and soap. Close the door. I wash myself." That's the way she did. No trouble. Nobody believe it. She said, "I'm gonna die in my sleep." She used to do everything herself. She was in good health. She stayed with me all the time. She helped me with the kids. She cooked. She teach me a lot of things too. My life is making pasta all the time. 

MT: Do you think that working as much as you do keeps you healthy?

Saragosa: Well, you know what I do? I've been over my daughter's a month sometimes. She had small kids. I like to help 'em out a little bit. My son-in-law, he loves the pasta. He says he would pay me anything just to stay and cook. And now I wanna come back here all the time. When you got something to do, you know you have to do it. I live in the back here, down the street from the restaurant. I figured out, if I get up, I know I gotta come here. I get dressed; do a little work around the house. My brother Domenic, he comes in at 8 o'clock. I come in and talk with him, have a coffee. Sometimes he's mad. Sometimes he's good. When he's in a bad mood, I go in the back room and see what needs to be done. [laughs] If I don't make pasta, I make sauce. I make meatballs. I find something to do all the time. I make cookies. Every day I come here at 8 or 8:30 and stay sometimes short hours, sometimes long hours, until 4 o'clock. 

MT: Is the Italian food in this country different from the Italian food served in Italy?

Saragosa: There's a lotta difference. The way my mother taught me how to cook, they don't put in too much stuff. Here they put in too much spice, too much the stuff. Sometimes I can't eat it. When I make sauce, I put in olive oil — good, it's gotta be good. And then I use garlic — plenty garlic. It smells good. I fry it a little; let it get brown — not too much. Too much it smells burned. And then a little bit onions, not too much. If I make meat sauce, I fry a little bit, nice fry, a little brown, not burned. I use ground chuck, real good meat; it's gotta be fresh. Then I put in fresh parsley, cut up. Then I put in black pepper. I put — nobody knows — but I put in little bit of hot pepper seeds. Maybe they don't want me to put 'em in, but nobody knows. It's good flavor. That's the way I make it. Salt, depends how much sauce you make. Then you put in the tomatoes, San Marzano. Let it cook a couple hours, not four hours or six hours. The sauce can cook too much. Tomato sauce is the same; you don't put in the meat. The other sauces, the cook makes.

MT: You are very healthy. What do you eat?

Saragosa: I eat what I make. I eat pasta, like pasta fagioli with vegetables, a soup. Spaghetti once in a while. 

MT: Do you ever go to other restaurants to eat?

Saragosa: You know, I tried Mexican. It's no good with me. I don't like all that stuff. Chinese, no. I eat my own stuff. We three women, we go to different restaurants all the time, Italian food.

MT: Do you ever cook at home? 

Saragosa: Oh, yeah. I go home and make my own sauce. Sometimes I make braciole. I take a chunk of round steak, roll it out, put a little lard in there, salt, pepper, fresh parsley, garlic. I roll 'em up; tie 'em up; fry in a little olive oil; then put in a jar of tomatoes to make a sauce. Sometimes I put in sausage. When I make risotto, I cook the rice halfway and strain out the starch; then I make the risotto. I do the same thing with soup: Boil the rice in separate water, then add it to the soup.

MT: How did you meet your husband?

Saragosa: I met him at the restaurant. I never go out. I was scared all the time, without a mother and a father. The lady I used to live with, she told me about life, the way it was here. She gave me good advice: Never go out. Never take a chance to go out for dinner. Don't take nothing. Then I met this guy. He was coming to the restaurant for a long time, but he was scared to ask me for a date. I was 26, 27 years old. This guy came in. He was in the Army. "I'm gonna go away. I don't know if I come back." He wanted to take me to his sister's. I don't wanna say no. I don't wanna say yes. Why should I go with this guy? I never go with nobody. Why should I go with this guy? He says I'm gonna pick you up tonight. I was working. First I say yes, and then I say, "Why should I go?" I tell the boss. He says if he comes here, tell him you gotta work, that one of the waitresses didn't show up. But then I changed my mind. I was stuck over there. The boss says, "You know, you're getting old. The years go by. You refuse this, this, this. That's no good. That guy, maybe he's good guy." So he went in the Army and started to write me every day a letter. So he came back here, went back; back and forth, back and forth. Then I married the guy. The one guy in my life.

Elvira's ravioli with meat and spinach, available at Picano's



3 large eggs 
1 pound flour plus extra for dusting — 40 percent semolina, 60 percent all-purpose
1/8 teaspoon salt 
1/8 teaspoon olive oil 
1/2 cup water (approximately)

Stuffing (yields 3-1/2 pounds)

1 pound ground veal — browned and drained 
1 pound ground beef — browned and drained 
8 ounces spinach — blanched, drained and finely chopped
Salt (to taste)
Ground black pepper (to taste)
4 ounces unseasoned medium bread crumbs 
8 ounces ricotta cheese 
4 ounces grated Parmesan cheese 

Mix all ingredients. Adjust seasoning. Vera's trick — don't overmix

Method: Put flour on a table. Make a well. Add egg, oil, salt and water. Mix well. Knead until smooth.  Let rest 1/2 hour. Roll thru pasta machine into thin sheets. Lay sheets on table. Make small 2-ounce meat stuffing balls. Arrange on sheet with 2-inch gap between balls. Brush pasta with water. Top with pasta sheet. Press air between balls. Vera's trick: Toothpick each ravioli to let air out. Cut with wheel cutter.  Cook ravioli in salted water. Cover in your favorite sauce.

Picano's is located at 3775 Rochester Rd., Troy; 248-689-8050.

Jeff Broder does this interview column for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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