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Valiquette’s family cookbook shares secrets of authentic Italian cuisine

By Staff | Sep 8, 2010

"Eating Italian with the Sacco & Mercede Families"

Sanibel resident Maureen Valiquette knows a thing or two about Italian cooking.

Just over 10 years ago, Valiquette — the descendent of a large Italian family and a passionate cook — was asked to participate in a special project to collect all of her family’s traditional recipes that, until then, existed only in the minds and memories of her extensive extended network of aunts, uncles and cousins.

The result: “Eating Italian with the Sacco & Mercede Families.”

At just under 300 pages, this quintessential compilation of traditional Italian recipes is accentuated by family stories and photographs that document the lives of the Sacco and Mercede families, their traditions and of course, their vast collection of favorite foods.

“My mother was a Sacco, and this book has so many wonderful pictures and stories about my family,” Valiquette said, pointing out photographs of her mother and father, aunts and uncles, great-grandmothers and grandfathers. “There are so many wonderful stories in this book about the traditions of the Saccos and Merecedes, like how the guys used to get together and play cards and eat their hot peppers and drink wine.”

Maureen Valiquette in Todi, Umbria, Italy.

Valiquette’s uncle, Frank Mercede, built many of the hospitals and schools in Stamford, Conn. where she grew up. The original version of the cookbook was created in 1997 to help raise money for one of Mercede’s hospitals. Since then, the cookbook has been republished twice, once in 1998 and again in 2008, with proceeds from the newest version going to Alzheimers research.

“Eating Italian” is dedicated to Valiquette’s aunts, Rose Sacco Cognetta and Lucy Sacco Loglisci. Rose currently suffers from Alzheimers and Lucy passed away after a long struggle with dementia.

“My Aunt Lucy and my Aunt Rosie were born in Italy and my mother, who was the youngest of 11 children, was born in America. My cousin Terry started the idea of doing a family cookbook, knowing that there were so many wonderful authentic Italian recipes in our family,” Valiquette said.

In addition to raising money for good causes, the Saccos and Mercedes also view the cookbook as a kind of ancestral anthology and official document, wholly developed and organized by the families, that they can pass down to future generations.

“Most of the recipes in here are directly from the regions of Italy where they all grew up. But they were never written down until now. People knew how to do them — and they just did them. My aunt Lucy was such an incredible cook that she actually opened a couple of restaurants in Stamford and she did all of the Italian cooking for those restaurants — she did the homemade pastas, she did the sauces, that was her thing. You put Lucy in the kitchen and she would just cook — she loved to cook.”

The Valiquette family. From left to right are Michael, Bryce (age three), Maureen, Addison (age two), Justin, Abbey, Isabella (age two months), Jennifer and Cayden (age one). In the background is Maureen’s mother, Francis Sacco DeCarlo.

After Valiquette’s cousin Terry came up with the idea, she began gathering, recording and testing as many recipes as she could. Valiquette’s cousin Angel began researching and interviewing all the aunts and uncles about growing up in Italy and set to work writing the introductory articles that are interspersed throughout the cookbook.

Valiquette’s sister Debora designed all of the graphic elements in the book.

“It was definitely a family project,” Valiquette said. “It’s a very special book. I just love the stories and photographs. They put a photo of my parents in front of the pasta section because my dad could eat a pound of pasta by himself!”

Valiquette and her husband Michael, who run Sandcastle Construction on Sanibel, are the founding board members of PURRE(People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries) Water Coalition.

The 2008 reprinting of “Eating Italian” coincided with PURRE’s “A Night in Italy” fundraiser, and Valiquette sold many copies during the event. In addition to Alzheimers research, a portion of the proceeds from sales of the cookbook will go to support PURRE’s mission in advocating good water quality on the islands.

Valiquette’s mother, Francis Sacco DeCarlo, and sister, Debora Decarlo Rosa, who did the graphics for the cookbook.

Valiquette said that her son Justin and daughter-in-law Abbey, who live in Italy and share her passion for the culinary arts, frequently use the book. But even her daughter Jennifer, who doesn’t have an intense interest in cooking, has many favorite — simple — recipes in the book that she enjoys making.

“Not all of these recipes are complicated. Authentic Italian cooking is very simple. It’s not like Italian-American dishes that you have here in the U.S. The sauces are very light and fresh. Good Italian food is light and very uncomplicated — but full of flavor.”

Copies of the Sacco and Mercede family cookbook “Eating Italian” are available for purchase for $25 at the PURRE office, located behind the Village Shops, 2340 Periwinkle Way, and at the Sanibel Island Book Store, located at 1571 Periwinkle Way.

Buon appetito!