Woman-owned, woman-led, and woman-inspired — In honor of Women’s History Month, The Incline caught up with Jen Saffron and her team at Sprezzatura, a community cafe in Millvale serving sustainable and accessible Italian heritage food, for a look into their featured heirloom recipes.
All month long, Sprezzatura has been serving up weekly “Grandma Month” specials, like pasta al forno from grandma Angelica Silvaroli, al tonno pasta from grandma Mary Biordi, and this Saturday, grandma Rose Saffron’s rabbit stew with gnocchi.
“These recipes bring us comfort. We don’t cook anything we don’t want to eat. We make whatever brings us joy,” Jen said. “Food memories are real… there are particular tastes that I can conjure up right now that make me feel like it is a holiday or a celebration.”
And that resonates with Sprezzatura’s customers.
“We got a call from a 98-year-old lady saying that the al tonno pasta tasted just like her mom’s,” Jen said.
This recipe comes from Jen’s grandmother, Mary Biordi, whose family came from Castel di Sangro in the province of L’Aquila. It features savory genova tuna cooked in a tangy red sauce, served over linguine with fresh herbs and a hint of lemon.
“She was 4 foot, 11 inches and a total powerhouse,” Jen said.
The Biordi family had four girls, one being Jen’s mother Merceda, and had strong roots in their community. Jen’s grandfather was a civic leader, the president of the Sons of Italy, and owned a movie theater. When her grandmother passed away, Jen said that they held four nights of wakes, “and the line was out the door every night.”
When thinking about a lesson she learned from her grandmother, she remembered back to when she was in the fourth grade and had to earn her cooking badge in Girl Scouts. She called her grandmother for advice.
“Clean up as you go along,” grandma Biordi said. Years and lots of experience later, Jen agreed. “That’s that truth!”
The pasta al forno comes from Lorraine Vullo’s grandmother, Angelica Silvaroli, whose family is Sicilian. This square, baked pasta is filled with Mostaccioli, ground meat, onions, cauliflower, cheese, red sauce, and topped with — you guessed it — more romano cheese.
“It’s made in layers…the key is pouring beaten eggs on top before you bake it,” Lorraine said. “The eggs go throughout and hold it together.”
Lorraine remembers her grandma Angelica making this dish for her and all of her cousins after long days picking vegetables during harvest season.
“When my grandpa retired, he bought a small farm,” she said. “My grandmother would prepare this dish at home in an enamel roasting pan, and she’d wrap it in newspaper and blankets to keep it really hot on her drive to the farm.”
It was a hearty meal that filled the bellies and hearts of Lorraine’s big family.
“My grandmother always said, ‘add the love.’ No matter what we’re working on or what we’re doing, that’s how we grew up. It was that simple.”
This Saturday, Sprezzatura will be featuring grandma Rose Saffron’s Italian rabbit stew.
“It takes a long time to make,” Jen said. After slathering the rabbit in lots of garlic, herbs, and other seasonings, it’s braised, shredded, and served in a stew with gnocchi.
Sprezzatura works hard to source smaller meats like sausages, chickens, and rabbits from sustainable sources, which is one of the many ways they are committed to green practices. (They also have a variety of vegan and vegetarian options.) Since day one, Sprezzatura has been a Gold-designated Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant.
“We want to support Pennsylvania farmers and support our land,” Jen said.
Grandma Rose, who was a head cook at an Indiana Country Club, was a notable influence on Jen’s career. She remembers her grandmother and aunt dressed in white chef dresses at the country club, and later cooking big spreads for workers in coal country.
Other honorable mentions from Sprezzatura’s Grandma Month dishes: grandma Mary Josephine’s Sicilian involtini (chicken stuffed with pancetta and cheese), grandma Odette’s canales de bourdeaux (french custard cake), and grandma Giovanna’s ciambelle al vino (wine cookies).
“We like to cook what is most authentic to our own individual Italian American history,” Jen said. “A lot of people think Italian American food is overly cheesy, saucy and beefy, but I grew up eating tons of fish, chickpea stew, lentils…We make things that are healthy, affordable and fresh.”
But most of all, Jen said, “When people eat our food, we want them to feel loved and cared for.”
Just like grandma would.