When I had the opportunity to meet Domenica Merante, I knew it was something that I could not pass up. I was going to be able to chat with a chef, restaurant owner and a bona fide foodie. The thought of talking about my favorite subjects—food and cooking—with a professional intrigued me.
To say that it would be a gastronome's dream would be an understatement. I was giddy with excitement and eagerly waited for the day to come—I was like a child waiting for Christmas morning to arrive.
Meeting Domenica was an absolute pleasure. She is a stunning woman with an infectious smile. Her big personality draws you in and her genuineness is real.
We met at the café—Caffe' D‘Antonio—at . She immediately asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. With her affable, friendly disposition, it felt like I was sitting in her kitchen and she had just asked me this question.
Despite the din of the restaurant, cafe and the market in the background, the warm feeling of talking to an old friend never waned.
When Domenica began telling about her market (café and restaurant), I had an immediate realization why I was so comfortable with her and being in her place.
To me it was a case of déjà vu.
This was the type of place that was around when I was growing up. The neighborhood feeling that emanated from this building was familiar. I felt like I was home again.
One of the things that stuck out in my mind was Domenica’s description of her market. It was like the same type of store that I shopped at when I was growing up. We went to the neighborhood grocery markets to get our food. We knew the store owners, and they all knew us and our families. It was a place where neighbors, friends and family members shopped, gathered and caught up with one another.
These small markets were more than a place to buy your food—they were an integral part of the neighborhood. Domenica shares this school of thought when it comes to her store.
For me the advantage of shopping at a market like this is that the merchants know their products. They can tell you what is fresh, new things that they have, and they provide you with cooking tips on using the products in their store. The giant grocery chains in my opinion just do not have that level of intimacy. It is an old-world philosophy and it is something that I look for when I am shopping.
With this being said, Domenica is extremely knowledgeable about all of the products in her store. She uses them in her restaurant for cooking. The food she cooks and recipes she uses were built around the products that she sells. It is a unique opportunity to see how the products are used and what they taste like even before you buy them.
Domenica’s mantra is: “If Domenica cooks with it, then it is available in the store.” I love this kind of thinking. It is a rare ideology.
Eventually our conversation turned toward my favorite subjects of food and cooking. Domenica is well-versed in these areas. She is a humble chef who is always willing share what she knows.
Like many Italian-American girls growing up, she was always in the kitchen with her mother. She learned about food and how to cook while in her family’s kitchen. Her chef’s training began before she knew she wanted to become one.
Domenica is the eldest child in her family and started cooking for her family when she was about 11 years old. Her mother had to go to work full-time, so the duty of cooking fell to Domenica. I laughed because she told me that her mom “had the directions and ingredients for dinner written in both Italian and English, and the constant line that ran through the directions was "do like I taught you ... like I showed you.” For the record, these were lines that were used in my family and it is something that I now say to my daughter.
Domenica realized that she was good at cooking and enjoyed doing it. While she was in college she cooked for all of her friends. She told me, “My friends would buy the food and I would cook it and eat with them. This way I never had to eat the cafeteria food."
Her love of cooking continued and when she was married she started to cook for her own family. Domenica told me that when her children were small during their nap time she “would look through her cookbooks and try out new recipes.”
She realized that she was good at cooking and that her food tasted good. "By doing this (cooking), it kept my mind sharp and it was something that I loved to do," she said.
As her children became older, she turned her talents towards making food for the stadium concession stands in . Domenica made food for the various sporting teams that her sons belonged to and her food was sold during the games. She told me jokingly, “I think that I cooked for every sports team that Peters had—my sons played every sport.”
These events in her life provided her with the background that she needed when she went to culinary school. So about four years ago, Domenica went to Tuscany to learn how to become a professional chef.
Domenica told me that she “already knew southern Italian cooking." She just needed to learn northern (Italian) cooking. "I needed to know what the chef's knew and the skills that they had."
She studied with Chef Sandra Lotti at her cooking school in Tuscany called, "Toscano Saporita."
Upon completion of this program, Domenica became a professional chef. This past spring she and her husband Anthony opened Merante Brothers Market where she is the executive chef.
Domenica describes her cooking as “traditional Italian.”
In her food, fresh ingredients are always used. The dishes she prepares are simple—the taste that comes from this type of cooking is mouth-wateringly delicious. She wanted to avoid the “dishes that are fried and have everything covered in melted cheese (mozzarella) because that is not Italian food."
Domenica offered to share a recipe for her bruschetta. This dish typifies her concept of cooking—using fresh ingredients in preparing simple dishes.
I have had this bruschetta and it is absolutely wonderful.
According to Domenica, “You can add some dried sopressata sausage to this and make it a complete meal or you can also add some chick peas (beans) to it and make it a vegetarian."
I am happy that I can share this recipe. It is scrumptious and simple to make, especially during the warmer months of summer.
Chef Domenica Merante’s Bruschetta alla Zia Anna
This is a recipe I learned when I had my first visit to my zia’s (aunt's) home in the hills of southern Italia. We had been walking through Sicily all day and had just returned from being scorched by the August sun. We were famished, but did not want anything heavy—we were refreshed and satisfied by this fantastic simple dish! What a perfect way to end a perfect day! God Bless Zia Anna.
2 tomatoes (cluster) Roma or an entire container of grape tomatoes
1 clove garlic
2 stems green onion
1 cup seedless olives of your choice
½ cup parsley
½ cup basil
½ cup olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Cut everything into small pieces and mix in the EVOO and red wine vinegar.
Wet down with your hands and some fresh water, and use your frese, friselli, crispelli or whatever your town calls their dried bread.
Let it sit for about 10 minutes.