Nine trips to Italy and I’ve just planned the next one. This year I spent New Year’s Eve in Venice, my birthday in Tuscany (below), and Easter in Rome, but I’m asking Santa for an extended holiday in the land I love.
Thanks to Chef Paulette‘s just-released book, Italian Cooking Party, this tour will last for years to come with 100 of her recipes, tips on how to stock an Italian kitchen, and secrets to throwing Italian parties anywhere. Details of how to order her book are here; and if in Nashville, you can purchase copies for the cooks in your life in time for Christmas at Parnassus Books.
Many know Chef Paulette from Channel 4 WSMV’s More at Midday and Today in Nashville (see her making Walnut and Chocolate Biscotti below) and have traveled with her to Italy. Or they’ve seen her perform with Duane in Duette. Upcoming shows in Music City are January 1, 2017 at Brown’s Diner and January 6 at The Frist Center. I met Paulette many years ago in one of her cooking classes in her Bellevue home. As Diana Krall crooned, the chef who had migrated from New York City from the kitchens of Mario Batali and Micol Negrin and learned from cooks in six regions of Italy impressed me with her signature recipes and soulful teaching. I knew we were kindred spirits when she sat with strangers as if family, lingering over the meal the class prepared. Her home soothed, transporting me to summers spent with Italian friends in Piedmont. Students left warmed by the wine and conversation.
Multiple cooking classes and a friendship later, I’m still drawn, wherever we meet over dinner, to her heaping hospitality and wisdom cultivated at her parents’ table. She laughs: “I always want to sit at table longer than anyone else. I don’t want to clear the dishes but keep hanging. I grew up in that. Mom would do the dishes but I sat listening to my dad. Dad was a philosopher. I remember crying at his philosophical life stuff. Coffee and cake would come and we’d still be sitting there.”
Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, advises: “Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, nourishing, and uplifting people–people who believe in you, encourage you to go after your dreams, and applaud your victories.” Paulette is what southerners call “good people.” I asked her once if she ‘s a romantic. She said she takes chances and is generally optimistic–good traits for a time when nothing globally or personally seems certain.
This year the decision to sell our family home of 21 years was one of the hardest of my life. Leaving Morocco was difficult, too, although I wanted to be nearer family. Last February I had no idea when the house would sell nor where I’d end up working or living. When I told her my concerns, she wrote: “Isn’t that great? All sounds great — even the leap into you-don’t-know-where back home. Sorry about your house but maybe that was the only way for you to move from it and into this newer part of your life. I’m so glad Morocco was wonderful for you — (how could it not I guess!)…but what a way to evolve and find more of yourself.”
That’s Paulette Licitra, the consummate Renaissance Woman. Her story is the Portrait of an Artist who never stops growing, learning and laughing. A lady who reminds me that challenge brings change… reinvention…and despite growing pains it’s a good thing.
The Brooklyn-born Italian-American wrote novels and plays produced in New York City. When she won the Phoenix Theater’s national playwriting contest, her hip my heart premiered in Indianapolis, receiving nods for its multicultural casting and a “haunting ballad” she wrote. She also boosted women’s literacy rates in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco with an Arabic version of The Electric Company while writing and producing for Nickelodeon and Children’s Television Workshop.
By September 2001 Paulette was on top of the world…literally. Perpetually peaking, she had climbed through a Costa Rican cloud forest on an Earthwatch Expedition to study the mating dance of the long-tailed manakin. Bound for the Northern Cape on a Norwegian cargo ship, she’d crossed the Arctic Circle prowling for Atlantic puffins. Trusted with national treasures in over twenty states, she had researched and recorded audio scripts and podcasts for land, sea and air: the Sky Tour at the John Hancock Observatory, Royal Caribbean cruises, the New York Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pearl Harbor, and the CN Tower Observatory in Toronto. Her expertise earned her the job of writing the audio script for a tour atop Tower Two of the World Trade Center, what would be “the tallest rooftop terrace on the planet.” In her New York Times piece, “The Tour That Never Was,” she later lamented: “I spent a few weeks haunting the observation deck, looking out the windows, spacing out the tour stops and figuring out how to direct a visitor’s gaze… (they) were setting up the kiosks that would hold the headsets when the attacks came.”
After the tragedy of 9/11, tourism tanked so Paulette Licitra decided in her 50s to become a chef and worked in New York kitchens alongside Mario Batali, Micol Negrin, and with cooks from six regions of Italy. Re-charting her professional course, she became Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Alimentum and moved to Nashville. She also reunited with a high school friend. After graduation they had gone to Woodstock together as purely platonic buddies. After years of living separate lives, they met again and something shifted. The intensity of this Duette is clear on and off stage. She showed me once the prophetic photos used by Joel Makower in his Woodstock: The Oral History of the soulmates’ teen faces peering at the camera from the crowd.
Juliette Child said, “Life is the proper binge.” A journalist, novelist, playwright and painter…chef, singer, tour guide and candlestick maker…. Paulette inspires me. I asked her about the courage it took to live the life of an artist–something I’ve always longed to do. To have the freedom to focus on creative projects–to make one’s own schedule–to give your first love first place until it’s time to return to an old love or try something new. She said:
“I was ALWAYS attracted to the road less traveled. The idea of a suburban life in a house with a husband and 2.5 children made me squirm a little. Somehow I think I was always afraid that my brain and spirit would be lulled to sleep and all my creativity would be silenced. Probably not true, but the idea pushed me in another direction.
From a little girl I wanted to be a dancer. In high school I wanted to an actor. In college I wanted to be a writer. All the things I’ve wanted to do—the things that compelled me forward– were always endeavours that didn’t make money unless you were a star and involved a big population that was trying to do the same. I really think an artistic life is like a calling. It comes from inside. You can try to ignore it but it is very insistent. And if you leave yourself open to listening and following its call then you’re always off the beaten path. Some people have to ignore it because of commitments. There’s a great book about women who have had to do this: Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I was always so afraid of being silenced, of not getting my visions made into something out there…and still…I feel like I really haven’t done it yet! SO many stories and ideas still jam my head constantly.”
She said career highlights were interviewing survivors for the Holocaust Museum tour in Houston. There was also the day Israeli and Jordanian producers were in the NY studios together. Paulette smiled and said, “It was fine. I remember thinking, ‘You see. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Everyone is into creating great stuff for kids.'” She recalls making a video for choreographer Loretta Thomas: “We shot on the streets of NY for 24 hours straight. At 3 AM Martin Scorsese pulled up to his apartment in a limo in Tribeca. We made eye contact and he smiled!”
Christmas is a great time to thank those who call us to taste la dolce vita. The new year is a great time to host others at our table and celebrate the good together. Her book offers more than amazing Italian cuisine. It offers soul food meant to be shared.
*Chef Paulette’s winter cooking classes are sold out. However, you can buy friends gift certificates or contact her for information for the spring classes starting in March here.