Bayside restaurant sets the table for young culinarians

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Grace Lupo, the chef of L’Italiano Trattoria, shows Camryn Gallo and Cara Edelkind (r.), students from St. Robert Bellarmine Elementary School, how to use spices in a chicken meatball soup during the children's monthly cooking class at the restaurant. Photo by Christina Santucci
Chef Grace Lupo shows her young pupils (l.-r.) Konrad Rakowski, Albert Cusumano and Kristen Torres how to roll dough. Photo by Christina Santucci
Albert Cusumano holds a plate of struffoli, a deep-fried ball of dough drizzled with honey. Photo by Christina Santucci
Chef Grace Lupo dishes out the chicken meatball soup. Photo by Christina Santucci
Children (l.-r.) Camryn Gallo, Albert Cusumano, Kristen Torres and Cara Edelkind peel vegetables. Photo by Christina Santucci
Konrad Rakowski (c.) puts on his chef hat as classmates Rodrigo DeAlmeida (l.) and Ryan Neligan look on. Photo by Christina Santucci
Kristen Torres tastes what the children made. Photo by Christina Santucci
The meatball soup is similar to Italian wedding soup. Photo by Christina Santucci
Camryn Gallo (l.) and fellow culinary students David Escorcia (c.) and Rodrigo De Almeida roll meatballs. Photo by Christina Santucci
Albert Cusumano cuts struffoli under the watchful eye of Grace Lupo. Photo by Christina Santucci
Camryn Gallo peels a carrot. Photo by Christina Santucci
Grace Lupo makes chicken meatball soup with help from students including Camryn Gallo (r.). Photo by Christina Santucci

On Saturdays, chef Grace Lupo offers classes at her Bayside restaurant where she teaches her adult students how to prepare authentic Italian cuisine, but once a month the kitchen at L’Italiano Trattoria fills with a younger crowd, and the recipes become a bit more basic.

“I choose things that are not too elaborate — something fast, but they all can participate,” she said on a raw, rainy day last week as she ground up a tray of chicken breasts in preparation for the fifth- and sixth-grade students from St. Robert Bellarmine Elementary School’s cooking club.

“Every month they do a different recipe,” said third-grade teacher Laura DiMarcello, who runs the club. “Grace talks about the ingredients and how it’s made, and after we sit down to an Italian-style meal and enjoy what we cook.”

The youngest of six children, Lupo learned how to cook at the side of her Sicilian mother and grandmother, and she applies the same philosophy that instilled in her a love of cooking.

“My mom made it fun,” she said, and was quick to point out her teaching style diverges in one aspect: “One part of it was there were not many choices. It was, ‘This is what I’m making and this is what you’re eating.’”

After the youngsters arrived, they assembled around the prep table as Lupo introduced the day’s recipe: chicken meatball soup. Carrots, celery and onions, she explained, formed the holy trinity that would be the base for their dish.

As the room filled with the rhythmic sound of the chef’s chopping, Albert Cusumano, 11, and Cara Edelkind, 11, got started peeling potatoes.

“The starch makes the potatoes stick to the knife. You have to be very careful when cutting potatoes,” she explained as she cut them up, and then asked if the children remembered the cheese they had used in the meatball recipe from a previous class.

After the students shouted out a few different varieties of cheese, Lupo informed them they would be using pecorino, a hard cheese that is slightly saltier and sharper than parmigiano, but not before Albert identified American cheese as one of his favorites.

“Yes, but we’re cooking Italian, OK?” she responded in a tone that suggested the boy had offended hundreds of years of culinary tradition with the mention of the inferior dairy product.

When it came time to crack eggs, hands flew up to volunteer, and soon the children were forming their own meatballs, some more ball-shaped than others.

“Beef shrinks when you cook it, but not chicken,” Lupo instructed, trying as hard as she could to coax her students to turn out a tray of uniform-sized balls.

As the class shifted from instruction to participation, the chatty children discussed a variety of topics, including a book they read that may or may not have involved either a princess or a 1970s hippie.

“I’ve seen hip-hop, I’ve seen jazz, I’ve seen classical. I’ve seen all the varieties,” Albert could be overhead boasting.

Lupo dropped the meatballs in the soup to cook, and soon after everyone was sitting down with a warm bowl in front of them.

“This is what I get a kick out of, when you hear, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm,’” DiMarcello said.

Cara confirmed the group settles down when it’s time to eat.

“This happens every time we start eating and we get really quiet,” she said. “But by the end we all start talking again.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 4:25 pm, February 25, 2012
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