Many of us incorporate favorite dishes or family recipes into our holiday celebrations. Maybe it’s just not Christmas without Aunt Nancy’s Millionaire Salad, or perhaps your cousin Paul insists on homemade baklava at Eastertime. But have you ever wondered where your favorite restaurant dishes originate? Whether you’re partaking of an entrée, dessert, or cocktail, most of what you enjoy eating and drinking is an adaptation of a traditional recipe. In the case of Agawam’s popular dining spot Casa di Lisa, the cuisine is steeped in family history.
A conversation with Casa di Lisa’s owner, Lisa Bruno, sheds light on how recipes develop over time. Lisa’s family has its origins in the Naples area of Italy, and that seaside location influences some of the dishes that the Bruno family enjoys during the holiday season.
One such meal is baccala salad, which is prepared with dried codfish or haddock that has been repeatedly soaked and drained over the course of several days. Potatoes, olives, celery, onion, and olive oil complete the dish. “It’s a long process,” says Lisa. She prepares it as a Christmas Eve dish for family and staff.
Within Lisa's family, different dishes are prepared with individual touches – her father would add a bit of anchovy and walnut to his shrimp scampi for flavor, while her mom left those ingredients out of her version of the dish.
One of Casa di Lisa’s longtime dishes beloved by customers, their zuppe di pesce (fish soup), was handed down through the Bruno family, starting with Lisa’s father, who passed it down to her brother, who then handed it over to Lisa herself.
Casa di Lisa has put their own spin on the dish by using a blend of hot and sweet peppers to add subtle spice to the sauce. The main source of the soup’s flavor is the combination of seafood. “You need all of the fish to get the flavor,” says Lisa, noting that sometimes customers request that the dish be prepared without certain fish. Lobster, clams, shrimp, mussels, calamari, and a flaky fish such as cod blend to create Casa di Lisa’s version. The tomato-based sauce rounds out the dish, which has been a staple at the restaurant for many years.
Another customer favorite, the fettuccini carbonara, has been adapted from the Italian standard by the Casa di Lisa kitchen to suit American preferences. “Our customers prefer the carbonara to be more saucy, rather than the drier, more traditional way of preparing it,” says Lisa. A traditional dry carbonara consists of a thicker pasta (ideally, fettucine), cheese, pancetta, and a little oil.
Another significant factor in what appears on the Casa di Lisa menu is the availability of ingredients throughout the year. “We pay attention to the seasonality of certain foods,” says Lisa. For example, eggplant out of season just isn’t as good, which is why the restaurant does not offer it during the winter months. The arrival of autumn brings fresh figs and persimmons; you’ll be able to enjoy them at Casa di Lisa only when they’re in season in late September and October.
Visit Casa di Lisa at 801 Springfield Street in Feeding Hills for your own culinary tour through history and geography. Call 413.786.1900 or visit casadilisa.com for reservations.
Italian Traditions for the Dessert Table
Italian holiday desserts also have a rich basis in tradition. Bella Cerrato of Cerrato’s bakery at 255 Elm Street in West Springfield brings her special touch to Christmas treats. Her customers come back year after year for popular holiday items such as cookie trays, mini cannoli, panettone, struffoli, and Yule log cakes. You can also pick up a beautiful gingerbread house to grace your table. Cerrato’s starts accepting special Christmas orders the first of December and you can order up to the week before Christmas. Visit cerratos.com or call 413.781.1139.