Tradition on the menu

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

In John Ritacco’s kitchen, it’s not about gadgets or gizmos, exotic spices or rare ingredients.

No, in this bright Waccabuc space, it’s about traditions, family and friends – and how lovingly prepared food brings all that together.

And when Ritacco is at the knife (or sauté pan or oven), most often what emerges on the table is something that draws on his heritage.

“I generally stick to Italian wines and Italian food,” he says.

His specialties are ones that hold meaning, dishes beloved by generations.

“It’s traditional Italian peasant food,” he says.

That, he adds, is food that simply “makes you feel good.”

Ritacco isn’t your classically trained chef.

“I’m just an amateur cook. I did it on my own.”

In fact, he’s a banker by day or to be precise, the president and CEO of CMS Bank, which has its headquarters in White Plains.

But the personable man who grew up in an Italian home in Providence, R.I., has long known the true results of a good meal, especially one prepared in the company of those you hold dear.

“It brings people together,” Ritacco says. “You laugh and you joke, and you go have a good time.”

Entertaining – especially cooking for guests – is about more than what is served at the table, too.

“To me, that’s an expression of saying ‘You’re important to us.’”

A kitchen of their own

Ritacco and his wife, Jean, have been in Westchester since 1993 and their current home since 1997 but only recently renovated their kitchen.

For years, they lived with what came with the house, not feeling the urge to make grand changes.

After all, it was working for John.

“It’s amazing what you can get out of a kitchen,” he says, though he clearly appreciates today’s airy study in sleek white cabinets and expansive countertops.

“It’s nice to have all these modern conveniences, but you make do with what you have,” John says. “You get it done.”

But big productions, such as Thanksgiving dinners or family meals that might include a couple of dozen guests, were a daunting undertaking.

“The worst part is trying not to serve something that was cold,” he says. These days, with two ovens, a microwave and a Sub-Zero refrigerator things go much more smoothly.

“It makes it a little easier and the stress level goes down,” he says.

And even though John has become the family’s main cook, he didn’t oversee the renovation, demanding the latest models and such.

“Honestly, I left that all up to Jean,” he says of the renovation, which did include the addition of much-loved pull-out pantry drawers.

John taking over the kitchen duties was more, he says, a “slow transition.”

As Jean puts it: “I always said, ‘I do the first 15 (years) and he does the last 15.’”

But it’s fine with her, as her own schedule as a clinical trials nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Sleepy Hollow is also demanding.

“Now I do the prep and the table,” she says.

And the baking, John proudly adds.

They don’t often cook together, though.

“When he’s in that kitchen, he takes over,” Jean says with a laugh.

Joking aside, she says John being in the kitchen is a good thing, especially when she considers what his days at work bring.

“It’s a stressful job,” Jean says. “He finds it very relaxing.”

Italian influences

John clearly connects his love of cooking to his childhood, a tangible way of keeping memories of a much-simpler way of life alive.

“In those days, when we were kids, the fish guy would come to the house. The bread guy would come to the house,” he says. Daily trips would be made to the butcher and the produce stands.

“On Sundays, they would go to Mass and then they’d cook,” he says of his parents.

Again, it was more than just about the meal. “It was a method to bring people together.”

But those meals, whether fresh pasta or traditional dishes such as bracciole, became part of a wealth of treasured memories that extend to a crank-operated pasta machine brought back from Aunt Grace’s trip to Italy or collecting fresh eggs for breakfast from an uncle’s chickens.

John’s later travels to Italy helped him understand the roots of that way of life, with those daily market trips now echoed in his own trips to local farmers markets.

So much, he says, ties back to family.

“When we were young, Jean and I first married, we would always go to Mom and Dad’s home for Sunday dinner,” he says. When the babies came, the parents would bring the dinner to them.

It was all quite a change for Jean, who comes from a German-French-Dutch background where food was more along what she says was the “meat-and-potatoes” line.

“You never really thought about food,” she says.

She embraced John’s family, food and traditions right away, she says, and even “stopped going home for the holidays.”

Honing his skills

Through the years, John says he did his share of attempting complicated dishes. There were elaborate vegetable presentations and fanciful dishes with lobster, some from a book devoted to the historic Delmonico’s restaurant. It remains a favorite, along with books by Katonah chef-author Edward Giobi and Italian chefs Rita and Mariano Pane.

“If you’re willing to experiment and if you’re willing to use your guests as guinea pigs, you become more confident,” John says with a laugh.

There is the danger, though, of becoming too focused on perfection, turning the process into a race to attempt one feat after another.

“I tend not to do that as much anymore,” he says.

Now, more times that not, he is relying on dishes beloved and first made by his mother or his aunt.

“They would always give you their recipes,” he says, whether it’s for a particular pasta or a favorite meatball. He’s recently begun growing his own zucchini to make another family favorite, zucchini flowers.

He’ll also make a well-received veal or chicken saltimbocca, serving them over spinach or risotto.

“Your shrimp is always good,” chimes in Jean, paying tribute to his scampi.

Over the years he has expanded his repertoire, but constants are pastas and dishes flavored with herbs such as parsley, oregano, pepper, basil and garlic, though he often opts for powder over fresh.

“With the cloves, you really never know” the exact flavor, he says.

Today, he has a garden alongside his pool where tomatoes, zucchini, parsley, basil and cilantro grow.

It adds another dimension to what comes out of his kitchen.

“We just go with the flow, whatever the season is we’ll cook,” he says.

Of course, his passion has made him the envy of many a friend’s wife, especially those who hear he practically makes every meal.

Suddenly, they are looking for their own husbands to step up – and the husbands are playfully grumbling about John.

With a laugh, John says, “That’s not an accolade you really look forward to.”

Serving memories

The greens chairman at Waccabuc Country Club, John was the force behind the creation of a full garden on the grounds, sparking a farm-to-table menu to begin there. A hands-on guy, he’s also often at the club at 6 a.m., checking for weeds and monitoring the garden’s progress.

And of course, food has become a key thread in the Ritacco family’s own fabric, where weekend meals and celebrations take center stage.

Their now-grown children – two sons and a daughter – have been influenced by both their parents’ time in the kitchen.

As Jean proudly shares, the kids cook “everything from scratch.”

Though his children do make some of his signature dishes already, John says he’d like to gather up all his recipes to keep the traditions going for many years to come.

“If I do ever get to retire, some day I’ll log it all in,” he says.

He shares a story of growing up eating the traditional Easter breakfast his father made, one that featured two omelets, one with asparagus and the other a personal spin on the traditional pizza rustica, a mix of meats and cheeses.

It’s an Easter menu John has continued.

“The kids look forward to that,” he says. “If we don’t make it, they say ‘Where’s the Easter breakfast?’” and insist on it.

And while he knows the dishes are indeed tasty, he realizes that they also symbolize family togetherness, the shared memories that have made a lasting impact.

And that’s a dish that John is happy to call a specialty. “That’s really what you pass down, isn’t it, at the end of the day? That’s really what it’s all about.”

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