Pasta Amore e Fantasia
This article is a third in my ongoing series, “An Ideal Spaghetti Sauce,” in honor of my mother, Nettie Marino, who in an unspoken covenant faithfully delivered the real deal every week to her family when it came to red gravy and spaghetti. My sisters and I have set off again on our second adventure visiting another local Italian restaurant, eager to discover if the red sauce they offer, can possibly compare to the spaghetti sauce our family took for granted every Sunday.
In this latest episode, the Marino Sisters visited Leo Fascianella, owner and executive chef of one of the city’s finest Italian restaurants, Pasta Amore e Fantasia. Leo is the epitome of an ideal Italian life. Born in the Midwest, the Midwest of Sicily that is, in the village of San Cataldo, Leo began his culinary career working in his grandfather’s restaurant. These authentic treasures he honed traveled with him to his Midwest home of Omaha, Nebraska resulting in a Four Star restaurant of his own.
Leo joined us after the hostess seated my sisters and I at a table with white linens graced with a freshly cut red rose, an Italian symbol of passion and love. Very appropriate for Leo, a passionate man in love with life and the food he creates. He made us feel special and welcomed us while chatting away about life in Sicily: “A Sicilian man needs his own piece of land, his own country,” he said. So here in town, Leo owns his own acreages supplying his own produce, chickens and eggs. This makes sense for the quality his recipes deserve as we began to understand this chef and his restaurant.
We were immediately invited to the “back of the house,” his domain—the kitchen. Leo introduced his son and staff while they bustled around us in orderly fashion as we received the VIP tour. Bread dough braided into small loafs rising in ovens made our mouths water. Leo displayed his freezer, packed with freshly made homemade pasta made directly on the premises with his own pasta machine. We learned later (and were very tickled), that he’d acquired the machine from our cousin Joe Marino, an Omaha icon who owned Marino’s Deli for years.
In a center island of his kitchen, steam was rising from large pots filled with spaghetti sauce. We were immediately intoxicated with all the familiar aromas. Leo took a large white platter, and after handing out tablespoons to each of us, ladled out three helpings, one from each pot, for the Marino Sisters to taste. These are his signature red sauces: Sugo, Bolognese and Marinara, woven into major recipes on his menu. One of the sauces was extremely close to our mother’s, almost bringing us to tears. After discussing many culinary topics like: familiar ingredients found in any great sauce; the endless varieties of goat cheese; and the virtue of fennel at any Italian table; we took one more look around the kitchen and then decided it was time to eat!
After having our picture taken with Leo in the large party room, we returned to the intimate dining room guided back by our hostess, where our server waited to take our order. We ordered recklessly, knowing we would share portions to have plenty of variety. I ordered the Salmon Greco; Carol decided on the Penne with Marinara (chosen from the pasta/sauce custom column); Cathy order Fettaccine Alfredo Con Pollo; and Connie ordered the Ravioli.
Three of us began with a side salad and “that bread!” out of the oven with homemade dressings. My sister Cathy ordered the soup, Pasta Fagioli; very similar to our mother’s version we reminisced simmering on the stove. After devouring our shared entrees, we topped off the evening with, you guessed it: Tirami Su and coffee. Now that was a fork fight! Next time we’re all ordering our own!
After our dining experience, we made our way back to the kitchen to say farewell and to ask Leo one last question. We found our chef tossing olive oil and garlic in a pan standing at his massive stove. Amid the steam and the sounds of kitchen clatter, we told Leo that we wondered with all his frequent travels to Italy and Sicily—which one is the most beautiful? Leo, never taking his eyes off the flying garlic and knowing our family’s origin of Carlenti, Sicily, quoted Goethe: “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily, is to not have seen Italy at all ….”
And with that, the Marino Sisters waved goodbye promising to return, taking with us the beauty of both Italy and Sicily in Leo Fascianella and his restaurant, Pasta Amore e Fantasia!