Birocco’s Bagna Càuda

Photo © Cass Birocco

The title of this blog is Italian for Birocco’s Bugna Càuda — a tasty wintertime Italian “fondue.” Gather round the table to dip and you have a party.

First, A Story

I met Cassandra Birocco on the nap-time rug in kindergarten in Clarion, Pennsylvania. We went to the “Training School” – a program of Clarion State College where student teachers got their classroom experience. Translation: we were guinea pigs.

I knew something was awry on the first day of school when I brought my brand-new, rolled-up-in-plastic, 3 feet x 5 feet, lavender, furry rug for nap time and handed it to Miss Boyle. She tried to fit it in my assigned 12-inch x 12-inch x 12-inch cubby. She looked at me and said, “It won’t fit.” I meekly suggested that if we took it out of the plastic and folded it, that it would fit. It hadn’t dawned on her. Thus began my career in advising people how to do things.

Cass and I became fast friends. I remember that her mom would send the best treat to school for her birthday – little chocolate cakes baked in cake cones, frosted with chocolate frosting with three brown M&M’s on top. We moved on to first grade together to another school – Immaculate Conception Catholic Grade School – where I enjoyed those birthday cakes for years to come.

Cass was the third child and only girl to Joe and Evelyn Birocco and, rightly so, she was doted on and loved. She was cute with dimples, wore stylish clothes and had long hair that was styled into one long, awesome braid down her back accented with a bow at the end. The Birocco’s lived on Main Street in a big old house and going to her house was a treat in itself. Cass had her own room with her own bathroom and it was decorated like nothing I had ever seen before. She also played a baby grand piano starting at age five. I begged her to play each time I visited. I sat on the bench, sang, and turned her pages.

Better yet, her house was right next to Immaculate Conception Grade School where we spent the next eight years together. This meant I could go to her house nearly every day after school. Cass was (and is) artistic, creative, musical, and introspective. Back then, they called it shy. I, on the other hand, was outgoing, chatty and loved a good prank. We made a good pair. Going to her house was a great escape from my house where I was the middle child of five who sometimes got lost in the chaos of a big family. Here, Cass was the princess and I her adoring subject.

Welcome to the Birocco’s

I vividly remember the summer day when Cass’s mom made lunch for us and served it to us on a card table for two on the lawn with a white linen tablecloth and napkins. Never had I enjoyed a ham on white and a glass of milk so much!

A typical day after school at her house was to first work on our homework. I helped her with sentence diagrams and she helped me with my art projects or any project that required artistic skills. I was inept and she was happy to practically do them for me. Cass never met an art project she didn’t like.

School days together.

By 5:30 p.m. her dad would come home and settle in the living room to watch NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report with a libation of some sort. Her mom and their neighbor, Olga, and sometimes her grandmother, would gather in the kitchen with a cocktail and some munchies and chat about everything (especially if Evelyn had gone to the beauty parlor that day). An early hospitality lesson: Joe in the living room, the hens in the kitchen, the little chicks with big ears (Cass and I), munching along with our glasses of milk sitting with the ladies.

One Special Italian Treat

If I was lucky I would be at their house when they had an Italian dish called Bagna Càuda. The dish was reserved for special occasions but sometimes I would have the leftovers with Cass. Or, if it was Autumn Leaf Festival time, a fall week-long event in Clarion, they would make it. We would eat the warm oil dip when we returned frozen-to-the bone from riding the carnival rides all day on Dollar Day. This dish was foreign to me, but oh so good. Cass poured us tall glasses of ice-cold milk and taught me how to dip the veggies in hot oil. To this day, I have only ever eaten this dish at the Birocco’s. It is embedded in my memory of Birocco hospitality.

Bagna Càuda Lives On

Cass and I lost touch. We went our separate ways sometime in high school when our family moved away. It was this blog that really brought us back together. Cass is a photographer and one of her specialties is food photography. Again, a perfect match — she the creative one and me the word girl. She has graciously provided photos for this blog whenever I ask. (Check out her stunning presentation of key limes.) We e-mail back and forth about the old days and about Bagna Càuda. We agreed that this dish has to appear on this blog. So, without further adieu, in Cass’s words, I give you Bagna Càuda.

One final note. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Birocco and Cass. Your warm welcome, your kindness, and your hospitality are embedded in my soul. Mangia!

Memories of Bagna Càuda

By Cass Birocco

I was curious what Wikipedia had to say about Bagna Càuda. Here is what I found:

Bagna Càuda, (from the Piedmontese “hot dip”) alternatively written bagna caôda or bagnacauda, etymologically related to Italian root bagn-, meaning “wet.”

Bagna Càuda is a warm dip typical of Piedmont, Italy, but with numerous local variations. The dish, which is served and consumed in a manner similar to fondue, is made with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, butter, and in some parts of the region, cream. In the past walnut or hazelnut oil would have been used. Sometimes, truffles are used in versions around Alba.

The dish is eaten by dipping raw, boiled or roasted vegetables, especially cardoon, carrot, peppers, fennel, celery, cauliflower, artichokes, and onions. It is traditionally eaten during the autumn and winter months and must be served hot, as the name suggests. It was served in a large pan for communal sharing.

Our Tradition

The Birocco family is from the Piedmont region of Italy. Everyone would come to our house for this Christmas Eve traditional dish. We’d push all the chairs out of the way and stand around the dining table to dip our favorite veggies — cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, celery, green tomatoes — into the hot savory pool. Instead of using a plate, we would hold our catch of oil and veggie over a piece of warm Italian bread to absorb the hot oil. Then we take a bite of the veggie, followed by a bite of the bread, and then rinse it all down with a nice Chianti.

That first bite would always burn the roof of my mouth and serve as a reminder of the season. Ahhhhhhh……MANGIA! Let’s do it again!

Cass (front row, left), celebrates her uncle’s 80th birthday. Back row (center) is her nephew Josh and his wife, Tracy, and their two daughters, Sophia (6) and Luciana (1). Josh (her brother Eric’s son) is a look-a-like of Cass’s father, Joe (in my opinion).

I still make Bagna Càuda. Most people have never eaten it and it is a real treat.

I have an old family recipe that I think rivals anything I have read about, but it’s secret. You’ll just have to come by and try it.

 

Editor’s Note: Since I posted this several people have asked me for a recipe. Yes, it is unusual for me not to publish a recipe with the blog. However, Cass said it, “Family secret.” However, I found two recipes from sources I trust, Epicurious and the Food Network’s Michael Chiarello. So, march on soldiers and try Bagna Càuda this weekend for a mid-winter treat. I’m going to and see if I can recreate some Birocco memories.

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