RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mo Rocca has one big regret in life - well, he may have more than one - but we're going to limit our conversation to the one about cooking. Mo never hung out with his grandmother in her kitchen and learned how to cook up the recipes that he loved as a kid. But the humorist, actor and familiar voice on NPR has taken that regret and turned it into an opportunity to expand his culinary horizons - and a new TV special. His new show is called "My Grandmother's Ravioli," and on the program he travels to the homes of grandparents with a culinary flare and he learns how to make their signature dishes. Mo Rocca joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Hi, Mo. Welcome.
MO ROCCA: Thank you, Rachel. And I'm glad we're just sticking to one regret.
MARTIN: OK. So, how did you come up with this idea in the first place?
ROCCA: Well, let me tell you something. I had a friend over for takeout - since I don't cook, that's all I could serve him. And he said, you know, do you have any salt? I need some salt. And I said, yeah, I think in the cupboard over the oven that I never use. And he said that's sugar. And I realized I didn't even have salt in my apartment. I mean, it's pathetic. And it is a great shame of mine. And if I had a time machine, I'd go back 30 years and show up two hours early before my grandmother served us gargantuan Sunday meals, these great Sunday meals. I'd show up early and I'd help her and I'd learn from her. And she made extraordinary meals. And I don't have her anymore, so I'm doing the next best thing, which is learning from the old masters - from grandmothers and grandfathers across the country.
MARTIN: So, your first stop on this journey is in New Jersey at the home of Mila. She's a Filipina grandmother, and she's making paella on this day. And she's sort of spicy herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MY GRANDMOTHER'S RAVIOLI")
ROCCA: Does the champagne have any effect on you?
MILA: Great effect. Let's drink to that.
ROCCA: OK, all right. I'll drink to that.
MILA: (Singing in foreign language) We're singing to the best of worlds.
ROCCA: Champagne really makes you sing.
MILA: Oh my goodness.
ROCCA: And her husband is Romanian and he and I made sausage together with his own grandmother's, his Transylvanian grandmother's meat grinder. And what I didn't know until we were actually working the meat grinder is that he escaped from communist Romania clinging to the bottom of a train and then swam across the Danube and he had his grandmother's meat grinder, which probably a mistake because, who knows, maybe the dog smelled the meat or something. But...
MARTIN: And it just generally sounds dangerous to run away with a meat grinder.
ROCCA: Although it could be a weapon, I suppose. But I found with these people that they were natural. It wasn't shtick. I mean, that they were just doing what they do in the kitchen.
MARTIN: So, here's my question to you though, you know, 'cause I remember my grandmother as being this really great cook and she would make these treats and desserts for us and she was really big on hot chocolate. And she would bring these steamy cups of hot chocolate out with this special white cream on top that later I found out was like marshmallow cream that could have survived a nuclear war. It was not special. It came out of a jar. But I'm wondering if there are some recipes that should just kind of remain in the rose-colored tint of our childhood. Are they ever as good we remembered them when we were kids?
ROCCA: You know, that's a good question. When I look back at big Thanksgiving dinners and I realize, of course, the little grooves around the big cylinder of cranberry sauce, that was made by a can. Those were not hand-carved by my grandmother. And, you know, I loved the taste of the canned cranberry sauce. And indeed, Mila, the Filipina grandmother, Filipino grandmother, I should say, who made the paella with me, when she brought out the black-eyed peas, they were frozen black-eyed peas. And I thought, all right, well, good for her, yeah, she's not going to, you know...
ROCCA: And also it was made better by the fact that she act sang (Singing) I got the feeling tonight's going to be a paella night. I mean, she actually sang that. She's a 73-year-old Filipino grandmother singing black-eyed peas parodies. You can't beat that.
MARTIN: Your second stop - you go to Frank's house. And he's an Italian grandfather from this tiny little town in Italy. It's only got one stove. Everyone shares it. And you tell him he sounds like Christopher Walken playing a characteristic godfather.
ROCCA: Which he does.
MARTIN: Which he does, especially when he's talking about his main dish. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "MY GRANDMOTHER'S RAVIOLI")
ROCCA: Are we going to make rabbit tonight?
FRANK: Yes, yes, we're going to try to make some.
ROCCA: What are we going to tell people we're serving them?
FRANK: Chicken a la cacciatore. You don't say nothing. I don't say anything. Our secret. Don't worry about it. Capice? Cappito.
ROCCA: Oh, cappito.
FRANK: You got to talk Italian, you got to talk it right.
MARTIN: OK. Really? You didn't script that? He was...
ROCCA: No. I'm telling you...believe me, these grandparents, I don't even know if they really wanted me to come to their homes, but they're going to become stars whether they like it or not. You know, in his story, this is a man, a doctor, whose wife was apparently a great cook. She died five years ago. And this man in his late 70s went and interned at a local restaurant to learn to make the dishes that his wife made for him. Now, if you're not moved by that, you've got a heart of stone.
MARTIN: At the end of the show, there's a moment when the folks you've been spending time with, the cook, prepares a meal and that person's family gathers around. Is that what we're going to see in each episode and why is that an important way to conclude?
ROCCA: You know, I think that it's an important way to conclude because I think it's why people like these grandparents cook. Because the best thing of all is to bring their families and their loved ones, their friends together around a table. And, you know, frankly, I'm single right now and I want to have a family. And so I think frankly that's why I was drawn to the idea, because it's a beautiful thing and watching it is inspiring.
MARTIN: You heard it, listeners. Mo Rocca is looking for a companion who can cook.
ROCCA: Hence, I'm looking for grandparents and singles. These are different people. These are different people.
MARTIN: Mo Rocca is the host of "My Grandmother's Ravioli." The special premieres tonight at 8 P.M. Eastern on the Cooking Channel. Mo Rocca joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Mr. Rocca, thanks for joining us.
ROCCA: Thank you, Rachel. Bon appetit.
MARTIN: And you could find Frank's recipe for rabbit cacciatore at our website, NPR.org.