As Rob Ruggiero stirs a simmering spaghetti sauce, adding a touch of this and that, Antoinette LaVecchia cranks out sheets of freshly-made sheets of golden pasta.
"This is very good practice for me," she says as she lays out the strips to dry on the granite counter in Ruggiero's West Hartford kitchen. "Now, would you like some pepper on your antipasti?"
LaVecchia will be serving homemade pasta — and more — eight times a week when she performs in the one-person show, "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," based on the memoir by Giulia Melucci. The world premiere, which Ruggiero directs, is now in previews at Hartford's TheaterWorks and opens Friday, June 8. The run continues through July 8.
During the course of the show, adapted by Jacques Lamarre, LaVecchia not only makes spaghetti sauce and pasta from scratch but serves the dish — along with an antipasti, salad and wine — to about 10 tables in the front section for each show.
She rolls out another sheet of pasta, folding it over her arm in a graceful, near-poetic gesture.
"I feel like I was destined to be in this play," says LaVecchia. "In all the plays I've ever done, no play has asked me just to me myself more than this one."
But where is the line between herself and Melucci?
"Oh, it's a very thin line,' she says, laughing, and topping her guest's glass with red wine.
Melucci's book chronicles the author's difficulties in meeting men in New York and how her love of cooking Italian helps her cope with romance and find comfort in food and understanding herself.
But LaVecchi and Ruggiero are quick to point out that the show should not be reduced to "Bad Dates" — Italian-Style.
"The Italian thing comes up in her cooking more than anything else," says LaVecchia, "but other than that, she's this incredibly bright Sarah Lawrence grad who is an art history major. She is a true New Yorker, that's what you get from her. And she doesn't date any Italian-American men in her book. Not one. "
"There's a smart Jewish guy," says Ruggiero. "Another who's a cute preppy guy. And then there's an older man — when her desperation level was up — she dated. Quite older."
"She is not your stereotypical Italian-American. I'm not your stereotypical Italian-American," she says. "We're both highly-educated women who find themselves in the arts and New Yorkers. Being Italian informs us of who we are but it doesn't define us completely."
"She cooks through her issues in her play," says Ruggiero.
"Cooking is for something that she comes naturally to her," says LaVecchia. "She was surprised how confident it made her feel, how attractive it made her feel, and that made her feel better than the men
"Cooking was also a way to express love to others and for yourself," says Ruggerio. "The act of making homemade pasta is something that is extraordinarily intimate
"And generous," she says.
"You don't make homemade pasta for just anybody," he says. "It's an act of love."
Her Italy Story
LaVecchia certainly has the Italian connection down pat. She was born in San Rufo, Italy, a tiny mountain village two hours south of Naples. "It's locally famous for all these miracles that the Virgin Mary performed in the 14th and 15th century except that the town was too poor to go to the Vatican to have them documented, so it's just in the local history books."
She came to the U.S. with her family when she was 2, "though we went back every year for our vacation". They first settled with cousins in Norwalk before her father got a job as a laborer on a 400-acre Ziegler estate in Darien in the '70s.
"Wait, it gets better," she says. "When I was 6 years, they told my father that he could move his family to an apartment above the greenhouse. So that's where I grew up with my two brothers, on Long Island Sound on an estate. With one brother who was too young and an older brother who was off with the boys on the estate, I was alone with my imagination. It was magical
"Having an Italian immigrant, very Catholic mother who didn't speak English and was terrified of change, she took out all her fear on me. We had a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship, as many are. But now my relationship with my mother is fantastic."
LaVecchia went to Darien High, then to Cornell University, then to the graduate acting program at New York University. She knew from a young age she wanted to be an actress but it was a secret she kept from her parents until the day she graduated from Cornell, ostensibly as an English major.
"My dad wanted to get me a job at an insurance agency because that's what I was doing every summer. I was so depressed. I finally said to them there's no way I could do this and told them I was going to graduate school in acting. I have to give them credit, as much as they so wish I had chosen another profession, they still supported me, maybe not emotionally, but they helped me out with money when I needed it. They helped me put down a down payment on an apartment; they were always there for me."
She says her parents were most proud when she was an adjunct professor at NYU's acting program and when she performed at Carnegie Hall.
"There was a Puccini Festival with an orchestra, world-class opera singers and they needed an actor who could speak Italian fluently for this fable Puccini had in his very first opera, and I was the person to speak it. I wore this tight red gown and a choker and I felt like Cinderella. My parents came and they left at intermisison because I was just in the first act and they had to work the next day."
They also were proud of LaVecchia's one-person autobiographical show, "How To Be a Good Italian Daughter (In Spite of Myself),' which played at off-Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre in 2009. That show has been on hold because "I've been doing other people's plays" (including the Broadway production "A View from the Bridge" with Scarlett Johansen).
"I knew Antoinette could deliver our show because she's done a lot of solo shows," says Ruggiero. ""Doesn't she remind you of Tracy Ullman?"
But this solo show also has an epic irony for an Italian: LaVecchia is allergic to pasta and cheese.
"Well, all grains. I can have brown rice pasta but I miss the cheeses most of all. I developed the allergies after my divorce in 2000, which was traumatic to me. It wasn't the fact that my marriage ended, which was fabulous, but I was the first divorce of my entire family — even though there were all these women in my ancestry who should have left their husbands. I was the first one who said, 'Nope. I'm not going to stick it out.' I was terrified to tell my parents and I didn't tell them for six months until a hairdresser on 'One Life to live' which I was appearing on, refused to finish my hair until I told my father. So I ran out and got on pay phone and I cried and told my father than I left my husband and as I'm weeping on the phone and my father is being so sweet there's a homeless man screaming at me to get off the phone. It was so'30 Rock.' "
She uses wheat flour to make the pasta on stage. All ingredients are supplied by D & D Market on Hartford's Franklin Avenue. Hartford Baking Co. in West Hartford is donating the bread for the production and S.K. Lavery Appliance Company in West Hartford has given the theater use of an induction stove top.
Ruggiero serves a bowl of steaming pasta, ladling the sauce generously over the top.
"For an Italian, it's all about the sauce," he says.
"It's like mother's milk," she says.
"And everybody likes their mother's sauce best," he says.
"That is the truest thing that could ever be spoken,' she says.
"Do that line about Giulia's mother," he directs.
"'She may not have been the best teacher at the game of love," she recalls, "but at least she sent me out into the world with the clear knowledge of how to make a simple tomato sauce."
I LOVED, I LOST, I MADE SPAGHETTI is now in previews at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford and opens on Friday, June 8. The show runs through July 8. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63; and $76 for limited 'kitchen" seating. Student rush seats are $17. Information : 860-527-7838 and http://www.theaterworkshartford.org, http://www.antoinettelavecchia.com, http://www.ilovedilostimadespaghetti.com
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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