If they ever do a soap opera about going into the restaurant business, Angela Traettino should have the starring role and her husband, Luigi, could play the male lead.
The Traettinos, who came to this country 18 years ago, received their permanent visas only last November. One month later they signed the lease on the building that now houses their Bethesda restaurant, Positano. It took until April to make the place clean enough to open for business. By June, they had decided they were either going to buy out their partner to get out of the business.
Customers who eat under their watchful eyes in the restaurant have no idea of the problems they have faced. They talk to the diners as if they were friends in for dinner. One or both of them are always chattering away, offering advice on what to choose from the menu, how the dishes are made and sometimes suggesting, "Why don't you choose something else because the clams they sent us are much too big. I am throwing them out."
If you aren't happy and well-fed after a meal, it's your own fault.
Angela begins cooking at 8 a.m., six days a week. Sometimes she has help; sometimes she doesn't. Luigi joins here each evening after working a full day as a draftsman at the International Monetary Fund. They finally get to bed about 1 a.m.
The cooking of northern and southern Italy have come together in Angela's kitchen. Her family's Venetian dishes, which call for butter and exphasize cream and veal, are prepared fresh each day, as are the Neopolitan dishes of her husband's family with their emphasis on tomatoes and use of oil. There is one exception: the time-consuming potato dumplings are made in quantity when time permits and frozen.
Angela uses olive oil in combination with other oils to keep costs down, but she skimps on little else. When champagne is called for she uses sparkling white wine from the Asti region. The veal is properly pale and tender. Sauces are thick and full of meat. Portions are tremendous. Angela cooks with a delicate hand when she is making the veal dishes, more forcefully when she is preparing the more powerfully seasoned dishes of southern Italy.
Before she became a full-time restaurateur, she made desserts for another Italian restaurant. With the exception of cannoli, she makes all of Positano's sweets: an Italian rum cake, chocolate mousse and creme caramel.
THe menu does not change often, though some things may not be available on a given day because they do not meet the Traettinos' standards. When there is no fresh red snapper, frozen is not substituted; another kind of fish is offered instead.
Behind the scenes, what others consider hard work, Angela takes as a matter of course. "Put me anywhere: in the field, on the roof, as a plumber, electrician. I fix everything, anything. The only thing that scares me is if I have to be out front and there isn't anyone in hte kitchen." And that is the Traettinos' current dilemma. Cooks come and go with frightening rapidity. It's a common problem in the business.
When Angela met her husband on a train in Italy, little did she think she would be running a restaurant. They correspondedfor two years while she was in this country as a "nanny" for the child of an Italian general. Then Luigi came to visit her, married her, obtained a diplomatic visa, and stayed.
Three children later, the Traettinos are up to their eyeballs in pots and pasta in Bethesda. Luigi has had his heart set on a restaurant since his marriage. "I always felt a little ashamed. All my brothers and sisters are in the restaurant or cheese business in Italy. I was the only outcast."
Actually, Luigi and one of his brothers have run a beach restaurant in Italy every summer until this year. He would spend his two months annual home leave working in the restaurant; his brother would operate it the other two.
For Angela, cooking in large quantities is nothing new. She comes from an extended family of 46. Each day one of the children helped her mother cook. "Every woman in the family took turns cooking. When we were very little children we couldn't do anything but pick a tomato. They would teach us to distinguish between weeds and good things. The family grew everything. I still remember like now, cooking the duck and the goose in a terra cotta pot in the middle of a charcoal fire. We had an octagonal fireplace you could walk into.
"We would bake a cornmeal bread, this big," Angela said as she held out her hands to describe a huge loaf. We covered it with cabbage leaves and put it right in the fireplace and cooked it all night. In the morning we would brush off the ashes and take off the cabbage leaves. I have wonderful memories."
Her more recent memories, of opening a restaurant, are not so wonderful. After the Traetinos signed the lease, the first thing Angela had to do was a jack hammer. Then she had to tackle a pile of unwashed pots and pan, the job of cleaning out the rest rooms and painting.
Shortly after Positano opened, it received a rave review. The Traettinos' partner upped the prices and next day. Soon three of Angela's favorite dishes were removed from the menu because they took too long to make and there was talk of cooking ahead and freezing various other dishes. Angela was beside herself. To protest she stayed home one day "mad." Luigi said to the partner: "Either you own this place or I do."
Angela was heartbroken. "You clean it, you scrub it, and put your heart into it and then . . ." She never finished her thought.
They were ready to sell out but their 14-year-old daughter, Janet, told her father he was "chicken."
"She talked us out of it," Luigi acknowledges with a certain amount of parental pride. They borrowed the money to buy out the partner with whom they are once again "good friends."
It's a family operation now. Janet is cashier after school, 11-year-old John is assistant dishwasher and 16-year-old Jimmy is busboy. But the Traettinos know they cannot run the place with only one of them working full time.
While most restauateurs talk about expanding, what the Traettinos would really like is a smaller place where Angela could cook alone and not have to eye on the kitchen while she's out entertaining her customers.
Positano, at 7905 Norfolk St. in Bethesda, is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and for dinner on Saturday.
Here are several of Angela's recipes. VEAL MATRIMONIO (6 servings)
The dish is so named because it is a marriage of chicken and veal, celabrated with champagne. 1 small onion, coarsely chopped 1 small zucchini, coarsely cut 1 large clove garlie, crushed 2 tablespoon butter 1 mild Italian sausage, easing removed 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped parsley 6 chicken breast halves, skinned, boned and pounded flat 6 scallopini of veal 3/4 teaspoon white pepper 1/4 dried basil leaves Salt to taste 3 thick slices Italian or French bread or 1 1/2 slices white bread, broken up 1 1/2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese 3 tablespoon oil 3 tablespoons butter 1/3 cup champagne or sparkling white wine
Heat 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter in skillet. Saute the onion, zuccini, garlic, sausage and parsley until onion is soft. Add the bread and mix. Put through grinder in blender or food processor. Add cheese and mix well. Divide stuffing into six parts. Place stuffing on each scallopini of veal. Top with chicken breast and seal by pounding with dege of heavy plate or mallet. Sprinkle both sides with flour lightly. Saute in the remining oil and butter until light golden on both sides and season with salt and pepper. Pour in champagne and cook long enough to heat liquid through. RAGU (4 to 6 servings) 1 lart onion, coarsely chopped 3 or 4 stalks of celery with laves, coarsely chopped 1 large carrot, cut in large dice 1/2 cup oil 2 tablespoons butter 4 cloves garlic, crushed 1 pound ground beef or combination of beef and veal 4 ounces mortadella, cut up 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 teaspoon basil Salt to taste 1 cup white wine 4 cups drained canned tomatoes 5 large bay leaves
Heat the oil and butter and saute the onion, celery, carrot and garlie over high heat until onion is golden. Add the ground meat, mortadella, pepper basil and salt. Cook until mixture as dry. Add the wine and cook 10 to 12minutes until liquid evaporates. Then add the tomatoes and bay leaves. Cool 45 to 60 minutes, uncovered, until sauce is very thick.
Serve over any kind of pasta. STUFFED CHICKEN LEGS This is called prosciuttini de [WORD ILLEGIBLE] or ham (thigh) of the chicken (12 servings) 12 chicken thighs 6 mild Italian sausages, easing removed 2 cups bread which has been softened in water and water squeezed out 2 cups ground mortadella 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese 2 eggs 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 teaspoon basil 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt to taste 1/2 cup oil 1/2 cup butter 1 carrot, cut up 1 large onion, sliced 2 large stalks celery, coarsely cut 2/3 cup white wine
Mix together the sausage, softened bread crumbs, mortadella, Parmesan, eggs, peeper, basil, garlic and salt and put through a grinder or food processor.
Debone chicken thighs. Pull back the skin from the thigh meat and with small sharp knife cut flesh away from the bone. Pull back the skin from the leg bone but leave attached and continue to cut flesh from around the joint and the bone. Continue this peeling and cutting operation, pulling back remaining skin with hand. The skin will now be inside out and the flesh and skin separate from the bone. Turn right side out and stuff with sausage mixture and reshape like thigh. Hold closed with toothpicks.
Saute the stuffed thighs in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] oil and butter mixture for about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] minutes. Season with salt and pepper. PLace in a baking pan in single layer. Pour on drippings from skillet. Sprinkle with carrot, onion and celery. Pour in wine. Cover and cook at 450 degrees about 30 minutes, remove cover and raise heat to 500. Cook 15 minutes longer to brown. Spoon juices over once or twice.
Mortadella is a larded Italian bolgna. RED SNAPPER MARINARA (6 servings) 1/2 cup oil 4 small cloves garlie, chopped 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 3 anchovy fillets, chopped 8 small capers, chopped 6 (4 to 6 ounces each) red snapper fillets Marinara Sauce: 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 3 large cloves garlie 1/2 cup oil 4 cups drained, canned tomatoes Salt and pepper to taste Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 1/2 cup oil in skilled; saute the garlic, parsley, anchovies and capers. Add the fish fillets, flesh side down and cook about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes.
While fish is cooking, prepare marinara sauce. Saute the parsley and garlic in hot oil until garlic begins to turn golden. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and cook quickly over high heat for a few minutes. Pour over fish and allow to heat through. Carefully remove fillets from pan and serve with sauce.