Food & Drink October 6, 2010

Cristina's Tale

Italians touch each other. They interact. They are never lonely. They joke about and savor the little things that happen every day.” Cristina Cook (born Ceccatelli) is remembering the way Italians relate around the dinner table.

Several years ago, finding Americans more reserved in their approach to food—and to life—she imported a little bit of the passion of Italy to Idaho. Cristina’s Restaurant, a tiny, salmon-colored cottage filled with packed tables, is a place where people can linger, talk, and enjoy life—like the Italians.

Up at 4:30 a.m. with a wonderful team of cooks, baking fresh Italian breads for the locals and packing creative lunches for celebrities to enjoy on their private jets, Cristina has worked hard for her success. The dramatic story of how she ended up in Ketchum, Idaho—something she still marvels about, even today—reveals something of her passionate Italian nature, and indicates a strength of character that has endured in the face of many challenges.

“I was born in a farmhouse in Tuscany…” muses Cristina with her usual wry sense of humor, knowing that the farmhouse was really only one of several buildings on her family’s huge estate. “I grew up in big kitchens with fireplaces, and someone was always cooking. I have memories of all these women lined up making the tomato sauce and jams in the summer, putting it in jars for the winter.” On the estate they grew wheat, corn, sugar beets, oats, and potatoes. She remembers riding horseback past acres of trees full of pears, cherries, apricots, and apples—and, of course, olive trees and vineyards.

“I have memories of the corn and wheat harvests. Farmers came with a big truck and laid the wheat all over the ground in front of the farmhouse, where they would hit it with big sticks to break the seed from the stems. The seed would be taken to the mill to make the flour for fresh breads. Whatever was left—all the stems and dried leaves—was made into straw bales, like the bales of hay you see on the way to Boise.

“At the end of weeks of this kind of work, the harvest feast was a major event—huge meals where pork and boar were cooked on a stick. There are so many kinds of boar sausages that are beautiful, wonderful. I order wild boar sausages from Italy to use in the restaurant now, in cassoulets or with beans. Italians just cook them up in a frying pan and eat them with bread.

“Italy went through a huge agricultural crisis between the late ’60s and ’80s, when a lot of people lost their villas. People left the country to work in the city in factories, and these huge estates were left with no labor. My father had grown up with a dislike of farming—he liked to have a good time and spend his money on racecars and horses. When the agricultural crisis came, he didn’t have a plan. He wanted out, so our estate was sold. On the farm, the whole family had been living together—my aunts, in-laws, cousins—but then everyone split up. One aunt went to Venezuela.”

Cristina’s immediate family moved to Florence. After attending college there and teaching Italian literature in the public schools for 17 years, Cristina, to her surprise, ended up living in Idaho.

“I met an American girl in Florence—Jennifer Cook—and we became friends. She lived in Boise, but was in Florence from Harvard to study the history of twelfth-century art for her Ph.D.”

Cristina accepted an invitation to visit Boise, where she met Jennifer’s brother Steve, a Ketchum architect. They began a jet-set romance, Cristina flying back and forth between Ketchum and Italy. When she became pregnant, Steve wanted the baby to be born in the U.S.
“I went into labor early, and Dr. Stone told us the hospital couldn’t handle the premature baby. They called the helicopter to fly me to Boise. It was snowing like crazy, and the helicopter couldn’t take off. In the meantime, the doctor said this could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Since we weren’t married, Steve’s insurance wouldn’t cover the expenses. So Steve called Dan Alban, the judge in Hailey, and said, ‘Dan, come now. We have about 15 minutes.’ They put me on an IV to stop the contractions. Dan came. He married us. And they put me in an ambulance because the helicopter still couldn’t take off for Boise.

“Christopher was born two days later without his left arm—we don’t know why—and he weighed just two pounds. He was in intensive care for 22 days. It was hard. I had no clue what was going to happen.”

Cristina spoke very little English at the time, and believes it was her sense of humor, inherited from her father, that got her through. Christopher came through, too. He graduated from The Community School this year, with several college acceptances to choose from.
After commuting back and forth between Ketchum and Italy for four more years, Cristina finally decided to settle in Boise with Steve. “In Boise, I was going nuts. I went to BSU to try to teach Italian, but no one was interested in Italian. I thought maybe I could be a dental hygienist. I have a degree in psychology, so I considered maybe doing something with that. Then a friend, Everett Halfhide, said, ‘Why don’t we open a restaurant?’

“I went back to Italy and spent ten days with a friend who has an old bakery, learning about bread, focaccia in the wood oven, pastries—but just the basics, because Italians are pretty basic when you go into the real towns. I came back and started making breads and experimenting with desserts for the restaurant, Everett Company. They put me in The Idaho Statesman because I did a tiramisu that Boise had never seen before.” She laughs, “People who were not used to Italian bread used to bring it back and say that since they couldn’t cut it, the bread was no good whatsoever.

“We eventually opened a place in Ketchum on the Walnut Mall and closed the Boise restaurant. Then, one day in September of 1992, at 1 a.m., I got a call from a friend that Everett was dead on the couch. It was a massive heart attack.

“Afterwards I said, ‘I guess I have to do it by myself.’ We borrowed a lot of money and I bought the building where I am now. My life has changed since then,” she laughs, “because I haven’t been home one day since.

“I reopened that December. Everett and I had some parties scheduled for that Christmas, and when he died, a lot of people called me to cancel.” But several important people continued their support. After one big New Year’s Party, the word was out that “Cristina actually did it.”
She brought a little of the Italian “la dolce vita” to Ketchum, and the locals still can’t get enough.

“I think it’s been the personal approach to the food and the way I approach the customers. I’m always there. I love to talk and I love the food and I think that people sense that it’s not just a little pint of macaroni and cheese to go, but it’s the love I have for what I do. I open the restaurant from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for breakfast and lunch, and people begin coming at 6:30 a.m. A lot of people who are alone come to Cristina’s to talk, have a cup of coffee, to interact.”

As we chat, people pour into the restaurant. Many are greeted by name. There is a special alligator-shaped frosted cookie for a woman who has her godchild for the day. Cristina jumps up to check every order. She adds a real orchid to a beautiful chocolate cake, wrapping the box in ribbon, not string. Every detail is important.

“I think what attracted people at first was the ‘real thing’: She’s Italian—she actually came from Italy! I tried to get all my cheeses shipped from Italy, and the first leg of prosciutto in Ketchum was at Cristina’s. I put the cheese out for people to taste. They were very concerned about the fat at first. Now, ten years later, it is different. People can’t live without the cheese.”

Cristina loves the creative aspect of what she does. She has no stock catering menu. A special menu for each customer springs from her mind—and from her thousands of cookbooks. “When I do catering or take-out for people, I think my degree in psychology helps a lot. I always try to understand the person I’m working for. If I do chicken for one certain customer, it has to be sparkling, because I know from the way she dresses exactly what kind of food she’s looking for. I try to figure out what people expect from me and match their expectations.”
The sense of enjoyment rises in her voice as she begins to talk about the glass display case where she creates different arrangements each week, depending on what is fresh. Cheeses, fresh salamis, hummus, portabella mushrooms stuffed with peppers, broccolini and Gruyère, fresh anchovies, many varieties of olives, cookies, desserts, and more. Today, she is proud of the baby artichokes she found—like the ones in Italy.

Cristina’s creative projects from this past year included teaching a cooking class. She escorted a small group from Ketchum to Italy, where they stayed at an old villa—a restored estate that might otherwise have been lost but has been given new life by tourism. The group shopped at the wonderful open market in the square in Greve, where Cristina’s family also has a villa. After the fresh ingredients were chosen, she taught the class how to cook the Italian way.

“Food is sustenance for life. It’s a basic of life. The first few years I was here, it seemed that people were scared of food, of eating too much. The chocolates were too good: ‘I can’t touch it because I won’t stop eating it.’ Or ‘Pasta has too many calories!’ There was always some kind of anxiety with people and food, which for me was a new thing.

“But food for me was always a joy! It’s a sensual relationship with the food. When you eat, you should take some time out of your busy day to enjoy what you eat. That’s my philosophy. That’s how I approach this restaurant. It’s not something that you pack up and eat while you’re driving to Boise—running, rushing. I like my breadbasket, the olive oil. You enjoy your pasta and your red wine and it’s fun! It’s great! It’s one of the few simple pleasures in life.”

Bountiful pleasures that Cristina shares every day.




This article appears in the Summer 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.