Capturing a Mother’s Love Through Food

The Making of the Teresa Caffé Cookbook

By Anne Levin 

Food photography by Guy Ambrosino

Food styling by Paul Grimes

Whenever Raoul Momo or any of his four siblings go to Chile to visit their mother, Teresa, she asks them the same question: “What do you want to eat when you get here?”

For Momo, who with brothers Carlo and Anthony run Princeton restaurants Mediterra, Eno Terra, and their mother’s namesake, Teresa Caffé, along with Terra Momo Bread Company, it is probably Risotto Milanese with Ossobuco. “Oh my God,” he says, practically salivating at the thought. “But whatever she makes, it’s delicious. When we were growing up, she was cooking all the time. It was just part of our childhood.”

His memories of meals past gave Momo the idea to collect his 77-year-old, Italian-born mother’s recipes — 120 to be exact — in a book. The Teresa Caffé Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Teresa Azario Momo’s Table is currently in the works, with hopes that it can be finished within the next year.

“I’ve been messing with the idea for about seven years,” says Momo, sitting at a table at Eno Terra’s wine bar on a recent spring morning. “But we are running a restaurant, and when you’re doing that it can be hard to focus. This is such a different endeavor.”

With well-known author and food columnist Anne de Ravel on board as author, the book is on its way. De Ravel, who lives in France, has been spending time with Teresa in the kitchen, getting to know her cooking and trying to transfer recipes to the page. “She is fascinating to watch,” wrote de Ravel in an email. “She is very focused and detailed.”

The real test has been to coax exact measurements and directions out of Teresa, who, like many home cooks, often works without recipes. “Everything is done by feel, look, and smell,” de Ravel wrote. “My biggest challenge was trying to keep up with her and not annoy her too much by stopping with requests of precise measurements or asking too many questions while she was cooking.”

Challenges aside, de Ravel has enjoyed learning about food techniques, cultures, and ingredients from her subject. “She is a wealth of knowledge and very opinionated,” she wrote. “She gave me great insights in the simplicity and complexity of Italian cooking. Her background is fascinating to me, and she has been able to mesh all her experiences into her recipes. She is very resourceful and can easily adapt her cooking based on the ingredients she has in front of her — this is a great lesson for any cook.”

Preparing meals was the furthest thing from Teresa’s mind when she married her husband, Raul Momo Marmonti, at age 17. “I was in boarding school and I thought I was going to marry a wealthy man,” she said during a phone conversation from her home in Chile. “But that didn’t happen. My mother used to tell me, ‘Susie (my nickname), come into the kitchen, you’d better learn how to cook.’ But I would say, ‘I’m marrying a wealthy man, I don’t have to cook.’ But I married a poor man. I married for love.”

Teresa and her late husband had five children — Raoul (they added the “o” to give him the French/Italian spelling), Carlo, Anthony, Caroline, and Venanzio. All are in the restaurant business (Caroline and Venanzio in Denver, Colorado). This was not what their mother had in mind.

“I wanted at least one of them to be a doctor or a lawyer,” Teresa says. “I cannot believe they are in the food business. I was a little devastated, because it’s so much work. But I’m very, very proud of them — I really am.”

The rigors of running a food operation are familiar to Teresa from her own experience. Having moved to the United States in 1960, the family purchased a deli in Nanuet, New York, in the mid-1970s. The name — Esposito’s — was changed to Teresa’s. “It was a bold entrepreneurial move, because she changed the name of this well-known place,” says Raoul Momo. “And she stopped carrying toilet paper.”

The Momo siblings worked at the deli through high school and college. “Believe it or not, I loved it. It was the way to have my kids go to college, because I made good money,” Teresa recalls.

She sold the deli when her husband became ill, and in 1990 they moved back to Chile, his home. She has lived there ever since.

As the Terra Momo Restaurant Group, the siblings would go on to open Teresa’s Caffé in New Brunswick in 1982. A second location on Princeton’s Palmer Square opened a few years later.

Teresa was born in Bergamo, Italy. Her recipes for dishes like Small Potato Gnocchi with Sapore de Mare Sauce, Penne Arrabiata, and Risotto alla Milanese stem clearly from that heritage, but there are other influences from time spent in French Guiana  and Brazil. “I always had a love for food, I must say,” she says. “Once I started cooking, I never stopped.”

When the family lived in the Bronx, Teresa learned a lot about cooking from an older friend. “She taught me how to make meatballs, and different Italian sauces,” she says. “But I did a lot on my own. I like to invent things, make things up.”

Working on a cookbook is a new experience for Teresa, and it has its challenges. While she does write down recipes for baking, other recipes and amounts are mostly in her head.

“The cookbook was their idea,” she says of her children. “I told Raoul the other day that this story was going on too long! But she (Anne de Ravel) gave me a nice compliment. She said I was tough, but she liked that. I thought that was good. That was nice to hear.”