Lenny D'Andrea draws comfort from early memories in the kitchen.
"I grew up with a full family," he says. "My mother was always cooking.
There was always an abundance of food. Everything always smelled great."
Mostly hectic, rarely noiseless and always about "what's cooking" is how
he describes his childhood in Greenwich. Given the level of high-decibel
activity, the weekend home cook marvels that his mother and father,
Eulalie and the late Rocco Sr., raised him, his five brothers and four
sisters (Florence, Tony, Rocco Jr., Ron, Douglas, Lulu, Alicia, Laura,
Donald) with little fanfare.
Mom and dad must have done something right. Such is the draw of the hearth
that most of the D'Andrea clan still lives in Connecticut, "except for
Rocco Jr., he is in Pennsylvania, and Doug who is in Idaho, a beef-jerky
kind of guy," he chuckles.
And most siblings must have been paying attention. According to Lenny, who
with Tony runs Rocco V. D'Andrea Inc., a Riverside land-use consulting
firm started by their father, most of the D'Andreas know their way around
a kitchen, thanks to mom.
"It seems our best family memories are still made around food," he says,
dismissing being characterized as self-taught. "Nowadays, are you really
self-taught with the Food channel and all the cooking shows?" he asks.
Far away home
It wasn't until the mid-'70s, when Lenny was a student at the University
of Colorado in Boulder, that he learned to fully appreciate his mother's
cooking. "There certainly wasn't any decent Italian food out West," he
says. "I had to fend for myself."
So began what has become a lifetime hobby of tasting, savoring, modifying,
blending, shopping, cookbook collecting and experimenting. "A few of us
liked wine and finer cooking and no one was going to do it for us," he
says. "After growing up in my parents' home, it was inevitable, I guess."
His only regret is that he does not have enough time to cook full time or
entertain more frequently. "I try to get him to cook more meals so we can
have them during the week," jokes Mary Lou, his wife of 15 years, visibly
in awe of what she calls her husband's "fabulous dishes."
Gourmet meals, if only on weekends, are always appreciated. It might
explain why Lenny and Mary Lou don't eat out much. But when they do, says
Lenny, he tries to re-create what he samples from restaurants. "Sometimes
it doesn't come out as good and sometimes I come up with something new."
If only he would record some of his creations, says Mary Lou. "We call
them 'lost recipes,' " she says.
"I like to modify recipes because it's more practical or because something
else inspires me," he shrugs. "And I hardly ever make the same thing
twice. I build the flavor. I tell people, 'I hope you like it because I'm
never making it again.' "
Lenny's variations seem countless, but all of his creations originate from
one place: a brand-new, fully stocked kitchen in his 2-year-old Stamford
He points to the invisible triangle points marking the working space
between a six-burner gas stove, one of two dishwashers and a corner sink.
Granite tops a substantial island (with another sink) that divides the
work area and what he calls the "social" area, big enough to accommodate
the extended family drawn here for holidays, dinner parties and other
special times. Spices are alphabetized, knives are lined up by size, can
labels face forward and cookbooks that betray a fondness for French
cuisine (Julia Child and Jacques Pepin) flank china and crystal displays
in glass-paneled cabinets.
The ultimate luxury? A water faucet over the stove. "It's easier that
way," he explains proudly. "For filling the pots."
Lenny admits his kitchen is lavish, but adds that it appears spacious
because he does not collect many of the gadgets popular with home cooks.
"I hate them," he says. "They are a pain to clean. I always say, 'If it's
not a multitasker, it's clutter.' "
One only needs "a set of good, solid knives; heavy pots and pans; and good
cutting boards," he says.
As for ingredients, "all you need is good wine, good stock and butter," he
says. "Then you add everything else."
All in the family
Lenny was surprised to hear that his sister, Alicia Melillo, had nominated
him for Cook du Jour honors; he does not consider himself an exceptional
cook when compared to the rest of his family.
Alicia disagrees, saying Lenny deserves to be singled out. "All six of my
brothers enjoy cooking, thanks to my mother, who is probably the best cook
on the planet," she says. "But Lenny has what it takes. I keep telling him
to sell the business and open a restaurant."
For now, no plans exist for a Chez Lenny, but according to Alicia, Lenny
is ready if he were to change his mind.
"First of all, Lenny actually owns a chef's hat and clogs that I bought
(for) him, so he plays the part well dressed," she jokes.
Second, "he orders truffles and truffle oils online or goose pate," she
adds. "Whatever ingredient he needs, he will find."
Third, and arguably most important, is Lenny's special ability to
improvise. "I think he inherited the knack of 'a little of this, a little
of that' from (my mother)," says Alicia. "One meal cooked by Lenny will
tell you why he was nominated."
The search is on for Cook du Jour. Do you know a spectacular home cook?
Please tell us about him or her. To nominate:
* E-mail: email@example.com
* Snail mail: Valerie Foster, Features Editor, The Advocate, 75 Tresser
Blvd., Stamford, CT 06904
* Phone: 964-2246