Chef keeps family traditions alive

Chef Michael Ponzio grew up standing beside his nonna as he learned to cook Italian delicacies such as homemade pasta, neck bone gravy and baccala, or salt cod.

He was introduced to restaurant life at age 12 when he started working at his uncle's restaurant. After just one night, he knew that was where he wanted to be and enrolled at Kendall College in Chicago.

While in culinary school, Ponzio held jobs at bakeries, restaurants and catering companies and studied top chefs, reading their menus, cookbooks and interviews.

In 2002, he was hired by award-winning chef Tony Mantuano as a sous chef for Spiaggia, a post he held for two years.

At age 24, he went to work at Volare in Oak Brook as executive chef. It was through Volare owner Benny Siddu that Michael would get the opportunity to work with chefs from all over Italy. He was trained in pizza by a chef from Naples, in fish from a Sicilian chef, in vegetables from a Roman chef, and sauces from a chef from Bologna.

In April 2010, Michael became the executive chef at Rosebud on Rush in Chicago. That same year he launched his Italian food and recipe website,, and started working on his cookbook “Cibo: Anybody's Guide to Italian Cooking.” He now overseas all Rosebud restaurants as the director of culinary operations.

Ponzio lives in Elmwood Park where he was born and raised.

What is your earliest food memory? One of my favorite food memories is as a young boy every Easter my father would open up our home to family, friends and neighbors in the early morning and we would make his famous frittata for all to enjoy as a way to bring everyone together. My brothers and I have continued this tradition in his honor. We make hundreds every Easter and it continues to grow each year.

What did you learn studying other chefs early in your career? I have been fortunate in my life to have worked with many great chefs from both Italy and in the United States. One of the greatest lessons I have taken with me through out my career is you can have the greatest dreams in the world, but without discipline and dedication you will never make them a reality.

What is your most memorable experience at work? When I was working for Spiaggia Restaurant at the age of 21, I had the great pleasure to prepare a banquet dinner side-by-side with the gifted Lidia Bastianich (legendary chef and cookbook author).

What tips would you offer to home cooks? Dig deep for those lost family recipes and bring them back to life.

What are some must-have ingredients in your kitchen? The items that are never missing in my kitchen are a great olive oil, fresh garlic, coarse ground corn meal, Sicilian sea salt, 00 (superfine) flour, fresh eggs and a great wine for cooking and sampling.

Why did you decide to create your own food website and to write a cookbook? The reason was to share my passion for cooking as well as show followers that cooking can be fun and easy whether you are doing it for yourself or doing it to share with others.

What was the last meal you created at home? The last meal I cooked at my home was actually out of my cookbook. I was teaching somebody how to make the pumpkin ricotta gnocchi and the zucchini fritters.

Tell us about those Zucchini Fritters. I wanted to share the zucchini fritters with marinara sauce with readers for the simple reason that this is a great dish that can be easily prepared in no time. It also is a crowd pleaser and appropriate for the upcoming holiday festivities.

Try this recipe from his cookbook ($30) or stop into any of the Rosebud family of restaurants in Naperville, Schaumburg, Deerfield and Chicago to sample his Italian fare.

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Zucchini Fritters with Marinara Sauce

“Cibo: Anybody’s Guide to Italian Cooking”
  Rosebud chef Michael Ponzio encourages cooks to dig up family recipes and keep culinary traditions alive. See Page 6 for details on how to meet Ponzio and get a copy of his book. JOE LEWNARD/

Meet chef Ponzio

Rosebud chef Michael Ponzio will autograph copies of his book and talk with guests during Libertyville's downtown Christmas Walk. Samples of his Roasted Pumpkin with Chocolate Balsamic Glaze and Hazelnuts will be provided.

6-9 p.m. Dec. 2 at Someone's in the Kitchen, 522 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville

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