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Bert Gambini grew up in Tonawanda watching two Sicilian women, his mother and grandmother, cook the dishes that fed their family.

Looking back now, that was where his love of cooking began, but they didn’t make it easy.

“They never wanted me too close,” said Gambini, The News’ May Cook of the Month. “My mother would say, ‘Don’t hover,’ and my grandmother would just run me over if I got too close.”

That did nothing to lessen his fascination. “It was kind of neat, because it was kind of like watching a ball game through a knothole in a fence,” said Gambini, the former WBFO Morning Edition host and music director, who now works for the University at Buffalo’s communications office. “You get to see some of the action, but not all of it. You have to fill in the gaps with your imagination.”

What he could not miss was the happiness that resulted from their efforts, which would eventually fuel his own desire to expand his culinary efforts, he said. “I don’t necessarily know if it was something that I saw them making specifically, as much as everyone enjoyed what was made, the pleasure and the spirit that came from food.”

That spirit was strong when the extended Gambini family gathered for Sunday dinner at his grandparents’ West Side home. They shared dishes like his grandmother’s stuffed artichokes and veal cutlets pan-fried in olive oil, “not loaded with cheese, either, not spaghetti house parm,” Gambini clarified.

At that early age, he recognized the connections between good food and great times. “The company, too – just sitting around the table passing the dishes,” he said. “Those are great memories.”

It wasn’t until after he graduated from UB in the late 1980s, and moved out of his parents’ house, that he really started cooking for himself.

“It was just out of necessity,” he said recently in his Cheektowaga home, as a batch of homemade pasta dried on the kitchen counter.

Peppers and onions was the beginning. “You’ve got peppers, you’ve got onions, fry them up and do something with them,” he said. It turned out that he enjoyed the adventure of not knowing exactly where a dish was headed. “Don’t be afraid to just grab something and combine the ingredients.”

Yes, he could have asked his mother, Janet Gambini, for detailed instructions. But he didn’t. “I don’t think I wanted to. I have cookbooks in the house, and I enjoy reading the narrative, but I don’t follow the recipes. I’d just rather feel my way through it.”

His feelings, when it comes to cooking, have become plenty acute. Today, Gambini serves as co-host of Nickel City Chef, Buffalo’s live cooking competition series, an experience that put him in close contact with top Buffalo chefs, arming him with the knowledge to fine-tune his kitchen chops.

While talking about other things, Gambini swirls together a batch of pasta dough, rolls it out with his pasta machine and feeds it through the cutter so it emerges in delicate strands.

He cooks the pasta, drains it and drops the steaming noodles onto a bed of fresh spinach, cooking the spinach just enough. “Otherwise the spinach gets lost, and leaves lose their color,” he said.

Tossed with lemon juice, lemon zest, and grated cheese, it’s a light, flavorful dish, he said. “It’s a great heading-into-summer dish.”

Bert Gambini

Residence: Cheektowaga • Mouths to feed: 1

Go–to quick dish: 30-minute roast chicken

Secret indulgence: King crab legs

Stuffed Artichokes

4 large artichokes

1 cup breadcrumbs

½ cup grated cheese

Basil, parsley and garlic powder

Salt and pepper

Trim tops and clip pointy leaves. Wash and pull any dark leaves from the base.

Mix crumbs, cheese and spices, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread the leaves of the artichokes and stuff with the breadcrumb mixture. Pour a dash of olive oil over each of the artichokes. Put the artichokes in a stockpot with 1½ inches water.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes, longer for larger artichokes. (Or bake in a pan with a half-inch of water about 60 minutes at 375 degrees.) You know they’re done when outer leaves pull off easily. Serve with an empty bowl to collect discarded leaves.

Steamed Mussels

2 pounds mussels

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 clove garlic, chopped

¾ cup dry white wine

Scrub mussels and pull off fibrous attachments. Discard any mussels that are open or have broken shells.

Saute onion in butter until soft, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and parsley, then wine.

Add cleaned mussels. Steam for about 5 minutes, or until the shells have opened. Discard unopened ones. Serve with crusty bread for dunking.

(You can transfer mussels to platter and thicken sauce in pot by adding 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat, sprinkling in 1 tablespoon flour, another splash of wine, and stirring to combine. Simmer to thicken. Pour over mussels.)

Lemon Garlic Pasta with Spinach

For pasta dough:

3½ cups of flour

4 eggs

For pasta:

1 bag washed baby spinach

Juice of one lemon

Zest of one lemon

2 cloves of finely chopped garlic

½ cup of grated Pecorino Romano cheese

¼ cup of olive oil

Mix dough first. Put the flour in a mound, make a hollow in the middle, and crack in the eggs. With a fork, start working the flour shore into the egg lake until it’s combined into a ball. Knead for about 4 minutes, wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.

Cut the dough into two or more pieces to make rolling easier. On a floured surface, roll out the pasta as thin as possible, and cut it into strips. (If you have a pasta rolling machine, follow its directions.)

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and stir. Fresh pasta cooks quickly, 1-3 minutes.

Put fresh spinach in a bowl. When pasta is ready, drain and immediately put the drained pasta in the bowl with the spinach. Do not mix. Add lemon juice and zest, garlic, cheese and olive oil. Cover the bowl and let it sit for 5 minutes. Uncover, mix and serve.

email: agalarneau@buffnews.com