Nobody leaves Elaine Pampalona Bartkowiak's house hungry.
When it's time for a family dinner, Bartkowiak's Depew home is flooded with people, both her Italian clan and her husband Jerry's Polish folks. The Bartkowiaks feed them all, from a repertoire of Polish and Sicilian comfort food favorites that Elaine learned from the masters: their mothers.
Her mother, Angelina, hailing from the Sicilian town of Petralia Soprana, taught her the soupy "pastas" that her father enjoyed as a first course every day, with a vegetable, main dish and dessert. Jerry's mother, Lottie, passed on the secrets to her Polish standards, including cottage cheese with noodles, a Sunday perennial, and pork chops crusted with cornflakes.
After being invited to be The News' March Cook of the Month, Bartkowiak decided to honor her teachers by sharing some of their recipes with the world. Besides Lottie's pork chops, she would share her mother's pasta al forno, a baked pasta casserole with eggplant, cauliflower, ground beef and tomato sauce.
"Those are my signature dishes," said Elaine, who raised two boys with Jerry. "Whenever we have picnics or somewhere to go, I make these. Pasta al forno is so flavorful, even the Polish people came to love it."
She grew up cooking with her mother in their house on Hudson Street, on Buffalo's West Side. "Many of the foods I cooked in the past were extremely Italian," said Elaine. "We ate squid, snails, pig's feet, octopus."
But after they married, her new mother-in-law showed her how to cook Polish style, and the Bartkowiaks blended traditions.
Elaine's mother made a kind of meat-stuffed cabbage rolls, but hers were simmered in tomato sauce. "I make galumpki with gravy -- that's Grandma Lottie's way," she said.
Lottie also made cottage cheese and noodles, classic Polish comfort food, every Sunday. "My mother never brought cottage cheese home -- we had ricotta," Elaine said. But her sons like noodles with cottage cheese to this day.
"My mother had trichina [trichinosis] as a kid. We never cooked pork at home," she said. But that changed with Grandma Lottie's pork chops, roast pork and other dishes. "For Christmas and Easter, both traditions put food on the table."
Their union was a hungry one from the start. Asked how they got together about 45 years ago, Jerry said, "No question: Her mother had better leftovers than my mother had firsties."
They married in 1966. Elaine would go on to a speech pathology career, in schools and at the Early Childhood Research Center at the University at Buffalo. (Where, to no one's surprise, she took to feeding the UB students working there.) She retired in 2008 as associate director.
Both are retired now, but the parts they play in feeding each other haven't changed. Jerry does the shopping, and Elaine figures out what to do with it. Or, as Jerry explained: "I buy things that are on sale, and she is excellent at putting them together for consumption."
They're both skilled at wrapping leftovers so that loved ones can take batches of Bartkowiak cuisine home with them. Like her mother, Elaine doesn't cook single-meal batches of her favorites. The Bartkowiaks leave nothing to chance, even buying stacks of takeout containers, so they're prepared for anything.
Elaine still talks about their habit like some sort of fortunate accident. "We have a tendency to overmake things," she explained. "So there are leftovers."
>Grandma Lottie's Cornflake Pork Chops
3 cups crushed cornflakes
6 bone-in pork chops, 1/2 -inch thick
1 tablespoon water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable or corn oil, for frying
2 large onions, sliced 1/2 -inch thick
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Crush cornflakes and put in wide bowl. In another wide bowl, beat eggs with water, and season with salt and pepper.
Dip pork chop in egg, then coat with cornflakes, pushing flakes into chops to stick.
Heat skillet and add a tablespoon or two of oil. Fry chops on both sides until browned.
Cover cookie sheet with foil, then layer on sliced onions. Place browned chops on onions. Roast for 30 minutes, or until done; nick a chop and peek inside, or use a meat thermometer to check for doneness.
>Pasta al Forno
1 pound pasta (ziti, penne, white or whole wheat)
1 head cauliflower
1 medium eggplant
1 pound hamburger
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, grated
2 quarts spaghetti sauce
3 tablespoons dried Italian mixture seasoning (basil and oregano)
Grated Italian cheese, to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
Heat large pot of water. Cut cauliflower into florets. Cook in boiling water until barely tender. Drain and set aside.
Cut eggplant into 3/4 -inch slices. To remove moisture, salt both sides, and put slices in bowl or strainer. Fit a saucer over the slices and weight down saucer. Let eggplant drain for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pat eggplant slices dry. Pour olive oil in shallow bowl and add Italian seasoning, salt and pepper to taste. Dip eggplant slices in seasoned oil, then place on foil-lined cookie sheet.
Bake eggplant for 20 minutes, turning halfway through, then remove from oven. Chop into pieces.
In a skillet, fry ground beef, with grated garlic, onion and egg. Season with salt and pepper. Remove meat from pan, and pour off fat. Wipe pan clean with paper towel. Add more oil, and fry cauliflower until lightly browned.
Cook pasta to al dente. Drain and mix with about three cups of spaghetti sauce, so it doesn't clump.
Layer all but a handful of eggplant, cauliflower and hamburger with pasta and remaining tomato sauce in a baking dish. Decorate top with remaining cauliflower, eggplant and meat, then top with grated cheese. Bake in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.
Name: Elaine Pampalona Bartkowiak
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Pasta with garlic and hot pepper flakes
Guilty pleasure: Italian love cake