Dame du Jour: Carmella Fragassi

By Maria Isabella

With a degree from Heidelberg University and plenty of grit, Carmella enjoyed a very fulfilling, action-packed career in law enforcement. And after decades of faithful, dedicated service, she finally retired.

But did she sail away to paradise to spend her time leisurely drinking margaritas poolside at a retirement home in Florida? Far from it. She embarked on her own Act 2 and opened a restaurant—more accurately, a trattoria, which she named La Campagna (Italian for “the countryside”). That was 24 years ago.

Today, Carmella is enjoying well-earned success as one of Cleveland’s most respected chefs. She admits it’s all derived from the pleasures she enjoyed growing up in an extremely tight-knit Italian family.

“Both of my grandmothers were from the same hometown in Italy,” explains Carmella. “They cooked the same seasonal meals where food was simply prepared with the freshest ingredients available.”
She goes on to add, “Everyone got together to help cook for the holidays. Food and wine went hand in hand at both my grandparents’ homes. Then my mother carried on those same traditions with her own children.”

When asked which food always reminds her of home, Carmella quickly responds, “Homemade cecatelli, better known to most as cavatelli.”

Even after all that she’s accomplished, Carmella says her proudest moments involve teaching people an old recipe she remembers from childhood. “The delight on their face is more than gratifying,” she says. “I love it when a customer gets excited about a meal that brings back memories for them.”

When asked to describe the best food or wine she’s ever had, Carmella admits it’s hard to pinpoint just one. “It was probably that most delicious leg of lamb we had in Basliacata. Wait. Maybe it was the puréed fava beans with shaved octopus we had in Manfredonia. Or better yet, maybe it was the fried zucchini blossoms and borage in Orsara di Puglia. No, wait. Perhaps it was the pizza we had in Foggia that was made with pane cotto (bread and arugula placed on a pizza and cooked in a wood-fired oven). Or maybe it was…” she trails off wistfully.

But when asked what was the most unusual thing she’s ever eaten, Carmella doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Raw razor clams from the Adriatic Sea,” she responds with a smile.

As for which chef, living or deceased, she would want to invite over for dinner, she says that’s a tough question. “There are several,” says Carmella. “Marcella Hazen, Lidia Bastianich, and Mary Ann Esposito, to start with. Of course, there are also a few others as well. I would feed them some of the traditional peasant meals from Puglia, including “burnt wheat” orecchiette pasta with dandelion greens, focaccia with potatoes and rosemary, vegetable stew Orsara di Puglia style, and purée of white fava beans with shrimp. Then some homemade biscotti for dessert.”

As a member of LDEI, Carmella says she enjoys networking with others in the business the most.

Learn more about Carmella as she shares some fun and interesting insights about herself.

Describe your perfect meal. Food gathered from the garden and a piece of rosemary-lemon chicken on the spit with a nice glass of red wine.

What’s your favorite comfort food? Homemade pizza.

Any favorite indulgences? A good cup of coffee.

What’s your favorite snack? Salt and vinegar chips.

Do you have a signature dish? Eggplant Parmesan.

What’s your go-to, quick-and-easy dinner? Onion and egg soup with crusty bread and salad.

What’s your favorite dessert to prepare? Homemade canned peaches soaked in red wine.

What’s one ingredient you can’t live without? Olive oil.

Name 3 things that are always in your refrigerator. Parsley, basil, and rosemary.

Name 3 kitchen gadgets you can’t live without. Pasta crimper, hacksaw, and zester.