Old Country Italian

Talking Italian (food, that is) with Ed Sinclair of Fra's Italian Gourmet


 Ed Sinclair co-owns Fra's Italian Gourmet with his wife Joanne.

When people think of Westerly, they don’t always realize just how influenced it is the Italian culture and immigrants. Does your family have roots going back to the old country?
Westerly has been the home to Calabrian Italians for a few generations. The old downtown is referred to as little Italy. There are many old customs to this day, with families making red wines and an Italian dry sausage called suppi together as a group twice a year. My wife’s family has roots back to Sicily just south of Calabria. There are many old Italian traditions at Christmas, Easter and St. Joseph’s Day all regarding specialty foods served, which we do at home and at Fra’s.

What are some of the local favorites?
Our most famous sandwich is made a variety of ways on homemade focaccia bread, made fresh daily. Focaccia sandwiches are stuffed with grean beans, spinach, chicken, Italian cold cuts and topped with roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella. In season we add to these summer squash, eggplant and broccoli rabe.

I’ve personally gone in many times and absolutely love the pesto pizza with tomato and romano cheese. Is it a family recipe for pesto that you use in your eatery?
Our pesto pizza with tomatoes is at its best when local tomatoes are in season along with fresh basil. Lots of fresh basil, olive oil, garlic and pine nuts are ground to perfection – this pesto was introduced to me in the 1960s by some Italian friends in New York City. The pesto was served with linguine and half the neighborhood brought salads, cheeses and desserts for the feast. In the summer we sell many traditional margarita tomato pesto pizzas, along with other versions with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella added. Anyway you want it, we will make it, and you will love it.

Speaking of family recipes, what are some comfort foods you love to make at home?
I don’t spend much time at home, since we are open seven days from 9am to 8pm in season. I like to grill fresh veggies marinated in olive oil, garlic and hot pepper flakes outside. Added to this I might grill chicken breast, sausage or other meats marinated the same.

Do you have any pet peeves from other cooks compared with what you do as authentic Italian cooks?
I have seen many cooks make Italian specialties like tomato sauce with canned tomatoes, tomato paste, water and dried herbs. I make our sauce using everything fresh – tomatoes, basil, parsley, garlic and a touch of paste for sweetness. We are told by many how good our sauce is. The sauce and fresh dough is what makes our pizza so good.

What influenced you to open an Italian eatery?
We lived in Vermont for 21 years and ran an inn. In the early ‘80s all of our guests (70-80) were served breakfast and dinner daily. As our clientele grew, more sophisticated our chef had to change from a family style table of eight to ten to dinners make to order. This was a challenge for many of our chefs, to be ready for 40 to 60 people in a three hour period.

At this time, I spent more time in the kitchen watching every order from preparation to serving. I took over the cooking operation. Soon we were serving lasagna, pasta with sauce or primavera along with fresh fish and grilled meats. This led us to Rhode Island to an Italian restaurant without the headache of 24 guest rooms and its many problems related to hotel management.

What about the focaccia bread? It’s always soft and full of herbs. How long did it take to perfect that recipe?
Focaccia bread is not as simple as it may look. A wetter dough must be used and twice as much time consummating procedures in preparation. There is much practice needed in balling, resting, rolling, proofing, seasoning and reproofing before baking. All of this may take four to five hours pending on heat humidity. Everyday is a challenge making this bread.

I have to talk about your desserts. There is nothing I like more than a face sized cookie. Is there a story behind making them so large?
Our desserts are all homemade. Cannoli, biscotti, blondies and brownies are made along with our cookies. We have been told that are cannoli are the best in town. Not being a baker is challenging, cooking is inventive and not exact. Baking is constant trial and error with temperature being the most important. Too hot an oven makes smaller and darker cookies and with three ovens to watch, temperature watching is crucial. Our next baking challenge is St. Joseph’s Day when we make our zeppole, anywhere from 700 to 1200 starting around March 12 to Easter.