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Chef/author cooks up first children's book

| Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, 8:59 p.m.
“Rizzi & Nonna” was written by Rizzi DeFabo, whose family owns Rizzo’s Malabar Inn in Crabtree. It recounts the tale of the chef making wedding cookies with his late grandmother. submitted

Rizzi DeFabo's first children's book relates to retaining individuality despite peer pressure — and includes the recipe for Italian wedding cookies.

Bringing those special cookies to school for his preschool birthday party, instead of the usual cupcakes brought in by the other kids, turned an angst-filled moment of fear into a treasured memory.

The kids loved the colorfully-iced cookies, baked by the young DeFabo and his maternal grandmother, the late Genevieve “Nonna” Rocco. The traditional favorite, made for weddings and special occasions, is featured in the self-published book “Rizzi & Nonna and the Wedding Cookies.”

The book is the first in a planned series of at least eight children's books based on more of his childhood memories of cooking after school with his grandmother, who watched the youngster while his parents and older brother, Jerry, worked at the family-owned Rizzo's Malabar Inn Restaurant in Crabtree.

“Nonna's kitchen was in the basement, and that is where I learned to cook,” DeFabo said of her home in the Hilltop neighborhood of Greensburg. “People ask where I went to culinary school, but I only went to Nonna's basement culinary school where I spent a lot of time.

“My grandmother was always doing something and was never afraid to let me cook. There are a lot of stories for future books. Each book in the series will have a recipe.”

Included in this 29-page hardback book, with illustrations by Nathan Matrunick, are lessons on the safe way to cross a street and counting in Italian. It is available at Rizzo's for $16.95, plus tax.

Since the book became available in mid-November, about 300 sold in the first few weeks, said DeFabo, who is no stranger to self-publishing.

His first cookbook, “Cooking with Rizzi,” was published two years ago and more than 5,000 copies have sold locally.

This book is full of family history and favorite recipes, and includes educational information about the different regions of Italy. Also available at the Crabtree restaurant, which opened in 1935, this book sells for $29.95, plus tax.

A second cookbook is now in the works, said DeFabo, 40, of Greensburg, who recently reopened Bar Rizzi as a banquet facility. He finds the time for creating books by finding talented people to help in the process.

One is his fifth-grade science teacher, Maxine Land, now retired, who taught DeFabo at the Cathedral School, which was the precursor to the Aquinas Academy, the Roman Catholic preschool and grade school in Greensburg.

Her former student called Land and asked if she could “look over” the cookbook.

“Rizzi was a special student and immediately grabbed my heart,” said Land, who has helped edit both of his books.

“Through the years Rizzi would find a way to keep in touch, even if it was only by the cavazoones — an Italian delicacy with chickpea filling – I would find in my mailbox for the Feast of St. Joseph,” she said.

“Even though there was no note, I knew it was from him. He truly is a sincere person in everything he does,” Land said.

St. Joseph, the spouse of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is celebrated on March 19.

Land said it took about a year of work to get this children's book just right.

“It is a very good book, especially for the first attempt at writing for children,” she said. “I believe it will keep the interest of a young child who is read to, as well as an older child who can read on their own.”

Rose Domenick is a freelance writer.