by Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Kate LeSueur
Entering Casa Fracasso is like walking into the home of cherished old friends: It’s inviting to its very core and full of natural light, with a bunch of Gerbera daisies brightening the dining table and colorful, local art splashed on the walls. And it’s also modest and down-to-earth—like one could just endlessly hang out and any time that passed would slow to an unnoticed crawl. Except, of course, for today’s blur that is Michael Fracasso running around the backyard trying to wrangle lightning-fast chickens. It’s just one of the myriad tasks required of this busy singer-songwriter, cooking-class instructor, avid gardener and, most importantly, devoted husband to wife Paula, and parent and carpooler of Giovanni, 13 and Stella, 10.
But while all that multitasking may be the reality for Fracasso—who has recorded eight records and published his own cookbook last year—there’s no frenetic energy at play here. After reuniting the chickens—Sunflower, Ophelia and Stracciatella (the last named for a Roman-style egg drop soup)—he leisurely harvests a few things from the backyard, which features a terraced, multi-roomed garden with a salvia-encircled fountain and raised beds bursting (even in spite of the July heat) with tomatoes, squash, Swiss chard, basil, watermelon, eggplant, cucumbers and the all-important fennel, which is one of the superstars in the classic Italian gnocchi dish he’s about to make.
Not surprisingly, Fracasso’s Italian heritage is integral to his love of gardening and cooking. His parents emigrated from southern Italy to a steel mill town in Ohio, called Mingo Junction. “They were basically subsistence farmers after World War Two,” Fracasso says. “And it was really, really poor there, so they came over for work.” Throughout his childhood, his parents prepared massive amounts of Italian food, tended a huge garden and orchard and made their own wine—their house even had a room dedicated to storing home-canned food. “They instilled a love of nature and food in me, just by how they lived,” he says. But while he and his siblings helped in the kitchen and the garden, it wasn’t until he transferred to Ohio State University as a junior that he taught himself to cook. “It was a BIG culture shock,” he says. “I got there, and I lived in a house with five other guys. One of them was the ‘cook’ but all he made was fish sticks and Hamburger Helper and I was horrified by the food—it was what we ate every day for half a semester, and then I was like, Oh my God!”
The shock of that diet vaulted Fracasso into reclaiming his family’s healthy obsession with good food, and he’s proven himself to be a natural in the kitchen. “I just needed to find it was all,” he says of the love of cooking embedded in his DNA. “It didn’t take me long.” Nowadays, the Fracassos’ cozy kitchen features open pantry shelves lined with mason jars of home-canned tomatoes, oats, popcorn, lentils, buckwheat and most every staple required for a family of four that eats simply and healthfully. While preparing tonight’s dinner, Fracasso holds up a vintage metal potato ricer, which once belonged to his mom. “You can’t make gnocchi without one of these,” he says. “It makes [the potatoes] lighter. That’s the key thing about this. If you just mashed them, they get a compactness. Obviously you have to join them together, but starting out with this is a huge advantage.” As he rolls the dough into long, snake-like strands and forms the gnocchi “pillows” on the tines of a fork, he reminisces about his childhood involvement in the gnocchi-making, “This part,” he says of the pillows, “we were required to do this.” And the legacy continues, because Fracasso’s kids help him in the same way—to an extent, anyway. “They want to help, at least for a while,” he says. “They’ll do one strand, and then they’ll say, Okay, thanks, Dad.”
While the gnocchi recipe is his mom’s—she taught him to make it when he first moved to Austin more than 20 years ago—the Gorgonzola cream sauce is his own invention. “The classic way of doing this dish in northern Italy is with sage and butter,” he says. “It is so, so good.” But Fracasso’s gnocchi sauce was inspired by a pizza he once made, and he thought the combination of Gorgonzola, fennel and tomatoes would pair well with the potato pasta. This natural ability to intuit and blend deep influences with fresh inspiration is a big part of Fracasso’s artistry, both as a performer and as a cook. In fact, he uses it frequently all over the U.S. for his unique combo cooking/house concerts. Clients choose from a menu of Fracasso’s Italian favorites, he prepares the meals in their kitchens, and then he performs for the sated guests after supper. Acknowledging that he’s living a dream with this kind of gig, he says, “Yeah, I just show up at people’s homes and make them dinner. And then sing. Yay!”