Mike’s Kitchen Cranston

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

As appreciations pour in after the death of Mike Lepizzera, his niece Paula Conti and her husband will continue to operate the restaurant at the Tabor-Franchi VFW Post, with longtime staff who learned from the master over the decades. Gail Ciampa Journal Food Editor gailciampa While the appreciations for Mike Lepizzera are still fresh with his death at 86 this week, life goes on. And that includes meals at Mike’s Kitchen in Cranston’s Tabor-Franchi VFW Post.”The kitchen will go on,” said Paula Conti, Lepizzera’s beloved niece, who with her husband, Anthony Conti, has been working at Mike’s Kitchen for some 25 years.”Everyone in the kitchen has been there for 25 or 30 years,” she said. “The cooks learned from Mike, and they will all go on. The waitstaff is so dedicated.”It’s not really a business here. It’s family,” she said. “They loved him.”Mike’s Kitchen will be closed for Lepizzera’s funeral on Monday and reopen on Wednesday.But it will be with a heavy heart as they mourn a man who not only made a killer polenta but was very much part of his community. He sponsored sports teams and helped his church. If he saw someone was in need or didn’t have the cash to pay for a meal, “He’d say let it go,” Paula said. “So many times.”As someone involved with St. Mark’s annual church festival in Cranston, “Mike donated all the sauce and served as adviser beyond the scenes,” said Ray Coppa.He and his family, and his tennis buddies, have all been eating at Mike’s for decades and called the chef “friend.”  Coppa recalled when one of his sons asked Lepizzera to cater the Baptism of one of his kids.”I picked up the food next day and could not give him any money,” Coppa said.”How many people had their children’s Communions here,” said Paula wistfully.  Diners included chefs from some of the state’s finest restaurants and fans from the Cranston neighborhood, and beyond.Long ago, Al Forno’s Johanne Killeen told The Journal that Mike’s was one of her favorite restaurants. But she adored the man, too.”We had his 85th birthday at Al Forno last year,” she said. “I danced with him.””He was an amazing teddy bear of a guy and the most generous man I know,” she said, adding that he shared recipes with her, including the one for his famous polenta, which was published in the 1991 cookbook “Cucina Simpatica” by Killeen and husband George Germon.”He never said no,” she said. “And his food was delicious.” Chef Ben Sukle, owner of Providence’s Birch and Oberlin, admired Lepizerra’s restaurant though he never met the man. “If you eat there enough, you begin to feel like that’s the nexus of Italian-American cuisine,” Sukle said. “It’s unchanged and unapologetic, and it’s delicious.”He called Lepizzera “a big inspiration” and said he tries to create polenta as Lepizzera does, and he can only hope to get close.But it’s the diners who came for food like their mothers’ or grandmothers’ who filled the restaurant week in and week out.Jamestown’s Sal Capaldo has been a regular at Mike’s and engaged Lepizzera in a work contest. Capaldo is a food broker, and there was a cooking competition using Regina wine vinegar, one of his products. Lepizzera agreed to help out Capaldo and made his snail salad using the vinegar. Not only did the salad win the contest but Capaldo won a trip to Italy, and Lepizzera’s recipe was featured on the website. Lepizzera also won a chef’s jacket that he wore for a photo in The Journal when sharing a recipe for Sole Stuffed with Rabe.Lepizzera was a local celebrity whom other chefs were honored to cook for, said Paula. “Everywhere we took him, people were like, ‘Is that Mike?'” she said. “They were thrilled to cook for him.”He was also a hard worker. By the time he arrived to cook for the lunch crowd, he’d been out doing errands for the whole morning. He’d buy his own fish and other ingredients he needed at the Kitchen. Al Forno’s Killeen said he started at 5 a.m. He was also his own boss and could make the rules.”Once, when we were much younger,” said Coppa. “He banned me from the post for a year because I told him there was too much salt in the gravy.” SOLE STUFFED WITH RABE8 ounces broccoli rabeOlive oil for sautéeing3 cloves of garlic, sliced2 pieces of sole (approximately a pound)2 slices of mozzarella (or your choice of cheese)Salt and pepper to tasteRitz Crackers, crushed into crumbs¼ cup water¼ cup white wine½ stick butterJuice of ½ lemonSauté rabe in olive oil with garlic over medium heat. Cool. Chop up.Place sole face down and top each piece with a slice of cheese. Top each piece with equal amounts of the rabe. Roll up each piece and place in a casserole dish.Top each piece of fish with 2 tablespoons of Ritz Cracker crumbs. Add water and white wine.Bake at 360 degrees (yes, that is 360 degrees) for 10-12 minutes. MIKE LEPIZZERA’S POLENTA¼ cup virgin olive oil½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter1½ to 2 tablespoons chopped garlic2 cups chicken or vegetable stock1½ quarts half and half1½ to 2 teaspoons kosher salt12 turns of a pepper grinder1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes2 cups cornmeal (or imported polenta)Pinch sugar1½ to 2 cups freshly grated Pecorino RomanoHeat the oil and butter in a large, heavy stockpot. Add the garlic and sauté over low heat until it is golden. Add the stock, half and half, 2½ cups water, salt and black and red peppers. Stir to combine. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Very slowly, add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle boil. After all the cornmeal has been added, continue to stir until it is thick and creamy, about 20 minutes.Off the heat, stir in the sugar and Romano. Serve right away, with tomato sauce.Serves 10 to 12 generously as a first course.From “Cucina Simpatica” by Johanne Killeen and George Germon — gciampa@providencejournal.com 277-7266On Twitter: @gailciampa 
mike's kitchen cranston 1

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

As someone involved with St. Mark’s annual church festival in Cranston, “Mike donated all the sauce and served as adviser beyond the scenes,” said Ray Coppa.
mike's kitchen cranston 2

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

As a young man, Lepizzera had honed his cooking skills working at Easy’s Cafe, on Cranston Street, which his parents ran. He memorized favorite family recipes, including a red sauce made with crushed tomatoes, beef, pork, garlic, onion, salt and pepper.
mike's kitchen cranston 3

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

It was a return visit for Bryan Cranston on the Nerdist Podcast, and you got a teenage brush with a most infamous individual, some inspirational talk about doing what you love to do, ancestry, and dealing with fans. Also, there’s some instruction on convincing your spouse to… um… well, there’s practical advice.
mike's kitchen cranston 4

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

Lepizzera was the chef and owner of Mike’s Kitchen, a destination for knowledgeable diners who don’t need a lot of glitzy signs to find a good place to eat. The portions at Mike’s are plentiful, the prices are reasonable — and credit cards aren’t accepted.
mike's kitchen cranston 5

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

“Everyone in the kitchen has been there for 25 or 30 years,” she said. “The cooks learned from Mike, and they will all go on. The waitstaff is so dedicated.
mike's kitchen cranston 6

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

Jamestown’s Sal Capaldo has been a regular at Mike’s and engaged Lepizzera in a work contest. Capaldo is a food broker, and there was a cooking competition using Regina wine vinegar, one of his products. Lepizzera agreed to help out Capaldo and made his snail salad using the vinegar. Not only did the salad win the contest but Capaldo won a trip to Italy, and Lepizzera’s recipe was featured on the website. Lepizzera also won a chef’s jacket that he wore for a photo in The Journal when sharing a recipe for Sole Stuffed with Rabe.
mike's kitchen cranston 7

Mike's Kitchen Cranston

Lepizzera was a local celebrity whom other chefs were honored to cook for, said Paula. “Everywhere we took him, people were like, ‘Is that Mike?'” she said. “They were thrilled to cook for him.”
mike's kitchen cranston 8

My Drunk Kitchen creator Hannah Hart finally did the Nerdist Podcast solo (she was on with Grace Helbig and Harley Morenstein ages ago), and she has a book version of My Drunk Kitchen out now, which is pretty cool. So she talked about that, fizzy water, pooping, relationships, new media, and being a workaholic.
mike's kitchen cranston 9

“I do everything by eye. And taste,” he told The Providence Journal in 1990. After Easy’s Cafe closed in 1972, Lepizzera, who was a World War II veteran, worked construction for a while and then cut a deal with the VFW post to open a kitchen in the early 1980s.
mike's kitchen cranston 10

Greenstein, who worked with Lepizzera for 27 years, can vouch for that: Her eyes moistened as she recalled the chef’s final days on the job. He was in a wheelchair that last week. And he had the refrigerator repositioned so he could roll into his kitchen.