Chef Raffaele Santopaolo, from Big Mamma Cucina Popolare

Mamma Knows Best: How to choose fruit and veg

Big Mamma chef Raffaele Santopaolo shares his tips for choosing the best Italian produce

Big Mamma, the Italian restaurant group founded by two Italian-food-loving Frenchmen, has managed to conjure up the warmth and generosity of a traditional trattoria in a wide variety of European locations, partly because it insists on employing young, talented and enthusiastic Italian chefs.

Big Mamma even goes so far as putting their staff in touch with Italian-speaking doctors, and cultivating links with Italian cookery schools. Raffaele Santopaolo, chef at Big Mamma’s La Bellezza restaurant in Lille, in Northern France, could say just one phrase in French when he arrived to cook: “Une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît.”

Fortunately, whatever he lacked in local language skills, Raffaele – or Lello, as his friends know him – more than made up for in homegrown culinary knowledge. Here’s his tips for buying and caring for fruit and vegetables, as reproduced in our book, Big Mamma Cucina Poplare.

“When it comes to making your choice, trust your senses; we believe in love at first sight! Lello tells us that you can use your eyes to tell a good head of lettuce from a bad one. You just have to look at the base. If it’s nice and white, it means that the lettuce was recently picked and therefore is absolutely fresh. You have to smell a melon. The right melon is one with a mild and sweet aroma.


Big Mamma Cucina Poplare
Big Mamma Cucina Poplare

Spending time to choose the right fruit and vegetables will not go to waste, but you will also need to know how to store them. Lello insists that tomatoes should never be kept in the refrigerator. ‘Do you like insipid tomatoes?’ For Lello, even fruit and vegetables that are a little bruised are great. You just need to be inventive and find another use for them. You can turn them into compotes, stews or a vegetable stock or broth.

He also shares his method for preserving ripe fruit or enjoying it out of season. Lemons are his favourite fruit and he easily turns it into marmellata (marmalade). In Italy, the best lemon you could possibly find is the Syracuse lemon. Always choose them with leaves, which guarantees that they were handpicked and that they’re top quality.

“To make Lello's marmellata you’ll need about 10 lemons and 750g/1 lb. 10 oz. of demerara, turbinado or coconut sugar. First wash and plunge the whole lemons into a large pot of boiling water for 15 minutes. Take them out, wait until they cool and quarter them, so you can remove the seeds and pith. Roughly chop the lemon pieces and cook in a large pan over a low heat with sugar for one hour or until they turn translucent. Transfer the marmellata to a jar and turn the jar upside down overnight to ensure it keeps better. While making marmellata, you can add a vanilla pod (bean) or a cinnamon stick as a final flourish. Enjoy on brioche or even with fish.”

For more tips that only Mamma knows, order a copy of Big Mamma Cucina Popolare here.