Entry: a cooking star on the rise Feb 8, 2009

Eleanora Scarpetta is on a roll. The 45-year-old Easton housewife and mother of three can't believe her good luck. From one little letter and a jar of her homemade canned tomatoes, Scarpetta's life is a dream come true thanks to America's reigning lifestyle queen, Martha Stewart.

It all began last June, when Scarpetta, nudged a little by her next- door-neighbor Elaine Kowansky, sent a letter about her tomato canning skills to the Martha Stewart Living production offices in Westport. Within a month, Scarpetta had an offer she couldn't refuse.

Could Stewart's crew come to her home and film her canning and, by the way, would she like to do a cooking segment with Martha?

Who would say no?

"I was so nervous, I lost three pounds in two days, but the staff was so nice, Martha is so nice. I felt attached to her when I first met her" says Scarpetta, popping open a jar of the famous tomatoes for a clam and linguini dish. she was preparing in her Easton kitchen. "See how beautiful the tomatoes are. They are so red, that's what Martha loves."

On one wall of the sunlit, modern kitchen are two photos of Scarpetta cooking with Stewart.

Her farmhouse-style table is set with blue Lenox china, crystal wineglasses and a mile-high pizza rustica that Scarpetta will be making on Stewart's show on Monday.

Only 10 months after she sent that fateful letter, Scarpetta has done seven cooking spots with Stewart, written her first cookbook, and has her own Web site:

Scarpetta has discussed plans with Stewart's staff for her own cooking show on the Food
Network, and plans to market an Eleanora-brand of tomato sauce. (Move over Paul Newman.)

" When they asked me to do my show, I had to go out and get some air" said Scarpetta. "I never expected anything like that." Her letter, and the photo she sent with it, struck just the right chord with Stewart's staff. "We like to highlight people who do things at home and we encourage home cooks, said Eve Krzyzanowski, an Executive Producer of Martha Stewart Living television, in a recent phone interview. Eleanora is a very lively, engaging person. Our viewers enjoyed her and think, if she can do it, they can do it, too.

Scarpetta went to the television studio a week before taping her cooking spot with Stewart to prepare the dish for the studio chef and staff, jot down precise measurements ("I never measure at home," Scarpetta said) and got herself ready for the camera.

"After it's over, I'm exhausted," she said

After the first show with Scarpetta aired, she received more 300 e-mails from instant fans, wanting her recipes, cooking tips, and insights on how she stays so svelte with all the cooking she does.

"I do aerobics three to four times a week at home" said Scarpetta. "I eat everything I want. This is my life and I want to enjoy everything."

And she willingly shares her cooking secrets. Her success with canning great tomatoes comes from 12 years of practice and learning from her family and former neighbors in New York.

"My mother, my grandparents, my whole family always canned," said Scarpetta, a native of Cervinara, Italy, and raised in the Bronx. "I observed all my neighbors who canned and took tips from everyone, then did it my way."

"We'd talk endlessly about what we're cooking" says Scarpetta who moved to Easton two years ago. "I'm not a fancy cook. I really have my own style and like to make it fun."

Stewart was surprised that Scarpetta didn't peel her tomatoes before canning them, but that gives them a great texture, said Scarpetta. The only thing she adds is some basil leaves. To get the best tomatoes possible, Scarpetta goes back to her old Bronx neighborhood every August. at the height of tomato season, to shop on Arthur Avenue.

Stewart's production staff filmed a segment with Scarpetta shopping along the street where everybody still knows her name.

"I used to be Eleanora from the Bronx. Now I'm Eleanora from Connecticut,"she says with a laugh.

Before her success on Stewart's show, Scarpetta would usually fill her van with 45 boxes of handpacked, Roma plum tomatoes from New Jersey and Florida (weighing 25-30 pounds a box) to produce her usual 300 jars of tomatoes and puree. But with her frequent appearances on "Living," she'll more than double her purchase and her preserving this summer, she said.

Canning starts at 5a.m. for the vivacious brunette with a touch of red in her dark hair, and takes two weeks. She uses propane gas burners in her garage to process the Mason jars because her kitchen stove can't accommodate the huge aluminum pots she uses. This may sound like too much work, but to Scarpetta, a woman who even loves grocery shopping, it's a joy.

"I love it. For me it's like Christmas time," says Scarpetta, her eyes wide like a child opening presents. Juggling all these projects doesn't seem to bother the energetic Scarpetta. She is already working on a second cookbook even before the first one is published.

Martha would be proud.

Catch Scarpetta on "Martha Stewart Living " at 9am Monday on CBS. She'll be making pizza rustica, a savory dish qften enjoyed by Italians for the Easter holiday.


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