La Dolce Vita

Chef Rocco DiSpirito looks back at the life of a favorite uncle and shares a treasured family recipe.
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When my cousin Anna told me that my uncle Joe had died at the age of 79, she said he felt his spirit pass through her as he left this world.

"Just like in the movie Ghost," she explained. I thought to myself, this isn't a good sign.

But as I thought more about him, his life and his grand spirit, I decided that she must be right.

Joe was my mother's younger brother -- the eldest of four boys and definitely the patriarch of our family here in America.

He followed my mom to the U.S. from Italy in the early 1960s, and worked hard to craft his own American dream: job, marriage, kids and a house in the suburbs.

He was a big man with a strong constitution, and he worked as a butcher in a meat-processing plant for more than 20 years. When I first found out he had fallen ill, I knew he would beat it -- he had always seemed invincible.

By all appearances, Joe was an ordinary American who went to work every day and came home to his family.

Where he was different was in

how

he lived: In Italy, life isn't just something you get through till something better comes along.

So Joe recreated his Italian lifestyle here, in a small town on Long Island.

In Naples especially, where Joe was from, life is a series of moments to be savored and marked by laughter, great food, wine and the people you love around you. Luckily, Joe had many people whom he loved and who loved him in return.

With my grandmother's help, he built a parallel universe where he lived life as he had in the old country, and maybe even better -- a version of what Italian life would have been like had there not been so much war and poverty there.

Joe's home here was an attractive and welcoming place to entertain, and I immensely enjoyed every minute I spent there.

His house was like a sunny hillside Tuscan villa, complete with a basement cantina full of handcrafted wine, aging provolone cheese hanging from the rafters, and a garage brimming with homemade

soppressata

(an aged, soft salami) and

coppa

(a traditional Italian pork sausage).

A picturesque trellis of white grapes offered shade on hot summer days, and lush gardens out back, room to wander.

But all of this, every bite of fresh basil and garden-grown tomato sauce, would have been worthless without people to enjoy them with.

As I see it, the true Good Life is not about the things.

The good life is about enjoying the company of those around you, and a belief that anything is possible when you have others to help.

Joe made all this apparent with his sense of humor, his generosity and a heart full of love for everyone who crossed his path -- he understood this deeply.

As a matter of fact, it's probably where I learned it.

His charitable spirit and wonderful home created a community of friends and family so relaxed, it was impossible not to be reminded of what life is really supposed to be about whenever you were with him.

It won't be the same without Joe around; this whole community will change as a result of his passing -- but I hope, for the better.

Joe spent most of late summer each year preserving summer tomatoes and making wine, as well as crafting what Italians call

salume

(preserved meats of every kind).

These sausages were a particular favorite of mine; I even saved some of his soppressata from last year.

And luckily, I learned how to make the sausages while I was researching my second cookbook,

Rocco's Italian American

and shooting my

NBC

show "The Restaurant."

I'm sharing the recipe here, so when the spirit fills you like it did my cousin Anna, you can stop and take some time to make something for your family and appreciate the Good Life -- just as my Uncle Joe did.

Uncle Joe's Sausages

Makes: about a dozen links

Sweet fennel sausage hog casing (available at butcher shops)

2 pounds of pork shoulder

1 tablespoon of salt

1 teaspoon of paprika

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup white wine

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Use natural hog casing to make sausage links: Rinse casing and insides thoroughly with cold water to get rid of excess salt. Submerge casing in fresh underwater overnight. Remove the casing, and drain excess water.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the pork and all other ingredients and mix well with your hands.

Using a sausage machine (available online at

The Sausage Maker or

Dakotah Sausage Stuffer), fill the hog casing with the sausage mix according to the manufacturer's instructions. Use butcher's twine to tie off 3-4 ounce links, each about 4 inches long.

For more info on Rocco DiSpirito, please visit

roccodispirito.com or

click here to find his cookbooks.

Note

: Rocco is shooting his new TV show, and he's looking for people with a dramatic situation in their lives involving food. Worried about that engagement dinner with your picky future mother-in-law? Trying to win back that ex-girlfriend who's still mad at you for cheating on her? Trying to bury the hatchet with that outcast uncle at your family reunion cookout? Rocco wants to help you! Please

email with your problem and we will contact you!

Enjoy the Good Life? Let us know what you'd like to see in future articles.

Rocco DiSpirito was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. His culinary experience and love of "the good life" through cooking and dining began at age 11 in his mother Nicolina's kitchen. By the age of 16, DiSpirito entered the Culinary Institute of America, graduating with honors in 1986. DiSpirito's career highlights include opening Union Pacific in New York City's Gramercy Park as chef and owner in 1997, being awarded three stars from the New York Times in a 1998 review, and three more in 2002 from the New York Observer. DiSpirito was also named Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 1999, and "America's Most Exciting Young Chef" by Gourmet magazine in 2000; his show "The Restaurant" first aired on NBC in 2003. DiSpirito is the author of three cookbooks: Flavor, Rocco's Italian American, and

Rocco's 5 Minute Flavor.