Anna Sincavage bounds across the dining room with enough energy to put a person to shame at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, exclaiming in words only she can understand: “You’re speaking Italian! So simple, son of a gun!” This native of Assisi is everyone’s favorite aunt; her larger-than-life personality seems naturally to fill her family’s cozy little restaurant in the Ninth Square.
Opened in early May 2004, Skappo Italian Wine Bar is a relatively new addition to this historic quarter of downtown New Haven, but is, in many ways, more historical than some of the older establishments in the area. Signora Anna points to a dusty wine bottle mounted on the wall, tucked away in a corner of the room. Taped to the front of the bottle is an old black-and-white photograph of Anna’s late father.
After the death of her father, Anna wanted to honor his legacy by opening up a restaurant. Sharing with me her inspiration for Skappo, Anna says, “One word: to continue. To make the past always alive.” It is this relationship with the past that has shaped her ongoing love affair with Italian cooking.
The Sincavage family runs the restaurant out of a small family-sized kitchen, with each of Anna’s three children overseeing a different part of the operation. The eldest, Marc, prepares the restaurant’s meatier fare, from farm-raised rabbit to veal; Michael oversees the wine menu; and daughter Yvette invents a seasonal selection of inspired rustic desserts.
“Every time I turn around, I have my entire family here with me,” Yvette says. “I’ve grown up studying in the best kitchen in the country: my mother’s.”
Saturday mornings at Skappo offer the Sincavages an opportunity to share with others a bit of their heritage, through culture and language classes that, despite their Italian focus, appeal to everyone. On this particular Saturday morning, the dining room is nearly at its capacity when I come stumbling in 10 minutes late. Signora Anna greets me by first name and leads me to an open seat at a long wooden table, looking vaguely like an accoutrement to a traditional English pub. This morning, there are nearly 20 of us in total.
As Anna’s daughter, Yvette, and son, Michael, come out of the kitchen bearing wine glasses filled with a light fruit cocktail and warm mugs of sweet Italian cappuccino, Anna makes her rounds. “God bless you,” she coos affectionately, welcoming a newcomer from Sydney.
Bonnie, one of the women at my table, explains to me that a typical Saturday morning at Skappo begins a little slowly, allowing stragglers a little more time to get here and giving those in attendance a chance to catch up with others in the room. Most of them are regulars and have developed close friendships with others in the class.
“There is a little bit of an Italian in all of us,” Anna chuckles, alluding to the success of these Saturday morning breakfasts over the past two years, which she attributes to the universal desire to understand the past. “It’s about what we are.”
This morning, Anna begins with a brief lesson in Italian festivals.
“In Italy, we celebrate no matter what. Life is beautiful,” she tells us.
Appropriately, it is the weekend of San Martino, patron saint of betrayed husbands. Anna shares with us that the “Festa dei Cornuti,” held on the day of San Martino, involves bountiful feasts and the drinking of new wine in preparation for wintry days of fasting. It is a day where even the cornuti — Italian for “betrayed husbands” — can celebrate with absolutely no regard for what offenses his wife may commit against him.
By this time, Yvette returns from the kitchen bearing more of her homemade sweets: plates piled high with apricot-chocolate chip biscotti with cream and apple-cinnamon-ricotta crostini. In keeping with the spirit of “Festa dei Cornuti,” everyone in the room graciously indulges themselves.
The morning ends with a short language lesson, during which I learn a few phrases I regret not having learned before my summer visit to Italy. As we begin to pack up and head out the door, Michael rushes to stop us. He has good news: His newborn son, “Baby Massimo,” is eight-and-a-half pounds! The room erupts in cheers and congratulatory applause. Marc plays his guitar. Anna and her husband, “Chi Chi,” dance together as we sing along in Italian. For a moment, the Ninth Square in New Haven feels a lot like an old Italian piazza.
“When you’re here, you’re family” goes the cheesy catch-phrase used in those all-too-familiar Olive Garden commercials. But here at Skappo, these words are said with a genuineness of heart understood by those who take the time to visit the Sincavage family kitchen. Here at Skappo, life is beautiful, indeed.
59 Crown St. # 1
Language classes: Sat. 9:30 a.m., $5 (includes breakfast)
Signora Anna has a special fondness for the simplicity of her grandmother’s Umbrian cooking. She reflects, “the principal ingredient is a respect for the flavor of each individual element. Each one has its own personality that shines by itself, existing to satisfy our five senses. It reminds me of a proverb from Umbria: Gni erba ha la sua virtu. Every vegetable has its own special virtue.”
The following dish of Colfiorito lentils and fresh prosciutto, served over warm bread, is one that Anna’s grandmother would make for her family during the winter season in Italy.
2 cups Colfiorito lentils
10 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Garlic, as desired
1 carrot, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Several 1/2-inch thick slices of fresh Prosciutto
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
(1) Rinse lentils and place in two-quart pot with the chicken broth. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until almost tender.
(2) Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in 2-quart pot and add garlic, carrot, celery, parsley and basil. Cut prosciutto in slices and add to mixture. Cook 10 minutes over medium-high heat, then add tomato paste.
(3) While stirring, bring to a boil, and cook 10 minutes. Pour in the lentils and their broth, and simmer, covered, until the lentils are ready. Season with the salt.
(4) Optionally, heat grill pan over high heat for 5 minutes and toast bread until browned lightly on both sides, turning once, about 2 minutes per side. Rub bread lightly with garlic.
(5) Place bread in serving bowls. Pour soup over bread and serve hot, and, if you like, sprinkle on some pepper and Pecorino cheese. Serves 4.
Profile: Anna Sincavage, Co-owner (Skappo Italian Wine Bar)
Favorite Ingredient: Herbs, such as rosemary, oregano and marjoraine, and vegetables, such as spinach, arugula, lentils and eggplant, which Anna calls the secret of real Umbrian recipes
Favorite Dishes: Colfiorito Lentils with Prosciutto
Goals: “Respect for the pride of the harvest foods, simplicity in the combinations of ingredients, and the love of being together to enjoy it.”
Memorable Quote: “It takes a generation to put peace in the past.”