Michael Guarco in the kitchen

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Photo by Anna Guarco

Mushrooms and wet antipasto in pantry.

Michael Guarco is widely recognized in his role (since 1989) as chairman of Granby’s Board of Finance. In his position as chair, and as a regular contributor to the Drummer, he advises and explains best practices for the town’s financial success.

We know people only in fractional ways, so here is a pleasing revelation: Not only is Guarco good with numbers but he is also a star when it comes to traditional Italian cuisine. Given his humble demeanor about this facet of his life, who would guess that each year he—along with family members—produces wine, makes salami and sausage, prepares mushrooms in four ways and assembles up to 60 quarts of wet antipasto in a day?

A passion to honor his culture, while specifically memorializing his grandparents, propels his culinary ventures. When he is preparing his specialties, he is living a tradition. “I often feel the presence of my grandparents. It is a melancholy kind of comfort,” reflects Guarco.

Family Sunday dinner, October 11

“At 11 a.m. I started dinner. I prepped the pork roast with salt, pepper and rosemary and inserted bits of garlic into it via little slits. The meat was then spread with a mixture of pesto and anchovy creme. Potatoes, carrots and onions were added to the roasting pan. The tomato salad was made with finocchio (fennel), and dressed with oil and vinegar. Last I started my risotto with the mushrooms. Once it was almost done, saffron and parmigiana cheese were added. The meal was all on the table at 3:00, with a side dish of my pickled mushrooms and our wine.” 

In this manner Mike Guarco describes his preparation of a meal—one his grandmother frequently served—for a recent fall afternoon’s dinner, a family gathering that is often held on Sundays at his and wife Judy’s home in West Granby.

Family dinner: l. to r. Mike Guarco, Sr. (father), Judy Guarco, Mike Guarco, Eileen Guarco (mother), Alan Guarco (brother). Photo by Anna Guarco

Deep roots in the community  

Four generations of Guarcos have made Granby their home. The family’s striking entrepreneurial spirit manifested itself from the beginning. Doro Guarco (1896-1998) and his father immigrated to America from Italy in 1914. Doro, Mike Guarco’s grandfather, achieved success in several endeavors. After finding his way to Granby, he earned a living providing firewood for brick kilns and making railroad ties, later buying land and transitioning to crop and dairy farming on Notch Road. He also owned Doro’s Tavern on State Street in Hartford for 24 years.

Members of the younger generations continue to demonstrate a marked ability to start and maintain thriving businesses, including an oil company, a propane company and a construction operation.

Growing up in Granby 

Guarco and his four siblings grew up on the family farm on Notch Road. He recalls how, at the age of 7, he was “driving tractor raking hay.” Large vegetable gardens provided food for the table throughout the year and everyone shared the tasks of planting, weeding, harvesting and meal preparation. 

Graduating in 1976 from Granby Memorial High School as class salutatorian, Guarco was one of three graduates who were accepted to Ivy League schools. He spent four years in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, receiving a bachelor of science degree in economics, then returning home to Granby to work in the family business.

Guarco and his wife, the former Judith Cook, were in the same catechism class in first grade, but Judy says they did not really know each other until they became classmates in 5th grade at Kelly Lane. While Guarco went to Philadelphia, she attended the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. They married at St. Therese Church in 1982 and have four children.

Summer’s bounty: Wet antipasto

Wet antipasto includes onions, peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, and green and yellow string beans. Guarco’s 1,000-foot garden provides a portion of these, but some must be bought given the large quantity to be prepared. The recipe also incorporates mushrooms, tuna, anchovies, and canned or stewed tomatoes. The resulting flavorful blend is enjoyed as an accompaniment to meat dishes. One day’s work may result in as many as 60 quarts of antipasto. Relatives come to help, forming an assembly line of washing, chopping, and keeping a watch on two large pots of simmering vegetables and then filling heated jars at the right moment.

Family and lucky friends share the resulting jars, which will keep for more than a year—but are usually consumed well before 12 months have passed. 

Mushroom memories

“When I was about 6- or 7-years-old, during the months of July and August, I used to go up to Windsor State Forest, near Pittsfield, Mass., with my grandfather (who was born in 1896 so would have been in his 60s) to gather mushrooms,” reminisces Guarco. “They grew in great abundance in the forest there, though dependent on rainfall and phase of the moon. We got up at 4:30 a.m. and left at 5:00 with a packed lunch of homemade salami sandwiches. We had to get there early as so many other folks of European extraction would be arriving to get into the woods for the same reason.”

Mushrooms ready to pick. Photo by Mike Guarco

These days Guarco finds his mushrooms in Granby. He has his special spots, but he also has a number of friends who will call to let him know when they see mushrooms on their property or elsewhere in the area. The best time to pick is a narrow window at the end of August into September. He notes that “a good rain storm helps the mushrooms to form.” This year he picked 10 pounds. He points out that this is not the small amount it may seem since “they are light-weight,” but he also notes that the drought “absolutely” affected the yield this year.

Mike Guarco in mushroom mode. Photo by Faith Tyldsley

His preferred mushroom is the porcini, prized in Italian and French cuisine for both its nutty, earthy flavor and its tender, meaty texture. Brown-capped, with thick white stalks, porcini require no initial preparation other than a quick clean. He stresses that they must be prepared “in a timely fashion,” which pretty much means immediately. Four possibilities follow: they can be dried, pickled, breaded like eggplant, or sautéed with onion, garlic, rosemary and tomato.

Wine in October: filling the demijohns

The arrival of Columbus Day signals that it is time to buy grapes and make wine. Guarco’s brother purchases two varieties of grapes (Syrah and Grenache) from the regional food market in Hartford. The grapes, shipped from California, are sold by the crate, each holding 36 pounds. Forty crates were purchased for wine-making this year for a grand total of 1,440 pounds of grapes.

The grapes are placed into four big barrels where they are crushed through electrical power. This begins the process of fermentation when the mass of grapes will begin bubbling and then rising on its own. When the level of the mass drops, the resulting juice is ready to be poured into demijohns, over-sized bottles with short narrow necks. Each demijohn contains the equivalent of 70 bottles of wine. 

The demijohns are kept in a room that Guarco refers to as a “cantina.” Thus, another cultural tradition lives on in Granby: A cantina is an integral part of a traditional Italian home. It is a room below ground level with a dirt floor where wine and other products such as salami are stored.

When asked how strong his wine is, Guarco replies, “Strong enough to cure what ails you.” 

Mike and Judy Guarco toast each other with their own wine. Saluti! Photo by Faith Tyldsley

November is salami-making time

Guarco estimates that his father, two brothers, Judy and he make 100 pounds of hard salami and sausage a season. His salami is “made of ground pork (both meat and fat), and flavored with spices, garlic and a bit of wine.”

Alan and Judy stuff the casings. Photo by Mike Guarco

Ingredients are placed into the meat grinder which his grandfather used over 100 years ago. It is a prized possession. With the date of 1913 stamped on its venerable iron body, it serves as a tactile conduit to his grandfather. The mixture is stuffed into “casings” and the resulting “strings” are hung from the cantina’s ceiling. Guarco describes his variety as tender in texture and “great sliced for sandwiches.”

Salami and demijohns in cantina. Photo by Mike Guarco

Going home to Salogni

Every summer in August, a pilgrimage of sorts is made when the Guarcos return to their ancestral home in Salogni, Italy, for a two-week stay. Guarco first visited in 1972 when he was 13, and has been to Italy 25 times since.

Salogni is a tiny town in the Piedmont region, high in the Apennine Mountains overlooking the Po Valley, between Genoa and Milan. The population for centuries was 400 but today is closer to 15. The remaining permanent inhabitants are mostly elderly people, some of whom knew his grandparents. The village comes alive in summer as family clusters convene to spend summer days in the homes of their ancestors.

The Guarco family home was “fixed up” in 1971, modernized just enough to make it comfortable. Rooms are small and Guarco must duck to go through doorways. There is also a great uncle’s home—still owned by the family—where cousins who live in Italy come to stay. Once again, on homeland soil, Guarcos dance and eat together, celebrating the warmth and endurance of family.

When it is time to leave, the Guarcos are surrounded by well-wishers and by cousins who are staying longer. Each year, two elderly ladies in their 90s ask Guarco, “Are you coming home next year?”

View from Salogni, Italy. Photo by Mike Guarco

Toast to tradition

This year there was no trip to Salogni. But the mushrooms were picked; the jars of wet antipasto sit 4-deep on pantry shelves; the wine, salami and sausage keep company in the cantina. Even as winter comes on, Guarco can feel the Mediterranean sun and see the old ladies he’ll return to next summer.