Keeping it simple

Cortland cook thinks, makes and loves it

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Linda Bagaglia shows her Italian Chicken Soup with Parmesan, Breadcrumbs and Egg Droppings, and Chicken Cutlets. She said she likes to keep it simple but delicious.

Looks can be deceiving. And delicious.

Linda Bagaglia’s decorating style, with its cornucopia of knickknack collections, cacti and artwork, was at first worrisome. What if her cooking was the same? Would the dishes she made have two dozen ingredients each?

Not even close.

Bagaglia’s Cortland home contains the things she loves — her pets, gifts from others, unique pieces of her own choosing and artwork of her own doing.

Her cooking, however, requires only the basics and a half hour to be just as impressive.

Take, for example, the Italian Chicken Soup with Parmesan, Breadcrumbs and Egg Droppings. That’s exactly what it is. She made up the name for the newspaper because it didn’t even have one.

Take those last three things, mix them together, and squeeze them through a potato ricer over a boiling pot of chicken broth. Done.

“You see?” said Bagaglia. “It looks like pastina.”

And it tastes just right, which was her plan.

“I think of something in my mind, and I taste it, and I make it, and it comes out just right,” she said.

Bagaglia has been cooking since she was 6 years old. She watched her aunt make the soup.

“My mom broke her back during the war and I was the oldest,” she said. So early on, many responsibilities became hers.

At that young age, she took a large sheet to wash. “A man said, ‘Linda, you need some elbow grease,'” she said. “So I told my mom to buy some.”

At that same age, she learned to bargain for fish at the market. And to “never steal and never lie.”

Bagaglia said the Gestapo came to her town in Italy in 1941.

“They put us in a line to be shot,” she said. “They took all our food and everything.”

Instead, she said, they were put on a truck and taken away. Her mother was given fabric, which she used to make clothing for the family. Her aunt was buried alive. There are pictures on the wall of a young Linda in long braids at a refugee camp with her sister and brother.

Bagaglia has been in the United States since 1955. She still sports a strong Italian accent, among other things.

“I’m 81. I got a tattoo the other day,” she said. Two birds right there on her wrist.

And next to the refrigerator are two real birds. Under foot, waiting for a piece of the kitchen action, are two little dogs, one weighing just 5 pounds. Somewhere nearby are two cats.

All along the hallway leading from the front door are examples of Bagaglia’s passion for painting. There are elephants, faces, trees and funny cartoons. She’s been painting since she was 5, and recently she won second place in “A McKinley Art Show,” for which she painted the memorial building.

Until 10 years ago, Bagaglia lived in Warren, where she raised her six children.

She’s not a fan of being wasteful — leftovers are sent home in ricotta containers, eggshells are saved for the plants.

But she won’t skimp on the olive oil, which is poured from a pretty little decanter onto a simple tomato salad.

“This is pure olive oil,” she said. “Extra virgin is crap.”

On the kitchen table are opera CDs, and above it is a depiction of The Last Supper. Bagaglia enjoys playing bocce, especially with her grandchildren, and she spends time at the Cortland SCOPE center.

She’s had to learn to cook smaller since her children are grown and she’s widowed. One of her favorites to make for herself is a little flatbread pizza with small-cut tomatoes and mozzarella.

She gave advanced warning that her recipes would not have amounts for ingredients, but she almost committed to a tablespoon of lemon juice in the marinade for the chicken cutlets. Almost.

“You can put as much as you want,” she said, “because it tastes good no matter what.”