“It’s a labor of love,” said Mark Federico, who, along with his wife Pattie, owns Narragansett Creamery. For Federico, food is all in the family. In the late 1940s, his grandparents opened one of the first supermarkets in Connecticut, and his parents later opened their own produce market.
“I’d like to say that’s where I got my connection with the farmers and the roots, because we dealt directly with local farmers. It was a lot of local foods, and my connection with the farmers began there,” he said. This philosophy has remained with Federico, as Narragansett Creamery purchases its milk from 20 to 30 small, family-run farms in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Federico worked as a certified public accountant in his own practice for several years before he made the radical career switch.“I don’t know if you’d call it a mid-life crisis,” he said with a laugh. “I could’ve gotten divorced and bought a red sports car, but I didn’t. I decided to make cheese.”
Naragansett Creamery was established in 2007, and the company began winning awards almost immediately, including the U.S. Gold Medal for its feta in 2007 and first place in a global competition for its “renaissance ricotta” in 2008. Federico sat down with The Herald to discuss Providence’s budding food talent and cooking from scratch in this latest installment of “At the Table.”
Herald: What’s your earliest memory in the kitchen?
Federico: Well, it may not be exactly in the kitchen, but my earliest memories of food and food preparation would be of canning tomatoes, canning fresh fruits and wine-making. I also grew up with my parents and a close uncle of mine who enjoyed cooking as a hobby, and so with my dad’s store being two doors down, he would get the fresh vegetables and cook lunch every day. We would see what produce the farmer brought in and what looked good, and that’s what we would cook for the day.
What was your go-to college food or meal?
Pizza. I went to school in New Haven, Connecticut, and we had some famous pizza restaurants: Pepe’s, Sally’s, Modern. That was the go-to food, the go-to date.
What’s your favorite thing to cook and why?
My favorite thing to cook is an Amatriciana sauce made with pancetta, onions, fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, all over pasta. I love to use Daniele Pancetta — Daniele is another local manufacturer right here.
What’s your spirit food?
This is right off the cuff, but it’s a hearty soup that I like — an escarole and bean soup. I just feel good eating the greens and the vegetables.
What makes Providence a good food city?
Federico: We are blessed to have such creative talent in this city between Brown, RISD and Johnson and Wales University. There is an excitement around food and an awareness around food.
Pattie: There are so many multi-talented chefs that are just so creative and very dedicated to using local products — local cheese, local meats, local vegetables.
Federico: I think it is an educated consumer, too, that realizes that what we eat is important. And people are realizing what preservatives do to your body. People are looking for purer food. There is an appreciation for it, and that is matched with the creative talent that’s here, and it works.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Simple, real food. We were fortunate, both Pattie’s family and mine — we grew up with that philosophy. Our parents and grandparents made everything from pasta to cake from scratch. If we wanted to have pasta that night, it was, “Here is the dough, the flour and the egg in the middle, make some pasta.” No boxed foods. We are happy to see that there is an appreciation for that today. It isn’t about the expediency. I can take a fresh vegetable and cook it faster than you can take something out of a can or defrost.
How does food fit into a larger conversation about culture?
From our backgrounds, food was always the centerpiece of the day — it was an opportunity to sit down. A meal wasn’t just about food, it was about communication. We had the daily dinner in our home with our five children. It was just a part of the day — it was not only a time to eat, but also a time to communicate
What’s your favorite midnight snack?
Federico: Dark chocolate-covered almonds. I’m not a sweets and candy person, but the dark chocolate, yes. Just a couple at the end of the day is perfect.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Recipe: Grilling Cheese and Chicken
Boneless chicken breasts, cut into cubes
Narragansett Creamery Grilling Cheese, cut into cubes
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Mix the soy sauce, honey and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl or pan and heat until the honey is melted. Thread the chicken and the grilling cheese onto skewers, and baste with the sauce. Grill or broil until the chicken is done, basting after turning the skewers.
The summary deck for a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Narragansett Creamery as a Connecticut-based operation. In fact, it is based in Rhode Island. The Herald regrets the error.