WHAT'S COOKING at Society Hill Playhouse? Italian-style chicken, along with antipasto and cannolis for dessert.
That menu is the raison d'être for "Cooking With the Calamari Sisters," whose open-ended run at the theater was recently extended - again. It will continue through March 10.
The often-raucous comedy-musical is part "Saturday Night Live" sketch, part loving look at Italian-American culture and part drag show. Oh, yeah, it's also a cooking seminar.
"Calamari Sisters" is framed as a live broadcast of a cheapo public-access cable TV show starring Delphine and Carmella Calamari, two middle-aged, unmarried sisters whose personal baggage, prejudices and peccadilloes get in the way of their stated mission: To educate the public in the ways of Italian cooking.
Public-access cable is a verdant field for satirists, given that it often provides a public forum for people who should not be allowed anywhere near a TV camera. So the concept of lampooning the realm wasn't a stretch for the show's creators - Dan Lavender, Jay Falzone and Stephen Smith (the latter two portray Delphine and Carmella, respectively).
But why target a cooking show?
"We do it because America has become really interested in lifestyles and food," explained Lavender during a recent phone chat. "There are so many foodies, so many epicureans, in America right now. It's become a really big thing over the past few years. Now, [celebrity chefs like] Giada DeLaurentiis and Rachael Ray are household names. What was the household name of the chef before this generation? Julia Child.
"I sat down with my co-creators and the Food Network was on, and I said, 'This is so unbelievable. Why don't we put this kind of stuff onstage?' We thought if it's becoming big business and something that is in the American psyche, it's ripe for satire. And the audiences agree."
The show debuted in Rochester, N.Y., in 2009 and opened at Society Hill Playhouse in October.
Making the co-hosts Italian was an easy call, too, Lavender said. "Part of it is that Jay and I are Italian, and we grew up with these big Italian families, and food and family are so interlocked.
"There's a point in the show where the character Carmella says, 'It's my favorite time. You get a glass of vino and you start talking with your family before you start to cook.' That was really important to us. We feel that Italian culture and family and food make really great storytelling. That's what it came down to."
During each performance, the Calamari Sisters prepare the same three courses: antipasto, Chicken Calamari and Cannoli à la 'Calamari' (the making of which involves an audience member and some good old-fashioned slapstick). The consistent menu is a function of the need to keep things as simple as possible for the two actors.
"Onstage cooking is difficult," offered Lavender. "It's one thing if you're watching it in a kitchen stadium like on 'Iron Chef.' To do it in a theatrical setting, we had to do basic [dishes]. You can't have too many processes involved because we're doing two things here: We're providing the audience with good-quality food, and we're giving them insightful [cooking] tips.
(Audience members get to sample a few dishes during the show.)
"But it is a comedy. And it's a musical, so we have to make sure there is simplicity to the dishes, that they're not too difficult to do onstage."
Speaking of food, his show's extended Philly stay has allowed Lavender to discover new and exotic dishes. He's already found a new culinary obsession at 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue.
"I had never had a cheesesteak before I came to Philly," he said. "I was sitting down with Geno Vento of Geno's and I said, 'I've never seen a place quite like yours, Geno. It's unreal to me. The closest thing I can think of is Katz's Delicatessen in New York - it's a pastrami sandwich experience like you never had before.' I had that when I went to Geno's.
"Now I'm hooked on cheesesteaks."
CANNOLI LA 'CALAMARI'
60 mini cannoli shells*
64 ounces fresh, smooth-curd ricotta cheese
1 pound confectioners sugar, plus more for garnish**
2 tablespoons vanilla extract***
Dash of seeds from a vanilla bean
1. Mix ricotta, sugar and vanillas in large bowl.
2. Add mixture to pastry bag; fill cannoli shells.
3. Sprinkle with extra powdered sugar over as garnish. If this sounds too rich for your taste, just serve with ice cream. Mangia!!
* We call them Irish cannoli - the Italian cannoli are much bigger.
** Don't be pretentious! Just call it powdered sugar.
*** For a more adult version, use half amaretto.