Singer and actor Frankie Avalon returned to his Italian Market roots last year to gather ingredients from the likes of Cannuli's Meats and Claudio's with his childhood pal Jerry Blavat for his first cookbook, Frankie Avalon's Italian Family Cookbook (St. Martin's Press, $24.99).

In the book, Avalon shares recipes from his mother's repertoire and his years in the kitchen, from stuffed artichokes to crab gravy to icebox cake. In between filming spots for QVC, Avalon talked to The Inquirer about growing up in the Italian Market and learning how to cook because he missed his mom's home cooking.

Why did you want to write a cookbook?

As a kid growing up, you were waiting for the Sunday gravy, the meatballs and sausage. My mom was such a great cook, and she wrote down her recipes. I had some, my sister had some. I cook every Sunday. I've got eight children, 10 grandkids, I have friends over all the time, and I like to cook. Everyone said, "You should write a cookbook." I had to take a year to put the cookbook together. There's some of my mom, some of mine. It's going be handed to my kids. I don't have to write the recipes down on little pieces of paper.

Do you have a particular favorite recipe of your mom's?

I can't pinpoint one. My mother never threw anything out. If there was a sliver of a tomato, it was in the refridge. I would come in with my friends, and Mom would say, "Want something to eat?" In 20 minutes, there was four, five dishes to eat. I loved the calamari meatballs, the rigatoni, the crab gravy. Her pizza was magnificent. It's the best pizza I've ever had. And it's so simple to make.

You returned to the Italian Market for this book.

I love the Italian Market, Ninth Street. My father was a butcher on Ninth Street.

What's the strongest memory you have of the place?

The aroma alone was terrific, and they always gave you something - a little prosciutto, a little salami - and you ate your way through the store. When I was kid, my uncle had a grocery store. I remember the smell of the sawdust on the floor.

Why is food so important in the South Philly tradition?

Even to this day - and the days when I was a boy - everything became a social event. Everyone gathered in the kitchen. I have my grandkids over, my children, my friends, everyone is talking. It's a special time, where you really get to know and converse with your family. It's really a festival of not just food, but family.

When did you start cooking?

Through the years, I would come home, and I had a desire, a craving for certain things, so I had to learn them. I was in California, and I would pick up the phone and call. "Did you leave anything out, Ma?" She always left something out. All of a sudden, I had a repertoire of certain kinds of food. I would come home from making a motion picture, I would look forward to having all the kids over and cooking.

The Italian Market has changed quite a bit since you lived in Philadelphia. Is there anything that surprised you about it?

Different things have changed, but the salami are still the best, the prosciutto, different kinds of olive oils. It's pretty much the same.

Did you hit up any of the new stores?

The stores I go to have been there forever.

Philadelphia has many new Italian joints to go along with the staples. Have you been to any?

I went to a restaurant when I was there last week. It was the most unique Italian restaurant I've ever been to in all my travels - Gran Caffe L'Aquila. This guy [Riccardo Longo] goes to Italy all the time. He took things from different parts of Italy. His gelato chef won the award for best gelato in Italy. The pastas were delicious. He has that room that makes the different coffees, like from the pits of cherry. He changes his menus to the different regions of Italy, from different regions of Italy. I found it to be exquisite.

If you were going to make me the ultimate meal from your book, all of your favorites, what are you going to make me? From soup to nuts.

Start with the basic salad - we've got calamari salad, arugula salad. But my favorite is the plain tomato and onion.

Then my crab sauce. It's the simplest, it's the tastiest, it's a two-parter. The sauce goes over pasta. You may like the short ones, the linguine. Then comes the crabs in another bowl. You crack them with a cracker, or your teeth. And they're already soaking in the gravy.

Finally, the icebox cake. It's so simple - it brings me back to my mom growing up. I would always ask for that. The taste of it is superb.

meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909@mollyeichel

Tomato, Cucumber, and Basil Salad

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Makes 4-6 servings

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2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons water

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large beefsteak tomatoes, each cut into 8 wedges

1/2 seedless (English) cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch rounds

1 small yellow or red onion, cut into thin half-moons

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil, plus a basil sprig, for garnish

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1. Using a fork, whisk the vinegar and water together in a large bowl. Add the salt and pepper and whisk to dissolve the salt. Gradually whisk in the oil.

2. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, and onion and toss well. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Let stand for 10 to 30 minutes before serving.

3. Sprinkle in the chopped basil and toss to combine. Garnish with the basil sprig and serve.

- From Frankie Avalon's Italian Family Cookbook (St. Martin's Griffin, 2015)

Per serving (based on 6): 92 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; 9 grams fat; no cholesterol; 198 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Banana and Graham Cracker Icebox Cake

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Makes 9 to 12 servings

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For the vanilla pudding:

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

4 cups whole milk

4 large eggs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ripe bananas, peeled and cut into thin rounds

16 to 18 whole graham crackers

For the caramel sauce:

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/2 cup heavy cream, heated to steaming

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of fine table salt

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1. To make the vanilla pudding, whisk the granulated sugar and cornstarch together well in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Gradually whisk in the milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until simmering and thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

2. Whisk the eggs together in a heatproof medium bowl. Gradually whisk in about half the hot milk mixture. Return this mixture to the mixture in the saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the pudding comes to a full boil, then cook, still whisking, for 30 seconds more. Remove from the heat. Add the butter and vanilla and whisk until the butter has melted. Strain the pudding through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a heatproof medium bowl. Cover the pudding with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the surface. (This prevents a skin from forming.) Pierce a few slits in the wrap with the tip of a small knife, and let cool until tepid, about 1 hour. (You can speed this up by putting the bowl in a larger bowl of ice water for about 20 minutes.)

3. To make the whipped cream, whip the cream, confectioners' sugar, and vanilla together in a chilled medium bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until the cream forms stiff peaks.

4. To assemble the pudding, place one-third of the graham crackers, breaking them to fit, into the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Spread with one-third of the pudding and top with one-third of the bananas. Repeat twice, finishing with the bananas. Spread the whipped cream over the pudding, covering the bananas completely. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 4 hours or up to 1 day; the longer the better.

5. To make the caramel sauce, combine the granulated sugar, water, and corn syrup in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until boiling. Stop stirring and cook, washing down the crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan with a bristle brush dipped in water, until the caramel is the color of an old penny and smoking lightly, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to very low. Slowly and carefully stir in the hot cream (it will bubble up) and stir until the caramel is dissolved and the sauce is smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until dissolved. Let cool until warm. Stir in the vanilla and salt. Let cool completely. (The caramel sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days.).

6. To serve, cut the chilled pudding into portions. Using a metal spatula, transfer each serving to a plate, whipped cream facing up. Drizzle with the caramel sauce and serve.

- From Frankie Avalon's Italian Family Cookbook (St. Martin's Griffin, 2015)

Per serving (based on 12): 438 calories; 7 grams protein; 66 grams carbohydrates; 50 grams sugar; 18 grams fat; 106 milligrams cholesterol; 236 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText