cooks at home

MANGIA BENE!

Theresa Gayner cooks from the heart inside her Italian kitchen.

WRITTEN BY STEPH RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM

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An herbaceous bouquet of aromas pleasantly fills the kitchen of Theresa Gayner, a seasoned home cook who’s proud of her Italian heritage. She steams mussels in white wine on the stovetop and slices cherry tomatoes. At the same time, she roasts chicken in the oven for her mother’s recipe, Italian-crusted chicken thighs with fresh rosemary, thyme, and garlic.

Behind her, a tall pantry door displays the afternoon’s menu, and it’s not the average, everyday spread. In fact, it’s a feast that would satisfy the appetites of a family larger than her own. For starters, several intricately plated charcuterie boards line the counter, holding an array of hard and soft cheeses, various nuts and fruits, and cured meats, followed by Gayner’s take on a traditional caprese salad.

For that dish, she thickly slices red vine tomatoes and batters them with a simple combination of flour, egg, and bread crumbs before each is lightly fried in rich, extra-virgin olive oil. Gayner then stacks layers of fried tomato, sliced mozzarella, fresh basil, and raw tomato before drizzling the edible tower with balsamic vinaigrette.

She says the Saturday afternoon meal also is inspired by the flavors of summer, and that nine out of 10 dishes she cooks for her husband, Steve Heller, and their 10-year-old son, Vinny, begin with sautéing onions and garlic.

“There are so many great spices throughout the Italian culture. You’ve got oregano; you’ve got, hello, garlic! We love our garlic. We love our onion. We love our tomato, our thyme,” Gayner says. “I love to cook. So when I cook, I cook. If you get within 30 feet of our driveway, I’m going to feed you.”

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Roasted, Italian-crusted chicken thighs with fresh rosemary, thyme, and garlic

A talented host

This welcoming approach carries over to the online talk show she founded and hosts, Sac in the City, which explores the diversity of the state capital, as told through the stories of the individuals who live here. Gayner invites guests to her home and interviews them one on one, giving them the opportunity to speak honestly about their lifestyles or the subjects about which they’re most passionate.

“We ask the questions that many people are curious about but don’t ask because they’re afraid that they will be rude or intrusive, come off as judgmental,” Gayner says.

Since the show aired last August on YouTube, Gayner has interviewed a variety of Sacramentans, from popular drag queen Apple Adams to individuals living with bipolar disorder or who advocate for homeless rights while also battling homelessness.

“What we really want to do is expand minds and give people a different vantage point to see a different point of view,” Gayner says. “We’re trying to open up both of those pathways to educate people and expand horizons, and, hopefully, if we’re really lucky, our goal is to expand hearts.”

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Gayner dishes up her aromatic mussels

Live happy

When she was growing up, every Friday, Gayner’s mother made a dish called “oil spaghetti” for dinner, which she now describes as garlic sautéed in olive oil until it’s nicely charred before it’s tossed in pasta and served with a side of grilled fish.

To this day, Gayner says, it’s one of her favorite comfort dishes. She adds that more traditional Italian fare showcases a lot more fish versus the heavy marinara-and-cheese dishes recognized in American-Italian restaurants.

For her, home-cooked meals are meant to be savored with friends and family surrounding the dinner table, whether it’s aromatic mussels bubbling on the stove — a recipe inspired by her mom — or the next dish up for grabs, Tuscan pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes.

“Food doesn’t have to be super complicated to be lovely. You can have simple ingredients and show your love and have some really amazing flavors shine through,” Gayner says. “It’s how I express my love. It makes me feel really successful just to cook my family a meal. To cook them something really delicious is like providing a gift for them.”

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Theresa Gayner loves making big Italian meals for her husband,
Steve Heller, and their 10-year-old son, Vinny

Life is beautiful

Outside her Italian heritage, Gayner says she also looks to the late Julia Child as her culinary role model, citing her vivacious personality and unaffected blunders while cooking French staples during her television series decades ago.

“She was just hilarious in the way she always explained her dishes. She always had fun with cooking,” Gayner says. “She yelled at the duck. She beat her veal and would call it ‘dirty scoundrel’ and whatever else. I loved that about her and all the personality that she brought.”

Gayner herself also brings a certain finesse to the kitchen. Between courses, she’s filling glasses of white wine for guests as she makes lighthearted jokes about food and acts as if she’s on her own cooking show, reciting her steps in a cheeky-but-loving manner, and drizzling honey on top of her homemade panna cotta spiced with cardamom and vanilla. Each soft and silky mouthful is lightly sweet and is the perfect ending to an ambitious meal.

“It makes me so happy when everyone eats. It really does. It’s just the best when everyone’s sitting around the table, enjoying, and eating, and relaxing. That’s the best that life has to offer right there in that moment,” Gayner says. “Having a great meal with people you love, that’s it for me. That’s all that I want.”

Steph Rodriguez is an award-winning freelance journalist who keeps a close eye on the food and music scene in Sacramento. With more than 10 years’ experience as a writer, she crafts stories that mirror the vast and diverse culture of the region. From entertainment and lifestyle features, to profiles with a farm-to-fork interest, she aims to capture the best of Sacramento.

Recipe

Fried Caprese Salad
(courtesy of Theresa Gayner, home cook, and founder and host, Sac in the City in Sacramento. Serves 4)

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2 medium-sized tomatoes on the vine (may use any seasonal variety)
2 eggs
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh mozzarella cheeseball, sliced
Balsamic dressing of choice
5 to 6 fresh basil leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste

Cut 2 tomatoes into ½-inch slices. Rinse slices, pat dry with paper towel, and lightly salt each side. Set aside 2 slices for later. In 3 bowls, separate flour, eggs, and panko bread crumbs. Whisk eggs. Dip all but 2 tomato slices into flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs. (Make sure to leave 2 slices uncoated.) Lightly cover bottom of frying pan with olive oil over medium heat. When it’s hot, place battered tomatoes in pan and fry each side 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. To plate, stack fried tomato, sliced mozzarella, raw tomato, then fried tomato, placing fresh basil leaves between each layer. Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette.

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