Ask the Experts: Tina Fanelli Moraccini, Piccolo Chef + A Recipe for Mini Caprese Kebabs

by Jessica on August 17, 2011

Photo by Fusaro Photography

Tina Fanelli Moraccini is the co-founder of Piccolo Chef, which has been running cooking programs taught by experienced kitchen professionals for kids ages three and up since 2008. Classes range from single-day to week-long summer camps, and are mostly held at Surfas in Culver City. Her background as an educator and years spent working with the Los Angeles Italian Consulate General’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura helped inspire Fanelli Moraccini to start Piccolo Chef with Lilian Palmieri. She lives in L.A. with her husband and two daughters.

How old are your kids?

My girls are 6 and 2, and they are great little eaters (most of the time)!

What are their favorite dishes to eat — and cook! — at home?

My little one loves to make buckwheat pancakes with buttermilk and fresh blueberries for the whole family to enjoy. The 6-year-old has fun making one of her favorite dishes: polpettine in latte, which is a wonderful recipe of Italian meatballs in milk sauce. Sounds crazy, but it’s a really great dish for kids!

Where do you like to eat out as a family?

We live on the Westside, where there are — thankfully — no “theme” or “chain” restaurants for children. We take them to regular grown-up restaurants that we find to be “kid-friendly.” We like Hirozen on Beverly for sushi — they even make child-friendly chopsticks with rubber bands for the kids! Terroni on Beverly is great because the noise level in there masks it if my kids are not using their “restaurant voices.” And lastly, Chado Tea Room on Third Street is a wonderful place to take kids — they love the little tea sandwiches and scones! In all of these places, the staff is friendly and kind to children. If you go early enough, you can avoid the dirty looks from other patrons when you enter with kids under 10.

How do you encourage good restaurant behavior?

Good restaurant behavior starts with good home dining behavior. How can we expect our children to sit nicely at the table with us in public if they are eating in the living room in front of the TV or at different hours as the rest of the family? It is not always easy, but certainly starting from an early age helps them learn. Eating together at the table, as a family, beginning when they are toddlers promotes family togetherness – they talk about their day, maybe try a new food, practice their table manners. Also, bringing the children into the preparation process can be very beneficial: having them cook with you in the kitchen, helping set the table…all priceless shared moments with our children!

Based on your experience, around what age do kids seem to become more actively engaged in hands-on cooking?

At Piccolo Chef, we start them at the age of 3. By then they are already able to do some of the most simple tasks, such as mixing, cracking an egg, blending, even cutting with the correct tools. We do not believe in “kiddy utensils” at Piccolo Chef. We give them the actual kitchen utensils that you would use in your kitchen and teach them the correct way to use them. The under-10 set is working with a lettuce knife, which is sharp enough to cut, say, a carrot, but won’t cut little fingers. After 10, they are able to work with steel knives. More and more children are starting to watch the Food Network shows, and at a younger and younger age. So they come to us to learn how to be like their favorite stars. I remember one little boy, who must have been around 8 or 9, who, while watching our chef do an onion-dicing demo, said, “that’s not the way Giada does it!” So these kids are pretty sophisticated and ready to learn at a much younger age than you would expect.

Do you think it’s good to try to mask veggies and healthy stuff that some might not like, or do you believe that total transparency develops better eating habits in the long run?

Not only do I disagree with “hiding” the veggies on a personal level, but it is at the basis of Piccolo Chef’s philosophy to “bring the veggies to the forefront!” We actually feature vegetables as if they were guest stars in our toddler classes! We encourage them to explore them with all senses, cut them open and discover what’s inside, is it a giant pit or tiny seeds? What does it smell like? Are there roots hanging off the bottom? Feel the outside: is it rough or smooth? We find that when the children are familiar with the
veggies, and cook with them, they are much more apt to try them! Now, whether they like it or not – that’s a different story! The important thing is that they try it.

Makes about 20 kebabs.


•    1 pint cherry tomatoes, rinsed and patted dry
•    8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into bite-sized cubes, or 1 container mini mozzarella balls
•    1 bunch fresh basil leaves, rinsed and patted dry
•    White balsamic vinegar
•    Extra-virgin olive oil
•    Salt and freshly ground black pepper
•    Toothpicks or wooden coffee stirrers

To assemble:

1.    Arrange ingredients in front of you on a workspace.
2.    Working with one kebab at a time, skewer one cherry tomato onto a toothpick (or coffee stirrer – depending on the age of the child preparing the dish) and set aside.
3.    Wrap one cube of mozzarella inside one leaf of basil and skewer below tomato.
4.    Repeat with remaining kebabs.
5.    Drizzle kebabs with a little olive oil, a little vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

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