I was complaining the other night to anyone who would listen about how busy I am and how I just didn’t know how I could keep up this frenetic pace of working and cleaning the house and doing laundry and trying to find time for yoga and, you know, sleep. Then I turned on Cooking Channel and there was Debi Mazar, flying between New York and Tuscany, filming a show, writing cookbooks, being a mom, being a wife, being an actress and still managing to look like she just stepped off the pages of a 1950s pin-up calendar. And I was all, “Oh, for crying out loud, Debi, you’re killing me here.”

Not that I wasn’t already in awe of Debi Mazar. I’ve seen her in "Goodfellas," “L.A. Law,” “Entourage,” “Friends,” “Ugly Betty” and “Dancing with the Stars.” I read an interview once with her former boyfriend Paul Reubens, who said she helped him overcome a bout with depression. As a dyed-in-the-wool child of the 80s, I used to watch her dance behind Madonna in her music videos. (Remember the three ponytailed cuties from “True Blue”?) And then, just when I thought she couldn’t possibly get any more awesome without having to a permit of some kind, she went and married a hot Italian guy, had two adorable kids, and now she has a hit TV show.

So I really, really wanted to not like Debi when I was getting ready to interview her and her husband, Gabriele Corcos. I wanted her to be snooty and rude and haughty and look down her nose at me. Instead, she was the nicest, most down-to-earth person imaginable and I walked away thinking, “Man, I really like her.”

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Damn.

I liked Gabriele too. They have the easy banter of a couple who has been together for awhile, but still really dig each other. She’s a quick-witted New Yorker through and through, and he is sweet and hilarious, with an Italian accent that somehow makes him even funnier. They had me cracking up during the entire interview.

“I love that the show moves back and forth between your homes in Italy and New York,” I said. “Tell me what that’s like – it looks fun and exciting but exhausting.”

“We’re always traveling, always multi-tasking,” Debi answered. “We write the show, and produce it, and come up with the location. We very much enjoy that process. Right now we do everything by ourselves. It’s our brand.” Their brand includes their blog, Under the Tuscan Gun, in addition to “Extra Virgin.”

As a long-time actress, Debi is used to running on long hours, but doing it with a family in tow has been an adjustment. She and Gabriele travel with their daughters, Evelina, 10, and Giulia, 6.

“It’s been a big learning curve,” she explained. “We wanted our fans to feel like they’re with us, like we’re not just on a set somewhere.” While they do have a set of sorts – a rented brownstone in Brooklyn – viewers regularly find themselves either in Debi’s New York, with its crowded streets, subways and skyscrapers, or Gabriele’s Italy, with rolling green hills, goat farmers making fresh cheese, and lively family dinners under the olive trees.

“Our mission is to demystify Italian food,” Gabriele said. “It’s extremely affordable and easy to do. Here and there we may have specific ingredients that seem unusual, but for the most part, the food we do is easy. Cheap, fresh and easy.”

The show, he said, is more about conveying a family message than a cooking message.

“It’s the same as our parents and grandparents did for us,” he said. “We’re not really teachers and we’re not completely chefs, but we’re ambassadors of the culinary world here in the States. It’s changed my life. I feel very blessed.”

The couple is working on a cookbook at the moment, which Gabriele said “is not about how the dish is going to look at the end. It’s about the love you put in when you cook it. It doesn’t always matter how it looks, as long as it tastes good.”

As someone who has made things that tasted pretty good but looked like there may have been an explosion in the kitchen, I found this incredibly encouraging. Debi told me she has found her own inspiration in her husband of 10 years.

“I’ve been cooking pretty much since I was a kid,” she said. “We lived with my grandma and I’d watch her. She was the first one who taught me how to set the table, how to garden, and how to be a lady.” Debi’s mom, still a teenager when Debi was born, couldn’t cook, although Debi said she tried.

“When I met my husband, the fact that he could cook for me was amazing. I’d never had a guy impress me with cooking. He inspired me, and he taught me how to be a better cook.”

Gabriele said when he’s on his own, he doesn’t cook much.

“I get skinny when I’m not around her,” he said, making Debi counter with how his amazing cooking affects her weight. I’m afraid I laughed right in Ms. Rockin’ Body’s face.

I asked them why they expose their daughters to both of their cultures.

“Why wouldn’t we?” Debi answered. “They speak English, Italian and Spanish. They have dual citizenship. This is the greatest time in their lives to expose them to both cultures, when their minds are fresh. We like it that they’re multi-cultural. They get to have the best of both worlds. Here they’re city girls, there they’re Tuscan farm girls.”

Gabriele said traveling with the family is always an adventure.

“I remember the first time I saw a lady with a child on a leash,” he said. “I thought ‘Wow, girl, come on.’ Then my daughters started walking. Now I get it.”

It may be a lot of work, and there are times when I suspect the hints of fatigue on Debi and Gabriele’s faces when they arrive in Italy is not a scripted part of the show, but they know how blessed they are.

“We live a life that is very tight,” Gabriele said. “We’re growing together. This is new to all of us and we’re writing our own history together.”

“I learn new things from him every day about the ancient culture of Italy, the geography, the religion,” Debi adds. “It’s the same way with me – he learns about my country. Our children ask a lot of questions as they’re discovering the world. I know everything’s okay because my fifth-grader wrote an essay for her class and it was so eloquent and well-written. I know that she’s happy, that she accepts her life. They truly love their Italian grandparents, and my mom. They really love traveling and are so well-behaved.”

“I live with a wife, two daughters and a neutered dog,” Gabriele jokes. “I need testicles.”

It’s the kind of quip that makes “Extra Virgin” zing. It’s very much a family show, but there’s that spark of humor, of honesty, of realness that flows between Debi and Gabriele, that kind of unspoken married-couple connection in which the husband and wife give each other a knowing wink over the top of the kids’ heads. They’re just a regular family, but with an extra helping of awesome on the side.

“Extra Virgin” airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on Cooking Channel.

 

©2012  Ty Pott   Christy Potter

Christy "Ty Pott" Potter is a longtime journalist and food writer. "A Spot of Ty" features interviews with celebrity chefs, as well as glimpses of her own adventures as a home cook.