Time in Italy has inspired home cook for a lifetime

Sam Shirley

Nanette Piccirillo calls our attention to Sam Shirley as an excellent home cook. “Sam is a close friend of my husband’s (Tom Masi) and mine. We have enjoyed numerous meals with her throughout the years. I have her cook for my parties and get-togethers. My friends always say how wonderful everything is. I always say ‘compliment Chef Sam.’ She is an excellent cook and host who loves to share her joy of cooking with a good glass of wine and good friends.

“During the holidays, she makes these little cakes that all her clients love to receive. Simple gesture but much appreciated. Sam can prepare anything and it will be delicious, from Italian to Oriental. She can take a simple bean soup and have you asking for seconds. There is not a meal, appetizer or dessert that has not been delicious.

“I often ask her if she will cook and I will market her. Sam’s reply is, ‘I love to cook for pleasure, not for money.’ Maybe one day I will change her mind.”

Name: “Sam” Shirley

Age: 65

Residence: Charleston

Occupation: Health insurance sales/marketing

Family: Husband, Larry; one son, Robbie; and two stepsons, Brian and Sean

Q. Your friend Nanette says people have nicknamed you “Chef Sam.” How did you come by your love of cooking?

A. My love of cooking stems from growing up in a predominantly Italian family. Big Sunday dinners with all of the relatives gathering at one house. I truly enjoy food, and lived in Italy for a good while.

Q. Have you ever given thought to a culinary career, like opening a restaurant or in some other way?

A. I’ve never entertained the idea of a culinary career. Having to cook under pressure would take all of the joy out of it!

Q. Did you have a mentor in the kitchen?

A. My mother was a good cook, but I really had no interest in cooking until I had lived abroad, so I can’t say that I really had a mentor.

Q. When, where and why were you living abroad?

A. After graduating from college, I decided to change my major from art to languages and was accepted to the University of Rome. I had visited Europe with my mom prior to entering college, and always said I’d go back to Rome. So, I was in my early- to mid-20s. Wow! So long ago, but seems like just yesterday.

Q. Nanette says you cook everything well from Asian to Italian and everything in between. But what one dish that you make that best epitomizes your cooking?

A. I can’t say that there’s one dish that epitomizes my cooking; I enjoy it all! But, I suppose I have more fun with anything Italian.

Q. Do you have a favorite cookbook, and if so, why is it?

A. I have many cookbooks but I reference the Food Network if I have a question or if I’m looking for an idea. It’s really my “go-to” source.

Q. My most treasured kitchen gadget is ...

A. I’d have to say that my most treasured kitchen gadget is my small food processor. It’s nothing big and fancy, but when I look back on the countless hours of chopping, and dicing, it’s my best buddy.

Q. What is a food that you’ve tried to like but just don’t?

A. I’ve tried to like different fish, but I just don’t. Love to catch it, and don’t mind cleaning it, but just don’t like to eat it.

A favorite recipe:

One of my favorite, and easy, recipes is what I call Penne Alla Pappalina. Living in Italy, I had many favorite restaurants, and I would try to re-create a favorite dish from each one. This is my rendition:


1 package (5 links) sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided use

3 to 4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 shallot, minced

1 (8-ounce) package white or cremini mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 (8-ounce) jar sun-dried tomatoes, preferably in oil, roughly chopped

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing around

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

A good handful of fresh basil, chopped

1/2 package baby spinach, or as much as you like

1 pound penne rigate

1 cup reserved pasta water

A good handful of fresh parsley, chopped for garnish


In a large, deep saute pan, cook the sausage, breaking apart as you go. Drain and set aside.

Saute garlic, shallot and mushrooms in the same pan in oil (a few turns of oil around the pan) 2 to 3 minutes, adding red pepper flakes.

Add the sun-dried tomatoes and beans. Add the sausage and the remaining olive oil, adding the shredded cheese as you go.

Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Add the chopped basil and spinach to wilt.

Cook the pasta as directions suggest. Remember to reserve some of the pasta water.

Add drained pasta to the pan of sauce and fold gently to combine, adding pasta water to loosen as necessary.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve. Pass extra cheese around, use lots of freshly ground black pepper.