In the nearly six years since Tracy Carbone’s mother died, not a day goes by when she doesn’t think of her mother’s kindness and kitchen wizardry.
Such fond memories led her to create Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette, a dressing and marinade that she introduced last year, just in time for Mother’s Day.
Carbone, a special education teacher at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School in Apex, never imagined herself becoming a food entrepreneur. But she became determined to honor her mother by bringing the product to market, thanks to the support from her husband, Gregory, and friends, who felt sure the dressing would be a hit.
It wasn’t easy, as her mother, Phyllis Greco, left few clues to her culinary accomplishments before she died in 2011 at the age of 85.
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Greco prepared simple suppers and elaborate feasts without a single cookbook or written recipe. Like clockwork, she would flip on the light at 6 a.m. in her Buffalo, N.Y., kitchen to start cooking. Family and frequent visitors were roused by the tantalizing aromas of sausage with onion and peppers or her legendary Italian sauce with meatballs.
“She was an Avon Lady for 30 years, but she never had to ring anyone’s doorbell,” says Carbone, who moved to Apex five years ago with her family. “Neighbors knew that if they came to our house, they’d get fed.”
Carbone learned to cook at her mother’s elbow, just as her mother did with her own mother.
“Since she never wrote anything down, I’d have to stand with her in the kitchen and really watch,” she says. “I asked so many questions, but she was always so patient. It’s just how she was.”
Carbone mastered a number of her mother’s creations, but it took awhile to get her vinaigrette just right. Her mother would whisk a batch for a salad that was served nearly every night, starting in the early years of her 63-year marriage to Samuel Greco. The oregano-based dressing transformed a bowlful of chopped celery, onion and Spanish olives into a signature dish that neighbors craved at potlucks.
The dressing has a dual function as a marinade, Carbone says, giving everyday grilled meats a special-occasion flair.
Since Phyllis Greco’s death, Carbone, her two brothers and sister tried many times to recreate the marinade’s magic. They’d get close, but it always seemed to be not quite like mom’s.
Inspired by the enthusiasm of friends, who nonetheless told her it was so good she should bottle and sell it, Carbone surprised herself one day by cold-calling the Entrepreneur Initiative for Food at N.C. State to ask for advice. The person who answered was unable to assist at that moment but left his direct number in case she wanted to try again. The last four digits were the same as her mother’s phone number.
“There were a lot of little things like that which happened along this journey,” says Carbone, who prayed for guidance to direct her entrepreneurial spirit. “I started to think maybe it was meant to be.”
Carbone fine-tuned the recipe to the point that her dad and siblings agreed it was just how mom made it. She acquired the documentation necessary to hire Bobbee’s Bottling in Louisburg to produce the affectionately named Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette for retail sale.
The first order was placed just before Mother’s Day 2016. Several cases, 1,500 bottles in all, were stacked in the dining room of her Apex home. With no stores committed to carry the brand, Carbone convinced a friend whose neighborhood was having a yard sale to let her sample and sell it from her garage.
“I sold 84 bottles that first day and recently placed my fourth order,” Carbone says, proudly smiling at her dad, who gently pats her hand. He now lives with Carbone’s family, which includes grandchildren Nicholas, 13, and Colin, 10.
“When I first heard she was doing this, I told her to go for it,” Samuel Greco says. “It brought back memories for me, all of them good. You can make a meal of dipping a good crusty bread into that.”
Since then, Carbone has managed to get Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette on shelves at The Butcher’s Market in Cary, where she will demonstrate it Friday, and Southern Season in Chapel Hill, where she’ll offer samples May 20. It’s also sold at In Flight gift shops at RDU Airport, among other Triangle sellers.
The brand can be found in Southport, where her brother Marty lives, and in Colorado, where sister Nancy resides. Brother Gregg still lives in the Buffalo area. Carbone is hoping to make it available at Premier Gourmet, her mother’s favorite shop in Buffalo, so family and friends can get it without having to pay shipping fees.
A life of love
For the product label, Carbone chose a radiant photo of her mother with a flower in her hair. It was taken in a Buffalo restaurant the night before her 20th birthday in 1946. The suited shoulder, barely visible to her right, belongs to Samuel.
Greco vividly recalls seeing his future bride for the first time. She was 16 and sat behind a glass window at the ticket booth of Shea’s Niagara, their hometown movie theater. Greco, nine months older, had come with a couple of friends to catch the show.
“I told the boys, right then and there, ‘I’m going to marry that girl,’ ” says Greco, 91, who eventually married her in 1948. “It took a lot of convincing to get her to commit, but I did it.”
Carbone has the proof of his efforts neatly packed in a cardboard shoe box. The soon-to-be Mrs. Greco kept every one of the dozens of love letters he sent her. He pleaded his case on thin sheets of stationery tucked into blue airmail envelopes sent during a 40-month deployment on a Navy jet carrier. His job was to load jets for action in the Pacific Theater, including the invasion of Japan.
“I haven’t seen those in years,” Samuel Greco says, his brown eyes growing misty as his daughter reveals the surprise collection, which she found bound with rubber bands.
“I don’t think I’ll read them,” he adds, looking away. “It would bring back too many memories.”
Phyllis Greco, mother of four and grandmother of seven, and the enduring love of Samuel Greco’s life, died July 30, 2011, soon after her 85th birthday. She kept her faith and good humor, as well as her striking beauty, through five bouts of leimyosacroma, an aggressive soft tissue cancer.
Carbone says her mother also endured the challenges of a late diagnosis of celiac, in which the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Misguided early efforts to address the autoimmune disease included a high fiber diet, which only aggravated the condition.
Carbone, who also contends with celiac, felt strongly about making Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette both gluten-free and sugar-free. She hopes to eventually add other products, such as an olive tapenade similar to her mother’s special salad, and an Alfredo-style white sauce.
She continues to feel her mother’s loving support thanks to another surprise discovery found among packed items from her parents’ home. Carbone came across a memory book she’d given her mother 20 years ago as a thank-you for letting her and her husband live with them for a few months between moves.
“I filled in some things and added photos, thinking we’d finish it together some day,” Carbone says, flipping through pages. Inside the back cover, her mother wrote her a secret message dated 8-7-2000, a time when the couple was hoping to start a family:
“Do you know how much I love you?” Carbone’s mother wrote. “You are my baby and always will hold a special place in my heart.
“All I wanted to do with my life was to be a good special mother. I hope I succeeded. Be good to yourself. Love people and you will be loved in return. You have a heart of gold. Keep it open always. Always ask God for help after I’m gone and I will hear you.”
Carbone’s eyes well up as she reads the message again.
“It would seem that she wanted me to find this after she was gone,” Carbone says. “I can’t help but think she knows what I’ve done with her vinaigrette, because I’ve felt her support so many times. I feel sure she’d be happy.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jwlucasnc.
Want to try?
▪ Carbone will give a demonstration Friday, May 12, from 3 to 7 p.m. at The Butcher’s Market, 1225 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary, and Saturday, May 20, from 10:30 to 2 p.m. at Southern Season, 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill.
Phyllis Greco’s Olive Salad
2 hearts of celery, sliced 1/4-inch
1 medium yellow or white onion, sliced 1/4-inch
2 14-ounce bottles Spanish olives with pimento, drained and chopped
3 garlic cloves, smashed or cut in half
1/2 bottle Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir to coat thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate overnight, stirring occasionally.
Remove garlic cloves before serving salad with a slotted spoon. Served chilled or at room temperature.
Yields 6-8 as a side