She Came to New Jersey for a Better Life—But Brought Her Italian Recipes With Her

“To cook is to be at home, in whatever part of the world I am,” says Montclair entrepreneur Barbara Morini. Her family emigrated here from Italy in 2016.

Barbara Morini in her Montclair kitchen, surrounded by ingredients for her pork and beef ragù
After six days running her Pilates studio, Barbara Morini unwinds on Sundays by cooking a heady pork and beef ragù. Photo by Erik Rank

Barbara Morini grew up in a small town in northern Italy, then lived for years in Rome and Milan. So when she emigrated here in 2016, she found Jersey Italian food to be quite…well, foreign. Case in point: spaghetti and meatballs. Whoever heard of such a thing? And when people started asking her about the Feast of the Seven Fishes, traditionally served in Italian-American homes on Christmas Eve, she was flummoxed. 

“To be honest, I went to Google,” Morini says. “I never heard of it in my entire life.” The day before Christmas, “we just eat fish,” she explains. “Not seven.” Another difference: making her own ragù from scratch, she uses no garlic. That’s southern Italian—the region that created the great wave of immigration to America a century ago. 

Morini, who owns To Be Pilates, a studio in Montclair, lives with her husband, Roger Mazzeo, and two daughters in Glen Ridge. She takes American life in stride. “Here, you have to have a waiver for everything,” she laughs. “I had two massages. I had to sign eight pages of waivers.” In Italy, she and her husband drive like Italians—con brio, with vigor. But here? Her buoyant, accented English changes to a drawl: “Very slowwwwly and carrrrrefully in America.”  

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Then there’s the whole culture around parenting. “Here, you’re booking a playdate.” In Italy, she says, you pick up the phone and invite a family over for pizza that night. “I cannot plan like an American, three weeks ahead for my children.” 

Morini’s hometown of Novellara, about an hour outside Bologna, had a piazza (plaza), a church, a train station and a medieval castle. “It was a very simple life. Going to school, coming back home, playing outside,” she says. Her father was a professor, her mother a schoolteacher. On Sundays, her mother rolled out pasta and made ragù for the week, gathering her three children to help.  

Sundays are when Morini—who works six days a week running her Pilates studio—sometimes has the leisure to make tagliatelle noodles from scratch and a pot of ragù, enough for a feast and leftovers for the week. (She keeps boxed pasta in the pantry, and the family will order pizza about once a week. Morini is, as she points out, a working woman.) But Sunday is not just about putting food on the table. “To cook,” she says, “is to be at home, in whatever part of the world I am.” 

Oil and meat sizzle in a pan in Barbara Morini's Montclair kitchen

Morini cooks with a glass of prosecco at hand. Photo by Erik Rank

And Morini has been all over. She became a professional ballerina at 17, leaving her village to tour China with the Cosi-Stefanescu classical ballet company. For several years, she traveled through Europe with the company, until “my big Bologna hips couldn’t cut it in a tutu.” She turned her talents to musical theater, performing all over Italy. In Rome, she met her husband, Roger Mazzeo, also an entertainer. Mazzeo, born in New Brunswick, traces his roots to great-grandparents from Sicily, Salerno and Calabria.  

They each spent time in Rome, then 16 years together in Milan. Based on his ancestry, Mazzeo was able to reclaim his Italian citizenship. In Milan, with two small children, Morini gave up the constant travel required of an entertainer and became a Pilates teacher. “Pilates seems to be the natural thing for a dancer,” she explains, especially one with knee and foot issues as a result of dancing. 

Six years ago, with their eldest about to enter middle school, they decided to move to the United States to give their children more opportunities. “In Italy,” she explains, “it’s very hard if you’re not the son of someone or the wife of someone.” They chose Montclair, where Mazzeo had attended college.  

But leaving her homeland “was heartbreaking,” Morini says. “We didn’t even have a job. We came with a suitcase and we rented a place. And we were not spring chickens. I was 46.” 

The couple opened a boutique in downtown Montclair offering Italian fashions for men and women. To supplement that business, Mazzeo continued his entertainment career, and Morini got a job as a Pilates instructor. Eventually realizing there was more demand for Pilates than for Italian clothing, they turned the space into a Pilates studio. 

It seems to be working out, even if their eldest does plan to attend college in Italy. Morini, who cooks with a glass of prosecco at hand, has a beautiful smile, a ready laugh and a light-filled American home. On Sundays, she can summon Italy by putting a pot of ragù on the stove to slowly simmer. Even if there are too many waivers to sign, America has less bureaucracy and tax burden than Italy. America, she says, “is still a nation that can offer a lot to people who are willing to work.” 

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