We spoke with Top Chef season 4 finalist Antonia Lofaso about her new cookbook and her daughter, who inspired this satisfying recipe.

By Jonna Gallo Weppler

Growing up in a traditional Italian American household "surrounded by food and family," Antonia Lofaso knew she wanted to be a chef. "But it seemed to be the type of dream career few people actually succeed at, like becoming an actor or an artist," says the Top Chef season 4 finalist. Her latest kitchen feat, The Busy Mom's Cookbook: 100 Quick, Delicious Home-Cooked Meals, debuted in August. Daughter Xea, 12, inspired an entire chapter of easy-but-creative lunch ideas, including this satisfying option.

Antonia Lofaso's Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Basil Pesto

Antonia says: "This is one of my daughter Xea's favorite dishes. When we eat out at Italian restaurants, she likes to order gnocchi with pesto, but gnocchi's a little labor intensive to bust out for school lunches, so we make this instead."


1 cup fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon pine nuts (optional; see note below)

4 servings warm whole wheat pasta (cooked according to package directions)


Add basil, Parmesan, oil, salt, pepper and pine nuts to blender pitcher. Blend for 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, toss pesto and pasta together until they are well combined. Although this pasta tastes good at room temperature, I like to pack it in a thermos so it's still warm at lunchtime.

Note: It's fine to leave out the pine nuts if this lunch is going to a nut-free school environment.


Family Circle: How hard was it to be away from your daughter while Top Chef was filming?

Antonia: Incredibly tough, even though she was with her dad. But letting go was my only chance to succeed on the show. I didn't want Xea to ever think that a few weeks apart would make or break our relationship. Instead, I wanted her to see her mom as focused and ambitious and great at what I do. In the end I let that motivate me to make it to the finals.

Antonia Lofaso's Rice and Baby Spinach Salad


2 cups cooked rice (any kind)

1/2 cup cooked chicken (or shrimp or beef)

8 cherry tomatoes, halved

8 slices seeded cucumber

1 cup baby spinach

8 Kalamata olives, pitted

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 teaspoon sherry vinegar


Combine rice, chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, spinach and olives in a bowl. Drizzle in oil and vinegar and toss well. Divide salad between 2 reusable lunch containers. According to Antonia: "This can be served at room temperature, but I suggest a cold pack in the lunch box."

Antonia on Food and Family

"Food was one of the ways we took care of each other. And it was meant to be shared. If the cable guy came to the house, my dad would make him a sandwich," says Antonia.

"In my mind, a family is a family, no matter the size. Whether two people or 12, single moms, stepparents, doesn't matter. Giving one another undivided attention, that's all you need for a family meal," says Antonia.

Reprinted from The Busy Mom's Cookbook by Antonia Lofaso by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Antonia Lofaso.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.