Everybody loves food on ‘Raymond’ – Italian dishes are often part of the story line

Bruschetta. Lemon chicken. Meatballs. Chocolate-covered strawberries.

When you add up all the dishes that have appeared on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” it would make the Food Network jealous. Cooking is a constant theme of the popular CBS-TV sitcom (Mondays at 9 p.m.), which revolves around Ray Barone (Ray Romano) and his extended — and extensively annoying — family.

Ray’s mom, Marie (Doris Roberts), is the undisputed queen of the kitchen. Her strength as a matriarch comes from her mouthwatering Italian dishes. When Ray and his brother, Robert (Brad Garrett), do something that displeases her, Marie’s punishment is swift and harsh — she cuts off their supply of homemade snacks.

Ray’s wife, Debra (Patricia Heaton), is another story. The only thing she can cook with regular success is lemon chicken. When she tries a new recipe, the laughs come from Ray’s attempts to eat it with enthusiasm.

But last week, Debra surprised everyone — and scored big points in her epic power struggle with Marie. She made braciole, a rich and hearty beef entree with prosciutto, provolone, pine nuts and raisins (which Debra, in a daring move, replaced with currants).

The dish was so delicious, the characters ate it up.

“Good?” asked Debra.

“Yeah, good,” enthused Ray. “Even better the second time, now that my tongue’s not scared.”

The cast loved it, too. “I think Brad (Garrett) took some of it home,” says Rhonda Schneider, a propmaster for “Raymond,” who says the recipe for Braciole di Manzo came from a Williams-Sonoma cookbook called “Savoring Italy.”

Last week, braciole was the star. On March 20, bruschetta gets a supporting role on the show. The toasted bread will serve as a punch line in a scene between Marie and Debra.

Whatever the episode, a feast of food-related gags adds more than flavor to the show’s story lines. “We use food to kind of define the politics of the family,” explains the show’s executive producer, Phil Rosenthal. “It’s something that we all relate to and find humor in. We all go to the bathroom, but we don’t like to talk about that as much as some other shows.”

And you thought Hollywood was only about fame and money? It is, but food is also a driving force, at least on the set of “Raymond.”

Rosenthal admits the obsession starts with him. Here’s a man who named his production company Where’s Lunch, in honor of the highlight of his day. The company’s logo, which runs at the end of the show, is a different plate of food each week.

His writing staff is right in step with his consuming passion. “Their first question of the day is, ‘Where’s lunch going to be from?’ ” says Rosenthal. “Their second question is, ‘Where’s lunch, already? We ordered it an hour ago.’ ”

The “Raymond” crew prides itself on the quality of the food that’s available backstage. Once, a truck from In-N-Out, the California fast-food chain, was driven to the set, so its famous burgers could be served fresh on the spot. Another time, stone crabs were flown in from Florida as a treat.

“We’re not little 19- and 20-year-olds running around in our bikinis in this show,” says Rosenthal. “We like to eat.”

When food is used on the air, the show’s catering service or prop department whips up the dishes. That way, the actors get to eat the real thing during takes.

“I try to make it look good and taste good,” says propmaster Schneider, who cooks many of the items seen on the show. She was too busy to do the braciole, however, and had to hire another cook.

The producers went with braciole, a lesser-known Italian specialty, because they wanted Debra to tackle something that would be surprising for her to pull off — and something that would irk Marie as much as possible.

Other episodes have revolved around simpler fare. Last year, a flashback detailing Ray and Debra’s first meeting had the couple sharing the notorious lemon chicken as their first meal.

This year, Debra found out that Ray had taped a football game over their wedding video. To make amends, he planned a ceremony to renew their vows and fretted with Robert over the chocolate tuxedos painted on the strawberry appetizers.

And who can forget the episode where Marie gave Debra the wrong ingredients for a meatball recipe on purpose, to guarantee that hers wouldn’t taste as good?

“I bet there’s a food reference in almost every episode,” says Rosenthal. “We don’t set out to do it. It just happens. It’s a reflection of family life.”