header i-Italy

Articles by: Michele Scicolone

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    A Tuscan Chef in New York

                “Simplicity is sophistication,” says chef Cesare Casella, paraphrasing Leonardo Da Vinci, to explain his approach to cooking.  “When you have good ingredients, you don’t have to do anything to them.  It’s important for people to understand that.  Many people buy good ingredients, but what do they do?  They damage them.  You need to have respect, treat ingredients the right way.”

             Cesare’s philosophy about food and cooking comes from his parents, who owned a small trattoria called Vipore outside of Lucca in Tuscany. His mother, Rosa, was a natural cook, says Cesare, while his father was an expert at sourcing the top quality ingredients used in their kitchen. The trattoria had a small store up front and a dining room in the back.  Outside there was a large terrace overlooking the garden where more than 40 different types of herbs were grown. But it wasn’t until Cesare finished culinary school and began working at Il Vipore full time that the restaurant earned a Michelin star and became a destination for celebrities like Tom Cruise and Henry Kissinger.

                Eventually, Cesare found his way to the U.S.  After stints at Il Toscanaccio, Coco Pazzo, Beppe and Maremma, he recently opened Salumeria Rosi on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in partnership with Parmacotto, a company that produces cured meats in Italy.  “When I met Mr. Rosi (the owner of Parmacotto), he talked about salame, and pigs, and I thought -- this guy, he knows what he is talking about.  I told him my new place is going to be a salumeria, and he said we would like to open a salumeria, too.  Why don’t we do it together?“

    Explaining his concept for the salumeria, Cesare said, “It’s difficult to bring people in to buy stuff that they are not familiar with.  It’s better to have a restaurant, there is more communication,” and people can try the things before they buy it.  “We got the movie set designer Dante Ferretti to do it. He has done the films for Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, and so on, and even won two Oscars for his work.  But he is not known for doing restaurants, so when he told me about his ideas for black glass walls and ceiling with a big relief map of Italy in white, and a painted portion for Tuscany and Emilia Romagna where many of our ingredients come from, I thought, this is going to be so tacky.” 

     
          Ferretti had all of the work done at Cinecittà studios in Rome.  “When I saw it I was so happy”, says Cesare smiling in remembrance.  “I had a magnum of Dom Perignon and I opened it and called up all my friends to come and see.” 

                The menu at Salumeria Rosi consists of small plates, called assaggi, of pasta, soups, salads, etc., plus prosciutto and other cured meats, olives and cheese.  It changes seasonally, and might include something as simple as an arugula and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano salad, or as complex as traditional lasagna made with pork and beef ragu layered with bechamel.  The Pontormo Salad, named for the Tuscan artist, Is one of Cesare’s signature dishes and it has been on his menu since his days in the kitchen at Vipore. “I took a chance,” says Casella, “I made this restaurant the way I like to eat.”  And he was right, his customers, many of whom are Italian, come back often because it is a serious restaurant that is also fun. 

                Beans, a part of the culture in Italy, are among Casella’s favorite ingredients.  When he opened Beppe, he could not find the varieties he wanted, so he began to import them.  Some of his friends who are chefs asked for his beans, so he began to supply them, too.  Now he has his own company, The Republic of Beans  () to import and distribute some of Italy’s best varieties.

                Casella also missed the Chianina beef that he used at his restaurant in Tuscany, so he decided to raise them at a farm in Upstate New York.  He became involved with the Center for Discovery, which cares for people with special needs.  Their farm, which will be sustainable in 2011, produces not just meat, but vegetables, and eggs.  Cesare is very involved with the organization to which he devotes his time and expertise.  His latest project is to improve the quality of the food served to those who live on the farm and others who receive home meal deliveries. 

               
                 While we chatted, Cesare ordered us a snack of his latest creation, a porchetta sandwich served on toast slathered with “bomba Calabrese”, a hot sauce, and slices of provolone cheese and a pickle.  “It’s a little bit different,” he said, “this is how I like to eat porchetta.”  Spicy, crunch, cheesy, tangy and totally delicious, we enjoyed it with a glass of Lambrusco from Cantine Ceci.  By coincidence, this happens to be the first dry Lambrusco we tasted in Parma many years ago.  

                 When we asked about the pickle and whether it was made in the restaurant, Cesare admitted that it was bought.  “If somebody makes something better than me, I buy it.  I know my capacity, it doesn’t make sense for me to waste my time.”  It’s not just pickles that Casella buys locally.  He includes a number of wines from New York State on his mostly Italian wine list. 

                We still have fond memories of the great meals we enjoyed when we first encountered Cesare at Vipore, such as the pork ribs. When we reminded him of this, Casella modestly replied, “It wasn’t me, it was the pig.  All I did was put salt and pepper on it and grill it.” 

               
              Cesare brings his exacting standards for choosing the right pig to selecting prosciutti for his restaurant.  Right now, he has 1,000 of them aging for him at  Parmacotto in Italy.  Though he does not choose the individual pigs, he does choose the farm they come from, the way they are cut, and how they are salted.  He sells some of the prosciutto to restaurants here in the United States, such as The Four Seasons. 

                As to the future, Cesare is writing a book about Italian ingredients and is looking for an opportunity to open another branch of Salumeria Rosi. Cesare’s loyal clientele wlll be happy to enjoy the Salumeria Rosi experience in another part of town.

    -----
     

    Salumeria Rosi

    283 Amsterdam Ave. (73rd / 74th St)

    New York, NY 10023

    Phone: 212-877-4800
    View Map & Directions

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Les Dames D'Escoffier Visit Arthur Avenue

    “Helloooooo, Signorine!”, called Mike Greco as our group approached the counter at Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.  “Now I will show you how we make the moh-zah-rel-la!”  His accent still thick even after more than 60 years in this country, the energetic octogenarian did not stop talking for a minute while he explained the cheese making process, gave orders to his helpers, posed for photos, flirted, and sang a few lines of an aria -- all the while massaging the cheese curd into bite size knots of fresh mozzarella. 

    Mike’s visitors on this particular grey Saturday afternoon were members and a few guests of Les Dames D’Escoffier, the premiere professional organization for women in the food, wine and hospitality industries.  As a long time member of Les Dames, I had been asked to put together an Italian wine and food walking tour of the city’s largest remaining “Little Italy”, together with my husband, Charles, an Italian wine authority.  Many of the members, despite being long time New Yorkers, had never been to this part of the Bronx. 

     To help us with the arrangements, I sought out Susan Birnbaum.  A former social worker, Susan specialzes in New York City Walkabouts of various neighborhoods and was delighted to organize an itinerary customized to our food and drink-centric interests.  Arthur Avenue  is one of her specialties.

     Our first stop on Saturday was Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria.  Though Italian food was the theme of the day, Tony & Tina’s specializes in Albanian burek, flaky pies filled with cheese, spinach, pumpkin, or meat.  We stopped at the kitchen to watch the workers expertly spin wads of dough into sheer sheets of pastry similar to fillo, and stuff them with a blend of feta and ricotta cheeses.  Susan had arranged for us to have a taste, and we were soon munching on thick, hot slabs of crunchy, cheesy burek.

    Fortified against the spring chill, we headed down Arthur Avenue for a stop at Terranova Bakery and to take a look at their antique coal ovens.  Teitel Brothers was next, where we explored their unique selection of dried pasta and sampled cheeses, olives and salumi, accompanied by chunks of freshly baked prosciutto bread from Terranova.   Next we looked in at Borgatti’s, a 75 year old shop specializing in ravioli and egg pasta, made fresh daily and cut to order.  It wouldn’t be Little Italy without pizza, so we headed to Full Moon Pizzeria for wedges of steaming hot  New York style Margherita.

    Though it sounds as if we spent the whole day eating, along the way, Susan pointed out architectural features of the neighborhood and told us a little about the history. Officially called the Belmont section of the Bronx, it was once owned by the Lorillard family who became wealthy from tobacco.  If you visit the nearby Botanical Garden, you can still see the Lorillard snuff factory.  Italian immigrants who arrived in area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped build the nearby Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo and then settled in the area.  We took a look at the beautiful interior of Our Lady of Carmel Church, built in 1906 for the Italian immigrants, and learned the history of the D’Auria-Murphy Square and Park and Ciccarone Playground.  Did you know how Arthur Avenue got its name? A certain Ms. Lorillard, who was said to be the mistress of President Chester A. Arthur, suggested it. 

     While we sipped on frosty limoncello, Charles took us on a quick tour of Mt. Carmel Wine, a shop with one of the biggest Italian wine selections in the city.  At the Casa Della Mozzarella, we tried some of their incomparably creamy ricotta and one of the group members was heard to remark that after tasting it, she could never make lasagna with packaged ricotta again.  Then we sampled some spicy sopressata at Calabria Pork Store, admired the amazing selection of fresh and prepared meats at Biancardi’s Meat Market, and dropped in at Addeo Bakers to see their state of the art ovens and eat some crunchy breadsticks.

    At one time there were many Italian neighborhoods like Arthur Avenue throughout the city but as the Italian Americans moved up the social ladder and new immigrants came in, these neighborhoods have shrunken in size, or been incorporated into the surrounding neighborhood.  Yet despite the influx of Hispanic and Eastern European immigrants into the area, the Arthur Avenue Little Italy has managed to keep its Italian feeling.  It is truly a New York treasure that should be patronized and preserved. 

     
    Our final stop of the day was the Arthur Avenue Café for coffee and dessert where Grandma Antoinette treated us to slices of her ricotta cheesecake and mini-cannolis.  While we sipped our coffee, she told us proudly about her family history and life in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood.  She ended her talk with a heartfelt rendition of “Maria, Mari” (Oye Marie) and invited us all to return, not to Sorrento, but to Arthur Avenue again and again.  After our fun and delicious day of eating, walking and shopping, the members of Les Dames D’Escoffier are sure to take her up on that suggestion. 

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    La ricetta di Michele. Pizza Rustica for Easter


    When I was growing up, Lent was a time of sacrifice and deprivation.  There were no treats of any kind in the house, and we all “gave up” our favorite foods for the duration.  Of course, it didn’t count if you gave up spinach or broccoli; it had to be something good to eat and preferably not too good for you -- like chocolate, or ice cream.   For a child, 40 days seemed like forever.  


      When Holy Week finally arrived we were full of anticipation for the joy of Easter and the good eating the day would bring.  We would go shopping for new spring coats and straw hats and pastel colored dresses.    All through the week, my sister and I would color eggs and make baskets, while my mom would concentrate on the baking.  On Easter Sunday, the whole family would go to church dressed in new clothes.  It was a joyful day.  The dark winter was over and the smell of fresh flowers was everywhere.



    At home, the  family would get together for Easter dinner.  To start, there was Pizza Rustica, hard cooked eggs, and an unusual appetizer of sauteed calf's liver with vinegar and mint.  Next we would have my mom's her feather-light manicotti, then there was roast lamb, artichokes and asparagus.  

     The star of the dessert table was my mother’s Pastiera, the Neapolitan wheat and ricotta pie that is also known as Pizza Gran.  It is the recipe she learned from my grandmother, Antonietta Scotto de Fasano who came from Procida.  She taught me how to make it and I have taught my neice how to prepare it, too.  If you would like my family’s recipe for la Pastiera, please go to my website

     

     Here is my grandmother's recipe for  Pizza Rustica, sometimes called Pizza Chiene (dialect for pizza ripiena or stuffed pie).  There are many variations of this pie throughout Southern Italy, some of which are made with a yeast dough, while others have sweetened pie crust.  Some cooks add hard-cooked eggs, and every family has their own favorite combination of cheeses and cured meats.  The version below, which was published in my book 1,000 Italian Recipes, is the way my grandmother made Easter pie. 

     

    It is a very rich pie so a small slice goes a long way.   In Italy, Pizza Rustica is enjoyed for Pasquetta, the picnic on Easter Monday when everyone heads to the countryside to enjoy the fine spring weather. 

     

      Buona Pasqua a tutti! 

     



    PIZZA RUSTICA 

    (PIZZA CHIENE)



    Makes 12 servings

    Crust

    4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

    1 1/2 teaspoons salt

    1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening

    1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces

    2 large eggs, beaten

    3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

    Filling

    8 ounces sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

    3 large eggs, lightly beaten

    1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

    2 pounds whole or part-skim ricotta, drained overnight

    8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small dice

    4 ounces prosciutto, cut into small dice

    4 ounces cooked ham, cut into small dice

    4 ounces sopressata, cut into small dice

    Glaze

    1 egg, lightly beaten

    1. Prepare the crust: Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender or fork until the mixture resembles large crumbs. Add the eggs and stir until a soft dough forms. Scoop up some of the mixture with your hand and rapidly squeeze it until it holds together. Repeat with the rest of the dough until the ingredients hold together and can be formed into a smooth ball. If the mixture seems too dry and crumbly, add a little ice water. Gather the dough into two disks, one three times as large as the other. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 1 hour up to overnight.

    2. To make the filling, cook the sausage meat in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon. Chop the meat on a board.

    3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and Parmigiano until well blended. Stir in the ricotta, sausage meat, mozzarella, and diced meats.

    4. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F. On a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll out the large piece of dough to form a 14-inch circle. Drape the dough over the rolling pin. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch springform pan, pressing it smoothly against the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Scrape the filling into the pan.

    5. Roll out the remaining piece of dough into a 9-inch circle. With a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into 1/2-inch strips. Place half the strips 1 inch apart over the filling. Turn the pan a quarter of the way around and place the remaining strips on top, forming a lattice pattern. Pinch the edges of the top and bottom layers of dough together to seal. Brush the dough with the egg glaze.

    6. Bake the pie 1 to 1-1/4 hours or until the crust is golden and the filling is puffed. Cool the pie in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the pan and let cool completely. Serve warm or at room temperature. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator up to 3 days.

     

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    The Savor of Sorrento


    Despite the cold rain falling outside Monday night, the welcome we received at Restaurant Giuliano was warm and inviting.   The dining room is comfortable and intimate with exposed brick walls, flickering oil lamps, and enormous windows that look out onto the bustling streets of New York's  Theater District.  The restaurant, which occupies the former Roberto Passon space at Ninth Avenue and 50th Street, opened in November. 

    We were there to preview the Savor Sorrento menu created by two Neapolitans, Vincenzo Borriello, Head Chef of the Parco dei Principi Hotel in Sorrento, and Giuliano Matarese, Head Chef for Restaurant Giuliano and the entire New York City Restaurant Group.   Chef Matarese began his career working in the restaurant business in Naples and came to New York in 2001. His experience working in America has resulted in a unique and personal approach to classic Italian dishes.  


    The special menu consists of four courses and will be available  for one week as of March 24.  We began with large shrimp in a crunchy sesame crust resting on a creamy puree of potatoes accented with ginger.  A crisp fried zucchini flower stuffed with ricotta accompanied the shrimp.  With this we had the Falanghina Pompeiano IGT 2008 from Azienda Vinicola Sorrentino, a classic and refreshing white wine of the region.


    The next course was Ravioli Sorrento style, round pasta pillows filled with fresh ricotta in a sweet, light cherry tomato sauce.  The pasta was slightly chewy because it was made without eggs.  This is typical of the Sorrento area.  The main course was a roulade of red snapper on a bed of escarole sauteed with raisins and pine nuts.  The bittersweet flavor of the escarole made a fine counterpoint to the fish.


    The description of the dessert listed on the menu had me expecting a version of La Pastiera, the classic Neapolitan Easter cake, but what arrived instead was a semifreddo of ricotta flavored  with orange flower water and cinnamon and garnished with fresh fruit.  With it we enjoyed a glass of limoncello  brought from Sorrento.


    We were getting ready to say our goodbyes when the Chefs Giuliano and Vincenzo came out of the kitchen bearing a surprise -- an enormous platter of hot, sugar-dusted and chocolate-drizzled graffe, Neapolitan donuts.  Though we thought we could not eat another thing, we quickly dove in.  It was the perfect last taste of warm, sunny Sorrento before we plunged back onto the rainy streets of New York.  


    Restaurant Giuliano is located at 741 Ninth Avenue at 50th Street.  The phone number is 212-582-5599.  





  • "Italian American Food... Why DON'T it get NO Respect?"


    Vino 2010, also known as Italian Wine Week, took place from February 3 to 6.  A series of tastings and seminars, dinners and exhibits, it was the largest Italian wine event ever held outside of Italy.  I enjoyed the chance to sample the wines, meet the producers, and listen to the discussions, but the most interesting presentation as far as I am concerned was entitled “Italian-American Food...Why Don’t it get NO [sic] Respect?”  In 3 days of sessions, it was the only one that focussed on food. 

     

                The host of the panel was David Rosengarten, who began with a brief video of a new, and with any luck imaginary, show called “Hava Lasagna” (as in hava nagila, the Israeli folk song).  In the video, David visits Italian-American restaurants and grocers seeking to find the flavors he remembers from his early years growing up in Brooklyn.  He finally finds it at a restaurant in Queens where he is served a dish consisting of alternating layers of breaded and fried veal and eggplant cutlets, tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.  In his opening remarks, Rosengarten speculated on whether food such as this, his Italian Anerican ideal, represents a unique, regional cuisine and why it has never been highly regarded, except by aficionados such as him.



     Panel Host David Rosengarten

    What Rosengarten didn’t seem to realize is that the food he calls Italian-American as embodied in that veal dish, is not necessarily what an Italian-American would think of as typical. To me, an Italian American, who also grew up in Brooklyn, that sort of dish was a cartoonish version of Italian American food.  We never ate that way at home, nor did any other Italian Americans that I know.  My mother, a skilled cook, when asked which Italian restaurant she liked best, would always say she preferred to eat at home because Italian food in restaurants was not very good.  David’s veal dish was the kind of thing she referred to.   It was far too rich, too greasy, and too heavy to be genuine Italian American food.  It was restaurant food, made up by Italian immigrants and others to entice a non-Italian clientele.

     

    The other panelists included Tony May, legendary New York restaurateur and owner of SD26, who spoke about his experiences in the restaurant industry and stated that the insistence on any “regional” identity keeps Italian cuisine at the level of simple trattoria food.   Instead, May believes, we should identify food as being Italian and not regional.  Tony emphasized that Italian cuisine is a “cuisine of ingredients”, relying in large part for its quality on the use of ingredients imported from Italy.  Without these ingredients, he said, the food cannot be Italian.

     

    Panelists Tony May, Lou Di Palo, Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi

                Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino Restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas, as well as several others, told us how, as a young man, he was exposed to fine Italian cooking on a visit to Italy and from that point steered his restaurants away from Italian American food.  He strives to prepare food as it is done in Italy, and seeks to find the best imported foods.  He is, however, open to blending Italian and non-Italian foods, as in his new Houston restaurant where much of the menu is a hybrid of Italian and Mexican flavors.

     

                Lou Di Palo of DiPalo Fine Foods spoke about his family’s long involvement in the food business.  He recalled how his grandmother would make meatballs out of scraps of cheap meat scraps or cuts that were past their prime because that was all that the family could afford.  Having experienced extreme poverty, they were all the more appreciative of the bounty of food they found in this country.  He takes great pride in the high quality Italian products he imports and sells. 

     

                Ric Torrisi and Mario Carbone are the co-owners of the ironically named Torrisi Italian Specialties, a new shop in downtown Manhattan specializing in non-Italian products.  The two young chefs believe in supporting only domestically produced products, even if it means shunning incomparably better, and often less expensive imports like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele, or San Marzano tomatoes. 

     

                Michael Batterberry, editor and founder of Food Arts and Food & Wine magazines, also spoke.  His take was that the best way for a restaurant to identify itself with regional Italian fare is as “special” items on an otherwise generic Italian menu, since many Americans still shy away from ingredients like rabbit, or tripe.

     

                I hope that the Italian Trade Commission and Vino 2011 will host more dialogues such as this one. The conversation was stimulating and enjoyable even though none of the speakers or the audience members really responded to the question that Rosengarten raised.  I guess they just didn’t give it NO respect. 

     

     

     

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Sampling Basilicata in New York

    A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode about Basilicata on television on "Lidia's Italy". Host Lidia Bastianich spoke about the earthy flavors of the rustic food produced in this Southern Italian region and its excellent wines as she demonstrated some tempting recipes. When the scene switched to a party at a home in Basilicata, I was not at all surprised to see Lidia dancing with an old friend and proud supporter of the region, Francesco Luisi.  

    For a long time, Franco as we call him, has been promoting the region of his birth and encouraging those of us who enjoy Italian cuisine and culture to explore this little known region.  Basilicata, once called Lucania, is a small mountainous region in southern Italy with coasts on both the Tyrhennian and Ionian Seas.  Matera, a popular tourist destination and the site of the ancient sassi quarter where people once lived in caves carved into the hills, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Basilicata has a long agricultural history and among the many fine products it produces are bread, pasta, wine, olive oil, cheeses, peppers and legumes. 

    Franco's efforts, as well as those of many others, were rewarded recently when representatives of the region came to New York to introduce the food and wine of Basilicata to  the American market.  

    To celebrate, a dinner was held at Manhattan's Felidia Restaurant.  The hosts were Lidia Bastianich, who in addition to being a tv host is the restaurant's owner and the author of many cookbooks,  and Lou Di Palo, the 4th generation proprietor of the family-owned Italian specialty food store, Di Palo's Fine Foods.    The menu was prepared by 3 chefs from the Unione Regionale Cuochi Lucani, Mario De Muro, Rocco Christiano Pozzulo and Francesca Rondinella.

    After a sampling plate of an assortment of the sheep and goat's milk cheeses of the region paired with local honey, pickled vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil, we enjoyed little cavatelli pasta cooked with Sarconi beans.  According to our hosts, more than 20 varieties of beans, which range in color from creamy white to yellow to a beautiful speckled wine and cream combination, are grown around the town of Sarconi.  The beans are remarkably flavorful, tender, and creamy and were paired perfectly with the hard wheat cavatelli pasta typical of Basilicata.  

    The next course was strascinati, another hard wheat pasta shaped into large flat ovals, which are made by dragging them (hence the name) over a grooved surface.  The delightfully chewy pasta was paired with dried Senise peppers,  bread crumbs, and cacioricotta Lucano.  The salty, creamy goat cheese accented the sweet and slightly smoky flavor of the peppers.  Throughout the meal, we snacked on "cruschi", deep fried crunchy pieces of the same peppers that would make a great substitute for potato and other chips.

    Though I had planned to just have a taste of the next course, a Sformatino of Canestrato di Moliterno con Crema di Pomodoro, I could not resist eating the whole thing.  The little flan of Canestrato di Moliterno, a firm cheese made from sheep and cow's milk, was blended with eggs, baked like a souffle, and served with sweet, smooth tomato sauce.  

    Our final course was a small cake flavored with Lucanian honey in a sauce of pistachios from Sigliano with a caramelized fig from Pisticci.  

    Throughout the meal we sampled many of the famous wines of Basilicata including a spumante made in the metodo classico from primitivo grapes, and a memorable dessert wine.  We were privileged to meet the proud producers of many of the outstanding products we tasted who were on hand to answer questions and provide information and tell us anecdotes about their region.  

    The following day, Lou Di Palo, whose family hails from Basilicata, hosted a special food show and tasting at his family's store which was open to consumers, press and retailers alike.   Di Palo's and many other fine food stores are now featuring many of these fine products from Basilicata.  

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Sampling Basilicata in New York

    A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode about Basilicata on television on "Lidia's Italy". Host Lidia Bastianich spoke about the earthy flavors of the rustic food produced in this Southern Italian region and its excellent wines as she demonstrated some tempting recipes. When the scene switched to a party at a home in Basilicata, I was not at all surprised to see Lidia dancing with an old friend and proud supporter of the region, Francesco Luisi.  

    For a long time, Franco as we call him, has been promoting the region of his birth and encouraging those of us who enjoy Italian cuisine and culture to explore this little known region.  Basilicata, once called Lucania, is a small mountainous region in southern Italy with coasts on both the Tyrhennian and Ionian Seas.  Matera, a popular tourist destination and the site of the ancient sassi quarter where people once lived in caves carved into the hills, is a Unesco World Heritage site. Basilicata has a long agricultural history and among the many fine products it produces are bread, pasta, wine, olive oil, cheeses, peppers and legumes. 

    Franco's efforts, as well as those of many others, were rewarded recently when representatives of the region came to New York to introduce the food and wine of Basilicata to  the American market.  

    To celebrate, a dinner was held at Manhattan's Felidia Restaurant.  The hosts were Lidia Bastianich, who in addition to being a tv host is the restaurant's owner and the author of many cookbooks,  and Lou Di Palo, the 4th generation proprietor of the family-owned Italian specialty food store, Di Palo's Fine Foods.    The menu was prepared by 3 chefs from the Unione Regionale Cuochi Lucani, Mario De Muro, Rocco Christiano Pozzulo and Francesca Rondinella.

    After a sampling plate of an assortment of the sheep and goat's milk cheeses of the region paired with local honey, pickled vegetables, and extra virgin olive oil, we enjoyed little cavatelli pasta cooked with Sarconi beans.  According to our hosts, more than 20 varieties of beans, which range in color from creamy white to yellow to a beautiful speckled wine and cream combination, are grown around the town of Sarconi.  The beans are remarkably flavorful, tender, and creamy and were paired perfectly with the hard wheat cavatelli pasta typical of Basilicata.  

    The next course was strascinati, another hard wheat pasta shaped into large flat ovals, which are made by dragging them (hence the name) over a grooved surface.  The delightfully chewy pasta was paired with dried Senise peppers,  bread crumbs, and cacioricotta Lucano.  The salty, creamy goat cheese accented the sweet and slightly smoky flavor of the peppers.  Throughout the meal, we snacked on "cruschi", deep fried crunchy pieces of the same peppers that would make a great substitute for potato and other chips.

    Though I had planned to just have a taste of the next course, a Sformatino of Canestrato di Moliterno con Crema di Pomodoro, I could not resist eating the whole thing.  The little flan of Canestrato di Moliterno, a firm cheese made from sheep and cow's milk, was blended with eggs, baked like a souffle, and served with sweet, smooth tomato sauce.  

    Our final course was a small cake flavored with Lucanian honey in a sauce of pistachios from Sigliano with a caramelized fig from Pisticci.  

    Throughout the meal we sampled many of the famous wines of Basilicata including a spumante made in the metodo classico from primitivo grapes, and a memorable dessert wine.  We were privileged to meet the proud producers of many of the outstanding products we tasted who were on hand to answer questions and provide information and tell us anecdotes about their region.  

    The following day, Lou Di Palo, whose family hails from Basilicata, hosted a special food show and tasting at his family's store which was open to consumers, press and retailers alike.   Di Palo's and many other fine food stores are now featuring many of these fine products from Basilicata.  

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    A Taste of Friuli-Venezia Giulia



                With only one day to spend in the beautiful Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in Northeastern Italy, I was sad to think it would not be possible to experience the wide range of good eating and great wines available there.  Fortunately our hosts had planned our trip well and arranged for us to have outstanding meals at two very different restaurants. 

     

                The first was Antica Maddalena Osteria e Cucina in Udine.  Upstairs in the cozy dining room, the waitress offered to bring us a series of local dishes.  A platter of pink and soft-as-butter Prosciutto San Daniele appeared on the table with the perfect accompaniments: fresh bread and a chilled bottle of Friulano, the crisp white wine of the region.  The prosciutto was so sweet, moist and tender; it just about melted in the mouth.

     

     

              Next came frico, a specialty of Friuli.  Frico is a crisp wafer of grated and toasted aged Montasio cheese and it was served two ways:  rolled into a crunchy tube and shaped into a crust for a cheesy mashed potato tartlet.  Both were served on whole grain polenta.  Montasio is a cow’s milk cheese that is certified PDO, meaning that it is made in a designated region under specific conditions certified by the European Uniion to bear the name.  Montasio comes in 3 forms:  fresh is aged over 60 days, medium is aged about 4 months and stagionato is aged more than 1 year.  They are all delicious, but the stagionato, which you can find here, has a tangy flavor and melts beautifully, so it is ideal for both eating and cooking.


     

     

         A farro and bean soup was next.  The soup was rich and savory and garnished with a swirl of extra virgin olive oil and plenty of black pepper.  By this time we had switched to a Cabernet Franc also by Gigante.

     

          To complete the meal, there was a scoop of creamy marron glace gelato in a pool of persimmon puree, a combination that seemed to capture the essence of fall.

     

               

         
    Lest you think Friuli is only about comforting and rustic food, our next meal at Agli Amici was altogether different.  Chef Emanuele Scarello is the fifth generation of his family to operate the restaurant.  Emanuele told us that he likes to push the boundaries and experiment with new techniques and flavor combinations that celebrate the terroir and ingredients of Friuli.  Since potatoes are a specialty of the region -- he said that more than 20 varieties are grown in his town -- they appeared in several courses.


     

     

           The first was a sampling of 3 little tastes, the highlight of which was a potato baked in clay.  It so resembled a smooth river stone that I hesitated to bite into it.  It was perfectly delicious paired with a red pepper mayonnaise.  A squid “burger” served in a potato sauce with black olive ice cream followed.  Next there was scampi with cotechino sausage and “aria di brovada”, a preserved turnip foam.  My dinner companion was not happy about this course, complaining about the marriage of meat and seafood in one plate. I didn’t think they enhanced each other, but neither did one detract from the other. Montasio cheese was on the menu again, this time in the form of a creamy sauce that served as a base for tender sauteed potato dumplings topped with porcini mushrooms and truffles. 




     

     

        It was perfectly complemented by the wine that accompanied it, Terre Alta 2002 by Livio Felluga, one of my all time favorites.  I could have eaten a pile of the moleche, fried tiny soft shell crabs on a bed of swiss chard, but there was only one, which disappeared in two bites.  The main course was filet of wild venison steamed with polenta right on the serving plate. 

               

                Our taste of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was brief and limited, it is true, but the flavors of the sweet Prosciutto di San Daniele, tangy Montasio, fresh seafood and great wine will stay with me for a long time to come. 




     

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Puffy Little Balls in Honey. Struffoli for Christmas


                 Struffoli, puffy little balls of fried dough drenched in honey, are the quintessential Christmas sweet in Naples and other places in Italy, especially the Central and Southern regions. 

                When I was a little girl in Brooklyn, other kids would be helping their mothers to make gingerbread and spritz cookies, but in our house, it was always struffoli.  Mom would start with a 5-pound bag of flour and a couple of dozen eggs.  She would mix and knead the ingredients together until a smooth dough formed.  Then the dough was left to rest under a clean kitchen towel and she would fill a big pot with oil.  Then we would start slicing, rolling and cutting the dough until little bits. 

     

                making struffoliOnce the oil was hot enough, she would carefully slip the pieces of dough into the hot oil, making sure all the while that we kids stayed far away from the hot pot.  But I loved to watch as the struffoli turned from little pillow shaped pellets into crisp, brown puffs. 

    When she judged them sufficiently browned, she would scoop out the puffs and drain them on paper towels.  They were eggy and toasty tasting, but they really wouldn’t be at their best until they were thoroughly drenched in good honey. 

    My mom didn’t think much of the supermarket brands, preferring instead to drive to a private home on Staten Island where the owner kept bees and gathered several different types of honey.  My mom would ask for a blend of the light and dark honeys for a perfectly mellow flavor. 

     

                After tossing the struffoli with the warm honey came the fun part -- piling the sticky balls into heaps on platters and disposable pie plates to be given as gifts to friends and family. But before they could be given away, the struffoli needed to be decorated.  We used little multicolored confetti and by the time we kids were done with the task, there were sticky finger marks and confetti all over the kitchen table and floor.  Sometimes we added candied red and green cherries, or sliced almonds, or strips of candied orange and citron.  Of course, we couldn’t resist tasting them to make sure they were as good as last year’s.

     

                The big platter would go on the sideboard where we could pick off a few whenever we passed by throughout the holiday season.  The pie plates were wrapped in cellophane and tied with ribbons to bring to friends and family.  Of course, they would give us plates of their own struffoli, but in my house, we all knew that mom’s were superior.  They were crisp and light and never dense and hard like others we had tasted.

     

                A lot of Italian Americans have forgotten, or maybe they never knew, how to make struffoli, so I put them on the holiday entertaining menu I prepared at the cooking class I did at De Gustibus Cooking School at Macy’s on Thursday.  Sure enough, while I was getting ready for the class, I heard one of the assistants enter and exclaim, “Struffoli!  Hurray, we’re making struffoli!”  I felt just like a kid again, making struffoli with my mom.

     

                Here’s my recipe for struffoli which I published in my book 1,000 Italian Recipes.

    It makes a plateful, enough for 8 to 10.  If you want to make a big batch to give away, the recipe can easily be doubled. 

     

    **

      www.MicheleScicolone.com

    STRUFFOLI



    Makes 8 servings

    1 cup all-purpose flour plus more for kneading the dough

    1/4 teaspoon salt

    2 large eggs, beaten

    1/2 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest

    Vegetable oil for frying

    1 cup honey (about 6 ounces

    Possible garnishes: multicolored sprinkles, chopped candied orange peel, citron or  cherries, toasted sliced almonds

    1. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup flour and the salt. Add the eggs and lemon zest and stir until well blended.

    2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Add a little more flour if the dough seems sticky. Shape the dough into a ball. Cover the dough with an overturned bowl. Let the dough rest 30 minutes.

    3. Cut the dough into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Roll one slice between your palms into a 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch nuggets. If the dough feels sticky, use a tiny bit of flour to dust the board or your hands. (Excess flour will cause the oil to foam up when you fry the struffoli.)

    4. Line a tray with paper towels. Pour about 2 inches of oil into a wide heavy saucepan. Heat the oil to 370°F on a frying thermometer, or until a small bit of the dough dropped into the oil sizzles and turns brown in 1 minute.

    5. Being careful not to splash the oil, slip just enough struffoli into the pan to fit without crowding. Cook, stirring once or twice with a slotted spoon, until the struffoli are crisp and evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the struffoli with a slotted spoon or skimmer and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining dough.

    6. When all of the struffoli are fried, gently heat the honey just to a simmer in a large shallow saucepan. Remove from the heat. Add the drained struffoli and toss well. Pile the struffoli onto a serving plate. Decorate with the multicolored sprinkles, candied fruits, or nuts.

    7. To serve, break off a portion of the struffoli with two large spoons or a salad server.   Store covered with an overturned bowl at room temperature up to 3 days.
     Copyright 2004 1,000 ITALIAN RECIPES by Michele Scicolone

     

                If you have any questions or comments about this recipe, or others, I would love to hear from you at mailto:[email protected]

     

    ****

     

               
    My new book The Italian Slow Cooker has just been released.  If you would like to buy a copy for yourself or for Christmas gifts, go to Jessica's Biscuit Cookbooks.  The book is available there at 40% off.  Such a deal!

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Ciao Italia! A Conversation with Mary Anne Esposito

     Did you know that the longest-running cooking show on television is Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito?  Now in its 20th year, and broadcast nationally and internationally on PBS, the show is partially responsible for, and proof positive of America’s long-running affair with Italian cooking. 

    Mary Ann Esposito is both the show’s creator and host and she is as warm and generous in person as she seems on tv.  As Mario Batali, the TV chef and restaurateur so aptly put it when asked about Mary Ann's groundbreaking show, “She’s the one who put the wheels on the wagon.”

     Mary Ann Esposito (who I am proud to say is an old friend) grew up near Buffalo, New York where her Italian-born grandmothers, one Neapolitan and the other Sicilian, taught her how to cook.  Her love for her Italian heritage, the language, and culture spurred her to study in Italy.  The more she learned, the more she wanted to share her knowledge with others. 

    Back in the States, she began teaching Italian cooking classes at New HampshireUniversity.  The classes were so popular, she decided to create her own television show.  The pilot was shot in Mary Ann’s home kitchen and the show was soon picked up by New Hampshire Public Television. 

     Mary Ann has written 11 cookbooks and she was in town recently to promote her latest, Ciao Italia Five Ingredient Favorites.  Over dinner at Marea Restaurant, we talked about her current projects and plans for the future.

     
    Tell me about your new book...

      Less is more when it comes to Italian cooking.  The philosophy is that if you have quality ingredients to start with, like imported pasta, prosciutto, cheeses, olive oil, etc., you don’t have to do a lot to make a good meal.  So I did everything in the book from appetizers to desserts based on 5 ingredients.  Only salt and pepper don’t count.

    That’s fair!  What gave you the idea for this book?

     People today don’t have a lot of time to spend preparing food.  They tell me all the time “I can’t do this recipe because it has 12 ingredients.”  But with 5 ingredients, even with limited time, you can still do them.  I see this also in Italy:  the culture there is changing.  Mama is no longer in the kitchen and Grandma is gone.  Now the antipasto bar has taken over where they left off.  So I think this book appeals to a younger audience as well.  

    Was it difficult to find 5 ingredient recipes?

     I was able to come up with the 75 recipes with no trouble at all.  These are 5 ingredient favorites of mine that are Italian influenced, not necessarily what you would find in Italy.  Some are classics, like Spaghetti Carbonara, which is typical of Rome and never has more than 5 ingredients, while others are my improvisations, using typical ingredients in a new way.  For example, I thought about how pistachios and pork are both popular ingredients in Sicily.  So I came up with a recipe for breaded pork chops with a pistachio crust and I told the story of pistachios in Bronte and the use of pork in Italy.

    In New Jersey the other day, I did a cooking demo of a complete seasonal menu made up of 5 ingredient recipes from the book.  It consisted of Spaghetti Carbonara, Pistachio Pork Chops, Braised Fennel, Celery and Mushroom Salad, and for dessert, another improvisation: Mascarpone and Nutella Tart.  It is an easy meal and each dish had only 5 ingredients.

    Do you think people will ever get tired of Italian cooking?

    No, I think we still have a lot of work to do.  Even though I have been explaining about Italian ingredients for all of these years, people still ask me “What is extra virgin olive oil?  What is balsamic vinegar?”  I think there is a lot of misinformation out there, especially from places like the Olive Garden, who really should know better.  After all, they have a cooking school where they say they train their chefs about real Italian food, yet that is not what they serve in their restaurants. 

    So what is next for you?

    I have started to work on another book.  This one will be about Italian family classic recipes.  

    2009 is a milestone year for us.  We just finished filming our 20th season of Ciao Italia.  So it is one of the longest running shows of any kind on TV.  Me and Bonanza!  (laughing)  I don’t think I want anybody to know that! 

    The other thing I have done is I established The Mary Ann Esposito Charitable Foundation.  I did not want to see 20 years of my life to go down the drain.  I wanted my work to continue.  The Foundation will be a repository of all of the intellectual work that I have done, the books, the website, the tv shows.  It will be managed by a third party and my children, Beth and Chris, will be able to decide how it will be used in perpetuity.  Eventually we would like to give scholarships to students who are serious about studying Italian cooking. 

    I haven’t thought about designing the next series of shows yet because we are still working on the post-production for this season.  I might tie it to my next book, the family classic recipes, or something I have always wanted to do is a series about Italian American Festivals around the country, such as the St. Joseph’s tables in New Orleans, or the San Gennaro Feast in New York.  I have a whole list of festivals in San Francisco, St. Louis and so on around the country.  What got me interested in this idea was when I was in Boston in the summer I went to the Feast of the Three Saints.  They were 3 young brothers who lived in Ancient Rome.  They refused to give up their Christian faith and were tortured and finally killed.  I had never heard of these three saints, but there was such frenzy over them I wanted to learn more.   They are the only saints that I have ever seen who are depicted sitting. 

     How about travel plans?  You often take groups on culinary tours to Italy...

      Yes, this year we were in Campania and we did classes at the Hotel Luna in Amalfi and went to Naples to eat pizza and visit the Duomo. 

    Unfortunately, it was just a few days after the big celebration when San Gennaro’s blood liquefies and saves the city from Vesuvius for another year and San Gennaro’s chapel was closed for cleaning. 

    Next year, I am thinking of taking the group to Tuscany.  I have done 9 of these trips, but had been avoiding Tuscany because people think it is all there is to Italy.  But it is a destination many people are interested in, so we decided to do it.  Of course we will go to Florence, and I want to go to some smaller towns as well.

    It was great seeing Mary Ann and we enjoyed our dinner.  We said good-bye on the sidewalk and as she walked away, I think I heard her say, “Until I see you nella cucina again, I’m Mary Ann Esposito.”

     

Pages