Back in September my husband surprised me by taking me to sample the tasting menu at Il Mosaico, the restaurant at the five-star Manzi hotel in Ischia, Italy, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my husband and my ancestors. With two Michelin stars, Il Mosaico offers nouvelle cuisine at its best. Chef Nino Di Costanzo is a true artist who makes dishes that are as beautiful to the eye as they are delicious. I loved the food and the experience so much that I’ve gone on a writing frenzy about the chef’s table; I wrote a blog for the About.com Newlyweds site about how couples could splurge on tasting menus for date night or anniversary celebrations and an article that will appear both on the ItaliansRus Web site and in an upcoming issue of the La Voce newspaper, which is dedicated to Italian Americans in Las Vegas. For more Manzi madness, and my own personal photos from the night at Il Mosaico, visit the “Dinner at Manzi” photo album.
Gnocchi, pasta made with potatoes, has always been a friend of mine. Gnocchi, the best of it anyway, melts in your mouth and serves as the perfect carrier of sauce. My favorite sauces are brown butter with sage (which goes nicely with the potatoes in the gnocchi) or tomato sauce with mozzarella, which is also known as “alla Sorrentina.” Gnocchi and I are BFFs who go back a long way, but it wasn’t always a simple relationship.
I was frustrated with gnocchi. It’s hard to make the potato pasta from scratch. The first and last time my mother tried her hand at gnocchi, she seemed to have done a great job. Then, she popped her delicate gnocchi into the pot of boiling water and they would simply disappear. It was magic. Actually, she probably just didn’t use enough flour, which does make the gnocchi heavier. She had good intentions. But the trick is to get a feel for the gnocchi. After lots of practice, you start to realize just how much flour you need to keep the gnocchi light but also keep them in one piece. Ever since my mom’s gnocchi blunder, we always keep a box of pasta nearby in case our gnocchi doesn’t make it.
Making gnocchi is a wonderful distraction and probably even reduces stress (once you get past the practice stage that is). One Sunday morning recently, I set out to make gnocchi. (To view photos, visit the “Gnocchi alla Sorrentina” photo album.) I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years. I use instructions and the recipe from Lidia Bastianich. To make them alla Sorrentina, I used my own recipe. I basically made a marinara sauce (minus the onions), boiled the gnocchi, put the gnocchi in individual baking dishes, smothered it in mozzarella and put it in the oven until the cheese was melted, bubbling, and slightly brown.
My next goal: To try Bastianich’s recipe for butternut squash gnocchi, which appeared in a recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine. My mouth is already watering.
Please share your recipes with my readers at the About.com Newlyweds’ Recipe Exchange. I can’t wait to see them!
Many of you know that I’ve been on a health kick lately, which has me stretching my body for the Wii gods in ways I didn’t think possible and drinking gallons of water and green tea and eating wheat, fruits, and vegetables by the ton. But I can’t give up delicious food (c’mon, you know the wheat tastes like cardboard), and I’ve been experimenting with recipes for special occasions, which is when I’m allowed to cheat a little. When I saw the recipe for this layer cake in the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, I knew it would be the perfect birthday cake for Mamma Regina. And I think it won points with the ‘rents.
I have to admit that I didn’t follow the recipe to a T. I was a little bit pressed for time (not to mention, lazy). I used Presto cake flour, which includes the baking powder and salt already. I also made four layers instead of five because five would require baking yet one more cake, and it was already almost 11 p.m. (Way past my bedtime!) In the end, I failed to get whole and evaporated milk, both of which were necessary for the icing. So, I used fudge icing from a can that I purchased. I know that was pretty bad. Sorry. I’ll try and do better next time. Still, I think the cakes were moist and tasty with a hint of vanilla. (You can see the cake and Mamma Regina by visiting the “Mamma’s Birthday 2010” photo album.) Of course, the cake could never be as sweet as my Mamma.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of soccer. I even helped launched a girls soccer club in my hometown back when I was in high school. That’s why when my little cousins Ali and Amy (who is also my Goddaughter) asked me to watch their recent soccer games, I couldn’t wait to cheer them on. To view photos from the games, visit the “Girls Soccer 2010” photo album. The games were spirited and the girls showed some good form. A few of the kids had excellent technical prowess to boot. Of course, Ali and Amy were the stars that I’ve always known them to be. It was a delightful day on the field (despite the hot, hot sun). Thanks for inviting me, girls! Go team!
Girl’s night is a necessity when you need to blow off some steam. Little girls are just as good as big ones when you need to put aside stress — which usually is a result of the men in your life — and have a little fun. After the worst trip I’ve ever had to my family’s native Ischia (lots of drama and work and little time for rest), I was itching for a girl’s night. And my nieces — Francesca, Laura, and Giulia — were up for an old-fashioned pajama party. (To see photos from our slumber party, visit the Girl’s Night 2010 photo album.) We pigged out on pizza and chips, did each other’s hair and nails, poked fun (just see the hair-do’s above), and we even slept a bit. In the morning, I made a big American breakfast, with eggs Benedict, pancakes, ricotta pancakes, and even pancetta (instead of bacon) on the menu. In the end, I had a lovely pedicure, soft hands, and a little less stress than before. Grazie mille a Francesca, Laura, e Giulia!
I’ve been in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples, Italy that is home to my ancestors, for a month now, and all I’ve been eating is fish. From mussels and clams to cod and tuna, my belly can’t seem to get enough. Most recently, my brother-in-law has been going fishing with his family. Every time he does, he comes home with buckets full of fish for us to eat. The photo above features his first bucket. My mother-in-law fried and roasted these bad boys. After fishing last week, my brother-in-law marinated the fish, grilled it, and we all ate it outside. I have to admit, however, that the “spine” in these fish are getting on my nerves. You feel like you’re choking and then you have to fish out the tiny bones before swallowing. I guess that’s why mussels, clams, and shrimp remain my favorites. In the spirit of this food-inspired blog, check out my recent Newlyweds commentary on cooking for date night and my ItaliansRus article on Italians and their wine.
Italians like to eat. But few of the ones I know in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my husband and my ancestors, are adventurous when it comes to food. I’ve had them try Chinese food; most of them hated it. I’ve had them try Mexican; most of them complain it’s just too spicy. I’ve had them try sushi; most of them find it disgusting (I’m actually not a big fan myself, so I can’t gripe much about that one). My in-laws and my husband, however, are willing to try my American fare — and a few of the desserts they rather like. In the past, apple pie and chocolate chip muffins have been big winners with them.
This year, I decided to bring a Duncan Heinz lemon cupcake mix (from a box, which is sacrilege among southern Italians, who cook and bake everything from scratch). Well, my niece and I made the cupcakes and handed them over. After one bite, we earned a standing ovation for the cupcake’s moistness and the flavorful lemony zing. Friends, who visited the house, tasted the cupcakes and said they tasted better than some other Italian treats on hand. All the while, these gourmet Italians, who believe in only homemade goodness, had no idea what they were eating came out of a box, and I just had my niece add eggs, oil, and water and mix. Who knew entertaining could be so easy? Gotta love it!
There is an art to setting the table. Different cultures have different ways of doing it. The Japanese, for instance, might have you sit on cushions on the floor. Americans put forks and spoons on the left and knives on the right, and our drinking glasses are way bigger than others. Everyone wants to make a statement with his table when hosting a dinner party at home. But Italians simply do it better.
Entertaining is as natural to southern Italians as breathing. Their lives revolve around food and family, and their homes, much like their hearts, are always open. Recently, my cousin Fausto set a table for his parents, our Australian cousin Vanessa, and me, at his family’s home in Ischia, Italy, the island where I’m staying for the next month or so. (For photos, visit “Fausto’s Tablescape” photo album.) Here are some tips I picked up by observing Fausto’s tablescape –
1. Make the most of nature. Fausto used pink flowers from his parent’s garden to spruce up the table, which was set outdoors on a patio. He used these flowers to surround two candles on either end of the oblong table. He also wrapped coral tea roses, also from the garden, in large green leaves and left one at the seat of each of the women in attendance.
2. Keep things simple for a casual night with family. Rather than pull out expensive, fancy china and silverware, Fausto used his mom’s everyday dishes and glasses and paper napkins.
3. Food is as much apart of the tablescape as anything else. Fausto and his parents were sure to beautifully plate our various courses. For instance he put a chunk of grilled bread smothered in calamari with red sauce on the center of one plate and sprinkled chopped fresh parsley on top. The food (as you’ll see in the photo album) looked like another piece of art on the table. It also happened to be delicious, a bonus.
4. Your guests are the most important part of the dinner party. Fausto and family were entertaining, too. They always are gracious, and keep the conversation moving. Of course, they like to have fun. Fausto put additional flowers in our hair — and his own — so we could take funny pictures to send to our relatives around the world (in the United States, France, and Australia).
Last night, episode two of MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore aired. While everyone is tuning into see what Snooki and the Situation will do next, I’m thinking about my Jersey people, specifically the girls. Most of my Jersey girls are in the photo above, and they will never grow into a JWow. Yes, they are strong and they can fist pump on the dance floor with the best of them. But they are respectable ladies, who already speak more eloquently than anyone on the Jersey Shore. They will use their words before their fists (except occassionally with their own siblings, which they are working on) to resolve conflicts.
They are Italian Americans with a great sense of pride, and they probably don’t even know the meaning of the term guido. But they do know how good Nonna’s pasta sauce is on Sunday and how to say, “Buona notte,” to their elders. When they go down the shore, they play on the beach, build a sand castle, visit the acquarium, and go on the Boardwalk rides. My Jersey girls, even if all of them are 12 and under, already have brains that are bigger than Snooki’s hair poof. And I’m certain they are going to do more with their lives than become a reality star. That is truly Jersey of them.
When my friend Gayle said she was coming into town to try on wedding dresses, I knew I had to see her. After all, we used to pass by the Vera Wang wedding dress shop in D.C. back in college. Now, she’s planning for the real deal. Talking to her about wedding planning has me getting nostalgic for Antonio and my wedding in Italy and vow renewal in the United States. I never did get tired of trying on wedding dresses or choosing floral centerpieces. But the cake tastings were probably my favorite. Gayle likes that, too. She brought some yummy cupcakes from Crumbs in the spirit of wedding planning. And the apple one was as perfectly light and moist as it looked. Still, I’ll have to try the M & M topped cupcake by day’s end. It’s the least I can do for the bride to be. I’m sure she’ll want a full report from me. This visit with Gayle would have only been better if we could have finished it off with a stop at Con-E-Island, the D.C. ice cream shop we used to frequent back in the day. Thanks for the visit and delicious trip down memory lane, Gayle! You are going to make a beautiful bride. I can’t wait.