My people in Italy are lovers of some American desserts, especially no-bake cheesecake. They are particularly devoted to New York cheesecake, which requires sour cream. There’s no sour cream in Italy, at least not in Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband. And I’m a decent baker but not a superstar. Baked cheesecake intimidates me.
Then, one day one of my cousins in the United States shared a recipe for no-bake cheesecake from Cool Whip, which is available online from Kraft. It was so easy because it included cream cheese, Cool Whip, a pre-made graham cracker crust, and canned blueberry or cherry pie filling. There’s none of that, not even graham crackers, in Ischia. But I was determined to bring the cheesecake to the people. And I quickly figured out a way to rewrite the recipe for a land, where nothing is ever easy, especially in the kitchen. And I added Oreos to boot.
Recipe for Oreo No-Bake Cheesecake
1 package of 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Whipped cream (see recipe below)
1 package of Oreo cookies (or chocolate sandwich cookies)
Melted butter (about 4 tbsp)
For whipped cream:
1 and 1/3 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
Using a handheld mixer or whisk attachment on a stand mixer to mix the cream cheese and 1/3 cup of granulated sugar. Use the high setting to make sure it melds together and the cream cheese is soft enough to easily mix it with the whipped cream later. Next, make the whipped cream. You might have to first clean your mixer if it’s the only one you have. Mix the heavy cream, other 1/3 cup granulated sugar, and vanilla with a handheld or stand mixer on high until soft peaks form. Then, gently fold the whipped cream into the cream cheese mixture. This is the cheesecake portion of your cheesecake.
Make the pie crust by crushing Oreos. I use a food processor when I’m in the States; in Italy, I place about six Oreos in a Ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them to crumbs. Add melted butter to the crumbs to get them to stay in one place. Then, spread them into the bottom and slightly up the sides of a pie dish.
Finally, add the cream cheese and whipped cream mixture on top of the crust. Then, break up Oreos to garnish. I’ve also nixed the Oreos in favor of sprinkles and a happy birthday sign. See below. Of course, you could also use graham crackers, instead of Oreos and top with fruit or something else entirely. Use your imagination.
Eggplant parmigiana is a favorite dish in Italy and the United States alike. But you might be surprised to learn about the differences between the two versions in each country. For starters, in Italy it is a contorno or side dish, not a main dish. Indeed, the waiters in Italy might look at you funny if that’s all you order. It’s like asking just for a side of broccoli and nothing else.
In any event, there are many other differences, too. In the United States, we sometimes refer to the dish as eggplant parmesan or eggplant parm. We need to differentiate it from chicken or veal parm, which don’t really exist in Italy. On the other hand, Italians call the dish la parmigiana. They don’t even have to confirm it’s eggplant. That’s already understood.
The Biggest Difference Lies in the Recipe
Italians cook up eggplant parmigiana in a different way than Americans. To begin, the ingredients are different. Italians use fresh mozzarella, which is wetter than the blocks of mozzarella many Americans use. Italians make the marinara sauce from scratch. Some Americans do, too, but many home cooks use jars of the stuff.
But by far the widest gap between Italian eggplant parmigiana and the American version is breadcrumbs. Italians never coat the eggplant in breadcrumbs first, which means no eggs or anything else. Instead, they thinly slice and fry the naked suckers in olive oil. When you get comfortable breaking the rules, you can use Nonno’s Sunday Funday sauce instead of the marinara. The meat makes it a heartier dish.
If you want to make traditional, genuine Italian eggplant parmigiana like I did as evidenced by the photo above, then here are your instructions:
Recipe for Eggplant Parmigiana
Eggplants (about 3 medium to large eggplants)
Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese (the real stuff imported from Italy, not Parmesan)
Marinara sauce (see recipe below)
Thinly slice the eggplants. You can keep the skin on if you like them that way. Most Italians keep the skin. I don’t like it, so I peel it off first. It’s up to you. Make sure to generously salt both sides of the eggplant and place it between paper towels to remove excess water. You should leave this about an hour at least. Some people leave it for up to three hours. Removing the water will make your eggplant parm less soggy. The eggplant itself will be crispier, too.
Heat about an inch of olive oil in a frying pan. When the oil is nice and hot, fry those slices of eggplant. After they become lightly browned on both sides, place them on a dish with paper towels to remove excess oil. Continue to fry until all the eggplant is done.
Sprinkle some marinara sauce on the bottom of a baking dish. Add a layer of fried plant on top of that sauce. Next, add pieces of mozzarella and a layer of Parmigiano cheese. Keep making those layers in that order until you hit the top of the baking dish. Be generous with the Parmigiano on the top layer, so it makes a sort of crust on top. It also looks more delectable.
Finally, put it in a preheated oven at 375 degrees F. (You know your oven; if it gets too hot, you might opt for 350 instead of 375). You want everything to blend together nicely and for the cheese to melt. I cover it with aluminum foil initially. About halfway through cooking, I take off the aluminum. The reason is I don’t want the cheese to get burned, just bubbly and browned. It usually needs to cook between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on the size of your baking dish and oven. I was using an Italian oven in Italy when I made the one in the photo. It took about 50 minutes at 150 C.
Many Italians like to make la parmigiana a day ahead because it usually tastes better after a day. In that case, you can just heat it the next day, and you might take it out of the oven a bit earlier the first time around.
Recipe for Marinara Sauce
Tomatoes (chopped, about 2 to 3 lbs., preferably from your garden – or Nonno’s)
Olive oil (about a tablespoon)
Garlic (2 cloves)
Fresh basil (a handful, preferably from your garden – or Nonno’s)
Salt (1 to 2 tsp., depending on how many tomatoes you are using)
Americans often include onions in their marinara sauce. Italians do not. In fact, they don’t even always keep the garlic in the sauce until the end. This is the Italian version. Saute smashed garlic (not minced) in a thin layer of olive oil in a saucepan. Remove the browned garlic. Then, add the chopped tomatoes and the juice that spilled out onto the cutting board. I don’t worry so much about the seeds because I use a mesh sieve to strain the sauce when I’m done cooking.
Next, add the salt to the tomatoes. If you’d like, you can add a little more olive oil for flavor, too. Then, bring the tomatoes in their juices to a boil. Lower the flame, so that the sauce simmers and thickens. Stir frequently. When the sauce is about 10 minutes from being done, add the basil.
Finally, pass the sauce through a sieve. I use the bottom of my wooden spoon push it through. Then, I toss the seeds and skins. Your sauce is ready. You can keep it in a jar in the fridge for a day or two. Or you can just put it to work immediately on top of gnocchi, pasta, or in this case, in eggplant parmigiana.
Biting into Ischia Italy peaches is like tasting a little piece of Heaven. That sounds like an exaggeration. But words can hardly describe the sweetness of the fruits you’ll find on this little island off the coast of Naples. Indeed, the island is known as L’Isola Verde or The Green Island for its lush vegetation. All around you in Ischia, you see green hills and the emerald sea. The island is an inactive volcano. As a result, its naturally thermal soil and waters draw tourists. But it’s the soil that counts when growing delectable fruits and vegetables.
What You’ll Find Here to Eat
As a result, you won’t want to miss these peaches. Lots of people eat them just like this. There are actually three varieties in the photo – red, yellow, and white peaches. Another favorite way to enjoy them is in Italian wine, which soaks in the fridge all day. Then, natives drink the wine with dinner and eat the peaches for dessert. I think of it as Italian sangria.
But peaches are not the only stars of the summer season. Soon, you will also find figs, which pair nicely with prosciutto. It’s a good alternative to cantaloupe and prosciutto, which has become popular even Stateside in recent years. In the early summer, the natives enjoy apricots. They’re actually a pretty big deal around here and seem to be much more available than in New Jersey, the Garden State. You won’t find many blueberries. But wild strawberries and frutta di bosco (fruit of the woods) are widely available in early summer. When fall hits, the grapes become abundant. With the grape harvest comes winemaking, which is actually quite celebratory here. People gather for picnic meals and to harvest the grapes. They call it the vendemmia, and it’s like a holiday around here.
Fior di latte gelato is a creamy base flavor ice cream in Italy. Well, I guess I should not classify it as “ice cream.” Anyone who has read my recent article for the Our Paesani column at ItaliansRus.com knows there is a big difference between ice cream and gelato. In any event, it’s a cool, delectable treat. In my opinion, it’s much better than vanilla gelato because it’s lighter and fluffier. Oh yeah, gelato can be fluffy.
Gelato is my drug of choice whenever I’m in Italy. I should just get it injected in my veins. I. just. can’t. get. enough. So, I decided a long time ago to learn how to make the stuff in my own kitchen, even when I’m home in the United States. Seriously, I’ve become an expert at making French vanilla.
Every year for Halloween, my cousins expect me to make pumpkin and for Christmas, I better have the gingerbread. Fior di latte, however, was always the goal. And I kept getting it half wrong. Then, one day the stars aligned and fior di latte happened. Miracolo!
Now, I want to share the recipe with you. This is based on the recipe provided by Misya.info, an Italian site. I’ve adapted the recipe for Americans who know nothing of the metric system measurements. And I’ve also provided my own explanation.
Recipe for Fior di Latte Gelato
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 cup of whole milk
1/2 cup of sugar
1 stick of vanilla (or 2 tsp of vanilla extract)
Put all the ingredients in a pot under medium heat on the stove. Stir until the sugar melts. I like to use a whisk to get some air into the mix. Then, shut off the gas. Let it cool. Remove the vanilla stick (if that’s what you used). Place the mixture in the refrigerator for eight hours or overnight. Finally, mix it in your ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Editor’s Note: I have found that it is really important to freeze the base of your ice cream maker well to get best results. I use the ice cream maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid. I try to keep the freezer less full when I’m freezing the maker, and I might even lower the temperature on the fridge.
Fresh mozzarella, as Americans know it, is not even close to the real thing. For starters, it is sold in plastic wrap in the refrigerated section of your supermarket or deli. The real stuff comes in a double plastic bag and is filled with water that turns white from the milk leaking from the mozzarella. It’s nothing like the traditional mozzarella (think Pollyo string cheese and the like) used in the United States.
How to Tend to Your Fresh Mozzarella
You’re never supposed to refrigerate it. First, you open the bag and pour its entire contents into a bowl. It sits in the liquid. Then, the bowl remains on your table or counter until you finish eating it. Some Italians (myself included) own a special ceramic bowl. It is a regular bowl on the bottom, but the cover looks like a half moon. It sits on top of the bowl, so that you can see the drowning mozzarella underneath. The half moon cover has holes in it to drain the liquid when you lift the mozzarella on top to cut it. Many of these bowls are handmade and hand painted. Mine comes from Ischia, of course, and it features the island’s famous lemons.
Eat It Fast
Now, the mozzarella won’t taste fresh unless you eat it right away. You risk the mozzarella souring if it is left out too long. If it gets less than fresh, most Italians will put it in the fridge and then use it to cook. They’ll add it to baked pasta or la parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana). Frankly, any recipe that calls for melting mozzarella is going to include the fresh stuff. That other stuff we call mozzarella does not exist here. Indeed, the fresh mozzarella is a big difference between pizza in Italy and pizza in the United States, even New York.
Truthfully, however, most pieces of fresh mozzarella never make it to the point of souring. They’re just too irresistible. When you cut into one of those big balls of fresh mozzarella, the milkiest cream oozes out. The texture is soft and even somewhat creamy. And the taste is slightly sweet with a touch of tang. It is best served on its own with a hunk of bread. Or you can pair it with deli meats, such as prosciutto crudo. Of course, the most popular way to eat fresh mozzarella is in a Caprese salad. This is a salad of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, and salt.
Where Does It Come From?
Also, in the United States, we classify mozzarella as cheese. In Italy, it is not considered cheese exactly. It’s in a class by itself. Many distinguish between mozzarella and cheese, in fact. The best fresh mozzarella is believed to come from the Campania region, specifically Naples. Artisans make the fresh mozzarella largely by hand, and it’s truly considered an art.
In the United States, at least in the Northeast, you can pick up some decent fresh mozzarella in Italian specialty stores. I hear it’s near authentic at Eataly. Also, local Italian American delis often make the real fresh stuff. Personally, I can attest to the authenticity of what you’ll pick up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Still, most of the time what you’re getting is a cow’s milk based fresh mozzarella. Occasionally, it’s the real deal with buffalo’s milk.
Another Story in Italy
See, mozzarella in Italy comes from buffalo’s milk, not cow’s milk. In fact, you’ll read “mozzarella di bufala” on the package. There are some variations worth sampling. You can get smoked fresh mozzarella, known as mozzarella fumigata. Or you can taste fior di latte (flower of milk) mozzarella, which offers the same creamy, milky deliciousness. But it comes from cow’s milk. Often, this version comes braided and is therefore known as treccia. Whichever version you choose, it’s all delicious.
Lavazza, one of the big coffee companies in Italy, is promising to bring imagination to the country’s restaurant scene while invigorating its hometown. Its new headquarters in Torino, which is slated to open at the end of 2017, is more than mere office; it’s also a destination for visitors. One of the biggest draws is CONDIVIDERE by Lavazza, a restaurant that is aiming to change the way people think about food and eating. Lavazza announced the restaurant concept early in March, so there are still few specific details. Learn about what we know so far:
Coffee to Jolt the Experience
Appropriately, coffee will take the main stage in the Lavazza restaurant. “Lavazza is strongly committed to creating a new restaurant where the coffee experience is at the forefront of every dish, making it a unique concept found nowhere else,” according to the press release. There is little explanation of what this means. But am I wrong to imagine coffee rubs on meat or espresso in desserts or even a hint of coffee in a pasta dish? I’ve had a gourmet meal in Ischia, where chocolate was used in a pasta sauce, and it was surprisingly delicious. Maybe Lavazza could make coffee and pasta – among Italy’s main food groups – marry and live happily ever after. Who am I to judge? Lavazza is, after all, the company that gave us coffee caviar. True story.
Lavazza Hires an Experienced Team
Chef Ferran Adrià
Interestingly, Chef Ferran Adrià, who co-created the concept for the restaurant, isn’t Italian. He’s Spanish. More than celebrity chef, Adrià was called a “gastronomic genius” by The New York Times. During his time as head chef of elBulli, which Restaurant Magazine named as world’s best restaurant five times from 2002 to 2009, according to the Times, he helped people reimagine food. Americans would know him as the guy who turned food into foam and made that a thing in foodie circles. When he shut the doors of his restaurant in 2011, people wondered why. It might have been money troubles and family in-fighting or it could have been the desire to avoid repeating himself; you can decide for yourself after reading the Times article. Either way, Lavazza now has him helping it, presumably to reimagine how people consume coffee and the traditional dishes of Torino and its region.
Chef Federico Zanasi
Federico Zanasi is the chef at the helm, however. Italy’s La Stampa described Zanasi as “giovane e brillante,” which means “young and brilliant.” He comes from Hotel Principe delle Nevi, a five-star restaurant in Cervinia, which is alpine resort territory known for skiing. Indeed, Zanasi is the chosen one. Adrià, who had worked with him, according to La Stampa, selected him for the job. The restaurant is already promoting its commitment to “food democracy,” an idea that has galvanized many Americans recently but has long been a part of the Italian culture. Basically, it’s a belief that food should be food without chemicals or byproducts. Everything should be fresh. But it’s not just about being healthy; it’s also about making everything delicious in its simplicity.
Set Designer Dante Ferretti
The trifecta of greatness would be incomplete without the set designer, three-time Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti. He’s developing the interior of the restaurant. It will be urban, modern, and colorful, and will perfectly reflect Zanasi’s concepts for the menu, according to La Stampa. His Oscar-winning touch brought us The Aviator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Hugo Cabret. Now, he’ll bring his vision to a place where people will gather to eat. The interior will undoubtedly be a showstopper, but it’s not just about looking at what’s around your own table. The place is going to be like a character, one can imagine. There will be movement. In fact, the press release explains that guests will actually move from one setting to another to enjoy different parts of the meal.
More Than Good Eats
The restaurant is more than a restaurant, of course. Yes, it’s also the Lavazza company headquarters. In addition, visitors will find the Lavazza Museum, which is being designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. A convention center and a farm-to-table dining hall for employees and students of the nearby Istituto d’Arte Applicata e Design (IADD) round out the offerings. Of course, a place like this wouldn’t be Italian if it didn’t include a “lush, green” piazza for people watching and gathering. There visitors will find artifacts from a 4th and 5th century A.D. paleo-Christian basilica that the company found during construction, according to the press release.
A Higher Purpose for Lavazza
Finally, the name of the restaurant, CONDIVIDERE, is significant. It means to share. This place is intended to be as much about new concepts in food as an affirmation of the human need to break bread together. Perhaps, Adrià put it best in his discussion with La Stampa, where he waxed philosophical about the place. “You will find a place in which you feel at ease and have the desire to be together,” he said, according to my translation. “The intention is to provide exceptional cuisine that brings to the forefront man’s need to socialize, share, and analyze what’s on the table in a show of love for food.” Now, that kind of thinking couldn’t be more Italian.
Food Network Magazine Educates Readers on Italian Food
The Food Network Magazine surprised me by dedicating the entire March 2017 issue to Italian food. Of course, one cover featured Food Network star chef Giada De Laurentiis and the other featured her lemon spaghetti. This issue of the magazine has a few purposes that interest us.
In March, Food Network Magazine educates Americans on authentic Italian food traditions, offers interesting recipes, and provides new twists on old favorites. That’s why I recommend investing in the Food Network Magazine issue (or borrowing a copy from someone who has a subscription) even if you learned everything you ever needed to know from Nonna or Mamma.
While Americans still have serious misconceptions about what Italian food really is, Food Network Magazine goes a long way to try and separate fact from fiction. For starters, the cover star lends credibility. De Laurentiis, whose grandfather Agostina “Dino” De Laurentiis was a famous film producer and grandmother Silvana Mangano was a famous actress in Italy, was born in Rome herself. Her stories and recipes offer insight into the Italian experience. She’s usually great about providing information on authentic Italian dishes. Just by having her or her recipe (depending on whether you’re a subscriber or newsstand purchaser) on the cover gave the impression that this would be the real deal.
Food Network Attempts to Undo Ugly American Syndrome
Next, the magazine’s Editor in Chief Maile Carpenter sweetly revealed how she and her husband immediately gave away their Americanness on a recent trip to Milan by trying to order an iced latte in Italy. There’s no such thing there. After that flub, the couple ordered only cappuccinos and always before noon to comply with societal standards, she wrote. What she doesn’t know is that every Italian I know pokes fun at tourists for even drinking cappuccinos; real Italians never order them. My Italian friends identify you as tourists if that’s on your order.
Still, Carpenter admits that authentic Italians, who immigrated, and their authentic food have been Americanized over the years, and she unashamedly boasted about some of these Italian American hybrids, which are featured in the issue, including tiramisu doughnuts and pizzagna (a combination of pizza and lasagna that has me intrigued). Another story, “How Italian Is It?” features a photo and brief history of dishes commonly associated with Italian food, such as Penna alla Vodka and Eggplant Parmesan,” to help you identify which you’ll find in Italy and which are an Italian American thing. You might be surprised at what you discover. (At the same time, there are probably many foods you didn’t know were Italian.)
The cover boasts 101 recipes, and most of them had my mouth watering. In fact, the food porn in this issue would be triple X rated if food porn was really porn. The ones I’m most interested in trying are meatball marsala, tortellini in brood, and just about everything in the “50 Antipasto” booklet that comes with the issue. Oh yeah, you don’t want to miss inventive suggestions for bruschetta, rosemary-lemon frico, and arancini.
I know what you’re thinking, “You must already have some of these recipes and they are from your family and they are therefore probably better.” That’s true, I do have some of these recipes. But I find trying different versions of recipes helps you build on your repertoire. It also makes the original recipe that much better because you can blend the best of both.
In conclusion, I am thrilled to see that Food Network Magazine is sharing Italian cuisine – both the authentic version and the Italian American evolution and invention of certain recipes. My only complaint about the issue is that the celebrity chefs asked to share their favorite places in Italy to visit ignored Ischia, the small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband. Capri was on the list, but they don’t know the culinary masterpieces they are missing in our native Ischia.
Southern Italy has this way of bringing visitors to a different time and place. That is never truer than on Carnevale, also known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. When Americans with Italian roots go home to the Boot, they experience a transportation of sorts. It’s like they step into their parent’s or grandparent’s or great-grandparent’s shoes but for a moment. The tower in the piazza that has stood in place for thousands of years, the way everyone knows everyone else’s name and business, old school traditions, and making everything from scratch are out of place in what we Americans see as modernity.
Carnevale Is a Kaleidoscope of Wonders
To go back to Italy for Carnevale is to both go back in time and shake things up. Up is down, down is up, and you can’t remember how you ever got to this place. I don’t mean to say you will get drunk. You might, but I never have. But even those who don’t imbibe, get tipsy on the joy of the day. People dress up in costume and indulge in decadent foods. When I was there a few years back, I felt as though I was thrown into a kaleidoscope that someone just kept turning to change the image. It was magical and a stark difference from the cold sense of suffering everyone experiences a day later on Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins.
Even though the dressing up is mostly for kids at school, who parade much like American ones do on Halloween, adults get in on the act. When my husband worked as a bartender, he would sport a costume. Sometimes, he was a pirate. Sometimes, he was Mickey Mouse (bought the hands in Orlando’s Disney World, in fact). I think he went as a mummy or something another year. The point is that in small towns and villages where everyone knows everyone, it’s exciting to think you might be mistaken about the person behind the mask. As you walk through the piazza and see the regulars dressed like someone or something else, the air of mystery sets the tone for what lies ahead.
Of course, a celebration in Italy would be incomplete without a special menu. This holiday has its staples. Discover what you might find on the table today:
Spread of Antipasto – The works. Think prosciutto di Parma, an assortment of cheeses, other deli meats, marinated goodies such as artichokes or eggplants, and prepared appetizers, such as stuffed mushrooms or something more exotic and of the imagination of the chef in charge
Lasagna – This is a must in my house, and it must be traditional and stuffed with ooey gooey ricotta and mozzarella cheese and smothered in Nonno’s Sunday Funday sauce
Meatballs – Nonno’s meatballs are also must haves for Carnevale. In many ways, this feast is just Sunday on steroids. Some nonnas make the meatballs full of surprises, including pignoli (pine nuts) and raisins, but my family has simpler tastes, so we don’t go that route
Desserts – My father favors migliaccio (a citrus ricotta pie), but many families (especially for the kids) go with cioffe (pronounced chohffee), fried dough strips
Like any Italian holiday, the true beauty of it lies in the time spent with family and friends. Still, what makes this one unique is the fact that you’re certain to see a different side of those you know best. You simply don’t know who will show up. That’s part of the fun. Well, that and the meatballs. Happy Carnevale!
Recently, Chef Ciro Mattera of Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples in Italy, which is home to my ancestors, offered a taste of the dolce vita to Americans in New Jersey. Ischia is virtually untouched by American standards. There, you’ll still find people clinging to tradition, living off the land, and making everything from scratch. If food is love, then Ischia is the epicenter of adoration. And Mattera is constantly paying homage to its traditions.
The cuisine, much like the island itself, is full of delicious contradictions. Ischia is the mountains, including its highest point Epomeo, and the sea, including its many beaches. That dichotomy is reflected in the island’s food through its most famous dishes – fresh seafood and coniglio (rabbit). Recently, Mattera, whose restaurant Ristorante Saturnino in Forio, Ischia earned him recognition in the Michelin Guide, served a tasting menu he created with my brother, who is the director of Food and Beverage at Galloping Hill Golf Course’s Red Knot restaurant in Kenilworth, N.J. Discover the beautifully presented food and what went into each course:
Tuna, lightly marinated in a citrus sauce, with a fork of pasta with kumquat served as the introduction to the meal. The lemon and kumquat were refreshing. The simplicity set the right tone for the rest of the evening. I’m not a wine drinker, but my brother chose the pairings for the meal. Much like the wine, the food was intended to build on the flavors as we moved along. This palette cleansing, light bite was the perfect starter. Mattera made bread with rosemary from scratch for la scarpetta, so guests could savor every last drop.
This delectable bite of red snapper wrapped in zucchini and sitting on a bed of more vegetables, such as eggplant, and an onion puree was the perfect segue to the rest of the meal. With the onion and medley of veggies, there were more flavors to compliment the fish than with the tuna. The homemade breadstick with rosemary was a surprise bonus. Its crunchiness was a nice foil for the soft fish.
Of course, this would not be a proper Italian meal without some sort of take on pasta. For the first course, known in Italy as the primo or primo piatto, Mattera turned to his roots in Ischia. He made homemade ravioli stuffed with coniglio Ischitano (rabbit typical of Ischia) and topped with red sauce. The chef admitted to rather enjoying using the Kitchen Aid pasta and pasta cutter attachment to pull off these beauties. And the guests found the taste divine. For those of us at the meal, who come from Ischia and regularly eat rabbit, each bite was like tasting home.
This beef shoulder cooked slowly overnight for that melt-your-mouth effect. Topped with a red wine sauce and paired with a bit of frisee salad, this dish offered the welcome contradiction of sweet and bitter. Mattera presented the scallop potatoes, standing on their side with layers of cream, which paired well with the red wine sauce and looked unique. A few of the guests felt this was the best dish of the meal.
The finale featured two desserts – a poached pear sliced and wrapped around a ricotta stuffing and sitting on a bed of chocolate sauce. Pistachios and strawberries topped the dessert, and a lace cookie leaned against it. Ricotta cookies – one with chocolate chips and one with pistachios – were a happy surprise for guests, who didn’t expect two desserts. The light ricotta and pear were a great match for the vibrant chocolate. And those cookies were soft in the center and crispy at the edge, providing yet another delicious contradiction.
Many Italians and Italian Americans refrain from eating meat on Fridays. The practice goes back to the days when the Pope asked people to sacrifice meat eating for God. Rumor has it the real reason was that the fishermen were paying him off because they needed more work. Who knows?
Whatever the reason, it has become tradition. Some only eat fish on Fridays during Lent, but others keep it up all year long. Even if you don’t reserve your fish eating for Friday, your mouth can’t help but water when presented with a dish of linguine with white clam sauce. Truly, it’s one of the simplest dishes to cook.
Now, this is one of my favorite meals. I love shellfish and pairing it with pasta cooked al dente is the stuff of dreams. But I have to admit that the clams I get in the United States are never as delicious as the ones I get in my family’s native Ischia, Italy. And bad clams can leave a bad taste in your mouth (literally). In any event, I am still able to get decent clams Stateside, and I often indulge. Frankly, I don’t think I could live without them. Ok, so I could but who wants to?
Anyway, without further ado, discover how to make linguine with clam sauce.
Pasta (linguine are obviously ideal, but I have used fettuccine – as in the photo above – and spaghetti)
Clams (I usually have between .5 to 1 lb. to go with a pound of pasta)
Garlic (2 to 4 cloves)
Salt (for the pasta water)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Black pepper (optional)
For starters, you have to wash your clams. This is an important, often overlooked step, to preparing clams. Put the clams in a bowl and cover them with cold water. Add some ice and about a tablespoon of vinegar to the water. Don’t worry, you will not taste the vinegar when you cook the clams. It just helps draw out the sand and grit. Then, place the bowl in the refrigerator. I try to do this overnight, which means getting the clams the day before you are actually going to cook them. If that’s not possible, you should at least leave the clams soaking for a few hours. If you take shortcuts, you risk having sand and even a pebble or two in your sauce or having extra salty clams. None of these outcomes is desirable. When you are ready to cook the clams, take the bowl out of the fridge and dump the clams into a colander. Then, run cold water over the clams a bit. Then, use a vegetable brush to scrub each clam with nothing more than cold water.
Now, you’re ready to actually start cooking. I lightly coat the bottom of a dutch oven with olive oil and turn on the stove to a medium high flame. Sometimes, I add a clove or two of garlic to the pot before adding the clams. Put the cover on the pot. In about 10 to 15 minutes, the clams should open and be done. Give them a minute or two more to make sure they are good and done. You want them to not only be open but for the clam to easily come out of the shell.
While the clams are cooking and the water is boiling, you can start the sauce. Saute the cloves of garlic in olive oil. I actually would use about one-quarter cup of olive oil. You can remove the cloves from the oil once they brown but before they burn. Once the clams are done, reserve the liquid in the clam pot and remove about half (if not a little more) of the clams from their shells. Reserve the clams still in their shells. You will add about one-third of a cup of the liquid and all the naked clams (don’t judge, that’s what I call ’em) to the garlic-flavored oil. Saute it all to blend over a medium-low flame. Be careful not to burn the oil. When you’re about ready to add the pasta to the sauce, add the red pepper flakes if you’d like. Heat through for a minute longer and add the pasta to the sauce. I usually shut off the gas at this point, but many Italians leave the flame on its lowest setting for this part. Stir the pasta into the sauce. Once the sauce is coating the pasta, you can plate the meal for each of your guests. Top the pasta with chopped fresh parsley and some of those clams still in the shell. Never ever put parmigiano on pasta with shellfish. Please. Don’t. Do. It. The Italians might arrest you. I’m only slightly exaggerating.