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.
Anyone interested in learning more about Mattera can read a biography of him in the Our Paesani column on the ItaliansRus website or visit the Ristorante Saturnino website.
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.