Polenta: The Next Big Thing?

Not long ago, in the epicenter of Brooklyn's culinary scene, I had a delightful dinner in a place called Osteria il Paiolo. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to some of the world's hippest dining venues, is a multi-culti morass of righteous Jews, old-time Italians and Dominicans, and newly-converted food passionistas with young families and big dreams. It is also home to one of the only places I know that features polenta as its calling card, authentically made in an "il paiolo" -- a large unlined copper pot -- the traditional vessel in northern Italy in which to s-l-o-w-l-y stir ground cornmeal into boiling water and salt until thick and creamy. It is sturdier than porridge and more sublime than its humble ingredients might imply. I was no more than 19 years old when I first met its acquaintance during a trip to northern Italy. It was there that I had one of the my most memorable dishes of my life: A thick slice of Gorgonzola dolce onto which was poured a stream of hot buttery polenta across its girth. An exercise in simplicity, its creamy texture and unexpected melding of flavors and fragrances, was downright sinful. And while not the traditional form polenta usually takes, it remains a love-at-first bite memory. While the good people of Tuscany are known as "bean-eaters" because of their culinary proclivity towards legumes, the Piemontese locals are known as polentone. Apparently, everyone in Piedmont eats polenta all the time, and have done so before the Roman empire! (At that time, polenta was made from other grains such as millet, barley, and farro. Corn, or maize, appeared in the 16th century.)

That said, I was excited to try the polenta, and all the other good things I had heard about, at the dining spot loosely translated as "the polenta pot." It is an osteria which, in Italy, connotes a rather casual restaurant where the owner is also the host: Enter Alex Palumbo. Alex, a native of northern Italy's Piedmont region, was primed to bring the signature dish of his family's kitchen to slightly tonier environs. Amidst a sprawl of white table-clothed tables in an industrial modern space, one can dine very well indeed. In addition to the myriad ways to eat polenta, topped with tomatoes and quail, with shrimp and rosemary, with fontina, are exemplary antipasti and main courses -- we especially loved the homemade sausage with savory cabbage served in a terracotta casserole, and my husband said his roasted quail, prepared with pancetta, cream and sage, was the best he ever had. Good, too, was the unusual pappardelle al cioccolata, chocolate pasta with a wild boar and vegetable ragu.

Unbeknownst to me, authentic polenta is made with only water and salt, not the butter and cheese we have come to expect. But along the way, the latter ingredients have become commonplace. And while the ingredients may be 1-2-3, the mastery is in the preparation: Polenta must be slowly stirred for up to 45 minutes for its requisite creaminess and flavor. There are huge copper paiolo pots that have electric motors attached, but at Alex's osteria, everything is lovingly stirred by a mano (by hand.) Alex gets his heirloom polenta -- which is coarse and toothsome -- from a "secret source" in Italy and claims that no one else in New York (ergo the country) has it. At last count, the kitchen is stirring up more than 60 pound per month, up from 10 pounds when he first got started, not so long ago. Clearly, the locals are catching on.

In my own kitchen at home, I make polenta with tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano as one of my ultimate comfort dishes, and on occasion, indulge in that time-honored memory of gorgonzola topped with steaming polenta. Only now I gild the dish with a tuft of balsamic-tinged wild arugula and anoint it all with my best extra-virgin olive oil on top. And I am still enamored of Colman Andrews' polenta with oranges and olive oil from his wonderful book, Flavors of the Riviera. The potential for polenta is promising, perhaps turning us all into polentone one day.

Osteria il Paiolo, 106 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (www.ilpaiolonyc.com)

Sophia Loren & NYC's Best Pizza

A Vittorio De Sica movie from the 1960s, called L'Oro di Napoli, features a young, voluptuous Sophia Loren sensually flattening discs of pizza dough while her cuckold of a husband drops them into a primitive vat of very hot oil. They promptly inflate and are sold without embellishment to be eaten as a snack, or as what today we call "street food." The set for that movie was a real-life restaurant called Starita, where they've been baking or frying extraordinary pizza since 1910. But about 10 years ago, Antonio Starita, the shop's third-generation pizzaiolo, hit upon an ingenious third-step -- first frying the dough, then decorating it and popping the pie into an oven to warm the toppings and melt the cheeses.

Last summer in Naples, we forked over a fistful of Euros to a clueless cab driver while searching for this legendary pizzeria in the twisty-curvy district of Materdei. Like many pizzerias in Italy, it was closed for lunch. But a version of it recently opened on Manhattan's easy-to-locate West 50th Street -- and there he was, Don Antonio Starita himself, overseeing a grand parade of classically Neapolitan pizzas coming out of his wood burning oven and, oh, yes, out of his deep fat fryer, at the new Don Antonio by Starita.

His specialty is called montanara in New York and simply pizza fritta in Naples. The fried dough puffs into an amazingly soufflé-light disc and topped with an intense tomato sauce and imported smoked mozzarella di bufala known as provola, and then popped briefly into a volcanically hot oven. It is like eating an exceedingly flavorful pillow.

The secret? Palm oil. The palm oil is important because it can withstand the rigors of high temperatures without breaking down, adding a delicate crispness to the dough's exterior. The dough downright floats with a bearable lightness of being.

We were a party of six celebrating culinary maven Arthur Schwartz's birthday, (he is the author of the award-winning cookbook Naples at Table), and I can tell you that every dish was its own celebration. We began with a huge platter of angioletti, which are fried puffy thumb-sized strips of dough topped with marinated cherry tomatoes, garlic, excellent oregano, and arugula, which was, for me, one of the most original and delicious dishes I've had anywhere recently! Then onto pizzas chosen by Antonio, not all of them on the menu.

We went nuts over a two-layer affair stuffed with mix of sautéed escarole, pine nuts, raisins and ricotta, then topped with wafer-thin dough and fresh mozzarella. A splendid pie with grape tomatoes in tomato sauce with mozzarella and basil stopped all table conversation for a short moment. And for dessert there was a pizza slathered with ricotta, honey and almonds, punctuated with a lit birthday candle.

Fat be damned, you're looking at a trend here, mark my words. I've run across a sushi bar selling slices of pizza dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. Fish-and-chips shops have been doing downmarket versions for years in (of all places) Scotland, but they've kept it a rather well deserved secret. Out in Denver, Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria has a montanara and a ricotta-honey dessert pie, but they'll also fry any of their numerous pies in the same manner as Starita, right down to using palm oil.

Of course if you pile some mozzarella, salami, ricotta and tomato sauce onto a round of pizza dough, and fold it into a turnover, then you have a makings of a deep-fried calzone -- which is what you get at Locanda Positano in San Francisco and numerous other pizza joints around the country -- but these miss the point of crisping all the dough's surfaces, making for an amazing depth of flavor.

In Naples where they've been frying dough for centuries, you get it Starita's way or occasionally you run across a decorated thin-crust pizza that's topped with a second layer of dough, the edges being pressed together and the entire affair gently submerged in hot oil. This is not an obscure product in Naples, but it sure has taken its time crossing the Atlantic.

Now a restaurant named after the dish itself, La Montanara, has just opened on New York's Lower East Side. There, Giulio Adriani, who owns a restaurant in Rome and two places called Forcella in New York, is serving only fried pies, but he's using sunflower oil.

Locating Starita in New York may be easier than searching the curvaceous streets of Naples hoping to find either Sophia Loren or great pizza, but getting in isn't easy since they take no reservations and crowds form early, often waiting on the sidewalk for one of the restaurant's 70 seats. Bring a bunch of friends so you can try several of the 70 varieties available. Or, you might consider that long-awaited trip to Napoli.

Tell them Don Antonio sent you.

Lidia's Italy in America

Lidia Bastianich is one of my personal heroes and, in a moment's notice, I would lead the campaign to make her our next Ambassador to Italy. (Mr. Obama, are you listening?) Nothing, of course, against our current Ambassador, but I can think of no one who is so recognizably respected. Lidia has all the makings: savvy business acumen, formidable intelligence, and the perfect demeanor fitting such a position. And I love the notion that political prowess may actually begin in the kitchen. Lidia has introduced us, through her seven cookbooks, television shows, and as doyenne of a handful of Italian restaurants in America, to the complexities of Italy's culture and to the simplicity of Italy's authentic cuisine. For decades we have accompanied her on journeys across the culinary landscape of Italy and now, in her newest cookbook, Lidia takes us on a culinary exploration of Italian cooking in America.

And while you'd think there's nothing left to say about Italian-American food given the thousands of magazine articles and dozens of cookbooks that have scrubbed this particular gastronomical cupboard clean, nugget after nugget of good food and delectable ideas pop out of the recipes and stories lovingly told by Lidia and her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, in Lidia's Italy in America (Alfred A. Knopf).

Lidia Bastianich, who by most reckoning must be Our Lady of Italian Cooking, traveled the country, revisiting places where Italian immigrants originally settled and where, even today, there's great resonance. From Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to San Francisco and California wine country, with stopovers in robust Italian enclaves like New Orleans (think muffuletta sandwich), Philadelphia, Federal Hill in Providence, Chicago (think chicken Vesuvio), Baltimore and Boston, she adds places and faces to what certainly is America's favorite "foreign" cuisine.

I put the word "foreign" in quotes because, by and large, we eat domesticated versions of true Italian food here and in many cases we eat Italian dishes that never existed in the old country. Many of the dishes -- spaghetti and meatballs and veal parmigiano --were invented here by immigrants who made good and creative use of products then available to them.

Most of the time-worn dishes in this book no longer appear on menus of trendy, upscale Italian restaurants. After all, when was the last time you went out for lasagna or veal marsala or chicken tetrazzini? -- dishes that have been co-opted by the likes of Olive Garden. So you won't find sea urchins or burrata or guanciale or lardo here. You will find perfectly clear recipes of all your old favorites along with some interesting twists.

She notes that, contrary to most recipes in Italian-American cookbooks, the steak in bistecca pizzaiola should be cooked separately from the sauce so that both retain their distinct identities; most recipes have the meat simmered in the sauce. She has the same advice for those old standbys, sausage and peppers and veal marsala: cook the meats separately from the vegetables, then toss together at the very last moment.

Lidia theorizes that pasta alla puttanesca soared to popularity here in the 1970s because authentic Italian ingredients such as cured olives and cured capers were just becoming available, so the dish delivered what she calls a "wallop of flavor" that keeps people making it right up to today. She explains that even though Thomas Jefferson had a macaroni-making machine and served his baked pasta doused with cheese, maccheroni al formaggio also has an Italian rendition, hers with sage, grated fontina, cheddar and parmesan cheese.

Although they're authoritative, many of these recipes are nostalgic because they require an ingredient many of us no longer have: time -- time to make and fill ravioli with sausage and ricotta, or to assemble the various components of a first-rate lasagna, or to pound thin, stuff, roll and braise braciole. Where are our grandmothers now that we need them again?

There's one very up-to-date recipe for brined turkey breast, from the New York restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties, in which the bird is cooked very slowly in a quasi-sous vide plastic pouch, then smeared with a fabulous paste of garlic, oil, honey and vinegar and broiled until the skin crisps.

I asked Lidia which recipes best represent the Italian-American kitchen. She chose Fried Marinated Artichokes, Clams Casino, Penne Rigate in Vodka Sauce, Spaghetti with Meatballs, Chicken Cacciatore, Sausage and Peppers, and Almond Pine Nut Cookies as the "stellar expressions."

I'm up for any of these dishes -- or for her voluptuous eggplant parmigiana -- next time Lidia plans to spend an afternoon at the stove.

The soulful pictures of Italian-American chefs, cooks, fishermen and butchers are almost worth the price of this lovely book. Ambassador Bastianich has a nice ring.

Speaking of Gelato

I saw an ad in the cab for the TV show Jeopardy yesterday with one of the questions relating to the origin of gelato -- the Italian frozen confection that I tasted for the first time in 1973 on my maiden voyage to Italy.  It said that the first gelato was fashioned from honey and shaved ices, but that idea is so reductive as to be suspect. For your reading pleasure, you may google the history of gelato and ponder the various theories, but what I'm pondering these days is why gelato isn't the way I remember.  We were on a bit of a quest for great gelato on our recent trip to Italy and experienced two extremes.  One of the gelatos we tried was commercial and sported neon colors of fruit flavors that one never encounters in nature, yet it had the sweet, dense, velvety texture I remembered.  The other gelato (the shop with the longest line in Naples) was "artiginale" and tasted so rich and creamy that it crossed the boundaries of gelato into premium rich, custardy ice cream.  I longed for the gelato that I once had in Sicily for breakfast, spooned into a morning brioche, and another that I had when I was a young lass in Florence studying cooking with Guiliano Bugialli.  It had tasted like nothing I ever had -- as memorable as my first sip of Chateau d'Yquem.   I remember the intensity of the fruit flavor, the bracing yet soft chill, the velvety, but slightly elastic mouthfeel.  It was probably the first time I experienced the taste of gianduja, too -- the brilliant marriage of hazelnut and chocolate. Just this week, I treated myself to a romp around the West Village (I just adore Bleeker Street these days -- the whole stretch, actually, from east to west) and found two very credible gelato palaces.  I will mention my favorite only.  Grom, located on the corner of Bleeker and Carmine, exceeded expectations.  Never mind that the adorable boy working behind the counter was from Venice and charming as all get out, and that he topped my cup of gelato with a bit more when I said it looked skimpy (I was hungry!), but he recommended two varieties that tasted like magic together.  One was their very robust espresso gelato and the other their "specialty" -- crema di Grom, made with cream, "corn biscuits" from the Langhe region and bits of shaved Teyuna chocolate from Columbia.  I also sampled their cassata (with bits of candied fruit) and their white fig gelato, which was divine.   Sitting outside at a little cafe table, with the sun shining brightly through my plastic gelato spoon, and Italian spoken all around me, I must say that my trip to Italy had a delightful hiccup.  Sad that Faicco's (the legendary pork store) was closed that day, I had a strange hankering for mortadella and buffalo mozzarella.

I don't know how to make gelato and so instead I offer you another kind of intense, velvety frozen confection from Radically Simple -- with a similiar mouthfeel and memorable flavor.

Chocolate-Chipotle Sorbetto A bit of chipotle smolders behind a chocolate chill.  It's very cool to serve a scoop of this in a glass with some cold milk poured around it.  Taste the mixture before you churn it -- you might want to add a bit more chipotle and salt to augment the smoky flavor.

3/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup dark corn syrup 1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder 4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips 1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle powder

Combine the sugar, corn syrup, cocoa powder and 1-1/2 cups water in a large saucepan.  Whisk until smooth and bring to a boil.  Boil 1 minute, whisking.  Remove from the heat.  Stir in the chocolate, chipotle powder, 1/4 cup water and a large pinch of salt.  Stir until the chocoalte melts.  Pour the mixture into a blender and process 1 minute, until smooth.  Refrigerate the mixture until very cold.  Stir briskly and freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.  Serves 6

Chocolate Eggplant

About one month ago, while perched atop the Amalfi coast nestled in a friend's villa in Ravello, the conversation about chocolate eggplant ensued.  Our hosts, the consummate foodies, told us about a particular trattoria in Amalfi that served chocolate eggplant for dessert. But our friend couldn't remember the name of the place nor did she know that some version of this unique dessert is famous, or typical, in that area -- especially in spring and summer.  Knowing our friend's taste for the discreet, we ambled along the main street of Amalfi (after sampling a cannoli at the well-known pasticceria Pansa), asking everyone where we could find it.  No one seemed to know.  That is, until we got to the Macelleria and inquired.  "Next door!," the affable butcher said. "They have it at the nice trattoria next door but they don't open until 6 p.m." We waited.

While my husband loved his main course of butterflied sardines, that were lightly battered and sauteed (including a gossamer layer of cheese to hold them together), I devoured my dish of grilled provola in lemon leaves (another dish typical of the area) at the lovely Trattoria dei Cartari.  But I longed for the eggplant.  It arrived and certainly stole the attention of the two children sitting next to us.  For awash in a sea of dark molten chocolate strewn with pine nuts, were two thin slices of shapely eggplant, fried twice (as the waiter told us).  The eggplant had a texture that tasted almost like thick moist apricot leather, and I couldn't figure out how it was done.  I must say that it was very, very good!  The slight bitterness of the eggplant played against the flavor of the not-too-sweet chocolate, accented with toasty notes of almonds.  It was worth searching for and yes, it was the place our friend frequented.  The next day, not fully satisfied that I understood the concept, we went to the shop of the most famous pastry chef of the Amalfi coast -- Salvatore di Riso (Sal for short).  There, the chocolate eggplant was interpreted into a fudgey square of layered eggplant, thick chocolate (ganache-like) and candied fruit, flavored with liqueur (probably Concerto, a liqueur popular in that region), and served icy cold.   While festive and interesting, I preferred the simple, warm, almost earthy version we had in Amalfi.  However improbable it was, it was delicious.

I have not prepared the recipe I offer below, but searched for one that most closely approximated the dish we liked.   A recipe for Sal di Riso's "Melanzane al Cioccolato" can be found at www.francinesegan.com.

Chocolate Eggplant (courtesy of the Canadian Food Network)

2 eggplants, thinly sliced lengthwise coarse sea salt flour for dredging olive oil, for deep-frying 16 ounces bittersweet chocolate, in small pieces 1 cup milk 1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped

Prep the eggplant by salting the slices and laying them in a colander for 30 minutes.  Rinse and pat very dry.  Dredge eggplant into the flour and fry in olive oil set at 375 degrees. Do not fry too many pieces at one time (it will lower the cooking temperature.)  Lay on paper towels to absorb oil.  (Note by RG:  you might want to fry it again to best approximate the texture we experienced in Italy.  You may also use lightly toasted pine nuts instead of the almonds.)  Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pot of simmering water until smooth.  Whisk in enough milk to make it creamy but still rather thick.   Pour over the eggplant and sprinkle nuts on top.   Let sit at room temperature or serve slightly warm.  Serves 6 or more.

Arrivederci, Roma

We were awaiting the last of our doppio (double) espressos in our charming room at the Caesar House Residenzia in Rome, conveniently located near Rome’s ancient Forum, Colliseum, and the breathtaking “wedding cake” monument to Vittorio Emanuele, the first King of united Italy. Our two-week journey ended this morning with a quick prima colazione (breakfast) and a trip to the airport.  I returned home with my suitcase.  It arrived in Naples, 12 days after we did! As I jokingly said, the day it was lost, that my luggage would be taking a trip of its own. Indeed Alitalia made that happen. It was sent back to Newark, New Jersey, where it remained for five days, then sent to Paris, lost again, and ended up at the Naples airport the very day we were leaving for Rome.  Looking for that suitcase became a leitmotif of the trip, as we experienced the frustrations that Italy can bring, but it also brought a sense of liberation, a new handbag, linen pants, and some Italian undergarments into my life!

Rome was exhilarating, made more so by spending time with Iris Carulli, a dear friend and “guide extraordinaire” to the majesty of Rome.  My husband and I spent two days walking, reminiscing (we have been to Rome many times yet not in 20 years), and met Iris in the evening for two splendid meals and then hours of walking the city’s grand piazzas.  Iris has lived in Italy now for more than 10 years, and is considered by many to be one of Rome’s best tour guides. You must hire her if you come! Her suggestions were invaluable and her knowledge of art and history made ancient Rome fascinating.  Not to mention, present-day Rome! How we enjoyed the contemporary restaurant l’Antico Arco, near the American Academy of Rome (with a strenuous hike at sunset up the Janiculum Hill), the revered trattoria (and bakery) Antico Forno Roscioli, where Sullivan Street Bakery genius, Jim Lahey, came recently to train (the bread in Rome is very good!), and the crowded Piazza Navona, Piazza Venezia, the Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain – all magical at midnight.   Most fun was discovering, completely by accident, a Roman trattoria called Agustarello (in an area called Testaccio) where we had the best pasta alla gricia (with guanciale and pecorino), and amazing braised oxtails (darkened with chocolate and full of the requisite, yet invisible, celery). That was lunch.

We enjoyed our visit to MaXXI, the museum of contemporary art, designed by Zaha Hadid, and our tour of the beautiful synagogue of Rome.  We even found the ancient bakery which makes “Pizza Ebraica,” or Jewish pizza.  Not really pizza at all, but a kind of excessive cookie bar, studded with candied fruit and burnt a bit. No one knows why it is called this, but apparently it has been so for the last 100 years.

Tomorrow morning, I will be eating it slowly, in my own kitchen, accompanied by wonderful memories and a doppio espresso, or two.  Arrivederci, Roma.

Tastes of the Week (Naples Edition)

July 25 to July 31, 2011 The most unusual antipasti I have ever had in my life was at an agriturismo in Padula (near the dazzling monastery Certosa di San Lorenzo.)   At “Fattoria Alvaneta” we had “horn of the goat” peppers (corno di capra), which are dried peppers, peperoni cruschi, that were deep-fried (peperoni fritte) until ethereally crispy. About 6 inches long and deep red in color, you are truly amazed at the unexpected texture – like shards of delectable mica.  Peperoni cruschi (pronounced crew-ski) are the peppers used for making paprika dolce – which Cecilia uses for making her homemade pancetta.  I was fascinated by the sweet, aromatic notes of the peppers and wonder why we don’t think, or know more about Italian paprika.

Fattoria Alvaneta” was also home to the best and most interesting array of antipasti we’ve encountered anywhere:  sauteed escarole with green olives, homemade pancetta and guanciale (made with the wonderful paprika), fresh ricotta cheese with honey and toasted walnuts, the same “dried-and-fried” crispy peppers mixed with scrambled eggs, rospi – balls of fried pizza dough with anchovies (we were surprised how light they were), oil-soaked tomato bruschetta, and an unusual bean and grain soup (made from 13 ingredients!) called Cuccia.  What followed?  Fresh cavatelli with pepperoni cruschi, and polpette di pane (bread balls!  fabulous!) served with a wonderful tomato sauce and a side dish of mashed potatoes, both flavored and colored with paprika.

A last dinner of braised water buffalo at Tenuta Seliano, beautifully cooked and very tasty, alongside a “compote” of braised green peppers and tomatoes.  Dessert was our first panna cotta on this trip.  It was topped with a fresh raspberry sauce.  At breakfast the next morning, we sampled the cakes Cecilia made for us – a chestnut cake made with chestnut flour, ricotta and yellow raisins, and a very interesting carrot cake made with a puree of pears and coarsely shredded lemon peel.

A real Neapolitan espresso (across from the Duomo in Naples) where the “head” or the “crema” is twice as big as the espresso!  (My husband bought a great suit next door!)

Lovely pizza at restaurant Europeo di Mattozzi, and excellent fried whitebait and a bean soup made from fresh beans, great olive oil and toast.

Fabulous cheap pasta at restaurant Nennella – one of the real finds of the trip. Paccheri with a light tomato-basil sauce and also paccheri with zucca (pumpkin) and tiny shrimp.  The zucca tasted of the shrimp water and was delicious.

Unexpectedly great, at another “worker’s place” called Cucina di Mamma  where you can have an entire lunch for 7 euros, we opted instead for the best fresh mozzarella, a salad caprese (made with cherry tomatoes) and a big plate of tender chilled octopus.  This was followed by spaghetti with a fresh cherry tomato sauce and a marvelous steamed lobster!  About 30 euros with wine and sparkling water.

A wonderful, soulful, beautiful dinner at Taverna dell’Arte. The restaurant and owner Alphonso, were recently featured in John Turturro’s new movie Passione (about the soul, life and music of Naples).  Bruschetta with Sicilian pesto (basil and almonds), a dry, pungent cheese from Sicily, polenta fritte, and black olive and cheese stuffed Roma tomatoes for starters.  Terrific gnocchi with mussels and squid, and veal meatballs with marsala and mushrooms.  The ambiance was lovely and felt authentically Neapolitan. The main course was followed by a “palate cleaner” of a basil and lemon sorbetto, followed by a shot of Rosolio (a wonderful liqueur made from a local apple), and peaches marinated in white wine.

We’ve also been walking 5 hours a day to keep up with all this!  Ciao, ciao.

Where the Water Buffalo Roam

Early in the morning, seated by a sunny window of Tenuta Seliano, an agriturismo in southern Italy, one gets a whiff of the not-unpleasant perfume of water buffalo. It is indeed the milk of these handsome creatures that goes into the making of the most famous, most delicious, and most coveted mozzarella cheese in the world – mozzarella di bufala.  Yesterday, with the Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli, we visited her varied agricultural treasures spread across two large expanses of plains and fields.  What a contrast from the “ultra-glam” days along the Amalfi coast.  Here we were gathering eggs from the chicken coops, saying hello to the honking geese, feeding grass to the horses, running after the chickens and roosters (and discussing how “cockscombs” are used in southern Italian recipes), being greeted by an assortment of several dozen cats and dogs, and finally staring the water buffalo face-to-face and watching them be milked one-by-one.  The bufala patiently wait as though they were in line for the movies, looking forward to helping Cecilia provide the 1 and ½ tons of milk that are delivered daily to the local dairies.  They in turn transform the sweet, very full fat milk, into the superb mozzarella we can’t stop eating!  We brought several gallons of the milk back to Cecilia’s kitchen so that we could make our own very fresh cheese for breakfast the next day.  Not bad at all accompanied by sturdy bread and excellent homemade preserves.

We also drank some of the buffalo milk “neat.”  Simply poured from the big jug less than an hour after milking, we found it sweet, and less “lactate” than we expected. We also tasted the water buffalo milk in gelato (with pistachios) and in yogurt which was so rich that it came close to the ultra-suave texture of crème fraiche.

But alas, since this trip is not about food alone (!), we visited the remarkable ancient city of Paestum, which is thousands of years old and home to the best-conserved Greek temple after the Theseion in Athens.   We drove along the pine forest which runs parallel to the sandy beaches of the area and ended up, mid-day, back at Seliano, for an amazing lunch of braided fresh mozzarella, ethereal burrata, bufula milk ricotta, homemade pancetta and prosciutto, and a main course of candele (pasta) with a spicy onion and red pepper sauce cooked with neonata – tiny newborn fish – an extraordinary recipe from Calabria.   Dinner lasted until midnight.  Indeed, this is the place, where the water buffalo roam.

Notes from Ravello: Chocolate Eggplant

This beautiful trip to Campania (the south of Italy) is not all about food, but also about music, discovery, brief encounters with strangers, valuable time with friends, shopping, Duomos, ancient gardens, walking, hiking, and oh, did I mention food? On what promises to be a splendid day of boating along the Amalfi coast from Minori to Positano, I am perched upon a terrace hanging over the sea, at our lovely Hotel Rufolo in Ravello. For my primo colazione, I try a cornetto with homemade quince jam (very sweet!), a few slices of boiled ham and a delicious roll with sweet butter and coarsely ground orange marmellata –also fatta en casa (homemade).  I am enjoying the sweet, bitter, and salty notes this morning against a double dose of strong espresso.  But alas, this is not all about food.

Cool-ish weather the last few days (with ominous dark clouds at times), had us opt for a hike around Salerno on Sunday.  We visited the grand hotels (once palaces) along the “gold coast” of Ravello and ended in the magnificent gardens of the Hotel Cimbrone, the perfect stage set for the wedding that was to take place there.  We hiked to the outer reaches of the town, passing organic vegetable patches, grape arbors, and olive trees.  We saw hanging “cucuzza” (slender green squashes 3 feet long) which we ate stuffed and steamed one evening (and stuffed, fried and doused in tomato sauce on another.)  Day turned into night and the small piazza in the center of Ravello feels smart with tourists (hardly any Americans) who come for the music festival each summer.  In the evening, one may roam the gardens of the Hotel Rufolo and visit the tiny museum with its curated show of famous fashions from the opera.  (I am reminded of a time decades ago in Florence when Arthur Schwartz and I were guests for dinner in the home of “Biki” – the couturier of Maria Callas.)

Perchance to sleep and then a beautiful drive to Salerno – a real city with a sprawling University, the magnificent Duomo di San Matteo, and the Giardino della Minerva, which we visited in honor of my friend, Dale Bellisfield, clinical herbalist and health care practitioner.  Circa 1305, the garden of Minerva is the oldest botanical garden in the Western world and the model upon which all European gardens were developed. One of the plants was the extraordinary “rucola” (arugula) which we have been eating, and it tastes nothing like the arugula we have come to know in the states.  Rubbed between our fingers, the earthy, verdant perfume lasted all day.

A ferry ride to Amalfi:  The flakiest, crunchiest sfogliatelle filled with pastry cream at Pasticceria Pansa (doing business since 1830), and a quick dinner of alici (anchovies) in the style of Amalfi – lightly fried and “glued” with a bit of cheese.  My husband loved them as he did the provolo – smoked cheese grilled between large lemon leaves.  For dessert?   Chocolate eggplant. But more about that later. Ciao, ciao.

Tastes of the Week (Italy Edition)

July 17th-24th, 2011 This week’s tastes all come from southern Italy on our summer holiday.  In the charming towns of Ravello, Minori and the lesser-known village of Scala, we have eaten well, sometimes superbly, and always with an eye to authenticity.

In the town of Minori, we sampled the two famous pastries of this area. One is the delicious, rum-soaked baba (here it is also available drenched in a syrup laced with limoncello), and the now-celebrated cake of pastry maestro Sal de Riso – made with ricotta and pears.  It was as good as Arthur Schwartz said it would be.  Arthur and Sal have become good friends because of Arturo’s many trips to this area.  In the same town, in the tiny main square in front of the yellow Baroque church (Basilica S. Trophimenae), we had for the first time, the famous fresh pasta of the Amalfi coast known as scialatielli. At ristorante Libeccio, we drank a fabulous and unexpectedly dry, sparkling rose from Greco di Tufo.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the local pasta adorned with an abundance of super-fresh seafood (including mussels, squid, and tiny razor clams), to the primal fresh vegetable soup, and a one-ingredient salad of arugula (the best and freshest!) with a squeeze of the extraordinary lemons of Amalfi and extra-virgin olive oil.

At the Ristorante dei Cavalieri in Scala, we sampled traditional dishes done in a slightly updated way, by chef Lorenzo Mansi.  There was sartu – a traditional Neapolitan rice dish baked in a mold.  Here it was surrounded by a thin coverlet of eggplant, filled with rice, provola, bits of chicken and meat.  Often it is filled with peas, mushrooms, sausages or chicken livers.  We also had a dish called gateau di patate – generally made as a sformata (a mold of potato, mozzarella, and bits of prosciutto), here was a more fluid, creamy version, almost risotto-like, or deconstructed.  It was delicious, if not quite the potato “cake” it should have been.  My husband had paccheri with seafood – another classic tubular pasta from this area.  Our friend’s birthday cake – served with fanfare – was a credible version of a Caprese cake (made with cocoa and almonds) – a classic from the Amalfi coast.

At Cumpa Cosimo in the town of Ravello, we ate gnocchi alla Sorrentino, a fabulous sausage smothered in melted provola, and a bit of tiramisu, offered by the ebullient Netta Bottone, the owner.

The best pizza so far was eaten at midnight, under the fireworks, inches from the sea in the town of Atrani on the evening of the feast of their patron saint.  The entire town came out to participate in this yearly event.  The pizza was da morire (to die for) – especially the one with tomato, anchovies and garlic.

Lots of wine on this trip: falanghina, fiano, and nameless but delicious dry, fresh, slightly frizzante reds. D.H. Lawrence spent lots of time here, as did Wagner (an all-Wagner concert last night at the Ravello music festival) with the superb (and very beautiful soprano), Martina Serafin.

Notes from Ravello

It is almost noon in Ravello on Friday afternoon, July 22nd.  We are overlooking the Gulf of Salerno way up above the cliffs of Ravello -- not far from the former home of Gore Vidal and just steps away from the cooking school of Mamma Agata.  Perched on the balcony off the bedroom of our friend’s home, we gaze upon the tiny coastal beach town of Minori, across terraced hills to the never-ending expanse of a very blue sea. It is calm yet exciting to be here.  It is cool in the evenings, enough for a sweater, and magical enough to reconsider both where and how one lives. I am wearing “borrowed” clothes.  One of our suitcases (mine!) never made it from Rome to Naples.  Perhaps it never even left New York.  It might even be making a trip of its own, independent of me and my needs. It’s an odd feeling not to have your “stuff” but liberating in its own way.  As the days go by with no clue to its whereabouts, I am less optimistic of ever finding it, but maybe there will be good news along the way. Is this the way one feels about a child when they leave home?

Most liberating about this trip, however, is the lack of aforethought. Little planning and little research abandoned for in-the-moment pleasures.  It is the time of the Ravello Music Festival and so we had lunch, catered by Gino Caruso (the former owner of the Hotel Caruso and grand-nephew of the great singer Caruso) in the garden of our friend’s villa – our lunch guests were Wynton Marsalis and most of his orchestra. Pretty cool talking about music with these guys, as we sipped local white wine interrupted with fresh “hard” peaches (the required peach for this drink), gorging on fabulous pizza prepared in the wood-fired oven on the terrace, prepared by our very own pizziaolo, no less, slender fresh anchovies which I twirled around my fork as though they were spaghetti, the ubiquitous caprese salad – fashioned from scarlet local tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil, marinated calamaretti, the size of your pinky nail, and limoncello flavored with anise (great).  The wife of Gino Caruso makes a “dry limoncello” which is a simply fabulous idea.  I am eager to try it as the syrupy lemon elixir for which this area is famous can be very sweet!

In the evening, we joined our new friends for what was one of the most exciting concerts I’ve ever been to.  Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra in the amphitheater of the gardens of the Hotel Rufolo.  It was a packed house – under a royal blue sky, overlooking the sea, with the moon rising ‘round midnight, behind a large cloud. Wynton played his heart out, the others followed.   Then, a small reception – with adequate pizzettes and abundant prosecco -- and a long walk from the town square down hundreds of steps to…bed.

Cannoli on the Move

Straight from the lens of my son's camera in San Bruno, California are two winning photos with the caption:  SO BAD, BUT SO GOOD!  Clearly, this is the latest in food truck rage -- not yet seen on the East Coast to my knowledge.  Cannoli!  Specialty filled cannoli to rival the niche marketing of tacos, botanical ice creams, yeasty waffles, summer slushes, and hummus with hubris (the Taim Mobile), for our daily affections.  But the Roamin' Cannoli truck wins my heart. Whereas, cannolo is the correct terminology for a single pastry, cannoli is the name given to two or more pastries.  In that sense, the spelling on the side of the darling cannoli carriage is correct, as there are THREE varieties to choose from.  You can have any flavor for $4 bucks.  The "Not So Traditional" is filled with sweet mascarpone and goat cheese, orange zest, and TCHO dark chocolate chunks.  The "Lemon Meringue" is filled with smooth lemon cream and dried meringue stars.  The "White Raspberry Brulee" is filled with El Rey white chocolate filling, fresh red raspberries and bruleed sugar edges.  According to the empirical evidence, "meringue stars," my son, no doubt chose the "Lemon Meringue."

I am quite certain I would have had the "Not So Traditional."  And Jeremy's grandmother, who lived to be 90, loved cannolis but would not have wanted any of these.  Anne Frieda Whiteman would have opted for a cannolo at Ferrara's in New York's Little Italy.  I read that they make their cannoli shells with red wine -- to impart the requisite hue to the crispy pastry tubes -- whereupon they are filled with a sweet ricotta filling and maybe a dash of almond extract, a few mini chocolate bits or some crushed pistachios.  More than the delicious noodle pudding she used to make (written about by award-winning author Arthur Schwartz in his tome "Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited"), this was the ultimate in sweets.  Anne, who never got use to leaving a message on an answering machine (she called it "the monster"), would certainly not cozy up to a dose of goat cheese in her beloved treat.  (But then again she put corn flakes on her noodle pudding.  Risky business in her day.) Boy do we miss her.

In my first 1-2-3 book, Recipes 1-2-3:  Fabulous Food Using Only Three Ingredients, is a curious recipe for "Cannoli Custard."  I recommend serving it with biscotti for dipping and ice-cold shots of Strega.  Espresso to follow.

Cannoli, by the way, are of Sicilian origin, and in Italy are commonly known as "cannoli Siciliani."  Someday history may tell us they were invented in San Bruno, California.

Thank you, Jeremy, for the photos and the memories and a brand new trend to add to your father's list.

Cannoli Custard (from Recipes 1-2-3)

2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese 9 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 3/4 teaspoon rum extract

Gently whip the ricotta, sugar, and rum extract in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Do not over-mix. Divide equally among 4 martini glasses and chill well.  Sprinkle additional confectioners' sugar, pressed through a sieve, over the top before serving.  Serves 4

Meatballs "To Die For"

This brings us to our last of Google's most sought-after recipe requests.  Even at position #10, this number undoubtedly represents thousands of pots of simmering tomato sauce begging for orbs of ground meat, mixed with spices, and love.  "I love my meatballs," Italian cooking maestro Arthur Schwartz whispered to me just last night.  This, from the man who helped put Neapolitan cuisine on the map, about the dish that, "along with pizza and spaghetti with tomato sauce, (meatballs) have to be the most internationally famous, even infamous specialty of Naples."  And while other cultures have their versions, Jewish sweet-and-sour meatballs, albondigas from Spain, Swedish meatballs, Lions head meatballs from China, meatballs from India and the Middle East called kofta, I believe it is the southern Italian prototype that people most desire. According to Arthur in his delicious book Naples at Table, "often the meatballs of Naples are considered too bready -- too meager, too poor, too deceptive.  But it is, in fact, the high ratio of soaked, dried bread they complain about that makes them so light, so crusty, so juicy, so really clever."  The inclusion of mollica di pane -- the milk -or water-soaked interior dough of fresh bread -- gave way to dried breadcrumbs when Italians migrated to America.  In this mecca of meat and gold-paved streets, they upped the ratio of beef to bread, and presto!, the meatballs became heavier.  But no, not Arthur's.  His are considered among many to be "da morire"  (To die for.) Meatballs can be eaten as a main course with a vegetable, as they often are in Naples.  Or, they can be fried and dropped into tomato sauce; or served atop a bowl of spaghetti. I personally love meatballs in a hero sandwich (some of you say "subs" or "grinders"), topped with melted mozzaralla.  I adore the tomato-soaked bread that lingers behind.  Arthur's recipe, which you will find below, has pine nuts and raisins in the mixture.  These days, he laments, not everyone adds them -- it's up to family tastes -- "but these embellishments make for a much more interesting dish, a Baroque touch from the Baroque city."

All this talk about meatballs makes me want to run to the Film Forum next week to see director Pasolini's movie "Mamma Roma" starring Anna Magnani -- beginning 1/21.  The movie itself tells the story of a life that, like Neapolitan meatballs, depicts poverty and deception.  It is the tale of a middle-aged prostitute trying to put her sordid past behind her and fashion a good life for her teenage son.  Pasolini, by the way, is considered one of Italy's greatest modern poets, novelists, and film directors (he died in 1975.)  And Magnani, no doubt, is considered one of Italy's finest actresses.   See you at the Forum!

Polpette alla Napoletana adapted from Naples at Table

3 cups dried crustless bread cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes before measuring 1-1/4 pounds ground beef (80% -- not leaner) 3 eggs, beaten well 2 large cloves garlic, finely minced 1/2 cup (loosely packed) grated pecorino cheese 1/4 cup (loosely packed) finely cut parsley 1/3 cup pine nuts 1/3 cup raisins 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 quart favorite tomato sauce

Soak the bread in cold water.  Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine, but do not yet mix, the remaining ingredients, except the oil and tomato sauce.  Squeeze the bread by fistfuls to drain it, then break it up into the bowl.  First with a fork, then with your hands, blend the mixture very well, squishing it in your hands to make sure the bread blends with the meat.  Do not worry about handling the meat too much.  With your hands moistened in cold water, roll the mixture between your palms into 12 meatballs. When a drop of water sizzles immediately, it's hot enough for the meatballs.  Gently place them in the pan and as soon as the first side looks brown, dislodge them and turn to another side.  Continue rotating the meatballs, using a wooden spoon and/or spatula.  After 10 minutes the meatballs should be well browned but slightly rare in the center.  If serving without sauce, continue cooking them for 5 to 8 minutes, rotating them as you go.  If serving with sauce, place them in the sauce now and simmer for 15 minutes.  Makes 12 meatballs

Barton Fink Comes for Cocktails

Last night I had the pleasure of playing matchmaker to the great actor John Turturro and my great friend Arthur Schwartz.  They are both in love...with Naples! John Turturro, as many of you know, is one of America's finest actors, writers and directors best known for his roles in Barton Fink, Quiz Show, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and more than 50 other movies. Today, he most wants to be known as the director of a new film, Passione, about the street life and music of Naples.  Arthur Schwartz, as many of you know, is one of the world's great cooks and authorities on Italian cuisine, specifically food from Naples.  Today, he wants to bring a musical production from Naples to Brooklyn (and brought the sound track to seduce us.) Since the Turturros live directly across the street from us and Arthur and Bob live around the corner, it seemed the perfect moment to open a bottle of Prosecco and talk about their beloved city.  We had a blast. The day started with Arthur and I going to buy salumi and prosciutto and pane at Di Palo's -- the city's most celebrated Italian food store.  It has been in existence since the 1930's.  They recently expanded to include a fantastic wine shop and it was too much fun spending time with Lou di Palo who, according to Arthur, knows more about Italian food producers and products than anyone.  At 7:30 p.m. the six of us (with John's wife and my husband), sat in our living room talking, laughing, eating, drinking, and watching John slowly unfold:  Before we knew it, John was "in character" telling us about the joys of producing his new musical -- which will be available in the states sometime early next year.  Arthur and Bob have already seen it in Italy...and loved it. You can experience a bit of last night by making Arthur's fabulous caponata.   Arthur brought it, along with some lovely parmesan "cookies", and they went beautifully with all the cheeses, salumi, "melted tomatoes," Sicilian breadsticks, olives and fresh fennel that we had.  After the Turturros went home (it was snowing when they left!), Arthur and Bob stayed for a light supper -- a cheese-and-onion tart, wild arugula salad, and wine cake with lemon buttermilk sorbetto for dessert.  Strong coffee followed.

Here is Arthur's classic, unpublished, recipe for caponata; and here is the link to the trailer for John's "Passione."   Ciao, ciao

Classic Caponata

Classic caponata can be very oily, but Arthur has reduced the final oil content by soaking the eggplant in salt water, which decreases the amount of oil it absorbs when fried, and by draining the oil from the fried eggplant before adding it to the sauce.

2 1/2 pounds eggplant (I prefer several small ones instead of 1 very large) 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste 2 outside ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup) 1 large onion, sliced very thin (about 1 1/2 cups) 3 tablespoons plus 1 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 1/2 cups tomato puree 1/2 cup white wine vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa (optional) 12 (6 to 7 ounces) large Sicilian green olives, cut off their pits in large pieces 1/2 cup salted capers, rinsed well and soaked in cold water if very salty 3 rounded tablespoons raisins 3 rounded tablespoons of pine nuts or almonds (optional)

Put about 2 quarts of cold water into a very large bowl with about 3 tablespoons of salt.

Wash the eggplants. Cut them into 3/4 to 1-inch cubes. As they are cut, put them into the bowl with the salted water. Let stand for at least 30 minutes, weighted down with a plate so the cubes stay submerged.

Meanwhile, boil the celery in lightly salted water for about 3 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drain well.

In a 12 to 14-inch skillet, over medium-low to medium heat, sauté the onion in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until tender and lightly golden, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, stir well and simmer 1 minute.

Add the vinegar, sugar, salt, and cocoa. Stir well and simmer another minute.

Add the olives, capers, raisins, and the reserved celery. Stir well again and let heat through 1 more minute. Set aside.

Drain the eggplant cubes.

Heat 1 cup of olive oil in a 9 to 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When hot enough to sizzle an eggplant cube immediately (or bubbles gather around the handle end of a wooden spoon), fry the eggplant cubes in several batches. The eggplant can fill the pan, but only in 1 layer. Fry for about 4 minutes, turning the cubes a couple of times. The eggplant should be soft but no more than very slightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon or skimmer and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining eggplant. There will probably be 4 batches.

After each batch of eggplant has drained a minute or so, transfer it to the pan with the sweet and sour sauce. Stir each addition into the base sauce.

When all the eggplant has been fried and it is all in the sauce, mix well but gingerly so as not to break up the eggplant too much. Heat through gently, just until the mixture starts bubbling at the edges.

Taste for salt and vinegar. You may want to add a little more of each. Or a trace more sugar.

The caponata is best eaten at room temperature the day after it is made, but it is quite good even fresh and still warm. Makes about 2 quarts