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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Restaurant Review: Little Italy Ristorante and Pizzeria in Winston Salem, NC

Forget About Apples! This Is REALLY “Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood!”

I was in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area the other day and was, as usual, on the hunt for a good Italian place. It was my wife's birthday, so I was looking for a nice ristorante or trattoria. Someplace a bit fancy and upscale to suit the occasion. Instead, I stumbled upon a little place called “Little Italy Ristorante and Pizzeria.”

When we first arrived in town, we were really too road weary to go anyplace fancy. Our friends suggested “Little Italy,” located in a strip mall just down the road a ways in Rural Hall. I was given to understand the place was part of a small local chain. From the outside it didn't give me any reason to expect very much, but we were tired and hungry, so I thought “what the heck.”

Inside, it was noisy and crowded with people obviously having a good time. My opinion crept up a notch. The wonderful smell of Italian food took my opinion up another notch on the scale. No host or hostess around. Just order at the counter and find a booth or table. Niente di speciale ma non c'e male, d'accordo? My opinion meter started heating up when I detected an Italian accent from the guy taking the order. It began smoking when the waitress responded appropriately to my comments in Italian. It started blazing when I tasted the food!

My buddy and I wolfed down one of the best Neopolitan-style pizzas I've ever had the pleasure of wolfing while our ladies did serious damage to a couple of pasta dishes. My wife was nudging me and trying to get me to sample her baked ziti, but I was way too focused on the pizza to be so easily distracted. When I eventually acquiesced to her repeated requests, I was as blown away by it as she was.

I started throwing Italian superlatives (“Perfetto!” “Bellissimo!” “Molto buono!” “Squisito!”) at the waitress every time she stopped by to check on us. I started peppering her with questions like, “È la salsa fatta in casa?” (Is the sauce homemade?) She replied, “Si, tutti fatta in casa.” (Yes, everything's homemade.) When I got to,“È la pasta fatta con farina doppio zero?” (Is the dough made with double zero flour?), she brought out her husband, the cook, and we started swapping recipes and techniques right there in the middle of the restaurant.

Eventually, I was invited back to the kitchen where I met Papa and other members of the family, and by the time I left, everybody was waving and saying, “Ciao! Ciao!” What an amazing place! It was so good, I almost bagged the idea of finding a fancier place in favor coming back the following night.

Little Italy Ristorante and Pizzeria” provides simple, everyday Italian-American fare lovingly prepared and proudly served by una famiglia that knows its stuff. And it's all priced so that a date night or a family outing won't require a line of credit at the bank. Add in a friendly, casual atmosphere and lots of parking right at the door and you've got a recipe for a fantastic Italian dining experience.

As I said, there are several locations, including one in King and one in Burlington, but the one I visited in Rural Hall is located at 1241 Bethania Rural Hall Road. Call 'em at (336) 969-5330. They do deliver. Check out their website at http://loozfamilylittleitaly.com/location.php?location=ruralhall for more information.

Don't be surprised to see me there. Little Italy has become my new “go to” destination for casual Italian dining in the Winston-Salem area.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: "How Italian Food Conquered the World" by John F. Mariani

I have long believed that Italian cuisine is the most popular on the planet, supplanting even its stuffy French cousin. Now comes noted author and food and wine correspondent John F. Mariani with the facts to back up my belief.

“How Italian Food Conquered the World” is a fact-filled romp through Italian culinary history from Apicius to Mario Batali. Among its 270 pages you will find fascinating and informative anecdotes detailing Italian food's rise from the relative obscurity of the Italian peninsula to its current position of global dominance. If this sounds like hype, consider this; can you think of a place in the world where pizza has not carved out a culinary niche? Or pasta? From a position as a reviled and ignoble peasant food, pasta can now be found on the menu of nearly every upscale restaurant in the world – including the fancy French establishments.

As a student of Italian food, I was delighted to tear through the pages of this book and discover a wealth of little culinary gems. Exclamations of “I knew that!” and “I didn't know that” accompanied the turn of nearly every page. Even in places where Mariani's opinions might have conflicted with mine – sorry, John, but I'm one of those Italian cooks who proudly contends that Catherine de Medici did teach the French how to cook – I found his grasp and presentation of the subject matter to be superb.

In terms of style, the book is very much like a conversation with a friend. Facts and ideas, concepts and anecdotes all flow together seamlessly in a nice, easy read that you can either choose to devour all at once or parcel out section by section to enjoy over time. A few critics have taken Mariani to task for bogging down or slowing down his otherwise enjoyable treatise with overly arcane passages about expensive restaurants in “chic locales” and dwelling too long on subjects like the “Italian mobster stereotype.” I, too, found slow reading in some areas, but overall the book carries itself extremely well.

Another critical note asserts that Mariani fails to connect to his theme of Italian food conquering “the world” by spending too much time focused on the rise and popularity of Italian-American cuisine. I would dispute that since it is my opinion that Americans have been largely responsible for the spread of Italian food to other parts of the globe. But that's a nit pick that could easily be the subject of its own book. In fact, the “sub-plot,” if you will, of “How Italian Food Conquered the World” seems to be a subtle telling of the overall Italian immigration experience. The book isn't just about Italian food, but about the people behind Italian food – the ones who are responsible for its growing ubiquity.

With a foreword by Italian culinary maven Lidia Bastianich and acknowledged input from a laundry list of Italian cooking notables, Mariani has produced a truly delicious book that even throws a few truly delicious Italian recipes into the mix, just for good measure. It is what The Daily Meal.com's Colman Andrews describes as “equal parts history, sociology, gastronomy, and just plain fun.”

Published by Palgrave Macmillan and available as a hardback at bookstores everywhere (and as an ebook through various online outlets), “How Italian Food Conquered the World” is a “must have” addition to any comprehensive culinary library.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show Update

I'm eagerly anticipating the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show coming to Atlanta the weekend of April 30 through May 1. I attended last year and had an absolute blast.

The Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show is the premiere consumer event in the nation for cooking and entertaining enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels. The show will feature more than 150 exhibitors, live cooking demonstrations by Atlanta's hottest chefs, tasting and entertaining workshops, and interactive programming for kids. Of course, most people flock to the Celebrity Theater for presentations from Food Network stars. Last years celebrities were Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and Paula Deen. Paula is an absolute hoot in person and she'll be back this year. But I'm most excited about getting to see Giada De Laurentiis, my personal Italian culinary goddess. Seems like everytime she makes an appearance near where I am, I wind up being somewhere else. Like last Spring when she was doing a book signing just down the road. Where was I? I was in Orlando eating at and reviewing Mama Della's. Now, Mama Della's was definitely worth it, but Giada was this close to home! But this time, I've already got my tickets!

And I just got an update the other day informing me that Pat and Gina Neely have been added to the celebrity line-up. What a great opportunity for Food Network fans!

Speaking of fans, people from all over the Southeast travel to this show. I spoke to a lady last year who had driven all the way from South Florida to be there. And it's certainly worth the trip. Besides enjoying the celebrity shows,  I spent way too much money at a number of vendor booths and have patronized several of them online since then. My wife and I were introduced to some new beers and wines at the tasting pavilion and we picked up some interesting tidbits and tips at various other tastings, including olive oil, cheese, chocolate, and even tea.

I realize that many of you are reading this in various places around the world and it would be a little impractical for you to hop a plane over for the show. But for those readers who will be within a few hundred miles of Atlanta on the last weekend in April, you really should get your tickets now.

Check out http://2011atlanta.metrocooking.com/ for all the details. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Fabulous Tomato Casserole Recipe That I Stole From Giada

Proof That I Can Make Something Besides Sauce Out Of Tomatoes!

I hope some of you will be in Atlanta on April 30 for the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show. I'll be there with my bib on, drooling over my Italian culinary goddess, Giada De Laurentiis from whom I shamelessly stole the following fabulous recipe. (Don't tell her, okay?) I've done a little tweaking and it's been a big hit everywhere I've served it.

CASSERUOLA DI VERDURA DI POMODORO
(Tomato Vegetable Casserole)

1 potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 carrots, peeled and cut into cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tomatoes cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons Italian bread crumbs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Lightly oil a 13 x 9 x 2 inch baking dish with olive oil. Evenly spread the potato and yam slices in a single layer and drizzle with olive oil, then lightly season with salt and pepper. Arrange another layer with the bell pepper and carrots and repeat the oil, salt and pepper.


Arrange the onion slices evenly over the vegetable mixture. Arrange the zucchini slices over the onion. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange the tomato slices over the zucchini.


Blend the Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs in a small bowl, then sprinkle the mixture over the top layer of tomatoes. Drizzle with a little olive oil.


Bake uncovered until the vegetables are tender and the Parmesan bread crumb topping begins to turn a golden brown, about 30 minutes. Add the mozzarella and continue to bake for another 10 minutes. Watch to make sure the mozzarella melts and browns but does not burn. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8

As always, I advocate using the best fresh ingredients available. Fresh vegetables go without saying. You can get by with store-bought bread crumbs, but fresh are better. (I've got a great recipe for fresh Italian bread crumbs elsewhere on this site.) Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are my seasonings of choice, but regular salt and pepper will work. Extra-virgin olive oil, of course. I highly recommend that you don't cheap up on the cheese. You'll be amazed at the flavor difference between fresh mozzarella and the waxy part-skim stuff that comes in bags or blocks. And we won't even mention the nasty crap in a green can that tries to pass itself off as Parmesan cheese, will we? If you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano, at least use a good domestic Parmesan.

Buon appetito!


Saturday, March 5, 2011

The New Pork Slogan; Inspired? NOT!

Talk About A Pig In A Poke!

Every now and then an ad campaign comes along that burns itself into our cultural consciousness. Remember “Where's the Beef,” the late Clara Peller's memorable battle cry for Wendy's? How about, “It's the Real Thing?” Coca Cola slogans have come and gone, but that one seems to linger on no matter what the company is currently pushing. (“Life Begins Here,” in case you were wondering.)

Personally, I think McDonald's really screwed the pooch when they traded in such memorable catchphrases as “You Deserve a Break Today” and “We Love to See You Smile” for the lame and insipid “I'm Lovin' It.” Maybe it's catchy and trendy to the German ad agency that came up with it, but I've been hatin' it ever since it was introduced in 2003.

So what on earth is the National Pork Board thinking? Their longstanding mantra “The Other White Meat” is so ingrained in our collective national psyche that it has transcended being a mere advertising slogan. It's a part of who we are, for Pete's sake! It's a universal catchphrase, an icon, a punch line to numerous jokes. Other people have mercilessly ripped it off. Wine growers have employed it (“The Other White Wine.”) An online novelty store marketed mythical unicorn meat as “The Other White Meat” – until the Pork Board's lawyers stepped in. An allegedly musical composition entitled “The Other White Meat” has been produced by someone called Immortal Technique. If you're a Wowhead, an aficionado of “World of Warcraft,” you'll recognize Helboar as “The Other White Meat.” How about “Haggis: The Other White Meat?” Yep, it's out there. If you live in parts of Florida, “The Other White Meat” means alligator. One way or the other, the idiom is absolutely universal.

Created by the advertising agency Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt in 1987, “Pork: The Other White Meat” is easily the most effective – and ripped off – ad campaign ever devised. Intended to pitch pork as a healthy white meat alternative to chicken, the slogan initially boosted pork sales by an astonishing 20 percent.

But, alas, the venerable phrase has become a victim of its own success. People are eating pork. About 50 pounds per person per year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But even though sales are good, they're stagnant. Beef consumption is down, chicken consumption is up, and pork consumption is pretty much flat. So the Pork People want to reach out to the pork eaters among us to get us to eat more pork. They feel that we need to be inspired to be more creative in our use of “The Other White Meat.”

So, after twenty five phenomenally successful years, the Pork Board is retiring “Pork: The Other White Meat” in favor of ….. get ready for this ….. “Pork: Be Inspired.”

Have you noticed that “inspired” and “insipid” are really, really close? “Be Inspired?” Come on!

According to marketing V.P. Ceci Snyder, "We want to increase pork sales by 10 percent by 2014. To do that, we needed to make a stronger connection, a more emotional connection to our product."

And “Be Inspired” is going to do that in what way?

Believe me, the amount of bacon, ham, prosciutto, pancetta, and other porky products consumed around my place are sufficient to make pigs react to me like chickens react to The Colonel, okay? I don't know that I'd call it an “emotional connection,” but I'm definitely fond of pig parts. I'm already a part of what Gail Carter, a partner at Schafer Condon Carter, the Chicago-based brain trust behind the new campaign, refers to as the target audience. I am one of the 82 million Americans already sold on pork. Comparing it to chicken – or anything else – is preaching to the choir. Carter believes, therefore, that she knows "who the target is and how to talk to them in more relevant terms."

And “Be Inspired” is supposed to be relevant, right? O-o-o-kay, fine. Whatever you say, Gail. I'm lovin' it! NOT!

Oh, the Pork Board isn't going to completely abandon the Belle of the Ball that they have courted for more than a quarter-century. No, the old slogan will remain on the Board's website and on apparel sold by the Board. (Surely you've got your “The Other White Meat” T-shirt.) But otherwise, an $11 million roll out is designed to obliterate any and all traces of the phrase that has elevated pork from the cheap, fatty, unhealthy product it was long perceived to be to its current position in the food chain.

And Ms. Carter believes her silly, simpering, soulless, slogan is going to help catapult pork to new heights because it will make us all feel emotionally attached to our pork chops. It will strengthen our bond with our Boston Butt. We'll hold our hams high and we'll do more relevant things with our spare ribs. We'll “Be Inspired” to gird our pork loins and shoulder our picnics without regard to previous comparisons with that “other white meat” we are now being instructed to wipe from our memories.

Please!

I think they were smokin' something besides bacon there at Pork Central in Des Moines. I mean, how else do you explain the fact that fifteen otherwise sane people sat around a conference table and got all goose-bumpy when some vacuous chick from Chicago hit them with “Be Inspired” and then held out her hand for eleven million bucks? Talk about buying a pig in a poke!

Cut your losses, Pork Board, and let this boondoggle quietly die before you look any stupider than you already do. Leave well enough alone and dance with the one what brung ya.

I like “The Other White Meat” and I'll never “Be Inspired” by anything else.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Restaurant Review: The Silvertron Cafe, Birmingham, AL

In Birmingham, Alabama's Southside district there is a quaint historic neighborhood called Forest Park, home to an interesting collection of unique little shops and eateries. Standing out among the vintage consignment and shoe stores, the intriguing art gallery, and a wonderful natural and organic food market is a little cafe with an unlikely name, “The Silvertron Cafe.”

Located in a building on Clairmont Avenue that once housed a television sales and repair shop – “Silver-Tron TV and Picture Tubes” – the cafe has been operating for more than twenty years, but has recently been acquired by Marco Morosini, a native of Bergamo, Italy who has worked in kitchens from Lombardia in Italy through Paris and on to America, operating restaurants across the United States from Panama City to San Francisco.

Sig. Morosini is to be commended for preserving a little piece of local history by retaining the notable name, the evidence of which is obviously displayed in the form of a large black and white photograph centered on a prominent wall. He is to be further congratulated for successfully bringing an unequaled dining experience to this venerable part of Birmingham.

The Silvertron Cafe was highly recommended to our lunch party of three as not only a good Italian place, but as a good place for other cuisines as well. Now, often when a restaurant seeks to be too many things to too many people, it fails to be anything to anyone. But that does not seem to be the case here.

Although Sig. Morosini is trained and equipped to provide fully authentic Italian meals, he has wisely read his market and realized that familiar and more readily assimilated Italian-American dishes fare better with his clientele. And his efforts to blend Southwestern favorites and straight ahead American staples with his Italian-American offerings appear to be spot on.

Arriving early for lunch service, we initially found ourselves alone in a nearly empty room. But that changed rapidly as within about thirty minutes of our arrival, the sounds of a packed house reverberated off colorful walls gaily hung with delightful art from the aforementioned nearby gallery. The servers were friendly, knowledgeable, and most importantly, ubiquitously efficient, unobtrusively keeping glasses filled and plates moving.

From antipasto options that included a very authentic Tomato Bruschetta, Hummus and Friends Dip, and Cheese and Herb Stuffed Fried Artichoke Hearts, we chose formaggio fritto – or “Fried Cheese” as it's identified on the menu. It was astonishingly good. Now, I know you're saying, “C'mon! Every restaurant on the planet serves fried mozzarella cheese sticks.” But these little cubes of deep-fried cheesy goodness, served with the requisite homemade marinara, were positively transcendent. So flavorful and creamy were they that I thought they were perhaps made from a blend of cheeses. But upon inquiring I learned that they were comprised entirely of a domestic mozzarella produced by a small farm in Tennessee. Note to self: find that farm!

Bypassing a nicely varied menu of salads and soups, our party went straight for the entrees. The ladies opted for American sandwich fare while I, of course, chose from among the Italian offerings. My wife deemed her Crab and Shrimp Cake Sandwiches, served on a bed of crisp lettuce with an accompanying order of fresh-cut fries, to be the best she'd ever tasted. High praise from a woman who has consumed crab cakes in one of Boston's finer eateries. Three portions of succulent, moist, flavorful seafood cooked to perfection and served on pillow-soft fresh sandwich rolls, garnished with sweet tomato slices and crispy sandwich pickles. The rich taste of the seafood dominated, rather than being overshadowed by filler, as is so often the case. From a generous side helping, I snagged a few of the perfectly prepared French fries for myself and would gladly go back to the Silvertron again just to enjoy those fabulous fries.

Our companion delighted in her thick and hearty Hickory Burger, her only complaint being that she made quite a mess with the sandwich's bountiful slathering of smoky barbecue sauce.

On the Italian side, there were a couple of nice chicken entrees – Chicken Parmigiana and Chicken Tetrazzini – to choose from as well as a number of tempting pasta dishes, including Pasta Alla Francesca, Fettuccine All'Alfredo and a Lasagna of the Day, but I ultimately decided on the simplest dish, Linguine and Marinara. Served with homemade bread more reminiscent of soft dinner rolls than a traditional crusty Italian loaf, the pasta was tasty and perfectly al dente. The marinara was rather different. Rich and thick, the sauce was a little more piccante than I am accustomed to in a mainstream Italian-American eatery, bordering almost on being arrabbiata. Don't misunderstand; it was very good, but its spiciness may not suit every taste.

As mentioned, the menu also features a Southwestern selection that includes tacos, quesadillas, fajitas, and a variety of wraps.

We didn't have room for dessert, but a delectable selection of brownies, cobblers, bread pudding, pies, and ice cream sundaes were available.

The owner himself took time to make several visits to our table, seeing to our satisfaction and answering my numerous domande about his cibo meraviglioso. (That most of the exchanges were in Italian was a delightful fulfillment of one of my major requirements for a good Italian restaurant.)

Silvertron Cafe boasts of several specials that are worthy of mention. They serve breakfast on Saturday mornings and feature an award-winning brunch on Sundays. Of particular interest to me is the monthly wine dinner, a $35 per person affair that enables the owner to showcase his true Italian roots. The four-course festa advertised for – naturally – the very evening of the day we were there for lunch consisted of an antipasto course of fagottino di verdure grigliate con salsa al porri, which is grilled vegetables bundled in a crepe and served with a leek sauce. The combined primo and contorno courses were risotto con scampi, and asparagi e zafferano, a risotto with shrimp and saffron asparagus. For the secondo, a brasato e funghi e polenta was being offered. (Braised beef with mushrooms and polenta.) The dolce course was a zabaione con frutti di bosco e noci tostate, a nice a sabayon served with mixed berries and toasted pecans. As a nice touch of community spirit, a percentage of the cost of the meal is donated to a local charity.

Located at 3813 Clairmont Avenue, the place is easy to miss. We had already passed it before we saw it. Look for the aforementioned market, V. Richard's Market and Cafe, on the diagonally opposite side of the street. Open Monday through Friday from 11 am to 10 pm, 8 am to 10 pm on Saturdays, and from 11 am to 9 pm on Sundays. On-street parking is available but somewhat limited. There is also a small parking lot reserved for restaurant patrons within walking distance. Reservations are accepted but not required. Casual dress is acceptable. Prices are very reasonable with appetizers and salads ranging from about $6 to $10 and entrees priced between $9 and $14. Take-out orders are available and a children's menu is offered.

I don't get to Birmingham often, but The Silvertron Cafe is now a definite stop whenever I do. I'll be easy to spot. I'll be the one asking – in Italian – to be carted out on a hand truck.

The Silvertron Cafe
3813 Clairmont Avenue
Birmingham, AL 35222
(205)591-3707