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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!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Essentials of Italian Entertaining

Save Your Money On Quantity And Concentrate On Quality

You're planning a big dinner party. And because you are a person of unquestionable taste and sophistication, you want it to be an Italian dinner party, right? Bravissimo! As the saying goes, “chi mangia bene mangia italiano.” (Those who eat well eat Italian.) So you take a cue from hundreds of church socials and civic “Italian Night” suppers and you go out and buy bagged salad, creamy Italian dressing in a bottle, frozen garlic bread, and the fixings for spaghetti and meatballs. You even score some Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. Find some plastic tablecloths in a red and white checked pattern at the dollar store, stuff some candles into Chianti bottles, throw around a few plastic grapes and you've created the ideal menu and décor for the perfect authentic Italian experience, right? Only if you are trying to achieve the atmosphere of a cliched old movie set somewhere in New York City fifty or sixty years ago. Real Italian entertaining is much different.

For example, unlike American meals or the common American “salad and spaghetti” concept of an Italian meal, traditional Italian entertaining and dining involves long meals with lots of courses. Italians don't think so much in terms of “courses” as they do of plates. Italians say “primi e secondi piatti” (first and second plates), etc. An American meal consists of an “appetizer course” followed by a “main course” or “entree course” which includes a “side dish,” and concludes with a “dessert course.” Even a simple Italian meal is more complex. And a formal meal can have as many as eight “courses” as Americans would consider them. We recently prepared a simple four-plate meal for my sister and her husband. As we explained the order of service and started bringing out the plates, my non-Italian brother-in-law commented, “Looks like we're gonna be here for awhile.” To which I replied, “Yep.”

We plated this meal because it was just the four of us. For larger groups, the food is often served family-style and platters are passed around rather than having individual plated portions. And get that hokey “abbondanza” idea perpetrated by American advertising companies trying to sell spaghetti sauce right out of your head. Because there are many so courses, Italian portions tend to be much, much smaller than Americans are used to. The whole “abbondanza” schtick glorifying wretched excess comes straight out of Madison Avenue, perhaps by way of Arthur Avenue, but would never be found on any street in Italy. Italians just don't eat that way. Save your money on quantity and concentrate instead on quality. Now that's Italian.

Here are the basic steps to a dinner party-worthy full eight-course Italian meal. If you don't have the money, the time, or the endurance, you can skip some of the courses, but you'll also be skimping a bit on the authentic experience.

Start out with the Aperitivo course. This is simply a pre-dinner drink. You may have heard of an apéritif? Same thing. The term comes from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open.” And that’s the point of the exercise: an aperitivo is meant to stimulate, or “open,” your appetite. Because an aperitivo is meant to stimulate the appetite, the drink should be very dry (low in sugar), since sugar actually limits the appetite. It should also be low in alcohol, because......well, you don't want people getting rip-roaring drunk before dinner. Traditional aperitivi include Vermouth, Prosecco or Italian liqueurs like Campari and Aperol. Recently, spritzes and other cocktails have also become popular aperitivi.

Move on to the Antipasto course. “Antipasto” literally means “before the meal.” In general English terms, it means “appetizer.” There is no such thing as “an” antipasto. There are countless varieties of antipasti across Italy, limited only by the imagination. Some of the more traditional offerings include olives, cured meats, cheeses, bruschette, crostini, preserves, and grilled or fried vegetables or seafood. Usually a variety, hot, cold or mixed, are served together. Portions are small: antipasti are intended to whet the appetite, not overwhelm it.

The next plate or course is the Primo Piatto, which literally means “first plate.” Obviously, if you've already had an appetizer, the primo piatto is technically not the “first” plate, but work with me here, okay? That's just the way they do it. Primi piatti are starches like pasta, risotto or polenta. Unlike at the American table where these starches are served snuggled up next to a hunk of steak or chicken or a pork chop, Italian primi are self-contained, stand alone dishes. That's one big reason why Italians don't serve the monstrously huge piles of pasta commonly seen in American Italian restaurants: the pasta is intended as a course, not as the entire meal. No Italian in his right mind would think of trying to consume enough pasta to feed a small village and then move on to the next two or three or four courses. In general, a primo piatto serving is about the size of a man's closed fist rather than the size of his head. In Italy, it’s not uncommon to see two primi served with a big meal. Something like, say, a spaghetti carbonara and a gnocchi alla sorrentina; two distinctly different dishes allowing for a little variety.

The Secondo Piatto is next in line. These are your protein dishes. Meat, poultry, seafood, and sometimes an egg dish like a frittata are served as secondi, a word which means – I bet you can guess – “second.” Although most secondi are meat-based, there are a few vegetarian options. Melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant Parmesan) comes to mind. Again, this is a separate plate all its own. The food served as a secondo does not share space on a plate with starches or vegetables. The starches come first and the vegetables come next.

The vegetable course is the Contorno. Contorno means “outline,” “boundary” or “edge.” Served on a separate plate, it occupies space on the edge or the boundary or the outline of the secondo piatto. Contorni may be served at the same time, but never on the same plate. A contorno may be as simple as a few stalks of asparagus or it can be a complex creation containing many elements. Or maybe something like a stuffed tomato. Insalate (salads) kind of sneak themselves onto the contorno's playing field. In general, salads are just not an Italian thing and they are never served before a meal or as a meal. Sometimes insalate can be served as contorni, but usually they are presented near the end of the meal as a separate course to cleanse the palate.

Some Italians serve a Formaggi course as part of a full meal. It's basically a cheese platter, the purpose of which is to provide a transition from savory to sweet flavors. Typically the platter includes a variety of fresh cheeses and aged ones that can be paired up with fresh fruits, dried fruits, jellies, honey or nuts. Not all Italians utilize this course, but among those who do, there are many who use it to close out the meal in place of the sweet or “dolci” course that follows.

Dolci means “sweets.” But the Italian idea of sweets and the American idea oftentimes don't match up. Americans tend to lean toward heavily sweet desserts like cakes and pies and ice cream concoctions. An Italian “dessert” may consist of a plate of fresh fruit. That's not to say that Italians don't have “desserts.” They do and there are hundreds of varieties of them, ranging from simple “biscotti e torte” (cookies and cakes), to regional specialties like cannoli siciliani and panforte di siena, to festive seasonal offerings like panettone and colomba di Pasqua. But most often, Italians reserve these options for big meals or celebrations and rely on combinations of local, seasonal fruit for less auspicious day-to-day occasions.

In Italy, coffee is a course. The final service to almost any Italian meal is Caffè e Digestivo. Especially the “caffè” part. Of course, when Italians say caffè, they mean only one thing: espresso. Rich and flavorful, espresso caps off any meal. And it is always served at the end of the meal. Unlike in America, coffee is never served with lunch or dinner; it is always served after. And cappuccinos and macchiatos are strictly breakfast drinks. You'll never find them served after 10 or 11 a.m. As far as digestivi go, they are beverages served on the opposite end of the digestive spectrum from the aperitivi. Intended to stimulate digestion, digestivi run the range from dark, herbal, medicinal drinks to lighter but still bitter beverages. Amaro is a common example. In fact, the digestivo course is often called the Amaro course. Grappa is also quite popular, as are Sambuca, Limoncello and other liqueurs. Digestivi flavors are pretty bold and complex, leading the course to also be called “ammazzacaffè,” which translates to “coffee killer” because they finish off the taste of coffee.

Speaking of beverages, we've already established that coffee is not an appropriate accompaniment to an Italian meal. Neither is Coke, Pepsi or any other flavored soda. Iced tea is practically unheard of. Wine is the beverage of choice, but Italians also drink a lot of water. Strangely, although most of Italy has perfectly potable tap water, Italians tend to eschew water straight from the sink (acqua del rubinetto) in favor of bottled water. When you ask for water, you'll be offered the choice between “acqua gassata o naturale”; fizzy water or still. Sometimes the choices will be between “fizzante e minerale,” which is pretty much the same choice expressed in different terms. Italians drink a lot of sparkling water, the most popular of which is probably San Pellegrino. Among non-carbonated or “still” mineral spring waters, Aqua Panna is a leading brand. Serve either or, preferably, both, since drinking straight carbonated water is an acquired taste many Americans are slow to acquire.

As far as “authentic” décor for your party, forget the kitsch. Red checkered tablecloths, candles stuck in fiaschi (that's what those Chianti bottles with the baskets are called), and plastic grapes are relics of a bygone time that may or may not have ever existed outside the mind of advertising executives. Nice meals in Italy are served on nice tablecloths and nice plates with nice flatware and glassware just like anywhere else. And nice fresh floral arrangements are also....nice. Put on some nice Italian dinner music (there's tons of it on iTunes), some light opera by Mario Lanza or Luciano Pavarotti, or maybe mix in some more recognizable tunes by Italian-American artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and others, and you'll have the perfect setting for your perfect Italian meal.

Okay. Obviously, what I've outlined here are the preparations for the whole megillah. The big party meal. This is not something you're gonna throw together for supper on a Tuesday night. Truth be told, the evening meal is not all that in Italian culture. Lunch, or pranzo, is the big meal of the day, a leisurely one that takes place as part of the afternoon riposo. Dinner is most often a light meal, eaten late by American standards and consisting of soup, salad, cold meats, or leftovers from lunch. But since we Americans make such a big deal of dinner, you could probably do with half the courses. You could still make a very impressive – and delicious – dinner showing with a little antipasto, a primo, a secondo and contorno, and a nice dolci.

Just remember, whether you go all out or scale back, Italian dining and entertaining are all about the food and the fellowship. No TV in the background, no cellphones at the table, and no wolfing down your food and running off to do something else. I have two signs posted in my dining room that sum up the Italian philosophy. One says, “vivere, ridere, amore, mangiare,” meaning “live, laugh, love, eat.” The other reads, “a tavola non s'invecchia,” which loosely translates to “at the table, one does not grow old.”

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hairy Cooks, Public Health and Public Perception

Cooks Are A Helluva Lot Hairier These Days

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
– “Hair,” Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni –

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, “proper” cooks and chefs, the ones who worked in “nice” restaurants, were always expected to wear white jackets, clean, crisp aprons, tall white hats (called “toques”), and, with the exception, perhaps, of a skinny little mustache, to always be clean-shaven. Cooks of a “lesser” sort, like the ones found in greasy spoon diners, usually wore grubby t-shirts, dirty aprons, paper hats and a perpetual five o'clock shadow. My, how things have changed!

The ratio of chef jackets (white or otherwise) to t-shirts (grubby or otherwise) in today's restaurant industry remains about the same. It's largely a matter of the establishment's style and the cook's personal taste. Aprons are still part of the uniform, too. Traditional toques, however, are all but gone, relegated to the annals of history and the halls of culinary schools. The tall, white, pleated toque has been replaced by a variety of headgear ranging from beanies to ballcaps to bandanas. And sometimes to nothing at all. And therein lies the issue because cooks are a helluva lot hairier these days than they've ever been in the past.

Turn on Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, or Chopped and you'll see what I mean. Long hair, frizzy hair, curly hair, spiky hair and beards that rival ZZ Top or those Duck Dynasty guys. All of it gloriously unbridled and unrestrained. Even clean-shaven men with average length hair go uncovered in the kitchen. And despite the fact that these are supposed to be “reality” shows, that's not really reality. Every time I watch one of those programs where some guy cooks with a mop on his head and a beard hanging down to his knees, I say the same thing: “I'll bet he doesn't get away with that in a real kitchen.”

Public health codes in every state contain some variation on the verbiage “food employees shall wear hair restraints such as hats, hair coverings or nets, beard restraints, and clothing that covers body hair, that are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting exposed food.” And I know this section of code is enforced because a quick scan of restaurant inspections in my area turned up the violation “all food employees must wear effective hair restraints when working around food” numerous times. I once fired a guy who refused to keep his head covered in my kitchen. I wasn't about to let the twerp cost me a point off my inspection grade just because he didn't like hats. My cooks could always tell when I was getting ready to cook something myself because I kept a cap under the counter and I put it on whenever I headed into the kitchen.

So what's so bad about hair, anyway? Technically, nothing. The FDA doesn't even place a limit on strands of hair per plate. (It does, however, allow up to two maggots per can of tomatoes.) People who study such things say hair is made of a densely packed protein called keratin, which is chemically inactive and won't cause any problems if digested. It's possible that staph bacteria, which can upset the stomach and bring on a case of diarrhea, could hitch a ride on a strand of hair, but it's highly unlikely that the tiny amount of staph that can hide on a hair or two is going to be enough to lead to gastrointestinal problems. Add that to the fact that the FDA has never received a report of anyone getting ill from ingesting hair found in food, and you have to ask yourself “what's the big deal?”

Well.....it's gross, right? Like major league, instinctively, viscerally, makes you choke to think about it gross. I don't know of anybody who doesn't react with revulsion to finding a hair in their food. It's science versus psychology. The eggheads can tell me all day long that eating a hair in my scrambled eggs isn't going to hurt me, and the intellectual me agrees. But the me whose gag reflex developed at my clean-freak mother's knee just says, “Oh, HELL no!” Most people refuse to eat the rest of a dish once a hair is discovered. Some stalwarts just pick out the offending strand and keep on going, but the average person's appetite is effectively quashed. I knew somebody who tossed an entire batch of cookies (literally, not colloquially) because a hair turned up in one cookie. Overkill? Probably. But people just feel that strongly about it.

And for some reason, a lot of people think of facial hair as being “dirtier” than head hair. That's generally not true. Chemically, it's the same stuff. And as far as cleanliness goes, guys who wear beards are usually pretty fastidious about them. They wash them and oil them and comb them and baby them. It's a fashion statement, after all, and who wants to make a dirty fashion statement? Besides, if a guy's beard is going to be smelly and nasty........well, it's right there under his nose, you know? But again, it's psychological. I don't care how clean and oiled and combed some dude's beard is, I don't want him dragging it through my soup. Or leaving parts of it therein.

Most health codes state that a beard must be restrained in a net of some sort if it “hangs off the face.” I have a beard. It's a close-cut goatee that I've had for most of the last thirty years. My son has a similar affectation. Neither of us restrain our chin curtains in the kitchen because, in my case anyway, the hair on my chin is shorter than my eyebrows are getting to be. Talk about restraining facial hair! Remember Larry Hagman and Andy Rooney? There are a lot of old guys out there who should be sporting eyebrow nets. Anyway, my beard doesn't “hang” so it remains unfettered. Unfortunately, these days a lot of cooks who look like they're auditioning to be one of the “Smith Brothers” – especially the brother on the right – are running around kitchens with their beards flying free.

Part of the problem is that nobody wants to look stupid. And, I'm sorry, but beard nets look stupid. Period. My supply catalogs are full of catchy, sporty, cool and attractive ways to cover your noggin. But there ain't nothin' cool or sporty about a beard net. They're ugly, silly, unwieldy, and uncomfortable and nobody in their right mind wants to wear one. So by and large they don't. Regardless of comfort or appearance, though, customers are frequently turned off by heavily bearded cooks. Here are a few comments I gleaned while researching the topic:

I want my chefs either clean-shaven or with beards clipped close. Anything else IS unhygienic. That beard hair I consume with my soup may not cause illness, but that shouldn't be the threshold for determining policy.

Gross gross gross thinking that one of those beard hairs ends up on the food.

Unsanitary pigs.

A long beard that is not symmetrical or otherwise trimmed says to me "I am too lazy to take care of myself and I really don't care what anyone thinks" which is not the message I want to hear about who has been handling my food before I eat it.

Just shave, already. I don't care how much you groom beforehand, restaurant kitchens are hot, sweaty places and the image of a big old beard hanging down is just gross.

Who knows what's living in those beards! Seriously chef(s) cut them back a little cause it's unsanitary!

Unsanitary pigs? I don't know if I'd go that far. But when some of these tattooed wooly-boogers set out to make a “statement,” they need to realize that in many people's minds, that's the statement they're making.

I guess when it comes down to it, it's as much about public perception as it is about public health. Restaurants don't get “fined” in monetary terms for health code violations, they just get points deducted from their grade score. That score gets posted and, believe me, people notice. They also notice slovenly looking cooks and servers. There were a couple of young cooks working in a place I took over that did a pretty good job with the food, but they were perceived by customers as being slobs because they were unkempt, unshaven, didn't keep their heads covered, and wore the crotch of their pants down around their knees. There were a lot of complaints and when I came in and brought a professional dress code to the kitchen, they didn't make the cut. Good enough cooks, nice enough guys, but people didn't want them cooking their food, and at the end of the day, customers vote with their wallets and with their feet.

I've got nothing against hair. At my age, I'm glad to have it. And I'm okay with beards. I've had my facial fuzz for a long time and I intend to keep it. But in a professional setting where appearance makes a difference, I keep my hair covered and my beard short and trimmed. Nobody has ever found a hair in anything I've cooked and they never will. None of my kitchens have ever been dunned by an inspector for hair restraint violations, and they never will. If you're an up and coming cook who wants to establish a “personal style,” just do it with your food and keep your hair out of it. So to speak. If your “personal style” is such that you can't conform to code and to the expectations of your customers, maybe you should be “styling” in a profession where it doesn't matter.

To paraphrase the title song from the hit Broadway musical “Hair”:
Give me a face with hair, long beautiful hair,
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.”

Just keep it out of my kitchen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

About Pasta All'Amatriciana

A Simple But Delicious Dish

I'm sure by now you are aware of the tragedy in Amatrice. Amatrice is an ancient town located in the northern part of the central Italian region of Lazio. People have lived in the area since prehistoric times, and the remains of Roman buildings and tombs have also been found in and around Amatrice. And now it is all but gone, victim of a devastating earthquake that leveled almost three-quarters of the town and killed nearly three hundred people. Prior to the August 24, 2016 quake, Amatrice was a picturesque mountain village rich in artistic and historic heritage. Part of that heritage related to food, as the town was at the center of the region's food and agricultural area. Most notably famous is a simple but delicious pasta sauce called sugo all'amatriciana, a traditional sauce based on guanciale, pecorino cheese, and tomato. Justifiably, the Italian government has named it a traditional agro-alimentary product of the region. All'amatriciana is a sauce traditionally served with long pasta such as bucatini, spaghetti, or vermicelli.

After the earthquake, there was a movement among Italian and Italian-style restaurants to put pasta all'amatriciana on the menu and donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the relief effort in Amatrice. I passed this idea on to an Italian friend of mine who operates several ristoranti. He thought it to be a noble gesture, but doubted the Italian government's ability to properly handle the money. He suggested instead that I share a recipe for pasta all'amatriciana that readers could prepare and enjoy on their own.

The last time I made pasta all'amatriciana was for a small dinner party. I was to be working in a tiny rural town where a Piggly Wiggly would be the only grocery outlet available to me. Having anticipated that, I set out to assemble the necessary ingredients beforehand. Bucatini proved difficult to find. It's not something that even higher-end grocers regularly stock. Bucatini is like a thick, hollow spaghetti. I finally located some in a specialty shop. Had I not been able to find bucatini, regular spaghetti would have sufficed, but I was going for tradition. Guanciale, however, eluded me. Guanciale is a cured pork jowl or cheek bacon, and it's really hard to find. I wound up substituting pancetta. Failing that, I would have opted for a good quality thick-cut American bacon, but the smokiness of the meat would have altered the flavor profile of the dish. Beyond those two speedbumps, the road to a delicious all'amatriciana is fairly straightforward and smooth.

Here's what you'll need:

2 or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces of thinly sliced (1/4-inch thick) guanciale, cut into 1/4-inch x 1-inch strips
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, sliced
½ to 1 teaspoon (to taste) red pepper flakes
2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade
salt
1 pound bucatini pasta
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

As mentioned, you can substitute pancetta, or good quality thick-cut bacon for the guanciale. And almost any long pasta will work in place of the bucatini. Spaghetti is good. Some people prefer using crushed Italian tomatoes instead of a pureed sauce. The choice is yours.

Here's what you do:

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the guanciale (or whatever substitute) and cook for about 8 minutes, or until lightly browned and crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside. Drain all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan and add the onions. Sauté the onions over medium heat until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the red pepper flakes and allow them to infuse for about 30 seconds before stirring in the tomato sauce. Add back the cooked guanciale. Bring the sauce to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt and red pepper.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of generously salted water. Drain the pasta when it is barely al dente, add it to the pan with the sauce and stir to incorporate. Simmer an additional minute or two, then remove the pan from the heat and add the cheese. Toss thoroughly before serving.

Serves 4

Make and enjoy the dish for yourself, then contact the Italian Red Cross (Croce Rossa Italiana) to offer assistance. The organization is collecting funds, which you can contribute online via PayPal, via wire transfer, or by going to their website at http://www.cri.it.