August 17th, 2013
Ordinarily, we’re not fans of tattoos. But every once in a while…
Recipes and Stories from the 'Little Italy' Communities Across America
Ordinarily, we’re not fans of tattoos. But every once in a while…
As soon as we’d published Volume I of Almost Italian (Bosphorus Books, 2012) we knew that we’d left a lot unexplored.
But first, because today is Orthodox Easter, we wish to lift a chilled tumbler of ouzo to all our Greek, Graeco-Italian, and otherwise Hellenized friends who don’t follow the Vatican calendar. We hope that, right now, many of you are carefully tending spits of roasting lambs and kokoretsi in your back yards… Despite the fact that ouzo itself clouds when iced or mixed with soda or water, its consumption has been known to bring clarity to certain issues. Maybe as you and your families gather round the mezedes (antipasti spread) of olives, stuffed vine leaves, and taramasalata someone will ponder how Greeks hailing from islands like Mykonos and Chios assumed ownership of American roadside diners and took on “Italian” pizza production. If any of you have Easter “eureka moments,” please write to us!
Much as we like to think our readers can barely wait until the next report from Father Guido Sarducci, our undercover correspondent at St. Peter’s, we know that most of you are not reading this page right now. Instead, you’re more likely to be worrying about whether you have enough blue corn chips and guacamole for the Cinco de Mayo party that somehow began this morning, before you’d even slept off Saturday night. Here in Sarasota,Florida, the very trucks that had pumped green beer a mere six weeks ago had already switched logos by yesterday afternoon. Gone were the shamrocks, replaced by sombreros, maracas, and blue Coronas.
Really, though, this posting was prompted by something else. Aside from enjoying good food, we also love to tell the stories behind it. So, as we were discussing what Italian slant we could give to our celebration of Cinco de Mayo, we remembered that in Volume I of Almost Italian, we’d written about Caesar Salad, which was first crafted in Tijuana. Then, we began to list the New World’s many post-Columbus culinary contributions to Italy. Most notable are several plants, all native to Mexico. These range from the hardy Opuntia ficus indica, an edible cactus that become a symbol of both Mexico and Sicily, to zucchini, new varieties of beans, and all species of peppers and TOMATOES.
But, last week as we were watching a pair of skilled, flour-coated hands produce a sublime pizza that we devoured a few minutes later, it hit us like the contents of a just-whacked piñata:*
The not-so-secret Mexican contribution to Italian food has been PEOPLE.
In belated recognition of yet another holiday, May Day (International Workers’ Day), let everyone who eats in America take a moment to acknowledge the Mexican men, women and children who work as field hands—along with the truck drivers, rancheros, and conveyor-belt produce sorters—all of whom handle the bounty of America’s farmlands.
While many a market survey indicates that “Italian” is America’s favorite “ethnic” cuisine, those surveys rarely talk about who hustles that food onto plates. Almost every restaurant that claims to serve Italian dishes—from Domino’s Pizza and Olive Garden to Chez Panisse and Babbo—depends upon Mexican staff.
Supporting more celebrity chefs than Dansko clogs and orange Crocs, Mexican dishwashers, bus-boys, cleaners, line-cooks, chefs, and waiters are essential members of virtually every food service team in America.
We shouldn’t need chef-provocateur Anthony Bourdain** to remind us.
Gracias y Viva Mexico!
Among the topics that we’ll surely revisit several times in the course of writing Volume II of Almost Italian are the parallel food cultures of Italians who emigrated to places other than the United States. You can be sure that we’ll be heading south of the border soon…
*From the Italian pignatta, originally a Lenten tradition, these forms filled with treats and sweets, may have originated in Asia, but were introduced, via Italy, to the New World.
For the food-focused, the period from Valentine’s Day until Easter is always busy. Depending on the calendar and personal piety, one may live and dine contemplatively for a few weeks, from the end of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday till the intermezzo of St. Patrick’s Day, when we find that there is always a hitherto untainted foodstuff that someone has decided to dye an unearthly shade of emerald.
But this year, with so many dates crying out for “Almost Italian dot commentary,” March Madness has taken on a new meaning. Clippings and notes on topics that pique our interest have buried us as deeply as the heavy snows currently marooning travelers across North America.
Okay, we admit that we’ve indulged in many distractions, especially those constant tweets to and from our Vatican sources, speculation on what the new Pope cooks.(Rumor has it the Archbishop of Buenos Aires once personally catered a baptism for a parishioner…) We’re listening to Sylvia Poggioli, Phillip Reeves, and assorted BBC correspondents, but we’ll rely on our own insiders,the Diavolo and Sarducci, for tips on any panini to which His Holiness may be partial. We have great hopes for a guy whose first papal Sunday greeting to well-wishing throngs included the exhortation “Buon Pranzo! Have a nice lunch!”
And while we’re confessing that certain temptations led us to stray from our desks, we should also admit that we scored tickets to the opera three times in one week (two live performances and the HD cinecast of the new Met production of Rigoletto, set in Las Vegas, a must-see for Almost Italians.) Furthermore, because the Vernal Equinox and spring cleaning always generate yard sales, we have recently acquired some fabulous vintage kitchen props. But, as usual, we digress…
You’d think that Almost Italians would be feeling left out (or spared?) during the week when shamrock earrings and Celtic-themed ties are the most benign signs of Irishness. Not so!
It’s easy to forget, but worth noting, that a lot of Italian-Americans are Irish, too. One need only glance at the marriage records in cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York… Before the American Civil War, half a million Irish immigrants poured through the gates at New York’s Castle Garden; they and their descendants were well ensconced when the first big waves of Italians began to arrive in the Americas during the latter half of the 19th century. Many of those Italians, single men who were members of work crews, had hoped to earn their return passage back to Italy to find brides from their own villages in the Mezzogiorno. However, a great many found their mates here among fellow Catholics, Irish girls named Molly and Lucy instead of Mariella and Lucrezia.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s tribute to his mother, an exuberant Irish-American who married a first-generation Pugliese-American, speaks volumes on one homemaker’s adopted identity expressed through food.
“She cooked with a ferocity that belied her gentle appearance, lightly freckled skin…hair that was… strawberry blond—and with an ethnic bent that also contradicted it… she focused on Italian food, and pumped it out in a volume that would have done any Mario Batali restaurant proud. She could make lasagna [sic] for eighty as easily as for eight – and, in fact, preferred the grander gesture. She put together mammoth pasta dishes for PTA meetings, monumental pasta dishes for events at the YMCA. The planning and execution required many hours over many days, but they were redeemed, at the end, by the second helping people took, the moaning they did about being too full, the sauce stains on their shirts: Mom’s version of applause.”
—text and photo excerpted from Born Round by Frank Bruni (2009)
Is there any better time for us to examine the ingredients in the American melting pot than during the season when everyone from mortgage brokers and waiters to car-wash attendants and cardiologists seems to be immersed in the wearin’ o’ the green?
There’s almost nothing specific written about Irish-Italian-American food fusion, but we know it has been happening for at least a century and continues to evolve. So we want to offer an Almost Italian take on the classic Corned Beef & Cabbage.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Not only is there some truth to the internet chatter that St.Patrick was really “Italian” (his parents were Romans), but Celtic culture wasn’t confined to Eire, as attested to by the raucous bagpipers of French Brittany, Iberian Galicia and a generous swath of northern Italy. Anyone hailing from Counties Kerry or Cork could be happy with Bollito Misto Piemontese, just one of many Italian one-pot dishes of root vegetables, cabbage, and meat simmered in a broth.
Our twist on Corned Beef & Cabbage is pretty simple, and, yes, in a a week or so, we’ll add our Almost Italian recipe for this Irish-American favorite to this blog. However, we’re playing catch-up. We had barely two days between the departure of the green-beer trucks and our preparations to welcome San Giuseppe, another saint-with-a-story (and recipes).
And because the new pope, Francesco, formally assumed his post in St. Peter’s yesterday, we thought that sharing a more modest dish, typical of cucina casalinga in the Eternal City, would be would be a nice nod to Rome’s home cooking, which exemplifies culinary minimalism. We also think it’s just the sort of thing Francesco might like to whip up for himself.
Since we happen to have a delicious broth remaining from our Italianized corned beef, we’ll use it for our supper tonight. But you won’t have to wait for us to divulge the Italian segretto to both the Irish classic and the Italian recipe below: it’s the battuto.
To understand a battuto in its most elemental state, remember the Holy Trinity: the diced carrot, celery, and onion Northern Italians sauté as the flavorful base of many a sauce, soup, or braise.
A battuto can be vegetarian or not, richer if it includes a little animal fat and a truly tiny amount of meat. With or without meat, the mixture expresses the essence of what the Italians call “the cooking of the poor.” But when Italians say cucina povera, it’s no put-down or accusation of stinginess. Rather, it’s a phrase that conveys more than a touch of admiration for the economy and resourceful brilliance that elevates the humblest dish.
The permissible variations of a battuto are many—lard, goose fat, butter, or olive oil for sautéing, the possible inclusion of diced pancetta, bacon,guanciale, speck, or ham—plus a few of the usual suspects: garlic, parsley, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and/or oregano, black pepper, maybe even a pinch of peperoncino, and salt. Gently frying these first, before any liquid is added to your vessel, will give any savory dish a depth unachievable were you to simply drop the same raw or untempered ingredients into a simmering liquid.
Pasta e Ceci
March 19th is the Feast of St. Joseph, San Giuseppe. In our recent book, we explored American immigrant celebrations of this festival. While it is no longer confined to Italian communities, the festa is still an extraordinary demonstration of creativity and culinary charity that falls within the doldrums of Lent. However, this year, Easter also falls in March, so this month’s liturgical and kitchen calendars are crammed, almost overwhelming.
With its free-for-all feasting La Festa di San Giuseppe seems like a mini-Mardi Gras. For cooks, it’s also a fix for saintly, if compulsive, bakers so that they can party before the home stretch of Lenten days that loom until Easter.
The recipe below is a combination of pasta with chickpeas, Cicer arietinum, a Mediterranean staple long associated with San Giuseppe and eaten throughout the Italian peninsula centuries before the Christian era. The pasta forms favored by Romans are ditalini, which cook quickly within the broth of the already-cooked beans. Also called paternoster and avemarie, Our Father and Hail Mary, the short semolina tubes are reminiscent of rosary beads. Since cooks often said their evening prayers while preparing supper, some families were known to guage the cooking of their pasta according to the time it took to recite one or more prayers.
The dish is quickly assembled. Just be sure your chickpeas are thoroughly cooked before you begin.
For the battuto:
1 large stalk of celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice (reserve any leaves for garnish)
1 medium onion (about 4 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley including stems, finely chopped
2 Cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
For the soup:
1/2 teaspoon dry marjoram
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces dry chickpeas, soaked and cooked according to package directions, OR
2 15-ounce cans of cooked chickpeas, drained & rinsed
8 ounces ditalini
4 Tablespoons flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped.
Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle
Additional chopped parsley & any celery leaves
Freshly grated Parmesan (optional)
Make your battuto
Heat a 4 to 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, then add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add all the ingredients for the batutto. Sauté, stirring occasionally for approximately 10 minutes, or until the ingredients soften and barely begin to caramelize.
Make the soup:
Add the marjoram and a few grinds of black pepper and stir. Cook for a minute or two, allowing the herbs and pepper to begin to permeate the batutto.
Add the drained canned chickpeas (OR the home-cooked chickpeas and their cooking liquid) to the battuto. Add additional water so that you have a total of 6 cups of liquid in the pot. Adjust the heat and cook at a simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Have your garnishes ready as the pasta will cook very quickly.
Add the ditalini to the broth and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 minutes before you test one of the ditalini.If the pasta has reached the al dente state, the soup is ready. If not, continue cooking and tasting for another 1-2 minutes.
Ladle the soup into shallow bowls. Drizzle a teaspoon of fruity olive oil over each portion and garnish with parsley and freshly grated Parmesan.
For more information about the elaborate Sicilian-American observation of the Feast of San Giuseppe, see http://almostitalian.com/viva-san-giuseppe/ and http://almostitalian.com/st-josephs-pants-cavazune/
Inspired by the incisive reportage of our favorite Roman, National Public Radio’s Sylvia Poggioli, we realized, that we, too, had to give some squid ink to a burning topic, especially after the Wall Street Journal published:
“MARCH MADNESS, VATICAN STYLE: WHO’LL COME OUT OF THE SWEET SISTINE?“
The wonder is: WHY did it take us so long to recognize one incontrovertible truth? The German Pope Benedict XVI—now Pope Emeritus, whom many hold to be the living embodiment of sanctity— is “Almost Italian”!!!
Although we hang upon every word broadcast by our colleague Sylvia, cyber-journalists like us feel the penitential quality of attempts to cover breaking news from Rome when our local NPR station is imposing Pledge Week on denizens of the Tampa Bay region, regardless of their creed, race, or gender.
Meanwhile, the Curia has pulled the plugs (and chargers). No TV, Wi-Fi, radio, cellular or satellite communication devices allowed. No Android or iAnything. Linux? Carrier pigeons? Fuggedabbouddit…
The Vatican has gone dark.
The conclave swallowed its flock of 115 cardinals after sweeps for bugs and wire-taps and security pat-downs for every ecclesiast, including, of course, the Man Who Would be Pope. Extreme measures? Maybe not, for we heard a murmur that Sistine Security Forces had already confiscated a tiny voice-recorder from a portly cleric who claimed his device was a pedometer…
Adding to the challenges of the American staff of Almost Italian—it’s both Lent and Spring Break here in Florida, so we’re resigned to following the drama from afar. We’re stuck on the Gulf Coast, making marinara and serving a lot of Eggs in Purgatory to our visiting snowbird relatives, not one of whom, alas, wears crimson robes or has any access to the inside track…
Happily, the professional disappointment of being unable to provide live coverage of THE story of the new millennium is diminished by our confidence in two trusty Almost Italian stringers, both on the ground at St. Peter’s.
Returning from witness protection and a stint at our sister publication, WhiteSmoke.org, veteran vaticanista Michele Pezza, a.k.a. Fra Diavolo, reports that Vegas bookies are camped close to the Holy See and taking heavy action on a 40-to-1 shot, a self-effacing and little-known Sri Lankan cardinal with a taste for peperoncino. This, despite Sylvia Poggioli’s intelligence indicating that the field may narrow rapidly with a Brazilian and a Milanese as front-runners.
In an Almost Italian exclusive, Michele mixed sports metaphors (as well as espresso and grappa), sending us a private tweet from a bar around the corner from the House of Gammarelli, Sartoria per Ecclesiastici (Tailors to the Pope & Men of the Cloth). “Gamarelli will wait B4 downsizing Pope threads. Sri Lankan is bantamweight, lighter than Eddie Arcaro.”
Emerging from years of contemplation and Cayman Islands retirement for the thrill of this extraordinary assignment, Father Guido Sarducci, “GS,” is nonetheless, under deep cover. Commenting on the likelihood of a South Asian vegetarian as the next Pope, GS, whose investigative coverage of both clerical couture and gastronomy is legendary, texted: “Yeah, when Hell freezes over.”
GS gives credence to another whisper from the conclave: that beneath their official robes several cardinals are wearing 100% hair T-shirts printed with graphics and the newly decreed Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Tweet.
Cardinal sin or not, like the earlier Big Ten, the Eleventh is bound to be broken. And when that happens, our guys will be there to report it. So stay tuned as Almost Italian continues with up-to-the-decade news, useless erudition, and recipes.
Eggs in Purgatory (Uova in Purgatorio)
At least 3 cups of My Grandmother’s Marinara
4 – 6 Large eggs
3 Tbs. Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped, OR
6 Large leaves of basil, snipped
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan
1 Lb. long pasta (linguine is our preference)
Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta.
Heat the sauce in a large sauté pan. When it begins to simmer, carefully break the eggs into the sauce, keeping the yolks whole. You may place a lid on the pan or regulate the heat so the the sauce does not sputter. Poach the eggs until they are done to your taste (we like ours to be a bit runny so the hot yolk blends with the sauce).
When the eggs are beginning to set, salt the water for the pasta and cook the pasta to the al dente stage. The eggs should finish poaching by the time the pasta is done.
Spoon a little marinara into the bottom of each of four shallow bowls. Drain the pasta and divide it among the bowls. Spoon another 1/4 cup of sauce atop each pasta “nest.” With a spatula or large spoon, gently lift the eggs and place each in the middle of a pasta nest. Spoon a little more sauce around the eggs and over the pasta (you may have some sauce remaining).
Drizzle a teaspoon or two of olive oil over each dish and sprinkle on the herbs. Finish each dish with about a tablespoon of freshly grated Parmesan.
Serves four as a main dish.