Mar 212014
 

Spring is in the air everywhere, not least at the Italian Trade Commission in New York City, the Italian government agency charged with promoting and educating about Italian products abroad. Always on the job, at a special reception this week for the newly appointed Commissioner and Executive Director, Pier Paolo Celeste, I turned up some discoveries, old and new.

The Italian Trade Commission, 33 E. 67th Street, New York City. |Photo: Courtesy ITA

The Italian Trade Commission, 33 E. 67th Street, New York City. | Photo: ITA

One, panettone gastronomico, or unsweetened panettone, a fairly recent phenomenon in Italy for making little bar sandwiches, and new to most Americans. It was carved up into a layered tower of delicious “tramezzini,” triangular sandwiches with various fillings of genuine Italian products. Francine Segan, a cookbook author who writes about both historic and futuristic food and cooks it passionately, spread the bottom layer with creamy tinned Italian tuna (ventresca, the beautiful, pink flesh of the belly, not the dry-as-dust white albacore meat) whirled with capers, green olives, roasted red peppers and pickled artichoke hearts (no mayonnaise). Delicate and rosy fennel-scented finocchiona, Tuscany’s finest—and one of Italy’s greatest salumi, and capocollo rested on another butter-slathered bed. Oh my!—one of the finest little sandwiches I’ve eaten on this side of the Atlantic! Last, a third layer topped with fine Genoa salami and fresh mozzarella, brightened and moistened with paper-thin tomato slivers and a touch of mayonnaise.

A savory version of the famous Milanese holiday cake. Photo: Julia della Croce

A savory version of the famous Milanese holiday cake, sometimes called panettone salato farcito (filled savory panettone). | Photo: Julia della Croce

I’m not one for cold food usually, so if you find me transported here, you’ll understand how good it was—yet another illustration of the Italian maxim, “good with good makes good.” The lesson: There’s simply no substitute for the genuine products of that food-blessed country. Good news: the best genuine  cheeses, salumi, and olive oils, along with the best of Italian wines are available from Di Palo’s, in situ in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and a few online, from Di Palo Selects.

Launching the Round Table series about Italian food and drink.Photo: Francine Segan

The Commissioner himself launching the Round Table series about Italian food and drink.
Photo: Francine Segan

The new Trade Commissioner himself came up with the idea of offering some fresh ideas about Italian food on the tasting menu. And so we had Francine Segan’s re-creation of a historic dish, a timballo of bucatini filled with a mixture of more bucatini and vegetables, bound together with egg and parmigiano-reggiano.

Francine Segan's cupola di bucatini. | Photo: Francine Segan

Francine Segan’s cupola di bucatini, a recreation of a historic dish. | Photo: Francine Segan

Everything in the world of food is cyclical! Modern people love to re-discover historical recipes. Here’s a vintage illustration of the historic timballo di maccheroni alla lombarda, from Gastronomia Moderna, by Carlo Giuseppe Sorbiatti, Milano, 1911:

Timballo di maccheroni alla Lombarda, from Gastronomia Moderna, by Carlo Giuseppe Sorbiatti, Milano, 1911

Timballo di maccheroni alla lombarda. Reprinted from Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking (Chronicle Books), by Julia della Croce

Chatting with the new Trade Commissioner, I saw him whip an elegant, ever-so-discreet silver vial from his jacket pocket and start to shake its contents onto the buttery, fresh mozzarella on his plate. I was intrigued. What was it? Peperoncino!—hot red chili flakes! I thought, I must have one of these for my own hot pepper lust.

The charming Trade Commissioner Pier Paolo Celeste with his silver vial of peperoncino. | Photo: Julia della Croce

The charming Trade Commissioner Pier Paolo Celeste with his silver vial of peperoncino.
Photo: Julia della Croce

He was given the silver spice vial as a gift in India, a piece of jewelry carried by people of means. Regrets, I don’t know where to buy one, but if you do, please tell!

Trade Commissioner Pier Paolo Celeste's silver peperoncino vial up close. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Dott. Pier Paolo Celeste’s silver peperoncino vial up close. | Photo: Julia della Croce

You don’t have to go to the great pastry shops of Palermo to get authentic cassata siciliana, that city’s famous sugary, ricotta-filled marzipan cake. You can buy it at the authentic Sicilian pastry shops, A’Putia in Brooklyn or Hoboken, which imports the proper sheep milk ricotta from Agrigento. (There is another Sicilian pastry shop mentioned recently in The New York Times for their version of cassata, Villabate Alba in Bensonhurst). It’s not everyday that one can find an authentic cassata sicilian outside of Palermo, so I had two helpings, and had to muster every bit of will power I had not to have a third.

Gennaro Pecchia with a cassata sicilian a from Villabate bakery in Brooklyn. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Food blogger Gennaro Pecchia bearing the cassata siciliana. At right, editor Channaly Philipp of The Epoch Times. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Bliss! I thought I would never eat a cassata siciliana as delicious or beautiful as the one made by this master cassata maker while visiting Sicily some years ago with a Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani delegation. This one was certainly as delicious, and characteristically decorative if less ornate.

Master cassata maker demonstrating his art in Siracusa, Sicily at a ball for a delegation of Tony May'd Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani that I attended in 2009.

Master cassata maker demonstrating his art in Siracusa, Sicily. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Congratulazioni, Dott. Pier Paolo Celeste, in bocca al lupo!

Italian Trade Commissioner Pier Paolo Celeste and Gennaro Pecchia with the cassata siciliano.  | Photo: Julia della Croce

Italian Trade Commissioner Pier Paolo Celeste, left, and Gennaro Pecchia, at right, having a hard time letting go of that cassata siciliana. | Photo: Julia della Croce

Jan 232014
 

Spaghetti with tomato sauce are the dream of Italian cuisine, a magic mix of ingredients, wisdom and history that a very few other dishes in the world have. Unfortunately this dish is manipulated, tormented and crucified almost everywhere.

–Rosario Scarpato, Honorary President Itchefs-GVCI

The Official Dish for International Day of Italian Cuisines, 2014,   Spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.  Credit: It Chefs, Rosario Scarpato

The Official Dish for International Day of Italian Cuisines, 2014, Spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.
Credit: idic.itchefs-gvci.com

Once every year, Rosario Scarpato, Neapolitan-born gastronome, writer, film maker/director, and commander-in-chief of ItChefs-GVCI (Virtual Organization of  Italian Chefs) makes a global appeal for the preservation of authentic Italian food by live video conference from the amphitheater of the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City, reaching 2,000 Italian chefs in 70 countries. “People all over the world are cooking Italian cuisine and yet they are not cooking Italian cuisine,” he says. “Today,” he implores,”the future of Italian cuisine is with the people in this room,” referring to the phalanx of chefs who are his followers and all who will hear him.

Rosario Scarpato, impassioned advocate for the preservation of traditional Italian food at the International Culinary Center in New York.  Photo: Julia della Croce

Rosario Scarpato, impassioned advocate for the preservation of traditional Italian food, and mastermind of the International Day of Italian Cuisine at ICC in New York.
Credit: Julia della Croce

The International Day of Italian Cuisine (IDIC) always takes place on January 17, says Rosario, because it’s the feast day Saint Anthony Abbate (Anthony the Abbot), patron saint of butchers, farmers, gravediggers, small animals, and basket makers. It is also the first day of carnevale, one day out of 365 when, according to ancient custom, licit insanire, “anything goes.” The IDIC dish of 2014 is spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, ”Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Basil,” probably one of the world’s most beloved of all Italian dishes–and one of the most misunderstood.

A Roman carnival,  by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1821.  From Pasta Classica, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books)

Revelers eating spaghetti at a Roman carnival, by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1821. From Pasta Classica, by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books). Courtesy, Eva Agnesi, original Agnesi Pasta Collection

Accordingly, the maccheroni mayhem began. A trio of three acclaimed Italian chefs, Matteo Bergamini (SD26 in NYC), Enrico Bartolini (Michelin-starred Master Chef, Devero Ristorante, Milano), and Luca Signoretti (Roberto’s Restaurant, Dubai) demonstrated the proper ingredients and preparation of the dish from the amphitheater, a performance that was broadcast worldwide. While the chefs were not allowed to deviate from the official recipe, each could use their own signature “tricks” to make the sauce and cook the spaghetti. At the same time, armed with pots, colanders, spoons, and saucepans, the virtual troops descended upon their patrons in restaurants and home kitchens from Thailand to London, Hong Kong and Dubai, to serve up the true version according to the IDIC official recipe.

Alessandra Rotondi, Master of Ceremonies, with Matteo, Enrico, and Luca.

Alessandra Rotondi, Master of Ceremonies, with Chefs Matteo, Enrico, and Luca.

Chef Luca offers his masterpiece.

Pronto!

Odette Fada

Odette Fada, former San Domenico (NYC) chef, asks the trio what their position is on adding oil to the cooking water, just for the record. Their answer, in unison, a resounding “No!”

Chef Luca's spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico with dattterini ("little dates" after their shape) would make you realize you might have never tasted the real spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico before.

Chef Luca’s spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico with dattterini (“little dates” after their shape) would make you realize you might have never tasted the real spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico before.

Besides spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, the dishes that have so far been studied, dissected, celebrated, and commemorated at the International Day of Italian Cuisines are, spaghetti alla carbonara (2008), risotto alla milanese (2009), tagliatelle al ragù bolognese (2010), pesto alla genovese (2011), ossobuco in gremolata alla milanese (2012), tiramisù  (2013)If you are one of those people who just can’t figure out why the Italians are so dogmatic about these things (think Marcella Hazan) you might just change your mind once you try the real thing. And when you eat authentic spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, it will be a revelation.It is not only an Italian recipe, it is an Italian lifestyle,” Rosario says. “Sophia Loren, wherever she goes in the world, brings her ingredients with her and cooks [tomato sauce] in her hotel room over a burner.”

Sophia Loren, 1954

Sophia Loren, 1954

I look forward to the IDIC event every year because in the company of this crowd, I always learn something I didn’t know before–from Chef Matteo Bergamini, it was how to make a truly great, tomato sauce in two minutes (the secret is in the tomatoes). You might ask, “why worship at the alter of  spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil in winter?” Because, says Chef Cesare Casella, Dean of Italian Studies at ICC, “You make the best [tomato sauce] with canned tomatoes from Italy, and you can eat it all year round.”

Good canned tomatoes make good tomato sauce. Pomodorini del vulcano and pomodorini corbarini, tomatoes from the volcanic soil of Vesuvius (Naples), and tomatoes from Corbaro.

Good canned tomatoes make good tomato sauce. Pomodorini del vulcano and pomodorini corbarini, tomatoes from the volcanic soil of Vesuvius (Naples), and tomatoes from Corbaro.

While the New York conference was underway, Italian food and wine writer Luciano Pignaturo, alongside chefs in Pompeii (Naples), a stone’s throw from the archeological site and cradle of maccheroni culture, were on live video in the amphitheater, cooking spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico from the kitchen at the Ristorante President using different kinds of tomatoes and showing his tricks for mastering the art. It is also the region from whose mineral-rich volcanic dirt the first Italian tomato was spawned, and that produces the San Marzano varieties essential to a proper spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.

Ristorante President Chef-owner  Paolo Gramaglia with his staff.Courtesy: Ristorante President

Ristorante “President” Chef-Owner Paolo Gramaglia (left) with staff.
Courtesy: Ristorante President, Pompeii (Naples)

Pomodorini del Piennolo, from Vesuvius.  Credit: Casa Barone

Intensely sweet and “minerally” from the nutrients in the volcanic soil, pomodorini del Piennolo (from appendere, “to hang,” grow in the heart of the San Marzano district of Vesuvius/Naples. They’re picked in clusters and hung in bunches until ready for use, keeping throughout the winter. Credit: www.casabarone.it

Here are tips for making true spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico, straight from the mounts of three sizzling Italian chefs.

On canned tomatoes:

  • San Marzano tomatoes (DOP), including Corbara tomatoes (DOP) from Vesuvius/Naples, and Piennolo tomatoes (DOP), were the favorites of all the chefs. Vesuvius’s eruption left many minerals in the surrounding soil, which produces sugary tomatoes with balancing tones of acidity that deliver powerful flavor, linked to the unique Vesuvius terroir. A particular favorite of all the chefs, Piennolo tomatoes DOP are preserved after harvesting by hanging them in ventilated rooms. Because of their characteristic thick skin, sweetness and minerality, they last throughout the winter months and as their water evaporates, their flavor is concentrated.
  • Chef Luca also uses the sweet and meaty Datterini tomatoes (“baby plums”) from Sicily whose flavor some chefs think even exceeds the San Marzano varieties. He recommends using your hands to squeeze the tomatoes into the sauté pan–”it gives them something.”

Chef Matteo sautés his favorites, the Piennolo, in the olive oil for no more two minutes to “keep their clear flavor,” adding a touch of crushed chili pepper to the oil as it warms.

Piennolo DOP tomatoes are picked in clusters and hung for several months in the sun. Courtesy: Ristorante "President," Pompeii (Naples)

Piennolo DOP tomatoes are picked in clusters and hung for several months in the sun.
Courtesy: Ristorante “President,” Pompeii (Naples)

Pomodorino del Piennolo (DOP).

Pomodorino del Piennolo (DOP) has an intense, complex sweetness and fragrance. Credit: www.parks.it/parco.nazionale.vesuvio

Corbara tomatoes

Corbara pomodorini San Marzano (DOP).
Credit: www.parks.it/parco.nazionale.vesuvio

Datterini ("little dates) pomodorini from Pantelleria.  Credit: Pietra Gaetano Catolano, Oltremare, Pantelleria (Sicily)

Datterini (“little dates”) pomodorini from Pantelleria (Sicily).
Credit: Piero Gaetano Catalano, Oltremare, Pantelleria

To chop or not to chop the garlic?:

  • Chef Enrico chops it and warms it gently in the pan with the olive oil.
  • Chef Luca and Chef Matteo used whole, bruised garlic cloves, but avoid over-cooking it–and ruining–the olive oil with too much exposure to heat in the hot skillet.

Olive oil preference:

  • Do we need to say there is only one kind in Italian cooking–extra-virgin?
  • All three chefs prefer Sicilian olive oil for making the sauce. Chef Matteo’s relies on Manfredi Barbera. Two out of three added a “thread” of olive oil to the sauce when it’s done.
Selling artisanal olive oil at the Capo market in Palermo, Sicily.  Credit: Julia della Croce

Selling artisanal olive oil at the Capo market in Palermo, Sicily. Credit: Julia della Croce

The salt flats of Trapani.  Credit: Paolo Destefanis

The preferred sea salt of all the chefs is Sicilian. The salt flats of Trapani.
Credit: Paolo Destefanis

About salt, it was unanimous–all the chefs were hooked on Sicilian (Trapani) sea salt.

On the matter of basil (fresh, of course):

  • “You know great basil from the smell. You don’t get it from green house basil.”
  • Chef Matteo only adds it at the very end, just when the sauce is done, to keep its intense flavor [intact].”

On the pasta:

  • Chef Matteo uses the La Molisana brand exclusively, specifically the spaghetti alla chitarra shape for spaghetti al pomodoro–”Because [the strands] are square it takes the sauce nicely.”
  • Chef Luca’s choice was De Cecco spaghetti. He cooks the pasta only half way in the water, then drains it and adds it to the sauce in the sauté pan until it finishes cooking.
  • Chef Enrico adds the tomato water to the pasta cooking water for added flavor.
La Molisana, still extruded using bronze dies, a beloved Italian brand with a passionate following. Courtesty: http://en.lamolisana.com/novità_bronzi.php

La Molisana, still extruded using bronze dies, a beloved Italian brand with a passionate following.
Credit: http://en.lamolisana.com/novità_bronzi.php

Cheese or no cheese?:

  • Grana Padano DOP, made in a similar tradition to Parmigiano-Reggiano®, a popular condiment, was a sponsor of the IDIC , but not traditional for spaghetti al pomodoro con basilico.
  • Chef Luca scatters a layer of freshly grated Grana Padano over the spaghetti and the sauce in the sauté pan to absorb excess tomato juices and leaves it untouched until excess water is absorbed.
  • Chef Matteo never adds  grated cheese because  he finds  it interferes with the flavor of the tomatoes. If people ask for it in the dining room, he lets them have it.

As for wine, Alessandra Rotondi, Italian wine expert and IDIC Master of Ceremonies recommended Lacryma Christi (literally “the tears of Christ) from Campania, from a grape that  grows in the same Vesuvio terroire as the San Marzano tomatoes.

Source: Piennolo and Corbara tomatoes are available retail online, or wholesale through Gustiamo, exclusive importers of the Pomodoro del Piennolo DOP from the Casa Barone farm, Vesuvius district.

THE RECIPE: SPAGHETTI AL POMODORO CON BASILICO “AL DENTE
(AL DENTE SPAGHETTI WITH TOMATO SAUCE AND BASIL)


Chef Mario Caramella´s version of this year´s recipe, adapted for American readers

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pound (1 package)  durum wheat imported Italian spaghetti

2 28-ounce cans of Italian peeled tomatoes in natural juices (San Marzano DOP), or substitute 600 gr tomatoes from piennolo

fresh garlic cloves to taste

5 tablespoons best quality extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt to taste

several fresh, fragrant Genoa type basil leaves

Method:

  • In a large pan lightly brown the fresh garlic in the extra virgin olive oil (avoid burning it or it will taste bitter and not right)
  • Add the tomatoes, cook at medium heat for 8-10 minutes
  • Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain them and toss in the tomato sauce for 1-2 minutes over medium heat
  • Put the spaghetti in individual previously warmed plates; add some sauce, a few drops of extra virgin olive oil and a couple of fresh basil leaves on each plate
  • Serve warm

You may add some grated Grana Padano DOP cheese, a rather common habit in some Italian families, but the original recipe didn’t include it.

Buon Appetito e Buon Carnevale!
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