Jul 172014
Ingredients for Pasta alla Destefanis. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Ingredients for Pasta alla Destefanis. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Every now and then someone sends me a message that’s a real charmer. Here’s one I received at the end of last summer about a recipe that appears in my very first cookbook, Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking. The writer, Dr. John Brownlee, and so many other readers, have raved about it over three decades, so I’m sharing the message and recipe here.

 I am preparing to make lo Stracotto for the second time from your book Pasta Classica, which I purchased in 1988 in New Orleans. It taught me to make pasta, a gift which I have passed onto my children and hundreds of Montessori school 5th graders. I have made soups and sauces and return to the book more than any other cookbook. As we live in the south our favorite summer recipe is Pasta Destefanis. I have found making pasta by hand to be therapeutic. I am a pediatric cardiologist and have some knob related stresses. Kneading dough and cooking while listening to music is much more enjoyable than a therapist. Thank you for your book, culinary wisdom, and your clear and entertaining writing.  I send an attached photo of the future pasta maker, my granddaughter Marie Elizabeth.  –Dr. John Brownlee

Here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Dr. Brownlee, Several years ago, I attempted to establish a healthy school food program in an independent school that my own two daughters had attended years before. The menus I created were filled with recipes from all my books, and wholesome and delicious food of all kinds, from Pasta alla Destefanis to New Orleans jambalaya that is no doubt dear to your heart. We taught kids and their parents to cook everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to Julia Child’s boef bourguingnon–calling it “beef stew” not to scare anyone off!–and got the young ones involved in a school garden. The program won awards and many of the kids loved the food and couldn’t get enough of it. But others balked at the absence of the industrially made chicken nuggets, white-flour bagels, and junk pizza that the kids were used to eating before— and at home. Parents of the latter kids panicked and pressured the administration to bring back the junk food menu. What I learned was that kids would eat good food only if parents instilled good eating habits. Kudos to you for passing on the gift of cooking to so many children. No doubt Marie Elizabeth will carry on the family tradition. --JdC

Because Pasta alla Destefanis is best made using vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, I decided to wait to re-publish the recipe, along with Dr. Brownlee’s message. This week, I plucked my first beautiful Sun Golds (the sweetest cherry tomatoes I know) from the vine in my vegetable garden to make this sensational and utterly simple dish.

Sungold tomatoes in my garden. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Sun Gold tomatoes in my garden. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

The pleasant and surprising recipe was given to me by Flavia Destefanis, my long-time friend who was born in Italy but grew up in many different countries, traveling wherever her father, a diplomat, was transferred every few years. It made her think outside the box about food as much as most things, and she is good at combining the best Italian cooking traditions with ingredients considered exotic in Italian cooking. If you think the notion of an avocado and tomato sauce for hot pasta sounds odd, I can tell you that I have served it to many hundreds of people over the years, and delighted them all, every time—including the fussy school children I told you about.

Pasta alla Destefanis (Pasta with Raw Tomatoes and Avocado)
For 3-4 normal, or 2 hearty eaters

Recommended shapes include spaghetti or linguine,  or short cut pasta such as “snails,” medium “shells,” pennette, or fusilli. If you don’t like the taste of raw garlic in your mouth, don’t use it; there will be plenty of flavor without it. When the avocado is tossed with the piping hot pasta, it clings to its porous surface and along with the olive oil, forms a creamy sauce.

1 ripe (but not spotty) Haas avocado
4 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
3/4  pound fresh, sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes or other fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes
1 small garlic clove, pressed or minced (optional)
2 or 3 leaves fresh basil, torn into small pieces (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste freshly ground white or black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2  pound spaghetti, or short-cut pasta such as penne, shells, or fusilli

1. Fill an ample pot with 5 quarts cold water and bring to a rapid boil.
2. Peel and dice the avocado and toss it immediately with the olive oil in an ample serving bowl.
3. If using cherry tomatoes, slice them in quarters, or if they are very small, into halves. If using larger tomatoes, remove cores and slice and cut them into small dice.
4. In the serving bowl, toss the tomatoes, garlic (if using), basil (if using), salt, and pepper.
5. To the pot of boiling water, add the kosher salt, followed by the pasta. Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Follow the pasta manufacturer’s cooking directions  for “al dente,” stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
6. Immediately toss the hot pasta with the tomato and avocado sauce. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if necessary to moisten. Serve immediately.


Coat the avocado dice in the olive oil first to prevent it from turning dark.

Toss the cut-up or diced tomatoes with the avocado and other ingredients.

Toss the cut-up or diced tomatoes with the avocado and other ingredients.

Add coarse salt to the boiling water without skimping—you need 2-3 tablespoons for 5 quarts of water.

Add coarse salt to the boiling water without skimping—you need 2-3 tablespoons for 5 quarts of water.

Pasta alla Destefanis (Lumachine, "Little Snails" with Uncooked Tomato and Avocado Sauce | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Pasta alla Destefanis (Lumachine, “Little Snails” with Uncooked Tomato and Avocado Sauce) | Photo: Nathan Hoyt


Jul 022014
fireworks photo

Independence Day fireworks on the west bank of the Hudson River. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

There’s thunder and lightening from where I’m sitting looking out my kitchen window, with no sign of let-up for July 4th. If that means a change of plans for you from an all-American barbecue, consider the Independence Day tradition of the American South: fried chicken. While I grew up in an Italian household, fried chicken was always a special dish and it fit in just fine with potato salad and all the other American trimmings. Whether it’s Kentucky-fried, Georgia-fried, or Italian-fried, it’s as American as grilling on the Fourth of July. Here’s my recipe, sprinkled with some fried chicken history. Happy 4th!

Italian Fried Chicken Wings, from Italian Home Cooking 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce | Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Peppery Italian-Fried Chicken Wings, from Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, by Julia della Croce
Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Jun 102014
Love Me Tender: The Italian Way with Green Beans

Besides home-grown tomatoes, green beans from my garden are the vegetable I most look forward to in summer. Right after my beans seeds went into the ground and my thoughts turned to eating them, it occurred to me to write Love Me Tender, a story for Zester Daily, about how I like them best. You may want to know my favorite way to cook them if you love them as much as I do, and if you don’t, you might change your mind after you read  here.  

Apr 112014
Ancient Roman Statue Discusses a Tender Subject

Just when I was thinking I should offer a recipe with an accompanying historical yarn about abbacchio, the suckling lamb that is Rome’s gastronomical obsession at Easter, this lively story about just that, titled “Pasquino Discusses a Tender Subject” landed in my mailbox. The author, Anthony Di Renzo, who chronicles a fading Italian world in his novels, writes a column for the California-based  L’Italo-Americano newspaper under the pen name, “Pasquino.” For those not steeped in Roman lore, “Pasquino” is the nickname of an ancient, battered statue that lost its arms during the sack of Rome and was buried in a ditch until April Fool’s [...more...]

Mar 242014
You asked for it—Francine Segan's Bucatini Cupola

My last post featured cupola di bucatini, bucatini dome, a recreation of a historic timballo (aka timpano). It was created by Francine Segan, a food historian and author of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), to celebrate the appointment of the new Italian Trade Commissioner, Pier Paolo Celeste. ”This recipe dates to 18th century Naples, and was rediscovered and modernized by Giorgia Chiatto and Carmela Caputo, who run Naples’ first…cooking school, Cucinamica,” she says. She learned how to make it on site from Garofalo, one of the city’s oldest and most famous pastificci, headquartered in Gragnano, home of some of the best dried [...more...]

Mar 042014
Heart of Nicaragua: Grace and Magic in a Corn Masa Cookie

Travels with Julia || Nicaragua Maybe because growing up in a family that endured the last world war in Italy, often hungry, my journey as a writer is concerned with food. For me, everything about it fascinates—growing it, harvesting it, cooking it, understanding its cultural trajectory. The recipes are metaphors, albeit edible ones. When I traveled to Nicaragua recently to meet up with my daughter and make our way together to a remote village in the country’s highlands, I learned such a recipe, one that has come to have meaning for me far beyond the discovery of a new dish. [...more...]

Feb 242014
The Magical Gluten-Free Cookie: A Rosquilla Lesson, Step-by-Step

Following up on my recent story in Zester Daily about delicious corn masa cookies I discovered in Nicaragua, we took photographs of the method in hopes that you’ll find them as easy to make as I did. Sweet rosquillas are Nicaragua’s answer to shortbread, but wheat-free. Both sweet and savory versions of mass-produced rosquillas are ubiquitous in the markets and on street corners all around the country. Peddlars hawked them at the bus terminal where we started our journey but they are not the same as those I learned to make in El Lagartillo. I have no doubt that the national obsession with this [...more...]

Feb 212014
Julia's Sweet Potato Gnocchi Recipe Airs on NPR

If you missed it, click on the logo below to hear my broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The lead: For 27 years, Julia made her gnocchi with sweet potatoes, mixing an American staple into the classic recipe. “Here I was, one foot in the new world and one foot in Italy, where my family is from, and they seemed perfect for gnocchi. Why not?” And in all that time, her dumplings were sweet, served with a hazelnut butter sauce, and — most importantly — a lovely shade of orange. This is one way I serve them–American style–alongside roasted duck. [...more...]