Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pasta perfect.

Before my lethal injection, I want pasta. Lots of pasta with as much bolognese I can stuff down. (I also want pizza and ice cream, but that's another story).

Every day at Cantina del Vecchio there was a pasta meal. Working in a kitchen for 10 hours a day, you eat a lot, except when you're busy (which is a lot). Before each meal rush, there was a staff or family meal. Usually the chef would ask a pretty waitress what she wanted to eat that day or our glorious leaders (Allan, usually) would have a special request, which we would also get to sample. In general, however, it was pasta in one form or another.

In bad American restaurants, pasta is often cooked ahead and dropped quickly into boiling water to heat up. In bad homes it's cooked, then rinsed under cold water (heaven help me), before it's warmed in the microwave oven.

It Italy, pasta is not only an art in its ingredients and preparation. It's practically religious in it's regulations on correctness of cooking and serving. This I learned my first day on the job.

At the far end of the line, beyond the giant stove, there was an metal vat. A metal tub really, filled each day with fresh water and a handful of salt. In this water metal baskets perched, ready to accept fresh pasta (pasta fresca) or dry (pasta secca). The boiler is industrial in a restaurant kitchen -- imagine a deep fryer, but for water).

The water came to a boil and there it raged until closing. First the water was clear, our family meal had the first fresh water -- good, thought I. As the day progressed, the water became thick and white from the floury pasta. Better, learned I as the days passed.

As pasta water becomes affected by the pasta cooked in it, it becomes not just a vehicle for cooking, but an ingredient. The cloudy water was added to pasta sauces (it made the sauces creamier), added to soups for thinning to heat and added to just about anything needing it (it's something you know instinctively just by being Italian, I think). Ladlefuls of this murky half-liquid are added -- it is an assumption -- not written or described in any recipe.

Using new water to cook pasta is a concession. Water has to be new sometime. But that old water (really middle-aged) is the best for pasta perfection. There's a point when the water becomes over-the-hill -- when it's super starchy thick, at 11:00 at night, it's time to close shop). It's hard to cook pasta in lava.

The cleaning of the pasta cooker was the de facto end of the working night. When we could turn off that monster, dip pots in to remove the heavy liquid and lift the still hot water liners, we knew the end was near. That's when exhaustion turned into a last burst of energy because no one could leave until that kitchen was clean.

At home, when I cook pasta, I have to use clean water. Pity. I know that at least five pounds of pasta cooked in the same pot (a pound at a time) and my water is only now perfect. Alas, unless I'm cooking for the masses, I don't have a choice. If only I could bottle that used water for later use...

Friday, October 23, 2009


Everywhere you look on Italy's streets, vias, alley and piazzas, you'll see panettone. No, not the delicious holiday bread/cake/pastry with candied fruits you see on sale everywhere around the Christmas season. What you see are concrete lumps at the corners of buildings that stop cars, motorcycles and bikes, not to mention pedestrians, from bumping into corners of buildings. You see, with ancient towns, there are few sidewalks or "shoulders"on many of the streets, so buildings butt-up right to said streets. Apparently, the locals think these traffic control devices remind them of the dessert. 

My great friend and genius Lisa Tucci (she really should have her own column/show/you name it) is a great observer and tour guide. Not only does she know an awful lot about the sites of Rome (and Italy in general), she's full of little tidbits they never mention in any visitors' literature. When she told me about street panettone, I was delighted.  

She also mentioned that Italy's many dogs use these as de facto fire hydrants, never failing to lift a leg when a panettone is handy. Lisa's dog, Trevor (Treverino in Italian), quickly demonstrated, unprovoked.  Now I can't look at a stone or concrete "blob" without remembering and smiling about panettone.   

Here's a recipe and link I found online with what appears to be a wonderful recipe. 

Jim Lahey’s, “Easy” Panettone


1 cup raisins

2 Tbs light rum

2/3 cup tepid water plus 2 Tbs hot water, divided

3 ¾ cups all purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

½ tsp salt

½ tsp instant dry yeast

¼ tsp grated lemon zest

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise (I used 1 tsp vanilla extract)

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 Tbs honey

12 ½ Tbs unsalted butter (10 ½ Tbs cut into Tbs size pieces and well softened; 1 Tbs melted; and 1 Tbs chilled)

2/3 cup candied fruits, chopped into small pieces if large.


  • Soak raisins in rum and 2 Tbs hot water (8 hours or overnight)

  • Mix flour, sugar, salt, yeast, lemon zest, and vanilla bean in stand mixer bowl with paddle until well mixed. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, the honey, and the 2/3 cup of tepid water. With mixer at low speed, slowly pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture – up speed to medium low, and continue mixing until well combined. Add 10 ½ Tbs softened butter, 1 Tbs at a time, mixing until well incorporated between additions (Frozen/cold butter softens nicely in the microwave, but since each is sooo different, you’ll have to experiment to find the perfect time for yours – mine would be soft in about 15-25 seconds for this chunk.). Increase mixer speed to med high and mix until dough is smooth and elastic – about 8 minutes.

  • Drain raisins and mix with chopped fruit and 1 Tbs melted butter – stir into the dough mixture with a wooden spoon.

  • Put mixture into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put into a cold oven for 12-15 hours.

  • Lightly flour a board, and put the dough on the board – remove the vanilla bean, and sprinkle a light dusting of flour over the dough – pull the edges of the dough up onto itself, and turn it over into a ball.

  • Prepare your Panettone mold with either a paper liner or a piece of baker’s parchment held with a paper clip – move the dough into the mold, cover with a damp kitchen towel (not terry), and put in a warm spot where it can rise for 3-5 hours.

  • With an hour left in the dough rising time, turn your oven on to 370 degrees, and heat.

  • Cut an X in the top of the risen Panettone, and place the remaining Tbs of cold butter in the middle of the X – Put the Panettone mold/can on a baking sheet/pan and bake for an hour to an hour and a quarter – I needed 1 and ½ hours – test doneness with a skewer; it should be moist but clean – if you see dough, give it another 5-10 minutes.

  • When done, remove from oven, and remove from mold/can – measure 1 inch from the bottom of the Panettone and slide 4 skewers through the bottom from one side to the other – now suspend the Panettone upside down into a large stock pot (or two chairs), and let it cool completely, about 1 hour.


Panettone – a worthy addition to the special treats of Butter Season – and a holiday tradition that deserves, at least, to be on every baker’s resume. Try it – it may become your tradition too.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tartufo! (And in my cucina)

Each day I walked quickly through Piazza Navona on my way to Cantina del Vecchio.  From my building, I turned left from the door. Walked about 30 yards to the corner. Turned left. Crossed Corso dei Rinascimento and diagonally crossed Piazza Navona (from south to north) and turned left at the corner of the restuaruant Tre Scalini. 

Tre Scalini means "three steps" and that's exactly what greets  you at the door, three shallow steps into the eatery. Outside, even in inclement weather, is outdoor seating. Diners will always, when possible, dine facing the piazza (not the building). 

Waiters outdoors will invite folks walking by to eat at the restaurant (as they do at all tourist spots). I always just rushed by on my way to-and-from work -- 4 times a day. Never did the waiters begin to recognize me. I was just another American. 

I knew from Lisa that this was a famous spot -- especially for the Tartufo. What is tartufo? The word itself translates into "truffle." Here tartufo is a dessert, chocolate gelato that's molded into a rough sphere and dredged in cocoa powder (to resemble the gourmet funghi). Imbedded in tartufo is a surprise -- a maraschino cherry and bits of chocolate. It's served with whipped cream and a sweet crunchy pirouette cookie.

My last afternoon, before the evening shift, I met my new friend Wendy (an amazing and lovely singer from Indiana, now living in Rome) for coffee and tartufo at Tre Scalini. I ordered. It came. I studied it. I poked it. I used a knife to cut into it. I gingerly inserted my spoon and scooped up a morsel. I tasted. Rich. Chocolate. Cold. 

In short, Tartufo starts with deep chocolate gelato. Keep in mind that I had, for the last several weeks, eaten gelato daily -- often twice a day. I became an expert in gelato consumption and a whiz at flavor identification (much like I became a Jelly Belly pro during a certain jelly-bean phase).  The tartufo was delicious. And eating it there, at that restaurant in that piazza in that city in that country was a "bucket list" experience. But it was gelato. So, it was good, but it was gelato for 9-euro (about $13 or so).  Wendy graciously treated.

As with any great memory (especially of food), gestalt came into play in my enjoyment of tartufo. Here it wasn't just the tartufo -- it was Wendy, it was my last day in Rome, it was Piazza Navona, it was a changed and improved Annabel, wiser and more fulfilled in my new life. It was one small dessert for me, one giant leap for Annabelkind. 

Here is my version of Tartufo.

In a pinch, use very good quality dark chocolate ice cream as a stand-in for the gelato.

1 pint dark chocolate gelato
1/4 cup finely chopped good quality bittersweet chocolate
2-3 maraschino cherries
1 cup cocoa powder
Fresh lightly sweeteened whipped cream
Pirouette cookies (or sweet wafers)

Soften the gelato slightly and stir in the chopped chocolate. Form the gelato into spheres (2 to 3 spheres per pint). Use your fingers to insert one maraschino cherry per sphere. Transfer the spheres into a dish and freeze until hard. Remove from freezer and use your hands to form the tartufo into a slightly flattened sphere (see photo above). Just before serving, roll the tarfufo in cocoa powder and serve with whipped cream and wafer. Makes 2-3 servings.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In the Cucina #9

I have a passion for fiore di zucca or zucchini flowers. At Cantina, every few days we would receive a fresh delivery of these golden blossoms, wrapped as delicately as eggs and handled just as gingerly. Whenever i saw them at Campo di Fiore, I wanted to buy them. But for what? I wasn't cooking in my penthouse and if I bought them, it would be only to ogle their loveliness. I wanted them any way -- stuffed with cheese, or meat or potatoes or simply dredged in flour or cornstarch and quickly fried and used as a garnish for Cacio e Pepe or rissoto. I've only ever experienced fiore di zucca fried, which is just fine with me. 

Zucca means squash (they call pumpkins zucca in Italy), so zucchini is the diminutive of zucca. Zucchini, botanically, are a fruit (like tomatoes and cucumbers -- it has to do with ovaries and flowers and seeds and stuff), but are always referred to as vegetables. Sometimes you'll find small zucchini still attached to the flowers or the bigger blossoms on stalks from male plants). Any variety squash blossoms are perfect for all recipes. 

Here are two recipes -- one stuffed, as when I ate them in a restaurant in the Jewish quarter and fried simply, as a necessary garnish, at Cantina del Vecchio.

Fiore di Zucca (Fried) 
Zucchini flowers
Vegetable oil for frying
Place a grate or many layers of paper towel over a baking sheet. Set aside.

Heat about 1/2-inch of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. The oil must be quite hot (rippling) or the flowers will be soggy.

Pinch-out the pistils or stamens (the things sticking up, if any, in the centers of the flowers). Dredge the flowers in cornstarch.  Drop the flowers in the oil and and fry, quickly, until golden. Carefully remove the flowers with a slotted spoon or tongs and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Drain well. Use at room temperature as a garnish (topped our caccio e pepe with the flowers) on just about anything from salad to pasta. 

Ricotta Stuffed Zucchini Flowers

12 large (male) or smaller (female) zucchini blossoms
1 cup of ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. saltVegetable oil for frying

3/4 cup flour
1 cup sparkling water or club soda

Place a grate or many layers of paper towel over a baking sheet. Set aside.

Pinch-out the pistils or stamens (the things sticking up, if any, in the centers of the flowers). 

Combine the filling ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Add additional salt to taste. 

Combine the batter ingredients in another bowl and whisk well.  Set aside.
Using a teaspoon or a pastry bag, fill or pipe the filling into the zucchini flowers. Pinch and twist the flower tops lightly to enclose the filling. 

Heat at least one-inch of oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. The oil must be quite hot (rippling) or the flowers will be soggy.

Dip the filled flowers upside down (holding the stem ends) into the batter and fry them until golden. When cooked, place on the prepared baking sheet. Serve immediately, or rewarm before serving. Makes 4 appetizer portions. 

I'm Lovin' it.

Lisa T. says her late father said the best bathrooms in Italy (indeed the world) are in McDonald's restaurants. So whenever I spotted a McDonald's, I went (if you know what I mean). I went at the Mcdonald's near the Pantheon. I went in the McDonald's at Piazza di Spagna.

Fact is, I love McDonald's and I'm not too snotty to admit it. And I make a point of going in every country I visit. Why, you may be thinking, with all the amazing food in Italy, would I want to go to Mickey-D's? Because in every country the food is different.  In India there was no beef served (see my blog whossarinow.com). My New Delhi experience included a Maharaja Burger, for example. So, I've chowed in Rio De Janeiro, Bangkok, Moscow, Paris, Marakesh, Tokyo, Beijing and Rome.  

I must confess, I didn't actually feel like eating at McDonald's in Rome. In Thailand I craved American fast-food after two weeks of the local grub. Same thing in Tokyo. But in Rome, my diet was so exquisite, I had to force myself to order a Big Mac meal. 

McDonald's restaurants in Rome are really quite chic -- they have that contemporary, designer look that's tasteful and somewhat luxurious with granite-topped tables, plenty of wood accents and nary a golden arch. And the menu's include simplistic images so that ordering can be accomplished via a point and order method for all the turistas. The Italian menu includes items you'll never find in American. There's the special  Sfiziosita, triangular spinach croquettes with real Parmigiano Reggiano. And there's crunchy fried shrimp, among other things. And beer. 

I walked into the McDonalds near Largo Argentina one Thursday after shopping at Campo de Fiore. I ordered from the McMenu and asked for a Diet Coke -- a big one finally.  I wanted some ketchup for my fries, but for about 30-cents for each packet (on top of the nearly $9 you pay for a meal), I decided to eat my fries neat. My entire meal, packaged in universal wrapping. It looked and tasted exactly like I was eating it in Bloomfield Hills. Exactly. 

And, afterwards, I peed in the lovely, clean bathroom. 

Here's what Romebuddy.com wrote about McDonalds in Rome. 

McDonalds have about twenty joints all around town now. They first opened here about fifteen years ago with a place in Piazza Di Spagna. At that time Rome city council was very suspicious of the whole idea, so they specified to MacDonalds that they had to build a restaurant which was in character with the historical architecture and culture of the area, both inside and out.

McDonalds responded by building the most bizarre McD's restaurant you'll ever see - The facade is very low key, not the familiar red and yellow corporate colors, but gold lettering on dark grey marble, so it's difficult to spot at first. Inside, you'll find mock-marble replica fountains, real terra-cotta brickwork, fresco murals, salad bars and displays of fresh fruit in wooden barrows similar to those in Campo dei Fiori.

Other branches added later around other districts of Rome are more conventional in appearance. Although there's now a McDonalds in every far-flung suburb of Rome, the main locations you'll need as a tourist in the central Rome area are at:

Piazza Di Spagna
Via del Corso
Piazza Barberini
Via Nazionale
Piazza della Repubblica
Piazza della Rotonda (opposite the Pantheon)
Piazza Sidney Sonnino (in Trastevere)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dancing Queen

If there is a theme song to my experience in Rome, it's Abba's "Dancing Queen." In fact Abba's greatest hits was always playing in the background somewhere in the restaurant.  Chef Paolo would connect his cell-phone to small speakers in the kitchen and kick on the tunes. Everyone in the kitchen would sing along. 

Chef Paolo, a musician as well as a chef, would begin to cook and dance at the same time. I called him the dancing chef. At times he would get wild, tossing pasta, creating sauces, grilling and sauteeing, with feet and head moving in rhythm to the beat. 

I tried to videotape Paolo (I wanted to secretly post it on YouTube), but each time I whipped out my Flip camcorder, he suddenly became shy. 

Occasionally when it became too loud in the kitchen, what with all the singing and dancing, someone would peek into the kitchen and tell us "basso" -- quiet! 

Allan and Vittorio

Cantina del Vecchio

VittorioCantina del Vecchio has two main partners -- Allan and Vittorio -- and one of them is in the "front of the house," in the restaurant dining room, at all times.  That's seven days a week, from early morning until late -- really late. 

Allan is British born, but has lived in Italy for 35 years. Despite his many years in Rome, he still exudes a British "air" about him -- at first a bit aloof -- with a quiet manner. He's never loud (ever).

He's an observer and expert on social nuance. He's the one I would ask for translations (I could get along mostly with my broken Italian, copious gesticulation and charades). I counted on his perfect Italian and he never failed to explain to me not just pronunciation, but the musicality of the language. Words in Italian (more so than in English), depend so much on delivery. 

Allan is a true foodie. He loves cuisine and as a trained professional sommelier (from Rome's Hilton school) will always a recommend the perfect wine pairing for every dish.  He's the one I searched for approbation in everything. A compliment from Allan means something. 

Vittorio is so warm, he is (as Raquel would say) practically in flames. He speaks passionately and always with his hands. He is what I think of when I think of the Roman "manner." Of course, he IS Italian. He is quick with a smile and downright affectionate -- appropriately of course.

Vitorrio, too, knows and loves food. He has an Italian chic sense of style and seems to always be concerned about eating too many carbs. It's hard to be strict with Cantina's perfect pastas and intoxicating desserts. For him, the kitchen prepares meats and fish seared and never includes potatoes or other any other starchy foods. But you could tell he really missed them and would occasionally indulge (passionately), as I saw him a few times, eating even a bit of the kitchen's luxurious rosemary roasted potatoes (see recipe below) or a molten chocolate tortino or layered "mille foglia" -- a Napolean by any other name. Each time I would comment, "no carbiodrato!"   

Roasted Rosemary Potatoes
2 pounds peeled new or gold potatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Finely ground sea salt to taste
2 Tbsp. rosemary leaves

Preheat oven to 450-degrees F. Line a baking sheet with sides with parchment or spray with nonstick cooking spray. 

Peel and cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle the oil over and toss well. Sprinkle with salt and rosemary and toss well with your hands. Spread the potatoes over the baking sheet in a single layer. Roast, uncovered, for 30-minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and lightly golden. Makes 6 servings.