By James Briscione, Director of Culinary Development

I’ve been thinking about flavor a lot lately—from my work at ICE on IBM’s Cognitive Cooking project and menus for upcoming special events, to a new book I’m writing about how chefs develop flavor and create exciting new combinations of ingredients. Yet even outside of work, flavor is at the front of my mind. In fact, it’s the way I remember my vacations.

Chiccory and radish, on sale in a Puglian greenmarket

Chiccory and other greens, on sale in a Puglian greenmarket

I don’t need an over-priced souvenir or a slew of photos (though I take them anyway); I remember the places I’ve traveled by the unique tastes I experienced there. From past trips to Italy, I can recall the perfect wild strawberry—bright red and absolutely bursting with flavor—eaten straight from the carton at a small market on the streets of Venice. Or a revelatory dessert in San Gimignano—pears poached in locally produced Vernaccia and served with a tangy, salty ice cream made from Pecorino cheese.

Recently, I was lucky enough to return to Italy and experience a whole new range of ingredients and flavors from the Southern part of the country. First in Puglia, where the ladies run the kitchen, I spent an afternoon with Maria Valentini, learning to coax flavor from the simplest of ingredients. The first sign that this would be an edible experience to remember? At Maria’s masseria, Ottava Piccola, my family was greeted by her four-year-old granddaughter. offering up  eggs that their chickens had just laid.

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Fava beans grow all over Puglia and the spring bounty is dried and saved to be enjoyed throughout the year. Maria taught me to simmer one small potato with a pound of dried beans, the base for an unusually silky, rich purée—finished with the oil her son makes from the olives grown on their property, of course. In traditional pugliese style, we paired the purée with leaves of chicory, sautéed first over blazing heat, then slowly finished with more olive oil and garlic.

Dried fava beans in the market; the Puglian specialty of "fave e cicoria"

Dried fava beans in the market; the Puglian specialty of “fave e cicoria”

The distinct taste of these simple elements will stay with me for a long time. They serve as an important reminder—as we continue to push for bigger, better and more complex food—of just how delicious simple, perfectly cooked ingredients can be. Beyond the fave e cicoria and hand-rolled pastas for which Puglia is famous, I will remember amazing produce: ripe peaches, figs as big as my hand (that only grow for two delicious weeks a year) and green almonds, eaten directly off the tree.

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Giant fresh figs and green almonds

From Maria’s kitchen on the gorgeous eastern coast of Puglia, we drove across the “heel of the boot” to the emerald shores of Maruggio. Here, olive groves and vineyards nearly run into the ocean, so it’s no surprise that the (abnormally salty) sea and the creatures found in it dominate the local cuisine. Again, I had the pleasure of going behind the kitchen doors, this time at Masseria Le Fabriche, as beautiful as any exclusive property you might find in Napa Valley.

Just like at Ottava Piccola, simplicity reigned in the kitchen of Le Fabriche with flavors that I will never forget. We learned to cook orata, a broad-bodied white fish, similar to what we would call sea bream or dorade. Simply baked under a layer of breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs and top quality olive oil, it was very reminiscent of a dish that professional students at ICE prepare in their study of Italian regional cooking.

For a small antipasto, we enjoyed the most perfect sformatino I have ever tasted. In Rome and northern parts of Italy you’ll find sformatini of silky smooth vegetable purées, mixed with egg and baked like a flan. In Puglia, they were coarse and rustic—the freshest possible squash and eggplant were pulled from garden, grated and mixed with sweet, slowly cooked onions, parmesan and just enough egg to hold them together. Before going in the oven, each cake was topped with strips of smoked scamorza.

Preparing "Pasta alla Nonna"  in a rustic Puglian kitchen

Preparing “Pasta alla Norma” in a rustic Puglian kitchen

As for our main dish, I knew that orecchiette (a pasta named for its shape, resembling “little ears”) originated in Puglia, but I didn’t realize that it is often prepared with a dense rolled pasta called pizzarieddi. At Le Fabriche these two regional shapes of pasta were the base for a local version of the Sicilian classic, Pasta alla Norma. The sauce for the pasta begins with cubes of eggplant, sautéed until tender in olive oil with garlic and chiles. Next—where the recipe breaks with Sicilian tradition—cream is added and reduced by half before adding a simple tomato sauce. The result is a deep pink sauce studded with purple chunks of eggplant—sweet, spicy and rich all at once. Once the pasta is added to the sauce (and the texture adjusted with a touch of leftover pasta water), finely grated pecorino is added—balancing the sauce with its signature sharp, salty flavor.

Needless to say, our luggage returned to the States full of packages of orecchiette and pizzarieddi. We’ll be recreating the dish whenever we need a taste of vacation, though we may never quite succeed in recapturing those flavors. Even if we miss perfection in our best Pasta alla Norma efforts, its okay…we’ll just have to return to refresh our memory.

Craving more Italian culinary adventures? Read about Chef Ted Siegel’s recent trip to Rome.

By Chef Ted Siegel, ICE Culinary Arts Instructor

In 2005 the New York Times published an article by Frank Bruni (then restaurant critic and editor of the “Dining In/Dining Out” section) about Roman cuisine. The article’s overall message was: “nothing new is going on in Roman cuisine!”.  After a recent trip to Rome my wife, Cheryl, I am happy to report that this is still true.

This might be a slight overgeneralization; there are a handful of Roman restaurants doing “modernist cuisine-molecular gastronomic” spins on traditional Roman cooking. However, most Romans find the modernist trend oxymoronic, referring to this type of cooking as “all smoke and no roast!”.

Fortunately, Roman cooking and the culinary traditions of Lazio (best described as a rustic and pastoral cuisine based on meat and vegetables) has not changed too much since Etruscan sheep herders occupied the banks and mud flats of the Tiber river, as far back as 800-750 B.C. Hallelujah for that!

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Seafood risotto

During our trip to Rome, Cheryl and I thoroughly immersed ourselves in its cuisine, enjoying the glories of traditional “cucina alla Romana. Below is an recount of some of our more noteworthy meals, as well as a list of restaurants that one should not miss if traveling to the “Eternal City”:

HOSTERIA da FORTUNATO (12 Via Pellegrino): A very tiny neighborhood trattoria serving traditional Roman home cooking that is popular with locals. If you go, you will likely see a group of women sitting at a corner table hand-rolling, cutting and shaping all the sublime house made pastas.

Their iconic Roman fritti misti of vegetables and meatballs in a delicate batter is a must-have dish. As for the pasta, try any number of the variations of strangolapreti (“priest stranglers”), a very traditional hand rolled pasta dumpling that is particular to the central Italian regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. The story of how this pasta got its name goes back to the middle ages. Roman catholic prelates would gorge themselves on this simple pasta made water and durham flour until they choked, hence the name.

The variations on strangolapreti that we found deeply satisfying were caccio e peppe, carciofi e gunaciale (artichokes and  smoked pork cheeks- both basic staples of the Roman kitchen) and alla carbonnara. The house-made sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli in a luscious butter and sage sauce (“burro e salvia”) is also a must-try.

HOSTARIA COSTANZA (63 Piazza del Paradiso): This beautiful restaurant is actually built into the cellar of an ancient Roman amphitheater that dates back to the height of the “glory days” of the Roman Empire. The walls of the restaurant are still the original brick work from this archeological masterpiece.

Our dinner began with a perfectly-executed classic: carciofi alla Romana (large globe artichokes simmered in a broth of white wine, olive oil and herbs). The pastas were also fabulous. Worth a return visit were the tonnarelle con bottarga e seppie (square-cut spaghetti made on-premises served in a sauce of baby calamari indigenous to the Mediterranean and bottarga, which is the salt-cured roe of grey mullet); a simple grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass); and finally, trippa alla Romana (tripe braised in tomatoes and mint with pecorino alla Romana, a dish that pays homage to the marcelleria – the butchers of the Roman slaughterhouses whose cuisine has dominated the Roman culinary landscape since ancient times. They cooked with a strong emphasis on offal, because that was all they could afford).

Fortunately for us, we arrived in Rome just as puntarelle – a variety of wild dandelion greens – started appearing in the Roman vegetable markets (puntarelle has a very short season from late winter to early spring). Puntarelle is traditionally served with a dressing of red onions, anchovies, lemon and olive oil. Needless to say, we enjoyed the version we had at Costanza.

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RISTORANTE La SCALA (58-61 Piazza della ‘Scala): Ristorante la Scala is located in Trastavere, a very quiet, residential neighborhood southeast of Vatican city. We stumbled into La Scala serendipitously after a day of touring the Vatican. We were so fond of this local restaurant that we dined there twice. Weather permitting, sitting outside in the outdoor dining area affords one an authentic experience with a view of the beautiful church of Santa Maria della ‘Scala.

Being in Rome at the height of truffle season gave us an opportunity to indulge in the truffle menu of La Scala: burrata di bufala with black truffles and rughetta (wild arugula); light as air potato gnocchi with scarmorza (smoked mozzarella) and black truffles; fried artichokes with black truffles, fonduta and guanciale; and finally, sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli in an unctuous butter sauce showered with truffles.

Other dishes worth not missing are the tonnarelle pasta with zucchini flowers and cherry tomatoes, as well as the carciofi alla guidea (artichokes simmered and fried in olive oil), one of the truly great dishes born out of Rome’s Jewish “ghetto”, dating back 2500 years. For dessert, try the crema di zabaglione con fragola (sabayon cream with wild strawberries).

HOSTERIA GRAPPOLO d’ORO (80-84 Piazza Cancelleria): This is another favorite where we had two wonderful meals. This restaurant has a clientele of largely local regulars and would fit right in in a New York City neighborhood. While the décor is modern, the cooking is in keeping with traditional Roman gastronomy.

The delicious house antipasti tasting plate features a modern take on a molded panzanella salad, mille-foglia con burrata e alici (a very light pastry layered with buffalo milk burrata and marinaded white anchovies), pan fried oxtail meatballs with salsa verde, a croquette of baccala and potatoes and an eggplant-ricotta polpette.

The orechiette pasta with broccoli and potatoes was not the usual mess of broccoli flowers and potatoes swimming in olive oil. The vegetables had been cooked down to form an incredibly light, yet slightly coarse puree, bound by a light broth emulsified with a little olive oil. The execution of this dish showed the true skill of the kitchen. Further, d’Oro’s rigatoni all’ amatriciana with a copious garnish of crisp guanciale was one of the better versions of this classic Roman pasta preparation we had during our trip (pasta all’ amatriciana, carbonara and caccio e pepe make up the “holy trinity” of Roman pasta preparations).

For the second course, we sampled stinco di maiale (pork shank braised with chestnuts and beer), guancia di bue brasato (beef cheeks braised in red wine and carrots) and abacchio scottadito alla griglia (the Roman classic of grilled baby lamb marinated with herbs, garlic and olive oil—whose title implies that when you pick up the grilled cuts of lamb, you burn your fingers while eating them!).

CENTRALISSMO “WINE BAR” (15-17 Via Santa Maria in Via): This wine bar and restaurant near the Pantheon gets mixed reviews. However, we had an excellent platter of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies and mozzarella, as well as a memorable plate of fried olives. For the primi we enjoyed a very creditable spaghetti caccio e pepe and bucatini all ‘amatriciana. Given the fact that Centralismo is a wine bar, we drank one of the more unusual wines on our trip: Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine from the Emilia Romagna region.

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Potato gnocchi with scamorza (smoked mozzarella) and black truffles

 PIAZZA CAMPO di FIORE

I would be remiss not to mention the Piazza Campo di Fiore, which is one of the truly great food markets in Europe with a wonderful salumeria. Worth visiting is Antica Norcineria Viola. If you are passionate about Italian salume – such as cured hams, salami and anything else that pays homage to pigs – this establishment is a must visit. If you find yourself fortunate enough to wander in there, try the testa, which has a beautifully silky and refined texture.

WINE

The wines we drank were too numerous to mention, but a few were truly memorable:

  • Barolo chinato: A late harvest Barolo made from the Nebbiolo grape in the region of Piedmonte.
  • Merlino: A wine from Trentino-Alto Adige which is produced from the Lagrein grape variety that is grown in the region’s Vigneti delle Dolomiti wine district and is classified as a fortified wine
  • Viscola Querciantica: A wine from the Marchese region in Southern Italy that is pressed from the juice of sour cherries.

GENERAL TIPS

As far as Roman hospitality, we found the service in all the restaurants mentioned above to be warm and welcoming. Most of the Italians we met spoke English as a second language (some more fluent than others) or at least made an attempt to communicate in English.

Be aware that unlike in other places, restaurants in Rome will charge extra for bread, which is automatically brought to the table and is generally of poor quality. (You will not be asked if you want it or not, so don’t be surprised by the surcharge when you get the bill. If you decide not to have bread, inform the wait staff when they bring it to the table.)

Thinking of traveling to Italy? Consider a hands-on cooking experience in the picturesque heart of Umbria, led by ICE Chef-Instructor Gerri Sarnataro. Click here to learn more. 

 

 

Ever wonder what’s cooking at ICE? Five-Course Friday gives you a snapshot of what we are whipping up weekly. Whether you pop in to a recreational class, catch a professional demo or watch the transformation from student to chef, there is something scrumptious happening daily. This week’s photos are from a lesson on southern Italy along with a treat from our Pastry and Baking classes.


Antipasti: Mozzarella in Carrozza


Primi: Macceroni con Salsa di Pomodorini


Primi: Pasta con Cavolfiore


Pesce: Pesce all’ACqua Pazza

Results from everyone’s favorite class at ICE: Cookie day!

Have a delicious weekend!

We made our way down the hall of an empty schoolhouse, shouts of Italian, then laughter followed by more shouting echoed through the hall. The men on the other side of the wall were either about to rip each other’s throats out or in middle of the funniest story ever told. My Italian is no good so it could have been either.

Inside the room were three long tables in the shape of a ‘U’ each table dressed with a different cloth — red, white and green — like the Italian flag. After a brief introduction from our host, “something, something, something ‘Americanos’ something, something” we were greeted with a rousing ‘Ay’ and plastic cups filled with wine hoisted in the air. The average age in the room was 50+ and it turns out all the shouting was over who among them was the worst soccer player.

On our final night in Italy, where we received training in the culinary art of sous vide, we had been invited to be a part of this group’s long-standing tradition. Once a week, they get together after work. If the weather is good they might play a game of soccer, but the evening is really about the meal together. They meet at the same school they all attended as children, prepare the food in the school’s kitchen and set their patriotic tables in the adjacent classroom. More…

Ever have one of those weeks at work where you felt like you constantly under pressure and you couldn’t get away from it — like you were working in a vacuum?

I just had one of the weeks; but no one around here seems to feel very sorry for me. Chef Chris Geualdi and I recently got an assignment from our boss and we knew the pressure was on us, heck it was all around us. We were shipped off to Venice, Italy for a week of training in sous vide technology.

We visited Orved, an amazing company in Musile, a small town on the Piave River just 30 km north of Venice. It was a phenomenal time to eat and learn. I’ll tell you more about the food later; first, lets get down to the really fun stuff — sous vide. Since sous vide is likely to become a regular subject on this blog, let’s start with the basics.

What is sous vide?
The term sous vide literally translated means ‘under vacuum’ in French. It refers to food that is sealed in a vacuum packed in food safe bags. The method of vacuum sealing meats was originally developed to help extend their shelf life, but is now commonly used for to cook meats also. The term sous vide is often incorrectly used to refer to all types of low temperature cooking. More…

What is it about a charred crust on a margherita pizza, a steaming, judiciously-sauced bowl of linguine Bolognese or a fragrant and bright salsa verde atop fish that always keep us coming back for more? Italian cuisine boils down to deceptively simple comfort food. The “boot’s” essential reverence for quality ingredients, used time and again with gusto, highlights the foods’ best flavors and characteristics and makes eating the familiar dishes of Italy a welcome experience in taste memory.

Italy’s excellent wines are just as easy and agreeable to commit to memory. Course three in Richard Vayda’s Wine Essentials series dove red sauce–deep into the native wines of Italy. Traveling from Piemonte, to diverse regions such as Umbria and Alba, Vayda introduced us to how excellently matched Italian wines are to the foods from the regions which we know and love. In my Culinary Arts classes, we’ve made many of these famed dishes. Now, tasting the wines in class I’m getting a better idea of what wine aficionados mean when they say an excellent wine and food pairing of wine can take each component to a whole new level — the sum is more than the parts. More…