Not only the restaurant world but the food media have re-discovered Italian-American food.
Have you noticed the lines, or that you need a reservation at red sauce Italian restaurants lately? Or that upscale eateries that once refused to recognize the tomato have added lasagna Bolognese and eggplant parmigiana to their menus?
Not only the restaurant world but the food media have re-discovered Italian-American food. Saveur magazine features it on its current cover. Inside articles range from Sunday family dinner to the annual Celebration of the Seven Fishes. Even the New York Times Book Review recently recognized Italian-American cooking. On Sunday, its closing essay by Laura Shapiro described researching a 1950s cookbook at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. She writes that American home cooks were not ready, not for its lyrical descriptions meant to be the actual recipe, or its inattention to exact measurements.
Thirty years later American home cooks were not only ready they heartily embraced Mary Ann Esposito when she debuted her Italian cooking show, “Ciao Italia,” on PBS. They looked forward eagerly to her first book so they could re-create her recipes. Mrs. Esposito became the most beloved Italian cooking teacher in the USA. Not only because of her books or show, but because her personal appearances are full of warmth and willingness to engage with her readers, answering questions and dispensing kitchen wisdom until everyone’s hunger is sated. (A tasting and book-signing on Nov. 30 at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham is nearly sold out)
Her latest book, “Ciao Italia Family Classics,” is different from all her previous books; there’s a thickness to it beyond its 450 pages. It captures the current excitement in the restaurant world and brings it home. It acknowledges that Italian-American cooking never went away; it continued in home kitchens through generations of cooks honoring their culinary heritage.
As a history teacher and translator of ancient Italian texts, Mrs. Esposito gently and lovingly traces the history of Italian cooking as interpreted on American soil, aka Italian-American cooking. She guides the reader through several generations of recipes using her own family remembrances as the vehicle. Each one demonstrates a stop on the journey from the first immigrants who adapted available ingredients to recreate a taste of home. It follows the ensuing generations of American tourists who sought out their roots in Italy’s trattorias and their children, today’s new cooks, back to the kitchen.
Remembrances of Sunday dinner evoke the early morning fragrance of tomato sauce simmering on the stove and extended family piling in the door. There’s her grandmother’s rolled beef, pounded thinly and stuffed with cheese and parsley and walnuts and eggs, then cooked in tomato sauce, the tomatoes tenderizing the beef, the beef lending its flavor to the tomatoes. More flavor memories appear in chickpea and pasta soup, the Friday supper staple during Lent when meat was forbidden.
And, there’s today’s stylish branzino in orange sauce, featured on big city upscale, or alta cucina, menus. Mrs. Esposito’s recipe reveals it as simple-to-prepare — providing you can find sea bass at your local fish store. And penne alla vodka, an idea that Mrs. Esposito discovered was the brainchild of liquor distributors. Only briefly accepted in Italy, it became a hit in this country. She improvised her own recipe based on traditional Italian techniques.
The gamut of Italian-American cooking finds a comfortable place on the pages of this book laced with memories and lovely photographs of finished dishes so that the cook knows the result. The flavor will follow as well as a future of warm memories.
The following recipes are adapted from “Ciao Italia Family Classics” by Mary Ann Esposito.
GRANDMOTHER GALASSO’S STUFFED ROLLED BEEF
Braciolione all Nonna Galasso
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 pounds to round steak, about ¼-inch thick
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, cut into slices
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion thinly sliced
4 cups crushed tomatoes, fresh or canned
1/3 cup water
1 cup dry red wine
1 whole bay leaf
1 small bunch basil, tied with twine
salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1. To make the braciolone, lay the meat out flat and pound it with a meat mallet to flatten it slightly to a uniform thickness, about 1/4-inch thick. Be careful not to tear the meat. Wipe the meat dry with paper towels. Rub it all over with salt and pepper.
2. Mince the garlic, parsley and walnuts together and spread it all over the surface of the meat. Lay the egg slices down the center of the meat, slightly overlapping.
3. Starting at the long side, roll up the meat like a jelly roll. Tie the roll with string at 1-inch intervals. Set aside.
4. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large deep saucepan. Add the onions and cook until they soften. Add the meat to the pan and brown it on all sides. Lower the heat to medium low and add all the remaining ingredients. Season with salt to taste and stir to blend well. Simmer the meat, covered for 1-1/2 hours, or until very tender.
5. Remove the meat from the sauce and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the string and cut the braciolone into 1-inch thick slices. Arrange the slices on a serving platter, spoon sauce over the top, and serve.
PENNE WITH VODKA SAUCE
Penne alla Vodka
Makes 8 servings
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon hot red pepper paste
2 cups pureed canned plum tomatoes
1/2 cup vodka
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
fine sea salt
1 pound penne rigate
1. Melt butter in a 12- to 14- inch sauté pan. Add garlic; cook over medium heat until soft. Stir in the red pepper paste and cook about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and vodka; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Reduce the heat to low. Slowly pour in the cream and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add half the cheese, cover, and keep the sauce warm while the pasta is cooking.
3. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rapid boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. Add the past and cook until al dente. Drain the penne, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water.
4. Transfer the penne and reserved cooking water to the sauce and stir the ingredients well over medium heat until hot. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese and stir to blend.
5. Transfer penne to a serving platter. Serve immediately.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com