In the kitchen I originate very little. Modify, yes; originate, no.
I’m okay with that.
I was gratified recently when I watched “Funke,” a documentary film about Evan Funke, the American chef whose LA restaurant Felix attempts to serve the best pasta in the United States. Not just good pasta. The best. (Felix menu shown above.) What struck me were Funke’s remarks early in the film about the casalinghe tradition in Italy.
Casalinghe denotes what in the US we might think of as “home cooking” or “home-made.” It’s pretty far down the street from “fine dining.” An establishment on Main Street with a neon “home cooking” sign in the window suggests simple food, inexpensive food, food with no pretensions. In a word, grub. When Funke speaks of the casalinghe tradition, he’s referring to the way moms and grandmothers (and dads and grandfathers) cook. You hear reverence in his voice when he uses the word. When you see him standing at the shoulder of home cooks in Bologna and Bari, learning to make home-made pasta by hand, the casalinghe way, you see a guy with an oversized ego look on with awe, humility, and respect.
This matters to me because what I learned about Italian cooking began with my wife and my mother-in-law, and continued later with extended family and friends in Italy, and then with eating around Italy and asking questions and talking to servers, cooks, and proprietors. I thought, and continue to think, I want to learn to cook like this. I wanted to make my mother-in-law’s ragu, make boiled potatoes and zucchini like the ones I ate at Trattoria alla Rivetta in Venice, rabbit roast like the one I ate at Mario in Florence, penne alla arrabbiata like those I ate at da Luzzi in Rome. All good grub. All casalinghe cooking. Mind-blowing.
You can find arty fare in Italy, of course. The kind of food that, once it’s set down in front of you, you wonder: How in the world did they think of this? It’s where tradition and imagination intersect. (The Italian word for it is fantasia–in English closer to fancy, as in “suits your fancy”). A few years ago in Pesaro, the sleepy beach town where my mother-in-law grew up, down the coast from San Marino, I gazed upon a fish antipasto that was delicious and exciting: poached cod with sliced green apple, a few shreds of radicchio and romaine, and pomegranate seeds. The colors, the arrangement on the platter: you almost didn’t want to eat it.
If you want art, if you want fine food in Italy, you can find it. Friends of mine have made a pilgramage to Modena, to dine at Osteria Francescana. I get it. But I don’t want it. I want the good grub.
I now think of casalinghe cooking as foundational, some basics that put you on the road to authentic cooking, to satisfaction and daily delight. In her art education, my wife points back at a design class in which she was invited to abstract and, when she did so, felt she failed at it. “You can’t abstract if you can’t render,” she says. Succeed first at making a realistic design–oh, that’s a clearly still life, or that’s obviously a bicycle–then abstract from it. In the kitchen, basics matter. First grub, first the traditional foods.
In Montepulciano one year we ate two pastas for lunch, what the Italians call a bis. The server said, Have the one with pesto first. The second dish will be more challenging. It was a sausage and red pepper sauce that he warned us about, warned us with a smile, and he was right. Crazy good.
“So what did you do here?” we asked, pointing at the last of the pasta with salsiccia e pepperoncino on the platter. You plural. How does one make this sauce? No secrets. This is how we do it. Ask and we will tell you. Usually.
Pasta with sausage and red pepper was simplicity itself. Sausage out of its casing, sauteed with red pepper, tomato puree added. In 20-30 minutes you have something wonderful. Around that time, back in the US, we were eating in a local Italian restaurant that served pasta with sausage and leeks. No tomato, no cream. Just those two ingredients. Sausage out of the casing, thin-sliced leek. When we got home from that week eating around Tuscany, I put those two sauces together, and it’s now one of our favorite dishes. In the casalinghe tradition, very simple.
Right now I’m kind of crazy about a summer potato dish I’m preparing. It’s a Middle Eastern potato salad my wife will eat. She hates the mustard-and-mayonnaise-family-reunion potato salad, a home cooking staple on the Midwest dinner table. I’ll eat it. But then, I was raised with it. I think my mother-in-law would eat this summer potato dish too. A few boiled potatoes with their skins stripped off, diced scallions, olive oil and lemon juice, sea salt and a dusting of dill.
The dish cools in the fridge for a couple hours, comes out a little before serving and blows you away.
Simple wins the day. Unless you know the basics, unless you are really really good in the kitchen, keep it simple. Funke’s restaurant serves the real thing, Italian pasta dishes you would find in local joints in Italy. His restaurant is a local joint, where you pay $35 for a dish of tagliatelle bolognese that would cost $10 at a trattoria in Bologna.
But giving credit where credit is due, Funke has done the work. The dishes on his menu are authentic-issima, all hand made. Some places in the US, casalinghe will cost you. Unless you can do it at home, which is where you learn casalinghe cooking, if you’re lucky.