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.
Two words, a friend of mine’ll get a little crazy.
We have a box of it in the fridge.(Yes, a box.) It came in handy this morning. I’ve got some rabbit quarters on the stove, cooking long and low and slow.
Olive oil and garlic (the more of the latter the better), salt and pepper, fresh rosemary. They brown gently, front and back, getting a tan in the pan.Some white wine extends the cook, quarter cup, turning those rabbit quarters every 20-30 minutes to avoid stickage.
This is how I would want to be cooked. Lay me down in olive oil and onion.
I woke up today thinking about olives. It was 4:00 a.m., my usual time to wake up thinking about something. This morning it was olives, and lunch. Confession: I often wake up thinking about lunch.
A fond reminiscence in our family is how food-oriented my father-in-law was; well, a better word is obsessed. He too often awoke with food on his mind and began planning the mid-day meal before his head even left the pillow.He would turn to Rose, my mother-in-law, andsay to her, whispering quietly so as not to disturb her rest, “Ro, do you think we should defrost that chicken for lunch today?” It pissed her off. He too, I should add, was inclined to wake up early. She would harrumph, Sta Zitto, Gigi. Che piaga! Translating roughly to: What a pain in the ass you are.He would roll out of bed and head for the kitchen.
Last night we went to Ro e Buni, in Villa Verucchio. (That’s Boo-NEE.) It’s a pasta-meat place. I had cappelletti al ragu. Sort of like tortellini, a folded pasta with a filling, cappelletti are usually served in broth. It’s a delicious soup when there’s a chill in the air. I like cappelletti with ragu at Ro e Buni. Here they are:
In addition, we had passatelli in broth (another fantastic soup), swisschard, squaquerone (a soft spreadable cheese), grilled sausage, and piada. And a half liter of red wine.
For dessert, because we’re taking it easy, we had just a tiny bit of crostata with nutella.
Today for lunch we went to Nud e Crud, in Rimini. This place gets it done. It will definitely be on our itinerary. In the interest of sampling as many different kinds of pasta as I can (and I’m doing this for you) I had strozzopreti with salsiccia, pendolini, stridoli, e fossa. Strozzopreti is the pasta, meaning “choke the priest,” with sausage, pear tomatos, a wild herb I don’t have a name for in English, and a local cheese that matures in a cave. This dish was mind-blowing:
In addition, we had piada, swisschard, baby artichokes, and a half a liter of red wine. For dessert: Zuppa Inglese and Crema della Nonna. (Idiot! I didn’t take their picture).
Note: there will be recurring menu items in these reviews–swisschard and piada, especially. And red wine. I’m eager for you to try to local Sangiovese.
I’m thinking about how to organize this food adventure so you can try as many things as possible. Eat widely (without becoming wide). With your permission, I will order for the table, indicating in advance: Tonight is a great pasta place. Or today we’ll have three soups for lunch. Or next up: a seafood meal. Or at this place we’ll concentrate on meats. Always, of course, with an assortment of sides.
My preference is to order for the table–because it saves time and because I can direct you to local specialties. Often servers will have recommendations. Today’s special at Nud e Crud, for example, was the strozzopreti. I would have been a fool to miss it.
That’s yesterday and today. We’re taking the night off. It was a heavy lunch. Which raises an important issue. Is he nuts? How much does he expect us to eat? Only as much as you want. I’ll be thinking light vs heavy, when we need to take our feet off the accelerator and coast. When we need to coast and take a breather, we will.
Tomorrow for lunch I expect to have rabbit–at another great place in the area. Also, they usually have ravioli (probably with a stridoli sauce) that are delicate and, well, exquisite.
In the kitchen I originate very little. I’m an homage cook. I replicate and modify. One dish I’m proud of is a modified arrabiata pasta. Very modified. Extremely modified. Actually, it has little to do with arrabiata. The story:
One year my wife and I had a long lunch in Montepulciano, the one in Tuscany known for noble wine–literally Il Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. After touring the wine caves we asked 3-4 people where we could get a good lunch and found ourselves served a “bis”–two orders of pasta divided between two people. (You can also do a “tris,” a tris for two, a tris for three or four.) One pasta was light, satisfactory, and forgettable; the other was penne with sausage, tomato, and red pepper. A bomb. And I mean a bomb in the best possible way.
Twice now I’ve chosen not to eat polenta. My wife and I are in restaurants. It’s a choice between tagliatelle and beans or passatelli in a vegetable sauce, or polenta, I reluctantly say no to the polenta.
Last night it happened again. This just has to stop.
Oh, polenta. It comes to the table vivid yellow, this cooked corn flour mush with a sauce ladled over the top of it. Last Sunday, at Osteria del Pisello, their polenta with pea sauce.
You eat it with a spoon. It’s still hot. The red sauce, peas or beans or ragu or whatever, is likely to leave an reddish-orange olive oil sheen, as you stir, mix, spoon, and lift this wonderful food your mouth. To borrow a phrase from Raymond Carver, it’s a simple, good thing. That’s the dominant culinary principle in this region. Simple is good. More likely, simple is perfection.
When she was a kid, my wife says the practice was to pour out the polenta on a large cutting board and put it in the middle of the table, cover it with ragu. No plates. No servings portioned out. Each individual, spoon in hand, having at it.
In one of my undergraduate psychology classes I learned about what researchers call “the just noticeable difference.” We’re talking levels of perception. At what point does one lose the ability to distinguish one sensory input from another that is a measurable gradation less or more in strength. What is the just noticeable difference between the pleasure you take in one dish you love over another you love? That’s the fix we are in when we eat over here.
As we say these days, indulging in cliche, It’s all good. (This is cliche I can live with.) Seen below, last night’s polenta from Trattoria Rinaldi.
We are on the threshold of tomato time in Michigan. It’s hard to be patient. At the local farmers market they will have both red and gold cherry tomatoes (what the Italians call pendolini) and Early Girls and Big Boys bursting with flavor. You take the Girls and Boys, slice and anoint them with olive oil.
A number of years ago I taught a cooking class I called “ten sauces, ten pastas, ten wines.” The animating idea was to become a good match-maker. Some sauces need a particular form of pasta. Meat sauces, for example, instead of spaghetti or linguini or tagliolini, are best paired with wheels or fusilli or a wide noodle like fettuccine or tagliatelle. Tengono il sugo, they say in Italian. The pasta holds the sauce. And wine? I didn’t know much about wine then, and still don’t. The class was an excuse to try ten different wines from all over Italy.
In retirement my in-laws used to go back to Italy for a couple months at a time. When they came home, for a week or two my wife’s father would go on an oven-roasted chicken binge. Asked why, he said chicken in the US just tasted better.