Many Italian foods are so familiar they almost seem like American foods.
If you ask a child where pizza is from, he is likely to say the United States. And the same goes for spaghetti and lasagna. Gelato, too.
No wonder Italian food is still the most popular international food in America.
So it was natural – inevitable, really – that I would wrap up my yearlong culinary tour of other countries with a visit to Italy, the best-tasting boot in the world.
The country is marvelously varied in the cuisine of its different regions. Southern Italy provides the food that is perhaps most familiar to Americans. It is where you will find the tomatoes, the eggplants, the marinara sauce – and the pizza.
Northern Italy is more about beef and dairy; it is home to the butter-based sauces and the cream. It is also the birthplace of salted meats, such as prosciutto and salami.
With such an extraordinary abundance of foods and styles of cooking, I was briefly at a loss for what to choose that would best represent the Italian kitchen. I decided to go for dishes that were well-known and comforting, largely because I had an ace in the hole: my wife.
Actually, it is my wife’s late mother, who was the daughter of Italian immigrants and who was said to be a wonderful cook. I decided to make two of her best recipes, and then two from a cookbook called “The Silver Spoon,” which is essentially the Italian version of “Joy of Cooking.” It’s found in kitchens all throughout Italy.
Italian cooking begins with a good tomato sauce, and my wife’s mother’s is absolutely the very best. There is no room for debate here.
In recent years, brightly flavored, fresh-tasting tomato sauces have been the rage, and a lot of home cooks have forgotten all about the old-school, long-simmered sauces. These take some time to make, but every passing minute only deepens and enriches the flavor. This is the way Italians have been making sauce for centuries.
The version I made is so spectacularly good because of a few special techniques. First, it is made with meat: a large hunk of beef and a somewhat smaller hunk of pork. Both boost the lower notes of the sauce and provide an umami undertone. After the sauce has finished cooking, they can be served separately with a bit of the sauce, or part of the meat can be shredded or cut into pieces and kept in the sauce.
The pork adds sweetness to the sauce as well, which is important because this sauce is made without sugar. The sweetness, which is just enough to counteract the tomatoes’ acidity, is an integral part of the sauce and is not merely added for its own sake.
And to keep the sauce from becoming bitter, tomato paste is added only toward the end of cooking. Tomato paste can become unpleasantly harsh if it cooks for too long, so it is only stirred into the sauce for the last half-hour.
One more trick to the sauce: It has no oregano at all. Apparently, that’s a Northern Italian thing.
Once the sauce was made, I could use some of it make stuffed shells. This is one of our most popular dinner-party dishes for the very good reason that it is utterly magnificent. It starts with the sauce and only gets better from there.
What makes it better is the mixture that is used to stuff the pasta shells. It is nothing fancy, nothing special. Just the absolutely perfect proportion of fresh ingredients.
You begin with a lot of parsley and a little garlic, which you keep chopping (and chopping, and chopping) until it almost forms a paste. This is mixed with rich, almost sweet ricotta cheese, along with a couple of eggs, a splash of olive oil, a healthy handful of grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of nutmeg which, my wife’s mother wrote on her recipe card, “gives it (an) exotic taste.”
The filling is stuffed into parboiled pasta shells that are covered with the sauce, baked and served piping hot. Although the dish is casual in nature, it never fails to impress everyone who tries it.
I next decided to make what is perhaps the ultimate Italian comfort food. Pasta e Fagioli, which is pronounced by Southern Italians as “pasta fazool,” is a simple dish of pasta and white beans; it is just about the most inexpensive meal you can make.
Inexpensive, yes, but warming and inexpressibly wonderful. About half of the beans are pureed, which creates a nicely rustic texture, and the pasta is cooked in that puree (with a lot of water), allowing it to draw in all of those great flavors.
To millions of Italians, it says “home.” To millions of people who are not Italian, it says, “Wow, this is really, shockingly good.”
For dessert, I made what may be the most popular Italian dessert, zabaglione. It is like a custard, but technically it isn’t one (no dairy); in fact, it is an emulsion. But that is an ugly word for a dessert that is so light and airy and delightful.
It is also easy, as long as you don’t mind a lot of whisking. Zabaglione has just three ingredients: egg yolks, sugar (I used superfine sugar) and Marsala wine. Marsala is the traditional choice, but other sweetened wines, or even sparkling wines, will do.
All you do is whisk together the yolks and the sugar until frothy, add the wine and then whisk that mixture over lightly simmering water until it magically begins to coalesce and grow. It becomes as light as a feather, and almost effervescent.
After a heavy Italian meal, nothing is better.
Mama Picroni’s Tomato Sauce
Yield: 4 quarts (43 servings)
Recipe by Florence Pikrone.
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chuck roast or other boneless beef roast
1 cup onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
3 to 4 (28-ounce) cans whole plum (Roma) tomatoes – a 6-pound can is ideal
16 ounces canned tomato sauce
1 large bay leaf
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons dried basil
1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork
18 ounces tomato paste
Note: This makes about a gallon of sauce. Consequently, it requires a very large pot; 12 quarts is best. Leftover sauce freezes very well. If doubling recipe, use 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds of beef and 1 1/2 pounds of pork.
Cut fat off beef and render it in pot over medium-high heat until a thin layer of melted fat covers bottom. Discard fat. Brown beef on all sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove roast to a plate. Add onions and garlic to pot, and saute over medium or medium-low heat until onions are translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Cut each tomato into 3 or 4 pieces and add to pot, along with juice from can. Stir in tomato sauce, bay leaf, parsley and basil. Return beef to pot, add pork, and simmer for about 2 1/2 hours.
Stir in tomato paste and simmer 20 to 30 more minutes, until beef is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, if necessary. Remove garlic cloves, if you can find them, and bay leaf before serving. If desired, shred or chop some of the meat and add to the sauce. Or serve meat separately, with a little of the sauce.
Nutrition | Per serving: 177 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 29 mg cholesterol; 12 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 310 mg sodium; 66 mg calcium
Best-Ever Stuffed Shells
Yield: 8 servings
Recipe by Florence Pikrone.
1 large bunch parsley
1 garlic clove
2 pounds ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to oil the pan
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
16 ounces jumbo pasta shells
4 cups Mama Picroni’s Tomato Sauce
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mince parsley and garlic together until it almost forms a paste. Place in a large bowl with eggs, ricotta, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, olive oil and nutmeg; mix until thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste (Parmesan is salty, so it will not need much salt). Cover and place in refrigerator to set.
Boil 4 to 6 quarts of salted water in a large pot. Add pasta and boil until partially cooked, about 9 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain well. Spread out on plates to avoid sticking, separating any shells that have nestled inside others. Oil the inside of an 11-by-7-inch baking pan.
Fill each shell with the ricotta mixture, and place one layer – open side up – in the prepared pan. Cover with half of the tomato sauce and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the Parmesan. Add a second layer of the shells on top, cover with the remaining tomato sauce and the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake until done, 30 to 40 minutes.
Nutrition | Per serving: 559 calories; 28 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 150 mg cholesterol; 36 g protein; 44 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 700 mg sodium; 460 mg calcium
Pasta E Fagioli
Yield: 6 servings
Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”
2 pounds dried white beans such as cannellini, soaked in cold water overnight and drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 sage leaves or 1/8 teaspoon dried sage
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tablespoons strained tomatoes, such as Pomi
3 ounces ditalini pasta or small elbow macaroni
Put soaked beans in a large pot, add cold water to cover by at least 3 inches and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 2 hours. Transfer half the beans to a food processor and process to a puree.
Heat oil in a large pot, add the sage and garlic and cook 2 minutes; do not burn the garlic. Add the bean puree and 6 1/4 cups of water; season generously with salt and pepper, and stir in the strained tomatoes. Add the whole beans. Bring to a boil, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, according to instructions on the package – cooked, but still a little chewy. Serve hot, cold or warm.
Nutrition | Per serving: 347 calories; 10 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 16 g protein; 51 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 12 g fiber; 103 mg sodium; 100 mg calcium
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from “The Silver Spoon.”
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup superfine sugar, see note
1/2 cup Marsala, dry white wine or sparkling wine, see note
Notes: To make superfine sugar, blend granulated sugar in a blender at high speed for 10 to 15 seconds until powdery.
One-half cup of wine gives this dessert a strong wine flavor, which is traditional. Use less if you prefer less of a wine taste.
Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a heatproof bowl until pale and fluffy, then stir in the Marsala or wine a little at a time.
Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture starts to rise. Remove from the heat and serve hot or cold in glasses. Zabaglione may also be used as a sauce on coffee or hazelnut ice cream.
Nutrition | Per serving: 106 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 184 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; no fiber; 8 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium