The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a quarter million people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? How About A Day Honoring Sliced Bread?

What's So Great About Sliced Bread?

C'mon, you know you've said it: “It's the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Of course, since practically nobody knows what unsliced bread is anymore, that bit of hyperbole has lost some of its punch over the years. Still, pretty much everybody knows that the classic idiomatic phrase refers to something extraordinary – especially a newer discovery – that will likely be a significant improvement. “But what,” you may ask, “is so great about sliced bread?”

Bread has been around for a long, long time. There's archaeological evidence that a rudimentary form of flatbread was known in Europe thirty-thousand years ago. Most of the breads we recognize in Western culture today are the leavened variety that come out of ovens as loaves. Some loaves are round, others are elongated, some are oval shaped, and some, like what we commonly call “sandwich bread,” are kind of squarish. The round, elongated, or oval loaves can be broken apart for consumption or even eaten “as is,” but the traditional “sandwich loaf” pretty much has to be sliced in order to be of any use. And that can be a problem.

People who live in the “modern age” where all you have to do to make a sandwich is open a plastic bag and take out a couple of perfectly machine-sliced pieces of bread don't really have an appreciation for what it takes to slice bread. My grandmother had to do it. And I do it myself. It takes a good bread knife and a keen eye to achieve uniformity. You don't want slices that are too thick or too thin. Or a thick slice paired with a thin slice. You particularly don't want slices that start out thick at the top and wind up thin at the bottom or vice-versa. There's also a talent to slicing up a loaf of bread – especially fresh bread – without crushing it as you cut. Slicing bread can be a time-consuming, frustrating chore.

Enter a guy named Otto F. Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa. Over the course of about a decade of trial and error, he came up with a concept for “A Machine For Slicing An Entire Loaf Of Bread At A Single Operation,” an idea he patented on November 26, 1928. But the initial reaction among commercial bread bakers was not exactly what Rohwedder no doubt hoped it would be. In fact, the contraption was something of a hard sell at first.

To begin with, bakers were unconvinced that consumers wanted pre-sliced bread. Up to that point, I guess, nobody had been beating down the bakery doors asking for such a commodity. Then there were concerns about freshness. An unsliced loaf of bread stays fresher longer. Once you cut into it, it begins to go stale fairly quickly. To address these concerns, the inventor originally conceptualized the use of pins to hold the sliced loaf together. Since unpinning individual slices of bread wasn't an idea that appealed to anybody, Rohwedder approached the issue from a different angle: he amended the way the sliced bread would be packaged. There were no convenient plastic bags with little twist ties in those days. Instead, Rohwedder suggested wrapping each freshly-sliced loaf in thick wax paper. And so it was done. Eventually, cellophane took the place of wax paper before ultimately giving way to plastic. Come to think of it, I can actually remember wax paper-wrapped bread covered in cellophane packaging. Jeez, I'm old.

Anyway, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, decided to give Rohwedder’s unconventional device a shot. They installed his machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The local newspaper carried both a front page news story and a full back page advertisement for the new-fangled gimmick in an effort to convince people that sliced bread really was a great thing. Selling points included statements like, “After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.” The article goes on to prophetically enthuse, “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”

Needless to say, sliced bread quickly became the greatest thing since......well, you get the idea. By 1930, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis had built its own slicing machines and was sending its soon-to-be-iconic product, Wonder Bread, pre-sliced and wrapped in wax paper packaging festooned with red, yellow, and blue balloons, to retailers nationwide.

And now there is legislation pending in Jefferson City asking Missouri lawmakers to officially designate July 7 as “Missouri Sliced Bread Day.” After all, Chillicothe, a town of about 9,500 folks, goes all out to promote its claim to fame as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” There's a recently erected historical marker in front of the red brick building at 100 Elm Street that formerly housed the Chillicothe Baking Company and there's an annual Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Music Festival, too. Supporters of the bill recognize Chillicothe's “piece of very positive history” and believe such a celebration would stimulate the local economy by bringing more tourists to northern Missouri. According to the Chillicothe News, if the proposed holiday becomes a reality, local residents are encouraged to engage in “appropriate activities and events” to celebrate Otto Rohwedder’s game changing creation.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't live anywhere near Chillicothe because I would have a hard time engaging in any appropriate activities. Personally, I don't eat sliced bread. Not since I started baking my own bread many, many years ago. Now, I'd be lying like a politician if I said sliced bread had never passed my lips. Are you kidding? I grew up in the '50s and '60s when moms were assured that the aforementioned Wonder Bread “helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” I think I got shortchanged on about eleven of those ways, but that's neither here nor there. The point is I grew up consuming my fair share of the soft, gummy commodity we're talking about celebrating. But no more. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to make an emergency purchase of store-bought sliced bread in the last several years. Of course, back in Rohwedder's day, bread was still bread; made from flour, water, salt, and a little yeast. Concerns about bread going stale were legitimate in those days because real bread really would spoil in a fairly short amount of time. Unlike today's preservative and additive laden bread-like substances that can sit out on the counter for weeks at a time and still maintain what passes for “freshness.” In other words, it's still nice and soft and gummy. But I still wish Chillicothe luck in their pursuit of sliced bread fame. It's not their fault, or Otto Rohwedder's, either, that the baking industry would ultimately turn a basic, natural dietary staple into a form of chemically enhanced Frankenbread.

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder what was the greatest thing before sliced bread?”, I may have an answer. Apparently that would be wrapped bread since early advertising for  sliced bread touted it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Although I imagine if you were to start saying, “That's the greatest thing since wrapped bread,” people would just give you funny looks. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll make a pilgrimage to Chillicothe just so I can have a slice of bread and stimulate the local economy. I've done stranger things.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why Are The Romance Languages Romantic?

There Were These People In Togas.....

Ahhh, the Romance languages! The languages of love and affection. Of sentiment and rapture. Just the thought of a little French drove Gomez Addams into a wild-eyed frenzy (“Tish! That's French!) Everybody knows how fiery Latin lovers can melt a woman's heart with just a few words in Spanish or Italian. These are the languages of the heart, of the soul, languages spoken by hot-blooded, fervent people of intense passion and ardor. Right?


I know it's February and there are hearts and flowers and depictions of Cupid everywhere you look, but I'm gonna rain on your love parade just a little bit when it comes to the origins of romance. Or at least of romantic Romance languages.

Once upon a time, there was this bunch of people who ran around in togas. I'm not talking about John Belushi in “Animal House.” No, these were the folks who sort of thought they ruled the world …..because, for a while, they pretty much did. That would be the Romans. From their home in Rome they roamed o'er land and foam until they established an empire that encompassed much of what was then the known world. And in doing so, they impressed their native language upon the natives of that far-flung empire. That language, of course, was Latin. More specifically, Vulgar Latin.

Now that doesn't mean that the people who spoke Latin were crude and unrefined......although I'm sure some of them were. The word “vulgar” in this case means “common.” Classical or “high status” Latin, the “dead” language you struggled with in high school, was the official, formal language of the empire. Upper crust, educated Romans used it in decrees and formal speeches and such. Vulgar Latin was the common language of the common folk. Certain socioeconomic classes spoke both forms, but it was the “common speech,” the “sermo vulgaris” or “Vulgar Latin” that eventually evolved into the Romance languages.

I'm not going to go into all the arcana of “dialect leveling” and other complicated and, frankly, boring aspects of linguistic evolution. Let's keep it real and relatable. Compare a map of the ancient Roman Empire with one of the modern world. Go ahead, I'll wait. See there? The bulk of the western Roman Empire consisted of Italia, Gaul, and Hispania on the Iberian peninsula. These roughly line up with modern day Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. And, of course, although there are dozens of subsets, the main Western Romance languages are Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

So where does all the romance come in? Quite simple, really. “Romance” as we use it today is a fairly modern concept. The origins of “romance,” however, have nothing at all to do with hearts and flowers and Cupid and love: it is merely a reference to something related to Rome, something Roman. The word “romance” itself is a derivative adverb of the early Latin “Romanicus,” meaning “of the Roman style.” “Romanicus” became “romanice” in later Latin, and evolved into “romanz” in Old French, and from there, ultimately, to “romance” in English. So when you use the term “Romance language,” you are simply referring back to Vulgar Latin, which was the “Roman style” of speaking. Disappointing, right? Kinda takes all the romance out of it.

As to how “romance” became connected to the lovey-dovey stuff, well that's pretty mundane, too. Back in the early Middle Ages, the French people particularly began telling – and later writing – heroic tales for their own amusement and entertainment. These stories usually involved knights and maidens and fantastic, chivalric deeds and, because they were told or written in the vernacular French language, they became known as “romanz” stories, sometimes expressed as “romancier,” meaning “to narrate in French.” By the 17th and 18th centuries, such “romance” adventures were being commonly thought of as love stories and the word “romance” itself soon became associated with love and all its attendant attitudes, trappings and symbols.

There you have it. That mushy hearts and flowers and Cupid and lovey-dovey stuff all traces back to common people in togas. Well, sort of; only citizens were actually allowed to wear togas, but that's another story. Anyway, maybe now you don't feel quite as romantic as you did before, but at least you're a bit smarter.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Apocalypse Edges Nearer as Olive Garden Introduces A Nacho Knockoff

I Would Say, “Say It Isn't SO!”......But It Is

What hath Darden wrought!? Olive Garden, the “Italian” restaurant chain that is far more representative of the tastes of Rome, Georgia, Florence, South Carolina, or Naples, Florida than of Rome, Florence, or Naples, Italy, has unleashed a new culinary abomination in the form of a nacho knockoff called “loaded pasta chips.” Yeah, you read that correctly; an “Italian” restaurant is now serving nachos. And not even real nachos, at that, but a bastardized “Italian” version of a Tex-Mex conglomeration thrown together by a guy named Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at a Mexican border town restaurant in 1943. Does OG ever do anything that isn't derivative? As my Italian ancestors spin their way out of their graves in Emilia-Romagna, let me describe the dish.

Take fried lasagne strips to represent tortilla chips. Top them with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and a three-meat tomato sauce loaded with chicken, meatballs, and sausage. Throw on some cherry peppers to double as jalapeños and drizzle it all with cloyingly creamy Alfredo sauce. Add a garnish of Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, and fresh parsley, and, tah-dah! – you have an instant Italian classic. And every Italian on the planet says, “che cazzo!?” Or at least, “uffa!”

Ostensibly, the......the.....creation is intended as a Super Bowl nosh, but it's going to be available until April 1. Perhaps we're all just victims of an extended pre-April Fool's joke.

Since I generally only go to Olive Garden when there are no Italian restaurants within a fifty mile radius (or when I get a gift card), I have not yet sampled this....this.....whatever this is, but surprisingly, I'm told it's not too bad. Or maybe not surprising since the ingredients are all Italian or Italian-ish. I mean, at least these.....these.....these Franken-nachos have decent DNA. I've even heard them described as “wickedly good.” Of course, a lot of people think lutefisk is wickedly good, but I wouldn't exactly expect to see it on an Italian menu.

But then again maybe I should expect to see it on an Olive Garden menu. After all, we're talking about a place that uses “evolving the brand,” “reinvigorated dishes,” and “we're bringing new things to the table” as part of its marketing strategy. The sign on the building still says “Italian Kitchen,” but what the hell; I have an “Italian kitchen” too, and I recently catered a wedding reception where the customer wanted a taco bar. I guess that means I'm “evolving the brand,” huh? Sometimes you just have to do what the customer wants even if you have to do it with clenched teeth. And apparently Olive Garden's culinarily challenged customers want Italian nachos. Boh!

Darden needs to either remove the word “Italian” from their logo or add the word “American,” because while there's a huge Italian-American influence in the kitchen, there's not much that's veramente Italiano. And the problem as I see it is that far too many Americans, especially those in the hinterlands (remember Marilyn Hagerty, the sweet if somewhat palate-numbed restaurant “critic” in Grand Forks, North Dakota?), are being led to believe the stuff they are being served at Olive Garden is the epitome of real Italian cuisine. It's bad enough they are being deluded into thinking that overcooked, under-seasoned pasta and unlimited breadsticks are Italian hallmarks straight out of a mythical “Culinary Institute” in Tuscany, but now they're throwing in freakin' nachos? Porca miseria, gli italiani sono fregati!

I'm thinking of organizing a nationwide protest. Maybe recruiting Italian nonne to march around with signs saying, “quello è NON italiano,” or “basta dire di no a nachos,” or just simply “sono incazzato.” Yeah. That ought to do it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why I DON'T Hate To Cook

Cooking Is A Rewarding, Fulfilling Experience

I've never understood people who can't cook, don't cook, or won't cook. I've never been able to fathom the kitchen aversion that drives the popularity of philosophies like the ones behind Peg Bracken's I Hate To Cook Book. Really? You “HATE” to cook? I just don't get it.

Maybe it's because of the way I started out cooking. I was about seven years old and already an outrageous lover of bacon. Don't tell anybody but I used to sneak a nibble of the stuff raw while I was waiting for Mom to cook me some for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meal snacks. I know, YUCK! I feel the same way in retrospect and my grandmother used to go apoplectic and start screaming “trichinosis” whenever she caught me in the act. But it's just an illustration of how much I craved bacon in those days. And in those days the only way to fulfill that craving was to pester my long-suffering mother to fire up the stove to cook me some because there were no microwaves or “ready-to-cook” strips you could just toss therein. When I wanted bacon, somebody had to cook it and Mom eventually decided that somebody should be me. Since I was just about tall enough to reach the built-in flattop griddle on our gas range, she armed me with a spatula and stood over me as I learned to prepare my favorite food for myself. So right from the get go cooking became a rewarding experience.

Research on the subject published in the Harvard Business Review divides people into three groups: (1) people who love to cook and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook and avoid cooking by heating up convenience food or by eating or ordering out and, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation. The most recent results of that survey show that forty-five percent of Americans “hate” cooking, forty-five percent are “sometimes” cooks, and only ten percent make up the demographic that loves to cook and cooks often. Those are scary numbers, made even scarier by the downward trend they imply: fifteen years earlier the same researcher found the ratio to be fifteen percent cooking “lovers,” thirty-five percent ambivalent, and fifty percent “haters.” I guess the fact that the “lovers” and the “haters” both dropped by an offsetting five percentage points should be seen in a positive light, but still the prospect that ninety-percent of people in this country either loathe the idea of cooking or only do it occasionally when and if they “have to” is a sobering one.

I know people in that ninety-percent. Lots of people. They're the ones that grab coffee and doughnuts on the way to work, hit the cafeteria or food court for lunch, and pick up “supper” at a fast-food place on the way home. Or they line the pockets of the executives at Kraft, Nestlé, General Foods and other Big Food companies as they assemble “homecooked” meals from Stouffer's frozen entrees, Hungry Jack potato flakes, Green Giant canned vegetables, Pillsbury refrigerated dinner rolls, and Duncan Hines cakes or Mrs. Edwards pies. They're also the ones that will require very little embalming when they die because they are already preserving themselves with the chemicals and additives in what they eat.

My wife and I are definitely “10 percenters.” The kitchen is the center of our home and we love to cook. Not only do we love to cook for ourselves, we frequently feed friends and neighbors and hire out as personal chefs and caterers to feed others. We just finished a wedding that left us footsore and weary, but as we sat recovering in a booth at a friend's restaurant, we raised our glasses to one another and toasted a job well done. The bride and groom were happy, their families and guests were happy, and we were happy to have made them all happy. How can it get better than that? We used to have a “love/hate” relationship with our restaurants. We hated the stress and the long hours, but we loved the sense of fulfillment we got from satisfying our customers.

But you know what? Even when we're not cooking for hundreds – even when we're just cooking for each other – it's still a fulfilling experience. In the first place, we enjoy working together. Always have. In the second place, we are both creative individuals. She's a graphic artist and I'm a writer and a retired entertainer. Far from being a “chore” or a “task,” we find cooking to be another creative outlet. When we work with images and words or music, we produce things that are aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. When we work with ingredients and techniques, we render things that are physically and emotionally satisfying. Same creative process. How can you “hate” that?

“But I can't cook,” you say. To which I say, “balderdash.” Of course you can cook. You just have to have the desire and the ability to learn. Nobody is born with a wooden spoon in their hand. Did you come out of the womb with a license and the innate ability to drive? No, you had to develop a specialized skill set. You had to learn. If you can read and understand a recipe, you can cook. And just like whatever occupation you pursue for a living, the more you practice and the longer you do it, the better you'll get. I started out making macaroni and cheese from a box mix. Now I make my own pasta. You can cook, but do you want to?

Back in the “old days,” almost nobody cooked for the pleasure of it. It was a pretty simple paradigm: everybody had to eat so somebody had to cook. Servants were for the wealthy and visits to restaurants were a rare and expensive treat. A hundred years ago, women like my grandmother spent an average of thirty to forty hours a week in the kitchen. And they were laborious hours. Most all the food preparation was done by hand with what we now consider primitive tools. Modern electric conveniences were either unimaginable or unaffordable and even basic equipment was labor intensive. Along with washing, ironing, mending, and sweeping, cooking was something you had to do in order to continue eating, wearing clothes, and living indoors. It was a “chore,” defined by the dictionary as “an unpleasant but necessary task.” And the task most often fell to women. Men wore the white coats and tall hats in professional kitchens and everybody called them “chef.” Women donned faded house dresses and worn aprons at home and were usually called “mother.”

Then came the economic boom of the post-Depression, post-war era. From the late 1940s through the '60s, newer, faster, cheaper, and easier ways of doing things were being developed every day. And nowhere was this trend more impactful than in the kitchen. Canned food, boxed mixes, frozen foods and myriad new ways to prepare them meant that a woman raising a family in the '50s only spent about twenty hours a week in the kitchen. And it was more than just a change in food products and preparation techniques; thanks to Madison Avenue, there was a sea change in attitude taking place.

Clever advertising convinced women that they were being “freed” from the “drudgery of the kitchen.” Why “waste” all that time cooking the way your mother did? All that chopping and stirring and kneading and roasting and braising and boiling. Why, that, the ad men would have you believe, was tantamount to slave labor! Open a can or a box or a pre-packaged, pre-cooked frozen “meal” and “free” yourself to do other, more important, more fulfilling things! No wonder women began to view cooking as onerous and hateful and something to be avoided. It was being marketed to them as an affront to their very womanhood and self esteem. And they took the bait: nowadays women spend just five and a half hours a week in the kitchen. About what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers spent in a day. And most will tell you it's because they're “too busy” to cook, they “hate” to cook, or they simply “can't” cook. All because of the successful effort begun two generations ago to demonize, denigrate, and disparage cooking as an “old-fashioned,” soul-crushing, life draining “chore.”

If there's a ray of hope peeking over the horizon, it's the increasing awareness among members of the current generation of the importance of fresh food and the rise of so-called “subscription” meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and others. More the former than the latter, I believe. Meal delivery operations are a small step in the right direction mainly because they introduce generations raised on artificial food-like stuff to the healthful and substantive advantages of real food. But they are not in and of themselves the answer to the larger problem. An opinion piece I read in the New York Times entitled “You Don't Need A Blue Apron to Teach You to Turn On Your Oven” echoes my own thoughts on the subject. The author praises the subscription delivery model for bringing American consumers closer to the way the rest of the world shops for and prepares food, i.e. keeping a basic stock of staples in the pantry and shopping for fresh ingredients on a daily basis. But at the same time, the author opines – and I agree – we're not actually teaching people how to cook that way, only how to prepare meal kits. It's kind of like the public school system teaching kids how to take tests rather than to impart real learning about actual subjects. Sure, you can make a “gourmet meal” from the ingredients and instructions Blue Apron provides, but if you are not willing or able to take the next step and develop your own creations from ingredients you source yourself, you're really just making upscale versions of boxed mixes.

To those who are able, though, it's a good entry point to the scary world of measuring and seasoning and sauteing and all those other mysterious things your grandmother used to do when she laid out the big feasts you probably still remember. If you are willing to approach cooking as a creative exercise rather than as a depressing chore or a necessary evil, you've already won the battle. And you'll quickly outgrow the meal kits and move on to more adventurous kitchen adventures. As the author of the Times article wisely said, “the whole point of training wheels is that eventually you don’t need them anymore.”

And if you're a complete nervous novice, there's nothing wrong with starting out with a few comfortable, unintimidating boxes and cans and frozen entrees. Anything to get you into the kitchen. I was the master of Minute Rice when I was in junior high school, but I didn't stop there. I read, I observed, I asked questions, I took classes and from there it was just a matter of practice, practice, practice. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, a top chef in his own right, says, “it's about creating good habits. It's about learning good solid technique and methods. Much like learning to play a musical instrument, you have to understand basics, you have to understand theory. And then from there you can improvise.” So maybe you'll never cook for hundreds. That's okay. Even if you only cook for yourself, you'll be so much better off. There isn't a medical or dietary expert on the planet that won't tell you cooking at home with fresh ingredients is more healthful and beneficial than eating out or cooking with preservative-laden junk.

Start now. I started as a kid, but when it comes to cooking, it's never too late for an old dog to learn new tricks. I've been at it for more than fifty years but there isn't a week that goes by that I don't pick up something new. And I still get all happy every time a new technique or process or ingredient works out and makes me say, “Wow! I've never tried that before.” The thrill of discovery and the expansion of knowledge and the development of skill – those are the things that make cooking a creative and fulfilling activity and not just something I do because I have to eat or feed somebody else. And that, miei amici, is the way it should always be.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Guide To Understanding Italian Words On A Menu

Everything Sounds Better In A “Foreign” Language

Okay, so you've heard a lot about the new Italian place downtown and you've decided to have dinner there. The atmosphere is nice, the service is friendly, and you're shown to a lovely table. You are presented with the menu.......and the trouble begins. There's a lot of Italian written there and the only word you're really sure of is “spaghetti.” Uh-oh. You ask yourself, “Should I order the fegati di coniglio arrosto con cime de rapa?

People like going out to Italian restaurants with me. I can't count the number of times a dining companion has turned to me, pointed at something on the menu and asked, “What's that?” Many so-called “ethnic” eateries use what English-speakers consider “foreign” words to describe their fare. Oftentimes this is done out of overweening pretension, but most of the time it's intended to impart authenticity. Sometimes it backfires, as in the case of an Italian chef I read about who was having trouble selling his crespelle, a stuffed crepe dish. His customers hadn't a clue what a “crespelle” was, so they ignored what I am sure was a delicious creation in favor of safer alternatives. When the chef caught on and changed the name to the less correct but more familiar “cannelloni,” sales immediately increased.

Somehow, everything sounds more romantic or more exotic or just......better when it's articulated in another language. If the extent of your Italian vocabulary was limited to words found on Chef Boyardee labels, I could smilingly curse you out in a string of truly vile Italian and you would probably smile right back at me because it would sound so pretty. (There's a t-shirt circulating around that says, “Vaffanculo Is Italian For Have A Nice Day.” Trust me, it isn't. If you don't know, Google it. And I really want one, BTW.) And when it comes to menu entries, you gotta admit that fegati di coniglio arrosto con cime de rapa sounds a lot better than roasted rabbit livers with turnip greens, right? So in the spirit of helping you steer clear of those possibly unwanted rabbit livers, allow me to present a not-so-brief glossary of some of the more common words and phrases you might encounter on an Italian menu.

Let's start with the meals themselves. Breakfast is prima colazione or just colazione. The lunch offerings will usually be labeled pranzo, and the dinner menu will be cena.

Now for the menu headings. In English, menus are divided into categories like “appetizers,” “soups,” “salads,” “entrees” or “main courses,” “sides,” and “desserts.” Italian meals are broken down into similar divisions: Appetizers are antipasti, soups are either zuppe or minestre, and salads are insalate. You'll find pasta listed under primi or primi piatti, indicating its position as the first course. Pasta is never served as a “side dish” in Italian dining. Besides pasta, primo dishes often include risotto, and the aforementioned zuppe. What Americans would consider as the “main course” is actually the second course, or secondo, usually a type of meat dish. Be advised that secondi are often served alone, without any vegetables or other sides. Italians don't do a “meat and two” or “meat and three” with the main protein and all the sides piled on one plate like Americans do. To Italians the “sides” are the contorni, a course unto themselves. And the dessert course is the dolce. You might also find Italian food words like pane (bread), bevande (drinks), and caffè (coffee) listed on the menu. Sometimes a selection of aperitivi and digestivi – before and after dinner drinks – might show up in higher end places, while merende (snacks) might appear on less formal menus.

Okay, that takes care of the broad, general categories. But what about the specific descriptors for the menu items themselves? What do all those pretty words that end in vowels really mean? Most restaurants either list the dishes in Italian with an English translation following or vice-versa. Some don't and if you don't read Italian, you can either ask your server or take your chances. Or you can become familiar with some of the more common words and phrases.

Let's start with the way your dish is prepared. You know what “baked” and “roasted” and “broiled” and “boiled” and other cooking terms are in English, right? Here are some of their Italian equivalents: affettato (sliced), affumicato (smoked), al forno (baked), al vapore (steamed), alla griglia (broiled), arrostito (roasted), bollito/lesso (boiled), brasato (braised), caldo (hot), con formaggio (with cheese), cotto (cooked), crudo (raw), freddo (cold), fritto/fritte (fried), grigliato/arrostito alla griglia (grilled), in camicia or cotto in bianco (poached), in umido (stewed), in burro or nel burro (in butter), piccante (spicy), purè (mashed – as in mashed potatoes; purè di patate), salsa di panna (cream sauce), tostato (toasted). You might see something in brodo, as in tortellini in brodo. That's Italian for “in broth.” And if something – usually a fish dish – has been cooked in a paper or foil pouch, it'll show up on the menu as in cartoccio.

As far as what you might be eating, we'll begin with pasta. I'm not even going to try to list all the varieties of pasta you might encounter on an Italian menu. There are literally hundreds, ranging from agnolotti to ziti. You're probably familiar with most pasta shapes as most restaurants feature only a handful of the more common types. Long, round, thin strands of spaghetti; long, flat linguine; slightly wider ribbons of fettuccine; short, tubular penne, rigatoni, and ziti; stuffed pillows of ravioli or tortellini – pretty much everybody knows those. Even farfalle (butterflies), cavatappi (corkscrews), “little ears” of orecchiette, and the classic spiral fusili are fairly easy to recognize. Sometimes the Italian name of American staples may surprise you: good ol' elbow macaroni may be written as maccheroni and shells are often referred to by their Italian name, conchiglie.

You may not be as familiar, however, with many of the sauces with which the numerous pasta shapes are paired. There are a million of those, too, so I'll just describe a few of the most ubiquitous preparations.

Pomodoro is a simple and yet very flavorful smooth-textured tomato sauce. Marinara is a little chunkier tomato-based sauce that, because it is usually cooked longer and may contain more ingredients, is generally a bit thicker and richer. And please, please, please don't massacre the pronunciation; I don't care how many times you hear it pronounced “mare-uh-NARE-uh”, the proper pronunciation is “mah-ree-NAH-rah”. And roll those “r”s, baby. Diavolo or “devil” sauce is a spicier tomato-based sauce. Bolognese does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It is properly pronounced “boh-loh-NYAYS-eh and when properly prepared, it is comprised of a combination of ground meats (beef and usually veal and/or pork), tomatoes, celery, carrots, red wine, and a touch of dairy such as milk or cream. Puttanesca is a mid-20th century Neapolitan sauce that usually contains tomatoes, anchovies, olives, capers, and garlic. Carbonara is a sauce formed by pouring a combination of eggs, cheese, and some form of ham/bacon over hot pasta. Quattro formaggi is literally a “four cheese” sauce, usually mozzarella, provolone, Parmigiano, and Romano, but may be made up of any four cheeses at hand.

One “sauce” you will not find on an authentic Italian menu is “Alfredo.” That's because “Alfredo sauce” does not exist in real Italian cuisine. Roman restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio used to make a variation of a common Italian butter and cheese pasta; he just increased the amounts of butter and cheese and blended them with a touch of the starchy water in which the pasta was cooked. Americans got hold of the concept, added cream, and called it a “sauce.”

The next course on the menu – the secondi – is meat, poultry, or fish, the Italian words for which are carne, pollame, and pesce. First up, beef.

The Italian word for beef is manzo, so an order of roast beef, for instance, would be arrosto di manzo. Steak is a little different; bistecca. Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick Porterhouse cut cooked and served in a Tuscan style, is probably the most common example. The Italian word for veal is vitello, most commonly found on American menus as “Vitello Parmigiana” or “Veal Parmesan.” And you'll only find it that way on American menus because the dish doesn't exist in Italy.

Pork is maiale. A pork cutlet would be cotoletta di maiale and a pork chop would be braciola di maiale. Most Italian sausages (salsicce) and cured meats (salumi) are made from pork. These include traditional salami, mortadella, coppa, and soppressata. Italian ham is called prosciutto and bacon is pancetta. Occasionally you'll find something called “speck” on an Italian menu. This is a denser ham usually produced in Italy's northern-most region, Alto Adige. Speck is cured with spices like juniper and bay leaves and then smoked and aged for a deeper, richer flavor.

Chicken is pollo; and it's “POHL-loh” in Italian, not “POY-yoh” as it is in Spanish. And while we're on the subject of chickens, you'll find the eggs they produce listed as uova. You don't often see turkey on an Italian menu, but when you do, it's tacchino.

As noted, pesce is Italian for fish; specific kinds of fish include salmone (salmon), trota (trout), tonno (tuna), and branzino (sea bass). And, of course, l'acciuga (anchovy).

The general Italian term for seafood is frutti di mare, literally “fruits of the sea.” Specific seafoods include vongole (clams), l'aragosta (lobster), cozze (mussels), gamberi (shrimp), ostriche (oysters), and calamari (squid). Scampi is a whole 'nuther animal. It's actually a type of lobster or prawn. It is sometimes called a Norway lobster, a Dublin Bay prawn, or a langoustine. But it's not a shrimp except in America where “shrimp scampi” usually refers to shrimp cooked in garlic, lemon, and butter.

Other meats you might find on Italian menus include coniglio (rabbit), anatra (duck), and fegato (liver).

A contorno is literally a boundary, a margin, or a side. In culinary terms, it's a side dish. Contorni are usually vegetables (which, in themselves, are verdure) and may include: aglio (garlic), asparago (asparagus), carciofo (artichoke), carote (carrots), cavolo (cabbage or kale), cavolo nero (black cabbage), cetriolo (cucumber), cipolla (onion), fagioli (beans), fagiolini (green beans), funghi (mushrooms), grano (corn; sometimes also written as mais), lattuga (lettuce), olive (olives), patate (potatoes), piselli (peas), pomodori (tomatoes), prezzemolo (parsley), sedano (celery), and zucchine (zucchini). One vegetable which needs no translation is broccoli; it's the same in either language.

The dolce or dessert course can be a little confusing because cakes, pies, and tarts are all called torte. Cookies are biscotti and the Italian version of ice cream is gelato. Vanilla, chocolate, and caramel are vaniglia, cioccolato, and caramello, respectively. And even though dolce translates literally to “sweets,” most Italian desserts are more fruity, usually consisting of albicocche (apricots), arance (oranges), banane (bananas), ciliegie (cherries), fragole (strawberries), lamponi (raspberries), mele (apples), pesche (peaches), pompelmo (grapefruit), or uva (grapes). Top them with a little zucchero (sugar) or panna montata (whipped cream) for a delicious dessert.

Wash everything down with bevande, the broad term for “drinks.” You can have una tazza di caffè o tè (a cup of coffee or tea), un bicchiere o una bottiglia di birra o vino (a glass or bottle of beer or wine), or you can just have some aqua (water). Gassato o lisce (carbonated or smooth) is up to you. Soda has gained popularity and is usually identified by brand. Succo (juice) may be available and latte (milk) is sometimes an option. If you like your drinks without ice, order senza ghiaccio.

Okay, I didn't get around to the cime di rapa. And I didn't mention ravanelli (radishes) either. And zucche! How could I forget about pumpkins? And I failed to delve into the “delicacies” like cieche fritte (fried baby eels), lampredotto (boiled cow's stomach), or finanziera (a dish containing a rooster's wattle, cockscomb, and testicles cooked with vegetables) because you're not likely to encounter them much outside their native regions. No, I think if you commit everything I've written to memory (or at least bookmark the page on your device) you'll be ready to sally fearlessly forth to that new Italian place downtown without concern for undue embarrassment or potential gastric disaster.

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Disappointing Eataly Experience

Crowded, Overpriced, And Overrated

Ever since Eataly opened in New York back in 2010, I've been jonesing to go. I don't go to New York if I can help it. In fact, I drive around the place as much as possible, not being much of a fan of traffic, tolls, and crowds. So when they opened another Eataly location in Chicago, I was really tempted to make a pilgrimage. Not that Chicago doesn't have traffic or tolls or crowds, but, having grown up in Chicagoland, I can at least deal with them a little better. Then, lo and behold, the Batali and Bastianich partnership went and opened a brand new Eataly in the Prudential Center in Boston. Hot damn! Of course, New York and Chicago are closer to where I live by one hundred and two hundred miles, respectively, but I really like Boston – especially the North End – and have occasion to travel there a couple of times a year. So Boston it shall be for my Eataly initiation!

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, Eataly started out in Turin, Italy in 2007. Now expanding worldwide, it is a huge open Italian market containing restaurants, grocers, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, cheese mongers, pasta makers, wine merchants and just about any other form of Italian food vendor you can think of. It's basically an Italian food hall on steroids. And since I live in a little town where the only Italian ingredients readily available to me are found in the “ethnic” aisle at the grocery store, a place like Eataly is a long-held dream come true. Sadly, the dream turned out to be more of a nightmare.

I had some specific items in mind when I arrived at the Prudential Center on a frigid December afternoon. My son had asked me for some help in perfecting his pizza dough, so I wanted some 00 flour. Since we were making pizza, I also wanted San Marzano tomatoes. I was drooling over the prospect of some wonderfully crusty fresh bread that I didn't have to make myself. I had in mind a soup that uses potato gnocchi. I was also looking for some real Italian-made pasta for a nice spaghetti dinner. I love my De Cecco and Barilla, mind you, but I was hoping to find something a little less.......common. I guess. Giddy at the potential prospects ahead of us, my wife and I got out of the car in the parking garage – thankful that we didn't have to venture into the sub-zero wind chill outside – and rode the escalator up to Eataly.

Pandemonium met us.

The crowds, even at two o' clock on a Thursday afternoon, were absolutely overwhelming. You couldn't actually choose where you wanted to start; you just stepped into the wave and hoped the tide carried you in the right general direction. My wife is not exactly agoraphobic, but I could sense her growing anxiety as she was bumped, jostled, shaken and stirred by the surrounding sea of humanity. It was clear that this was not going to be a pleasant, leisurely shopping trip. It was rapidly turning into an expedition; an exercise in survival. And then there was the fire alarm.

Almost immediately after getting swept into the maelstrom, a blaring klaxon began to sound and an amplified voice informed us that a fire had been reported in a retail area. We were advised to “stand by for further information” – at least I think that's what was being said. The crowd itself raised such a din as to overpower the announcement and the alarm, which continued to jangle our already jangled nerves as the attendant warning lights flashed. This went on for what seemed like hours, although it was probably about five minutes before the piercing racket ceased and the “all clear” was announced. Welcome to Eataly.

The map I had picked up at the door was useless; standing still long enough to consult it was tantamount to suicide by trampling. Looking around “together” was impossible. We each drifted wherever the current took us, occasionally breaking free and fighting toward something of interest. I swear to God I will never again complain about shopping at Walmart.

I have no doubt they had some wonderful stuff at Eataly, but I sure as hell didn't get to see any of it. All I saw were asses and elbows. I got twisted and bent in so many directions I'm not entirely sure the asses and elbows I was seeing weren't sometimes my own. Now I'm not browsing anymore. Now I'm on a mission: find what I came for and get the hell out of here. Alas, that was not to be the case.

They had exactly one bag of “Tipo 00” flour. Priced at $6.80 for 2.2 pounds. Outrageous, but I bought it. You see, you have to take out a loan to park at the Prudential Center in the first place, but if you buy at least ten dollars' worth of merchandise within you can get your parking validated down to only fourteen dollars for the first four hours. My little bag of flour got me a little over halfway there. The two packets of two-dollar spaghetti I bought got me the rest of the way to the goal. Or I could have bought one package of the stuff with Lidia's picture on it.

San Marzano tomatoes? Oh, they were there, but I could have booked passage to Italy and picked them myself for less. Same with the bread. I could have bought two or three loaves at the panetteria at Bricco over on Hanover Street for what one would have cost me at Eataly. Gnocchi? They had it, alright. Some was made with pumpkin and they had some stuffed with all kinds of stuff, but plain ol' potato gnocchi like I needed for my simple soup? Nah. At least none that I could see as I was driven through the fresh pasta section like a steer on its way to the Dodge City stockyards.

We were hungry. A break for a bite sounded like a good idea. We stopped at a sit-down place called La Pizza e La Pasta. How long is the wait? 90 minutes, you say? No, thank you. “Make a stop at La Piazza,” the map says. “Enjoy an aperitivo of wine and cheese, just like in Italy,” the map says. R-i-i-i-i-ght! What the map doesn't say is that you can fly to Italy faster. And cheaper. And with fewer crowds. I Panini E Le Ciabatte looked promising, but by then all we wanted was out.

I went to Eataly with the idea in mind of buying a few ingredients for a couple of simple meals. I couldn't find half of what I was looking for and I couldn't afford the other half. After all, I only had a few hundred bucks to spend. Overrated, overpriced, and thoroughly disappointing, Eataly was definitely not worth the seven hundred mile drive. No, I'm not crazy enough to make that kind of drive for a shopping trip. I was passing through the area anyway and only made a slight detour. But I won't go back to Eataly again even when I'm already in town. You know where I found my flour? A couple of blocks over at DeLuca's Market on Newbury Street. Three ninety-nine a bag. And there are shops and restaurants all over the North End that are equally well-stocked, cheaper, and a helluva lot more fun to visit. Give me Bricco Salumeria & Pasta Shoppe on Hanover Street or Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. Nobody beats Mike's Pastry on Hanover Street for cannoli. And you probably won't have a ninety minute wait at Pizzeria Regina. Sure, it's not “one stop shopping,” but you know what? I don't care.

Eataly Boston: with apologies to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, remansit frustra.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Mario Batali Is A Rotten Role Model – But He's Still A Great Chef

Personal Inadequacies Have Overridden Professional Brilliance

With apologies to the Bard, I come not to praise Mario Batali, but not to bury him, either.

Everybody knows I like Mario, so I've been hearing it all week. “Hey! What about your buddy Mario?” “What do you think of Batali now?” “Man, that's really something about your pal Mario.” Frankly, it's all left me quite conflicted. Before you start screaming, “How can you be conflicted? The man's obviously a pig!,” let me attempt to explain.

I used to work with a guy in radio who was a champ in terms of being offensive. This guy used to bring in nothing but young college-age girls to work as interns, producers, and on-air personalities. Most of them had no experience and little aptitude or talent, but that was okay: our boy was only too happy to “train” them. One of them showed up on my doorstep in tears one night when an attempted “training” session went sideways. After she related her story of being backed into a corner and groped, my wife said, “God, what a pig! Can't somebody do something about him?” It was the '80s and the short answer was “no,” because although being a debauched, leering, philandering, womanizing, lecherous Lothario might have been highly distasteful, it wasn't strictly illegal – and he was, after all, the boss. The law was laid down: “It's my way or the highway.” Women had to take it or leave it. A few of them took it: most of them left.

For all that his personal conduct was deplorable, though, he was absolutely brilliant at what he did professionally. He was an innovative, gifted, talented broadcaster without peer. He was famous for single-handedly turning around the ratings at radio stations wherever he went. Don't think for a minute that his licentious behavior went unnoticed. His moral shortcomings were pretty much an open secret in the business, but, dammit, he got ratings and he made money. As long as he didn't depants some teen intern in the hall and publicly have his way with her, his proclivities were generally overlooked by management and ownership. None of the rest of us could understand it. He was A) physically unattractive, B) possessed of a permanent case of halitosis, and C) married with two kids. But there he was; turning stomachs when he thought he was turning heads. One of my coworkers said it best: “As a professional, you can't touch him. As a person, you don't want to.”

Apparently, that's also Mario.

I don't know the man personally. I was in the same room with him once during a live cooking demo. That's as close to him as I ever got. But even from a distance, I could detect elements of my former radio colleague in Mario's attitudes and mannerisms. Reading Bill Buford's “Heat” reinforced my observations. I've seen Mario described as “hedonistic” and “a man of Falstaffian appetites.” I've heard that he likes to “live large.” That his presence “dominates any room he's in.” Even at the cooking demo, his personal dynamic changed the very energy in the room as he breezed in and immediately took charge of his fawning, adoring audience. He's Mario-freakin'-Batali, fer cryin' out loud! And he knows it. So what that he likes to get liquored up and put his hands where they don't belong? Isn't that a small price to pay for the privilege of basking in his greatness? Ah! But now it's the twenty-teens and, having been caught one time too many with his cargo shorts down figuratively if not literally, the answer appears once again to be a resounding “no.”

Times have changed and are continuing to do so at a dizzying pace. “Take it or leave it,” “my way or the highway,” and similar sentiments are not tolerated as well in the current generation as they once were. And, for better or worse, Mario and his generation are products of their time. I can say that because I'm a few years older than Mario and I know whereof I speak. The world was a different place when it was handed over to us in the sixties and early seventies. The swinging “Playboy philosophy” and the concepts of “free love,” “do your own thing,” and “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” that informed our formative years simply don't fly anymore and anybody unwilling or unable to make the adjustment is riding for a fall. And it seems that Mario, a poster child for the freewheeling, free-loving, hard rockin' past, has, indeed fallen.

And the thing is, nobody is in the least surprised because everybody was in on the “secret.” A headline from Eater sums it up: “The Food World Reacts to Mario Batali News With Anger — and a Lack of Surprise.” Mario Batali, known by some as the “Red Menace,” is a lecher and a creep? Why, we're shocked! (Wink, wink.) So do the right thing already, Mario. Apologize. Admit to what everybody already knows or at least suspects and move on. Great advice. And then what does he do? He goes and pillories himself by attaching a holiday cinnamon roll recipe to his heartfelt mea culpa. (Sigh: facepalm)

The pity is that his personal inadequacies have overridden his professional brilliance. While you may not want to touch him as a person, nobody but nobody can touch him as a chef. A Michelin star, three stars from the New York Times, and a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award for his work at Babbo, GQ's “Man of the Year” in the chef category. “Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.” “Best Chef: New York City,” “All-Clad Cookware Outstanding Chef Award,” and “Best Restaurateur” from the James Beard Foundation. Induction into the Culinary Hall of Fame. Emmy Award-winning TV shows and a raft of bestselling cookbooks. Those are bona fide bona fides if ever there were any.

I make absolutely no bones about or excuses for the fact that much of what I know about Italian food and cooking came from Mario by way of “Molto Mario,” “Iron Chef America,” “The Chew,” and many of his dozen-plus cookbooks. The man is a walking encyclopedia of ingredients and techniques. More importantly, he is a natural teacher who is fun and entertaining to watch as he imparts his knowledge. I came away with more useful information from a single thirty-minute episode of Molto Mario than I did in many hours of more “formal” culinary instruction, and I had more fun doing it.

And it is just a dead-dog shame that so many people, in the interest of modern political correctness masquerading as social outrage, are willing to crucify Mario for being what he can't help being: a product of his time. I'm not saying he's right for some of the things he did. I'm not holding him up as a role model for young chefs or for young men in general. The “product of his time” excuse should not excuse his egregious transgressions, but perhaps it should serve as a prism through which his actions can be viewed and from which a perspective can be taken that might ameliorate the consequences. Mario's a creeper. I get that. He's a low-down, lascivious, concupiscent, satyric libertine. (He also likes big words.) I'm not going to argue. He likes to leer and fondle. Yuck! So let's bring him to account for his actions and force him to accept the mores of modern society no matter how antithetical it might be to his psyche, his adopted persona, and his core upbringing. Make him capitulate and conform to current ethics. If not, kick him to the curb. But let's not erase him as if he never existed.

Right now, as I write, his products are being pulled from store shelves. He has been sacked by his employers. His longtime backers are backing away at a furious rate and future projects are being put “on hold.” He has become anathema; the fashion-challenged face of all that is wrong with the industry in specific and with society at large. Michael Chiarello, Todd English, Johnny Iuzzini, John Besh: they've all been scrutinized for their indiscretions and peccadillos and found scorn in the public eye. But Mario, with all his swagger and bluster, is bigger, much bigger, and so is much more fun to take down and tear apart. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” don't you know?

Another thing to consider as the almost gleeful disassembly of the Batali empire continues to dominate the media cycle is the effect it all has on the thousands of people employed by that empire. Mario's made his fortune. He's worth more than twenty-five million. Even if he never works another day, his future is fairly secure. But as we tar and feather the boss and ride him out of town on a rail, are we giving any consideration to the people who are really being affected by all the bans and boycotts? “I'm never gonna eat at another Batali restaurant!” You think you're hurting Mario? It's the cooks, the servers, and the rest of the staff you're giving the shaft. And they didn't do anything to deserve it.

Yeah, I'm disappointed in Mario and more than a little disgusted. But I'm even more disappointed and disgusted in the people who are chomping at the bit to pile on to somebody who's down. Like the bottom feeding “reporters” who followed him down a New York street snapping pictures as he tried to go to lunch and pointing out to readers that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Apparently they were incredulous that Susi, his wife of more than twenty years, hadn't immediately and unceremoniously turned on him. They had done it, after all; why shouldn't she?

I'm not going to participate in the wholesale slaughter of a fallen icon whose greatest offense was being a misguided member of a misguided generation. Okay, so he should have kept it in his pants. Point taken. But as we censure and castigate him for his iniquities can we at least leave him his pants? Is it necessary to completely expunge him from our collective consciousness. Or can we, perhaps, as the evangelicals say, “hate the sin but love the sinner?” He's still a human being, after all, and capable of redemption. Which reminds me: isn't there some biblical reference to stone throwing? Reading the comments that accompany some of the press leaves me heartened to know that I live in a country with three-hundred million saints and apparently only one sinner.

So I'm not going to remove references to Mario from my past writings and I'm not going to excise his recipes from my collection. I'm not going to throw away his cookbooks, I'm not going to divest myself of products bearing his name or likeness. I will invoke his name in a positive light when the situation warrants, and if he ever turns up on TV again – which doesn't appear likely – I'll watch him. Why? Because even though he's a rotten role model, he's still a good chef. He taught me a lot and he brought me a lot of enjoyment over the years and I'm not gonna trash his ass and toss him in the gutter because he has proven to be flawed. Everybody's had fun sitting in their judgment seats and giving full-throated voice to their righteous moral indignation. Now leave him alone to reevaluate and rebuild his life.