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.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Italian Is the Rodney Dangerfield of Languages

It Don't Get No Respect

I don't get it. I just don't get it. Italian is the Rodney Dangerfield of languages: it don't get no respect. And I simply don't understand why.

Of course “Italian language” is a lot like “Italian cooking” in that it's hard to define. There are twenty regions on the Italian peninsula and there are at least twenty different dialects. A simple pasta dish can be called a dozen different things in different parts of the country even though the ingredients are all the same. “Official” Italian, the language people speak, hear, and are most familiar with, is based on the Tuscan dialect, the language of Dante. Italian is lyrical, sensuous, rhythmic, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful languages on earth. It is the language of music, opera, poetry, art, and love. And non-Italians tear it into little bitty pieces and stomp on it every day.

Italian really is a simple language. It's phonetic. You say it like you see it. All you need to know are a few vowel sounds and a few consonant rules and you've got a good start. There are five vowels in Italian and only seven vowel sounds. Compare that to English, which also has five vowels, but has fifteen vowel sounds! And yet English speakers constantly butcher Italian by trying to make it sound like English. They put an English spin on Italian pronunciations. If the final “e” is silent in English, it should be silent in Italian, too. “Well, that's the way we say it in America.” Okay. Fine. But it's still wrong! French author Anatole France said it best: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

I was watching “Top Chef.” The contestants were cooking in Mexico and they were cooking with classic Mexican ingredients. One of them was actually Mexican. A couple were of Asian parentage and the rest were just plain ol' Americans from places like New York, Georgia, Texas and Michigan.

Now here's what I want to know: how can trained chefs – people who supposedly know everything there is to know about every cuisine on the planet – effortlessly rattle off Spanish words like “huitlacoche” and “escamoles” and “xoconostle” and “escabeche,” “chimichurri” and “queso fresco” and “guacamole” – and then stumble all over their tongues when saying “marinara” and “agnolotti”?

Read my lips:“mare-uh-NARE-uh.” It is “mah-ree-NAH-rah.” And roll those “r”s. If you can correctly say “hwahk-ah-MOH-lay” rather than the common Americanized “gwahk-ah-MOLE-ee,” why the hell can't you properly say “mah-ree-NAH-rah”? And please tell me why you can make a Spanish-Italian fusion dish, ““huitlacoche agnolotti,” perfectly pronouncing “huitlacoche” and then embarrass yourself by murdering “agnolotti”? Please! It's not “ag-nuh-LOT-ee.” That makes me cringe. Just like when I hear not so learned chefs say “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee.” (Tagliatelle.) It's “ah-nyoh-LAWT-tee” and “tahl-yah-TAYL-lay.” (Even that's not perfect. I can say it better than I can write it.) And to all you clueless servers in faux-Italian restaurants, don't even get me started on “broo-SKET-uh”.

What really twists my knickers is the fact that Italian is the only language that gets the casual treatment. Do you order a “kwes-uh-DILL-uh” at “Tack-oh Bell”? Of course not. If you asked for a “bur-IT-oh” instead of a “boo-REE-toh,” you would be laughed at. And do you get “BAYG-nets” at “kaffee du MON-dee” in New Orleans. No? Then why do you insist on asking for “broo-SKET-uh” with “mare-uh-NARE-uh” at Olive Garden? Why do you feel obliged to use proper Spanish and correct French, but you can't spare a thought for good Italian? Why is that?

Somebody once tried to sell me the old “accepted through common usage” plow horse. Go back to my Anatole France quote: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” No matter how often they say it.

And even if your Mama got off the boat straight from the Old Country, you don't get a pass on using final vowels. There's an “o” at the end of “prosciutto” and an “a” at the end of “mozzarella.” They are there because in proper Italian, you pronounce every letter. “Pro-ZHOOT” and “mootz-uh-RELL” may sound Italian to you, but to Italians, it just sounds ignorant. I heard somebody from New York talking about using “ruh-GOT” in a recipe. I had no idea what the hell they were saying. I had to look it up. How does a person mangle “ricotta” that badly?

Speaking of ignorant, is it ignorance or just stupidity when someone corrects you and you refuse to be corrected? Back to “Top Chef,” at least three of the diners correctly pronounced “agnolotti” in front of the chef who prepared the dish and slaughtered the word. And she still persisted in saying it her way. I guess it's true that ignorance is curable but stupid is forever.

And it's not just Americans. The British totally befuddle me. How can a people who commonly say “cAHn't” and “shAHn't” and “fAHst” then turn around and say “PASS-tuh”? I don't get that one at all.

The biggest part of the problem is Italians themselves. They are just too polite to correct people. The French will bite your head off and stuff your tongue down your throat if you screw with their precious language. But Italians just take it with big smiles, even as the hair raises on the backs of their necks. Take my word for it, it aggravates the hell out of most of them, but they just grin and bear it. Well, folks, I'm part Italian but I'm also part French, so I don't do a lot of grinning and bearing when it comes to that sort of thing. I may grin while I correct you, but that's about it. I know a lot of servers think I'm un stronzo (run it through Google Translate), but I'll keep right on correcting them, regardless, because I respect the language. I think at the very least if you're going to serve me something, you should be able to pronounce it.

Okay. (pant, pant) I feel (huff, huff) much better now. I'm going to drag the soapbox back up under the porch and go lie down. I think we're going to an “Italian” place tonight and I really need to rest up.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How To Break An Egg. Really.

Let's Get Crackin'

Right about now you're saying to yourself, “You're kidding. Some idiot is actually writing about how
to break an egg?” And you know what? Up until recently, I would have been right there with you. But that was before I discovered how many people can't do it. Or at least can't do it properly. I mean, how hard is it to break an egg, right? You'd be surprised.

A lot of folks make a big mess of a fairly simple procedure. They wind up chasing little shards of eggshell around the mixing bowl. Or worse; they don't chase them and then find them later cooked up in their scrambled eggs. They get egg goop all over the counter, the bowl, and/or their hands. And it's all so unnecessary if you just master the proper technique.

Kids get a big thrill out of learning to break an egg. I know I did. I started cooking eggs when I was seven or eight years old, but my mother always cracked them for me until I developed the manual dexterity to do it myself. A lot of shattered shells and gooey messes ensued before I got it right. But eventually I did. I have a young nephew who sometimes backcombs my fur with his know-it-all attitude. I remember when he came to me all full of himself because he had learned to break an egg. He proceeded to demonstrate his new-found skill, a laborious, painstaking two-handed process that took nearly a minute to accomplish. Then, with bratty arrogance, he challenged me to match his feat: “Betcha you can't do it that good.” I know I shouldn't have taken the bait. It was mean and I really shouldn't have done it. But I did.....he was such a ripe little target. I snatched up an egg and opened it in about two seconds using one hand, leaving him deflated and crestfallen. Not to be a total jerk about it, I told him to keep practicing and I'd teach him how to do it that way after he got a little better at the two-handed method.

So let's start there. With two hands. This is really the best way to open an egg if you are going to separate the yolk from the white or if you are concerned about the yolk remaining intact. It's not as fast and as flashy as the one-handed method, but it's a lot safer and more reliable.

First, let's address the issue of cracking the egg. Ya gotta crack it before ya can break it. There are two camps when it comes to egg cracking: the “flat surface” camp and the “edge of the bowl” camp. Most people who learned by watching their mothers or grandmothers tend to fall into the bowl edge category. People who were taught by a culinary instructor are generally flat surface crackers because that's really the “approved” and “correct” way to do it. I cringe when I see supposedly trained TV chefs cracking eggs on bowls. They sure didn't learn that at the CIA or Le Cordon Bleu.

It's not just some senseless rule that chef instructors came up with. The people who study such things have found that when you strike an egg against a sharp surface – like the edge of a bowl – you run a greater risk of driving fragments of the shell into the interior of the egg. This is a big deal not just for the annoyance factor but because of the potential for carrying bacteria from the outside inward. All commercially produced eggs in the US are washed before they ever hit the cartons, so the risk is minimal. Not so much with farm fresh eggs, though, which usually just get a wipe down to remove anything obviously nasty. It's kind of a two-edged sword. The reason Americans refrigerate eggs while Europeans don't is because of that washing process. When American eggs are washed before packaging, the shells are stripped not only of potentially harmful bacteria but of the egg's natural protective coating as well. That's why you have to refrigerate 'em. They're naked. Anything yucky they encounter after they're washed can more easily penetrate their unprotected porous shells. Europeans – and Americans who get their eggs straight out of the henhouse – can get by with leaving them in a basket on the counter rather than in the fridge because their natural coating is still intact. And so are any bacteria lurking about on the outside waiting to get driven inside by an injudicious crack on a sharp surface. So, from a “better safe than sorry” standpoint, it's generally just better practice to crack an egg on a flat surface.

That said, the objective when you strike the egg is not to bust it wide open. You just want to dimple it. Pick up the egg so that it's positioned in the palm of your hand. The pointy end should rest against your thumb and the blunt end should be cradled by your ring and pinky fingers. With the contact point in the middle of the egg, give it a gentle tap or two to break just the outer shell while leaving the inner membrane intact. Now, turn the egg so you can see the dimple you've made. With the unbroken surface of the egg resting against the index, middle, and ring fingers of both hands, position your thumbs on either side of the dimple. Position the egg over the bowl or pan and gently press inward with your thumbs to penetrate the shell. Then gently pry the two halves of the shell apart and allow the contents of the egg to drop into whatever receptacle you're using. Notice I said “gentle” or “gently” three times in the description. It's an egg, okay? Don't go all Incredible Hulk on it and smash it. Handle it gently.

Not all egg shells are created equal. Depending on breed and feed, some shells are thicker than others. Other than the fact that they are on a natural diet, I don't know what my farmer feeds his chickens or what breeds he has but some of them produce some prodigiously thick shells. And I find brown eggs to generally have thicker shells than white ones. Thick shells aren't necessarily a bad thing; you'll get a lot fewer fragments because they tend to break cleaner. I've had some store-bought white eggs crumble under the slightest pressure and make a real mess. It just takes a little extra effort and care to crack a thicker shell.

As I said, if you're trying to keep the yolk intact for poaching or sunny side up or something, the more deliberate two-handed method is probably best. A little slower, maybe, but better. However, if you're all about speed and action and don't care about how the yolk winds up, the one-handed method is for you. If you're going to scramble your eggs or just dump them in a bowl for beating, who cares if the yolk is broken, right?

Now here is where manual dexterity comes into play. I know people who are ambidextrous and can break two eggs at once, one in each hand. Not me. I'm so right-handed it's an affliction. Anything I try to break with my left hand winds up spattered on my elbow. So, unless you're among the gifted, stick with using your dominant hand. The problem now is that breaking an egg with one hand is a lot easier to do than it is to describe. But I'll try.

Holding the egg as above, crack the shell the same way. Only this time, keep the egg cradled in your hand. Once you've got the crack started, the breaking motion is done mostly with a twist of your thumb and forefinger. I've heard it described as sort of like the motion you'd use to snap your fingers. You should be holding the bottom part of the shell against your palm with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers while the top part of the shell is manipulated by your index finger and your thumb. I've also seen it described as being like the motion you would employ to pop the top on a soda can with one hand. See? It's really easy to do, but harder than hell to describe. Tell you what: I saw a tip online where you hold two ping pong balls together in your hand with a quarter wedged between them. If you can separate the balls and make the quarter fall out, you can break an egg one-handed.

By the way, kids aren't the only ones who get a thrill out of learning to break eggs. Andrew Knowlton, James Beard Award-winning critic, blogger and restaurant editor for Bon App├ętit magazine, recently did a feature where he worked his way through twenty-fours hours at an Atlanta Waffle House. (You can find the story and video here: Besides a new appreciation for short-order cooks, Andrew also gained a new skill: at age 39, he can now break eggs one-handed. He can also make a mean waffle, but that's another part of the story.

Now go forth, break some eggs and make some omelets. Or maybe a nice frittata. Oooo......scrambled eggs sound good about now.......or poached.....or over easy. No, Eggs Benedict......or perhaps a Croque Madame. How about egg salad........?

Monday, March 9, 2015

American Women Deface Roman Colosseum

The “Ugly American” Keeps Getting Uglier

Stop me if you've heard this one; two American women in their early twenties walk into a two-thousand year-old Roman Colosseum. One says to the other, “Hey, wouldn't it be fun to tear up this old place and then take a selfie to commemorate our senseless desecration of one of the most iconic places on the planet?” Ha-ha-ha! Hilarious, right?

The two micro-brained miscreants were part of a tour group. But you know how boring those generic old tour groups are. So the pair decided to personalize their experience a little by slipping away and using a coin to carve their initials into walls erected by emperors two millennia ago that have withstood the ravages of time as well as attacks by hordes of the folks who literally defined what it was to be a Vandal. And then the pair of fools went the original sackers of Rome one better and proudly photographed themselves with their vandalism. Doesn't it just warm your heart that such idioti cazzo walk among us? The “Ugly American” keeps getting uglier.

Now before you go off on me for dissing these darling nieces of their Uncle Sam, let me acknowledge that they are far from the only ones to have done something selfishly senseless, ignorant, infantile, puerile, moronic, and numerous other pejorative adjectives on foreign soil. A Russian touron – that's a portmanteau of “tourist” and “moron” in case you were wondering – did something similar in the same place a few months ago as did an Australian father and son team of mindless vandals. Chinese officials are in a state of perpetual embarrassment over the conduct of their citizens abroad and Egyptian authorities are all atwitter over some Russian tourons making a porn flick amongst the Pyramids. So its not just an American thing. But as an American, it hurts more to see it because it so perfectly reinforces a stereotype that most other cultures already have of us. I know what these two cretins did is not on a scale with the wholesale destruction of historic and archaeological treasures being carried out in parts of the Middle East these days, but just because they used a coin instead of a sledgehammer does not make them less culpable for their blatant violation.

I don't know. I guess there's just something in the human psyche that compels people of a certain sort to immortalize themselves in this manner, whether it be by carving their initials in a tree trunk or by scrawling “Kilroy was here” on every stationary surface they encounter. However, just because I can rationalize it doesn't imply that I condone it. It's vandalism, pure and simple, and vandalism is vandalism, defined as “willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property.” And it's not “cute” or “silly” or “just harmless fun.” It's a disgusting criminal activity. And it's expensive. I recently read that the annual cost of cleaning up graffiti – the most basic form of vandalism – in the United States is around twenty-five billion dollars. But it's not just the money.

I was visiting the site of a historic cabin in the mountains of East Tennessee when I came across a woman nearly in tears with anger. When I asked what was wrong, she replied bitterly, “Look what they've done to it. This was my grandfather's home. He built it with his own hands. And look what these f***ing idiots have done to it.” The walls were covered with the names and initials of savagely ignorant people who felt compelled to preserve themselves for posterity. Vandals in the truest sense.

I was visiting Independence Rock in Wyoming. This huge granite monolith, a landmark for travelers along the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, has been called “the Register of the Desert” because many of the emigrants marked their passage by carving names and messages in the face of the rock. Just goes to show, I suppose, that vandalism has been around for a long time. But worse by far are the vandals who continue to vandalize the historic site by adding their self-important scribblings to those left by the pioneers of long ago. In fact, the National Park Service says modern graffiti actually threatens to overwhelm the rock's historic signatures. But I guess as long as you get to carve “Billy and Betty were here” and take a picture of it, that's all that matters, because, after all, it is all about you.

When the Russian reprobate committed his reprehensible act of hooliganism in Rome, he was given a four month suspended sentence and a hefty fine. No word yet on what penalties the California girls may have to face. But we can all feel a little better about the whole thing because the girls now say they have learned the lesson of a lifetime. They didn't realize what they were doing was such a big deal until shocked tourists who possessed basic common sense and common decency pointed them out to security and they were met by Roman police who proceeded to charge them with “aggravated damage on a building of historical and artistic interest.” After which I'm sure they were photographed again and given another opportunity to practice their signatures.

I hear they're headed to the Louvre next. I mean like really, wouldn't that stuffy old painting of the woman with a goofy grin look positively outrageous with a mustache?

In the words of the immortal Forrest Gump, "stupid is as stupid does."

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Boston Restaurant Exposes Yelp Thugs

A Good Idea Gone Horribly Wrong

It's hard to type while applauding, but that's what I'm doing right now. I am wildly cheering for Boston restaurateur Michael Scelfo and his “Alden & Harlow” eatery. No, I don't know the guy and I've never eaten at his restaurant – although next time I'm in Boston, I will. Rather, I am applauding the act of his standing up to and publicly exposing a couple of Yelp thugs.

Yelp is a good idea gone horribly wrong. On the surface, the concept of a forum wherein the “common man” has a voice and can express his opinion is a noble one. Unfortunately, it does not take into account the preponderance of rude, ignorant, selfish, entitled idiots one finds buried beneath the veneer of altruism contained in Yelp's mission statement: "To connect people with great local businesses."

Yelp proudly proclaims that “Yelpers” have written more than seventy-one million local reviews. The basic problem with that statement hearkens back to the old adage that says “opinions are like a**holes; everybody has one.” And in the case of Yelp and its imitators, far too many of the users expressing their opinions are a**holes.

Case in point: a couple of young females – “ladies” probably stretches the definition – showed up at Alden & Harlow with no reservations. They proceeded to seat themselves, to berate and insult the staff, to loudly proclaim that they were not tipping because of the poor service, and then to refuse to leave when asked to do so. And, of course, they played the trump card – threatening to give the establishment a bad Yelp review.

You get the picture? These are jerks. They went into the place with the intention of causing trouble and then blackmailing their way out of it. And in most cases they would have been successful because many small, local restaurant owners are thoroughly cowed by the threat of a bad social media review. Word of mouth is the bread and butter of their advertising and people bad-mouthing them can put them out of business. And Yelp thugs have figured that out and know how to play it to their best advantage. I mean, come on! The difference between Yelp and protection rackets is minimal. What's the difference between a hulking goon in an ill-fitting suit holding a club and saying “pay up or I'll break your kneecaps” and a stylishly-dressed moron with a cellphone saying “give me what I want or I'll put you out of business”?

I've never thought much of social media review sites, but my contempt reached a tipping point a few years ago when I found this scathing review of a local Italian place posted on one of them: “This is absolutely the worst Italian food I have ever had in my life. It was nothing but over priced boxed mixes with some chewy, obviously frozen bagged seafood on top. It literally disgusted me. If you value your hard earned money and your stomach I would keep on driving right past this place.” In the first place, it's poorly written – “if you value.......I would keep on driving.” Really? In the second place, it's non-specific. What dish particularly “disgusted” you? Or did you have a general sampling of everything on the menu and found it all to be “the worst Italian food”? And did you actually see “boxed mixes” and “bagged seafood” being used? Or did it just taste like that to you? There's a difference.

I had eaten at the place myself and knew the opposite to be true. It was a small, family owned and operated business, started by mom and pop and now run by the kids, all of whom are right off the boat from Italy. I knew their food was fresh, delicious, and as authentic as American tastes would allow. I'd seen their kitchen and watched everything being prepared from scratch. There wasn't better Italian food to be had within a hundred miles. No, this was just a hack job written by somebody who wanted to hurt the business. I took it upon myself to go online and rebut this scurrilous billingsgate, pointing out the obvious lies and flaws therein and concluding with: This is absolutely some of the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. It is nothing but high-quality, fresh ingredients deliciously prepared in a wonderful Italian family tradition. It literally delights me. If you value your hard-earned money and your stomach, you'll drive directly to this place, and you'll do it often.

But I gotta admit, Michael Scelfo did me one better: he posted a picture of the thugs who tried to dun his establishment on Instagram, along with a description of their execrable behavior that included the hashtag “#wedontnegotiatewithyelpers.” I. Love. It!! “We don't negotiate with Yelpers” should be posted large on the front door of every restaurant in the country.

For some reason, Instagram removed the post, but BostonInno has the story and the picture here:

Scelfo has since written that, regardless of the picture being taken down, “#wedontnegotiatewithyelpers stands true." And he says, "I would encourage more people to be responsible with [Yelp].” Can I get an “amen” from the choir, brothers and sisters?!

Scelfo and I aren't alone in the outrage department. Botto Bistro in Richmond, California got a lot of mileage out of offering discounts to patrons who would give them “bad” reviews in the hope that their “star” rating would sink low enough to remove them from Yelp's radar entirely.

Yelp and its ilk are a bad joke badly told. No matter how benign the intention, the system is intrinsically broken and it is being abused by thugs every day to the detriment of the “great local businesses” it was supposedly designed to help. And most people seem to know it. Here are a few random comments I pulled from the 'net: “Yelp is less than useless. They're shady and people abuse the hell out of how much power Yelp has over small businesses. Burger King doesn't give a s**t if a location has bad Yelp reviews, but it can kill a small family owned restaurant.” Or, “One of the things that makes Yelp so uneven is that it allows for anonymity of the reviewer. Unlike professional reviews (where the reviewer might be a secret, but still is accountable to a readership and probably a publisher) with Yelp there's no accountability at all. It's total crap.” And, “Anything that can make Yelp useless, I'm behind 100%.

But let's face it, Yelp is a culturally entrenched behemoth and it's not going anywhere. Curmudgeons like me and a handful of rebels at places like Alden & Harlow and Botto Bistro can quixotically tilt at windmills all day long and it's not going to make a bit of difference other than, perhaps, making us feel a little better for having “done something.” So instead of saying, “don't use Yelp,” – because I know you're going to anyway, – let me echo Michael Scelfo and say, “please use Yelp – and other similar sites – responsibly.” As a consumer, develop a “BS meter” and learn how to figure out when the system is being gamed. There are a lot of tells you can spot in a fake review. I've written about them and there are a ton of articles on the subject available online. Don't be a part of destroying somebody's livelihood just because some moron with an ax to grind tells you to. And if you're one of the ax-grinding morons, shame on you. I hope your Mama's proud and that you can live with yourself, because it's likely that no one else wants to live with you.

Better yet, exercise some judgment and common sense. You want to know if a place is good? Ask a local. I do it all the time. Last time I was in Boston, I didn't “Yelp”. I was in a little North End bottega and asked the clerk, “where's a good place for lunch?” And her recommendation was wonderful. Or you can consult an expert. Read a newspaper or magazine review. Check out a copy of a guide like the one published by Zagat. The people who eat for a living are much more qualified to guide you to a good place than some idiot who trashes a restaurant because he didn't like the way the waiter smiled.

Just remember that adage about opinions and a**holes the next time you're tempted to rely on Yelp. And then think seriously about what you get out of an a**hole before you make a choice.