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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 becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. 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!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Falling Out Of Love With Whole Foods

The “Whole Paycheck” Moniker Is Becoming Less Of A Gentle Jab And More Of A Bitch Slap

Like in the popular John Mellencamp song, I was born in a small town. And I live in a small town today. In the decades between, I've lived in a lot of big towns and while, as Mellancamp sings, I can breathe in a small town, I often can't buy decent groceries there. Or at last that's the way it used to be.

When I was a kid growing up in a Midwestern community of less than five-thousand, we had three grocery stores in town. And they were all pretty much the same. There was no olive oil. Cooking oil came from the most abundant local product; corn. You wanted cheese? You had your choice; Cheddar, Swiss, or American. The produce section could fit on a postage stamp and featured staples like apples, bananas, oranges, carrots, celery, and potatoes. Tomatoes, peas, and corn were available in season, of course, otherwise it was up to the Jolly Green Giant over in the canned goods aisle. Veal, lamb, duck, lobster? In your dreams. Beef, chicken, or pork chops; take it or leave it. My mom and I used to make monthly pilgrimages to the nearest “big city,” a metropolis of about ten-thousand, to acquire those rare “luxury items” we just couldn't get at home.

In later years, I discovered ethnic neighborhoods in places like Chicago and Minneapolis. Wow! No more Kraft spaghetti dinners in a box! I could actually buy the stuff I needed to make real Italian food at home. We had a Japanese friend visiting for a couple of weeks, and she was thrilled to find authentic Japanese ingredients for the dishes she wanted to prepare for us. You couldn't even buy soy sauce in the little markets I'd grown up with.

And then one day I discovered Whole Foods. I was not a “health nut” in those days, so I had pretty much bypassed the place at first until somebody told me I could find more than just granola and carrot juice in there. They had Parmigiano-Reggiano in the cheese department. “Okay,” I said, “let's go check this place out.” And I was hooked. It was love at first sight. Yeah, they had a lot of granola and carrot juice, but there was just so much more! It was mind boggling. The produce section went on for miles, stuffed full of every “exotic” fruit and vegetable my little heart could desire. They had amazing meats. I mean, come on! They had buffalo! There were bulk containers brimming with flours and legumes and grains I had never seen outside the ethnic stores. An ocean of fresh seafood awaited. And the cheese section.......I thought I had died and gone to Wisconsin. By way of Italy, France, England, and a number of other great cheesy places. There was every cheese I had ever imagined and some I hadn't even thought of. And great wines to boot.

Not only did Whole Foods have all these wonderful raw materials for me to take home and transform into delicious fare, they had delicious fare right there in the store. Whole Foods quickly became my favorite restaurant. They had an awesome hot bar. The location I frequented had a wonderful brasserie and a fantastic pizzeria. And a gelateria for dessert. What more could you ask for?

The closest Whole Foods was more than fifty miles away, but who cared? And yes, they were a little on the pricey side, but I was willing to pay extra for the quality and variety. I ignored the critics who called the place “Whole Paycheck” and started beating the drum and singing the song for Whole Foods, touting it as the only place on the planet to get anything and everything you needed to make amazing food at home. Sure it was expensive. Quality usually is. But still I sent friends and family there and I recommended it to readers and listeners and to human beings in general. Then something strange occurred.

Whole Foods had carved itself a niche as the industry leader in natural and organic products. And they pretty much had the market cornered when it came to providing ingredients you just couldn't get anywhere else. They became the media darling for shows like “Top Chef,” where the contestants were always shown going to a Whole Foods to purchase those high-quality high-end ingredients they needed to make their innovative and exciting dishes. Bear in mind, I was not on the “organic” or “natural” bandwagon. I'm still not. Too much wiggle room in those murky, undefined and uncodified terms. But quality and variety......those are things I understood and actively sought out. Still do. So imagine my surprise when I was strolling through a Sam's Club one day and found Parmigiano-Reggiano there. And it was cheaper.....much cheaper.......than what I had recently paid at Whole Foods. Hmmmmm.

A paradigm shift had occurred in the market. Over the course of a fairly short period of time, all the things I craved and drooled over at Whole Foods started cropping up at Kroger. And Publix. And Harris Teeter. Even “lower end” markets like Giant, Food City and Piggly Wiggly were upping their game. My jaw dropped when I started finding prosciutto and fresh mozzarella at Walmart. And all of it at much lower prices than Whole Foods was charging. And most within the limits of my small town. No more fifty mile treks to buy a wedge of cheese. Then farmers markets started springing up everywhere. Fresh, organic, natural produce.....including farm-fresh eggs......were suddenly as close as a downtown parking lot on a Saturday morning. What more could you ask for?

Whole Foods saw the writing on the wall and responded. Well.....sort of. They responded at the corporate level anyway. Lots of promises and guarantees, but so far no sign of any real change has been forthcoming as I discovered on my last trip to Whole Foods. Somebody had given me a fifty-dollar Whole Foods gift card. I was astonished when I realized that I could not spend it all in one trip. Not because the prices were so low, but rather because I couldn't find anything upon which to spend it that I couldn't find elsewhere and cheaper. Ten dollars a pound for bacon? Not when my butcher sells it for less than four dollars a pound. Arborio rice? They've got that everywhere nowadays. Olive oil? Trader Joes.......just as good and much cheaper. That Parmigiano-Reggiano that originally got me in the door at Whole Foods is now available at Walmart for about half the cost. I've never been able to find grana padano at Whole Foods. I picked some up at Publix the other day. Ooops.

Whole Foods got body-slammed by overpricing scandals in New York and California. More recently, the company's stock took a hit after an analyst downgraded the chain to an “underperfom” rating; Wall Street shorthand for “sell.” That move was based largely on a survey that revealed significant rumblings in the ranks of the Whole Foods faithful. More than a thousand Whole Foods customers.......customers, mind you, not the common “man-on-the-street”.....were polled and more than seventy percent failed to notice any price changes in the previous three months. This in the face of the company's promise to lower prices. Worse, only twenty-four percent of respondents said that Whole Foods' organic products were “definitely” better than those found at grocery stores. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said the quality of the food was "sometimes" better at Whole Foods while the remaining twenty-two percent said "not at all." Apparently I'm not the only one falling out of love with Whole Foods. It looks like I've got a lot of company.

They've brought it on themselves. Everybody who's ever taken an economics class in high school knows that competition drives the market. When your loyal customers discover they can buy products that are equal to or better than yours for less somewhere else, how long do you think loyalty is going to last? I'm as loyal as the next guy. Sometimes I'm too loyal, riding the bandwagon all the way to the last stop in the hope that something will turn things around. But I guess when it comes to Whole Foods, I'll be jumping off as the wagon passes Publix. Or Kroger. Or Harris Teeter. Or even Walmart.

Will I stop recommending Whole Foods to other people? No. Not yet. They still have some unique aspects that other stores have yet to implement. For instance, you can sample before you buy at Whole Foods. The cheesemonger there will gladly let you try a bit of an unfamiliar cheese. Some Whole Foods locations have olive oil bars where you can try out the various brands and varieties offered. But the competition is catching wise to that trick, too, and it won't be long before Whole Foods loses its last competitive edge.

The “Whole Paycheck” moniker is becoming less of a gentle jab and more of a bitch slap as cost-conscious consumers continue to board the bus for less expensive locales. Goodness knows I'm not a penny-pincher, at least not when it comes to quality. Nickels and dimes don't bother me in the slightest. But dollars do. When I can buy two or three of something at one store for the cost of one of the same item at another store, guess where I'm shopping? Especially if the quality is about the same, which is more and more becoming the case with Whole Foods versus, say, Trader Joe's or Kroger. Parmigiano-Reggiano is as much a staple for me as American cheese is for some households. Harris Teeter regularly has it on sale for less than ten bucks a pound. As opposed to nearly twenty dollars a pound at Whole Paycheck......er......I mean Whole Foods. There's just no competition there. I love....let me spell that out.....L-O-V-E bacon. Ten bucks a pound for stuff that's supposed to be locally sourced? Okay, I'm usually all about “local,” but not when I can get Benton's bacon, the best bacon on the planet, for $7.50 or some pretty darn good porky ambrosia from my butcher for less than four dollars a pound. There's just no competition there. I get fresh eggs from a local guy. He charges me two dollars a dozen. Whole Foods can't touch that. And there's a place in town that now sells grass-fed beef for about what Whole Foods charges. Except it's fifty miles closer. No brainer.

Like John Mellencamp's “Small Town” character, my bed is in a small town. And as the quality and variety of goods being offered in my small town continues to increase and expand, my wallet will stay there, too. See you around, Whole Foods. I'll drop by when I'm in town and have a lot of extra money to spend. But don't hold your breath.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Eating Italian Food Like An Italian

Spoons? No. Knife and Fork? Yes

In survey after survey, Italian food remains the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in America. So it's a mystery to me how so many Americans don't know how to eat it. This is particularly true of the two most popular representations of “Italian food,” spaghetti and pizza.

“Now wait a minute,” you say. “What is there to eating Italian food? You open your mouth, shovel it in, chew it, swallow it, and repeat the process until it's gone.” And if that's your take on it, don't bother reading any further because I can't help you. But if you're interested in the correct way to eat Italian food – the way Italians eat it – please read on.

Let's start with spaghetti. The only utensil you need for spaghetti is a fork. In fact, Italians are responsible for popularizing the fork throughout Europe back in Renaissance times. It's the perfect tool for negotiating longs strands of pasta. You don't need a knife and you don't need a spoon.

I've never understood the penchant some people exhibit toward reducing everything to “bite-size.” In the case of long pasta, it's supposed to be long and it's intended to be eaten that way. In Asian cultures, it's acceptable to slurp long noodles. In Italian culture, you twirl them around a fork. In neither case do you ever cut them up with a knife. In many instances, it's considered rude and unmannerly. And some Asians equate long noodles with long life. Do you really want to risk cutting your life short? I don't think Italians have any such superstitions; it's just something that's only done by children and adults with bad manners. I guess that explains the popularity of Spaghetti-Os. I'm sorry, but I was lifting and twirling pasta proficiently by the time I was ten. And I was a late bloomer compared to children in Italy. I know of marriages that almost didn't take place because an Italian or Italian-American girl brought her American boyfriend home for dinner and her family reacted with horror when he cut up the spaghetti. It's just not done.

Using a spoon won't get you the same look of revulsion; it's more like pity. Whenever I go to a so-called “Italian” restaurant and they bring me a horse trough full of spaghetti (portions are another issue for another time) with a big spoon stuck in it, I ask, “Do I look like a bambino to you?” Because in Italian culture, children are the only ones who use spoons as an aid to twirling spaghetti around a fork. As I said, I had the technique down before I was ten, and I'm only part Italian.

At this point you might say, “Okay, bocca grande, then how DO you eat spaghetti like an Italian?” And I'll tell you: Put your fork into a few strands of spaghetti. Note the word “few.” You’re not trying to gather up the entire serving in one mouthful. Rest the tines of the fork against the curvature of the bowl or against the curved edge of the plate. (More on plate vs. bowl in a minute.) Twirl the fork around while at the same time lifting it briefly from the plate to keep too much pasta from accumulating at one time. When you have gathered an appropriate bite, lift it quickly to your mouth. There should be only enough pasta on the fork to comfortably fit in your mouth without your having to ratchet your jaws open and, as cute as it might have been in “Lady and the Tramp,” you should not have to slurp up long, dangling strands of spaghetti. If you do get too much on your fork, or if you have lots of dangling strands, just start over again. If at first it takes half an hour to eat that serving of spaghetti, trust me, practice will make perfect.

The number one complaint about the “twirling” method of spaghetti consumption is that the sauce splashes on your nice white shirtfront. There are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself and on your wardrobe. First off, do as I do and wear black. (Just kidding…although it’s not a bad idea.) Seriously, though, one of the reasons the whole “spoon” thing came to be is that once upon a time, for reasons nobody can fathom, Americans served spaghetti exclusively on plates. In Italy, spaghetti is generally served in broad, shallow bowls. The flat surface of a plate does not lend itself well to chasing and capturing spaghetti, hence the introduction of the spoon. But if you use a bowl, the natural curvature of the bowl does what the spoon would do, so no spoon is necessary.

Now we turn to the big controversy, one which even embroiled the mayor of New York not long ago: how to eat pizza. The answer is.......it depends.

Hizzoner got in hot water for eating his pizza with a knife and fork. This is because many New Yorkers believe the only way to eat a slice of pizza is to pick it up, fold it over, and stuff it in your face. Most other Americans just grab a slice and gnaw away, starting at the pointy end and working their way to the edge. (That edge is called a cornicione in Italian, in case you wanted to learn something trivial and new today.)

Pick it up, cut it up, fold it up......what IS the right way to eat pizza? All of the above. It depends on the type of pizza and where you're eating it. Obviously, if you're dealing with one of those tomato and cheese casseroles that Chicagoans erroneously identify as “pizza,” you're gonna need a knife and fork....and maybe a chainsaw. Ain't no way you're ever gonna get one of those bad boys to fold. And as far as picking up a slice? Fuhgeddaboudit! Only if you want to wear half of it.

At the same time, a slice of that skinny little New York pizza is just as likely to end up on your shirt as in your mouth when you try to fold it over. Notice that people who do it that way fold it and stuff it really quick. And usually while bending over or leaning over so as not to redecorate their wardrobe. Thank you, no. I'd rather take my time and savor the flavor and not have to worry about running to the dry cleaner.

One thing you've got to understand: in Italy, they don't serve pizza the way they do in America. Unless you're in a tourist joint. You're not going to get a 12 or 14 or 16 or 18-inch pizza brought to your table all sliced up in neat wedges ready for you to pick up and eat. What you will get is an uncut round “pie” about the size of your plate along with a knife and fork. You use your knife and fork to cut the pie into quarters and then you continue to cut bites out of the quarters until you reach a point where you can cleanly and comfortably pick up the remainder of the slice, which you can then either fold over or simply continue to munch flat. Neapolitans – the inventors of pizza – tend to be folders. And since that's where most New York pizza makers hailed from back in the day, it's no mystery that the custom caught on within Neapolitan neighborhoods. Order a pizza in Rome or most other Italian locales and you'll see mostly cutting with a knife and eating with a fork until you can pick up what's left. And that's the way I eat mine whether it's a pizza I make at home or one I order in a restaurant or pizzeria.

By the way......I saw an ad the other day for a “pizzaria.” If I'd been the owner of the place, I wouldn't have paid for the ad. I know there's no “e” in “pizza” and that the word sounds like “peets-ah-REE-ah” when you say it, but the reason it's spelled with an “e” is because “pizze” is the proper plural of “pizza.” Just because adding an “s” makes everything plural in English, it's not so in Italian, where the word “pizzas” does not exist. So when you're a place that makes more than one pizza, you're making “pizze” and that makes you a “pizzeria.”

Can we talk about bread for a minute? In Italy, bread is life. Bread is a part of nearly every meal. Everybody eats bread. But they don't treat it like an appetizer and eat it before a meal. Sorry, Olive Garden and every other faux-Italian place in the country. A real Italian ristorante will bring your bread with your meal, because that's when you're supposed to eat it. Obviously, bread covered in some kind of topping, in the form of bruschetta or crostini, is intended to eat as an antipasto, but just plain bread or “breadsticks” is not supposed to be its own course. While it's okay to dip that kind of bread in oil as an accompaniment to another course, it is most commonly intended for you to fare la scarpetta or “make the little shoe” to sop up any remaining traces of sauce on your plate. I used to think that was pretty disgusting when I was a kid watching my grandmother do it, but I've learned a lot since then. A word of caution: the little shoe thing is only done on relatively informal occasions. You probably wouldn’t do it at a state dinner or some other highfalutin' soiree, but at home or with friends and family, go for it.

Finally, there's coffee. In Italy, there's always coffee; more than a dozen different preparations of it. Italians love coffee as much as Americans, if not maybe a little more. After all, they had it first. But they have much stricter rules about how and when to drink it.

First off, when you order a coffee, or un caffè, in Italy, you will automatically be served a cup of espresso. Actually, you'll be served a demitasse, literally “half cup”, of espresso. Espresso is, shall we say, rather stout and I don't think anybody could handle it in the quart-size coffee mugs Americans prefer. The intensity of espresso comes not from the type of bean or the roast, but rather from the method by which it is prepared. Finely ground coffee is tightly packed into a “portafilter.” Then high-pressure water is forced through the grounds and extracted in small, concentrated amounts. If done properly, the results are not dark and bitter as most Americans seem to think, but very bold and quite pleasant.

As I said, there are many preparations of Italian coffee. I'm not going to define them all here – maybe a topic for another post – but they include ristretto, lungo, machiatto, cappucino, caffè doppio, caffè breve, caffè latte, caffè con panna, and, of course, caffè Americano. The last is a watered down version of espresso served in a large cup, which only Americans drink. Even in its weak state, it is still considerably stronger than typical American coffee.

Now about those rules: the main one is that coffee is primarily served after a meal. It is seldom served as a beverage with a meal, as is common in the United States. The only exception might be colazione, or breakfast, which, in Italy, consists of a cup of coffee and a pastry.

Speaking of breakfast, another rule dictates that cappuccino is only for breakfast. Don't try to order it after noon or you'll be subject to much suspicion and derision. And, unlike espresso, cappuccino is consumed with the meal rather than after it.

You don't linger over coffee in Italy. They don't call it a “shot” of espresso for nothing. You are expected to down your beverage in one or two gulps. It should never take you more than a minute to finish a cup of coffee. Often you don't even bother to sit down to drink it. And don't be surprised if the price changes depending upon whether you choose to drink standing at the bar or sitting at a table. It's an Italian thing. Fortunately for American coffee drinkers, most “Italian” places in the States don't follow any of these rules and you are free to drink as you please. Just don't try the freewheeling approach in Italy.

The takeaway? If you want to eat like an Italian, it's okay to eat pizza with a knife and fork, but it's not okay to use a knife or a spoon with spaghetti. Don't fill up on bread before a meal and wait until after your meal to bolt down your shot of strong coffee.

Ora sei un italiano! Congratulazioni e buon appetito!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Food Network's “Worst Cooks” Revisited

Even More Unbelievable

A few years ago, I wrote about “Worst Cooks In America,” a program that airs (errs?) on Food Network. At the time I thought maybe they were just going for ratings by presenting a “reality” show that was simply unreal. Now, as the pastiche enters its eighth season, it's even more unbelievable.

I once performed in a live show wherein we brought up a guy from the audience to participate in the proceedings. He was supposed to be just an average guy suddenly thrust into the spotlight and put in an uncomfortable situation. He turned out to be as dense as a mud brick and the comedy that ensued centered on making him look inept and foolish. He was, of course, what we in the business call a “plant” or a “shill.” He was an actor on the payroll to perform the role of an exceedingly naïve “common man.” And I'm sorry, but the producers of “Worst Cooks” will never convince me that the same thing isn't going on on their show. Why else would there be questions about acting experience on the audition form? “Have you ever acted, performed or appeared on a TV show (scripted, non-scripted, series, game, talk, documentary, etc) or in a film?” “If YES, please list the last three most recent appearances you've made and when.” Season 6 “winner,” Alina Bolshakova, is an experienced actress with a full resume on IMDb.

Last night, I watched a woman have a spasm over measuring ¼ cup of liquid. She claims to not even own a measuring cup and couldn't fathom the concept of “one-quarter.” She wound up measuring out 1 ¼ cups instead, to predictably disastrous results. Really? If this supposed simpleton can't grasp the concept of quartering a whole, I want to be around when she's divvying up the dollars. Then there was the brain trust who couldn't figure out “finely chopped”; she kept saying “FIN-ly” and blamed it on her poor command of English. When “FINE-ly” was finally explained to her, she still didn't understand the concept. Nor was she able to understand “halved.”

Things like “I can't read a recipe” and “I don't understand the words” are the common excuses employed among contestants to explain their abject stupidity. Guess they have a real problem with “some assembly required,” too, huh? Better keep them away from IKEA.

Then there's painful ignorance. When asked to get a plantain from the pantry, the “truck driver” says, “What the hell is a plantain?” And when he's shown one, his response is, “Well, why didn't you just call it a banana in the first place.” Don't tell me it's an honest mistake. He wasn't asked to explain what a plantain was, where it came from, and how it would be used in a recipe. He was asked to pick one out of a limited group of foods. Has he never been in the produce section of a grocery store? I don't know the first thing about an intake manifold, but I can point to one at Auto Zone.

No, I think the producers of “Worst Cooks” deliberately coach these people to be as dumb as humanly possible so that people like me will sit there screaming at the TV and cringing at the antics of apparent idiots who would dump an entire jar of seasoning into a single dish. Even if these folks aren't all professional actors, they are being coached to play to extreme type. The geek, the nervous nellie, the wannabe sexpot, the gay flamer, the clueless blonde, the hunky-but-dumb guy – they're all there every season. To those of us who know how to cook, it's kind of like watching a horrible train wreck week after week. And I think that's the point.

I started cooking when I was seven. I say “cooking,” but there was a lot of Minute Rice, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and frozen French fries involved in those early efforts. It took me years to graduate to more complex and sophisticated dishes. And yet, here we have these alleged kitchen hazards who can barely boil water watch a chef prepare a dish even I, with fifty-plus years of experience, would be reluctant to attempt. They watch one demo and then replicate the dish on the first try in sixty minutes or less. Uh-huh. I believe that one.

Just like I believe that cadres of kids and amateurs on all the myriad cooking competition shows that overpopulate the airwaves these days just instinctively or perhaps miraculously know how to whip up a perfect Bearnaise sauce from scratch. You see it all the time; they are turned loose in the pantry and they know exactly what to pick out and exactly how to use it. No recipes, no cookbooks, no instructions. The average twenty-year-old grocery clerk or ten-year-old grade-schooler just naturally knows how to turn out duck a l'orange, don't they? Or steak au poivre? I've lived in the South. Everybody there knows how to prepare a perfect clam chowder without ever once looking at a note, and beef wellington is something anybody can fix, right? C'mon! In the past few years it's been revealed that shows like “Master Chef,” both the junior and senior versions, actually give intensive cooking lessons to all the “amateur” contestants before they go on the air. You can't tell me the same thing isn't happening over at “Worst Cooks.” Except there they are being instructed to look just stupid enough to be real – or unreal – to be in keeping with the theme of the show. Then, after just a few weeks of stumbling and bumbling around like hopeless stereotypes, they are suddenly able to pull off a five-star Michelin dinner that fools a panel of high-powered food experts. Ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght! You know, it is said that it takes a good singer to sing badly. The same holds true for actors, and the actors on “Worst Cooks In America” are among the best.

You do know, I hope, that there are websites out there pandering to people who want to be “reality” TV stars? They instruct wannabes as to the ins and outs of getting on a “reality” show. That just makes it all seem that much more “real,” right? And when the producers put out a casting call, they don't pick the boring average people. I mean, who wants to watch somebody normal? No, the entertainment value is in the oddballs and the extremists, the ones who often pay a service to put them out there in front of casting directors. You don't honestly believe that the fifty-something woman who can't figure out a measuring cup is for real, do you? She's as real as the producers and directors want her to be.

Go ahead. Watch “Worst Cooks In America.” I do. It's set up on my DVR every Sunday night. I'll likely keep watching and screaming and staring in disbelief because that's what I'm being programmed to do. We're all being programmed to lower our standards. But remember, it's nothing more than theater of the mindless. I'll never believe it, and neither should you.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Frittata – More Than Just An “Italian Omelet”

Delicious, Nutritious, and Easy

Ever since the food science nerds got their act together and reclassified eggs from “lethal little cholesterol bombs that will clog up your arteries and kill you deader than a hammer” to “Hey! These things are actually GOOD for you!”, I've been excited. Not that I wasn't excited about eggs before; I never bought into that hooey in the first place. But now that it's okay to be excited about eggs again, I'm really excited, because that means I can share some great egg recipes with you. One of my favorite egg preparations is the frittata.

A lot of people think of frittate (that's the correct Italian plural of “frittata,” by the way) as just Italian omelets. And to some degree they are. But they are also much more. Equally as delicious and nutritious as their fancified French cousins, frittate are more versatile and less fussy. Win-win! Italians don't eat “breakfast” as we know it in America, so frittate are not generally considered “breakfast food” in the way that omelets are. In Italy, a frittata is much more likely to show up on your lunch or dinner plate. They are often served as antipasti, or what we think of as appetizers. And you can serve them hot from the pan or they can be offered at room temperature. Room temperature omelets? Not so much.

Let's start by getting rid of the idea that a frittata is nothing more than an open-faced omelet. That notion insults both cultures. You don't just throw eggs and a bunch of leftovers in a pan, cook it to a dense, rubbery consistency, slice it up, and slap it on a plate. You may not need to do all that fancy French folding and flipping, but there are definitely cooking techniques you need to master.

And while you don't require a cutesy custom “omelet pan,” the pan you use to make a frittata does make a difference. Like any good egg pan, it's got to be non-stick. BUT....you've also got to be able to stick it in the oven, which eliminates a lot of the common non-stick pans designed for home use. So where does that leave us? Either good ol' cast iron or one of the newer seasoned carbon steel pans. Whichever you choose, make absolutely sure the surface is seasoned to a glass-like state. Well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel can be as non-stick as the most expensive ceramic or other coated pans. I've got a cast iron pan that's about thirty years old and it will outperform any non-stick on the market. But if you've been.......shall we say “casual”......about the way you care for your cookware, it can be a disaster waiting to happen. And a nice sticky egg dish is just the disaster for which it's been waiting. Doesn't matter how masterful your technique, badly seasoned cookware will sink your best effort. Just have a look at Mario Batali doing a demo where somebody has saddled him with a new and unseasoned cast iron pan. 

Speaking of technique, low and slow is the key to a great frittata. You can't just throw the ingredients in a screaming hot pan. Well.....you can, but what you get won't be a frittata. The other trick to achieving perfection is getting the top and the bottom to both cook evenly. There are a number of ways to achieve that result. Most frittata recipes start out on a stovetop and finish in an oven or under a broiler. Some recipes call for cooking the whole thing in the oven while others advocate doing all the cooking on the burner, bravely advising that you first cook the bottom in a pan, then turn the frittata out onto a plate and flip it over and back into the pan so that the top – which is now on the bottom – can finish cooking. I've successfully employed all three methods.

Okay. You've got a decent pan and a basic understanding of technique. Now what? Frittate are so versatile the options are practically limitless. But since space is not, I'll limit it to three of my favorites, each of which employs a different cooking method.

First up, let's try a basic combination of eggs, cheese, and tomatoes. Here's what you'll need:

6 eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
salt and pepper, to taste
1 sprig (about 3 tbsp) Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 plum tomato, cut into thin rounds

The Italian way with food relies on everything being fresh and everything being fresh will yield the best results. That said, you can use dried herbs and common supermarket mozzarella, but you won't get the same delightful Italian-ness, capisci?

Va bene. Now here's what you do:

Preheat your oven to 350°.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs and the milk and beat until frothy – think scrambled eggs. Add salt and pepper.

Chop together the parsley and the basil and add them to the egg mixture.

Heat the oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium-low heat. Pour in the eggs and cook until the bottom sets, 4 or 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add a layer of cheese, then dot with slices of tomato.

Slide the pan into the preheated oven and bake until the eggs are set and the cheese has melted, 15 to 20 minutes.

Using a thin spatula to loosen around the edges, turn the frittata out of the pan to slice and serve. If it looks like it might stick, don't worry; just serve it right from the pan. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves 6

The next recipe combines bacon and eggs and uses the stovetop only method.

You'll need:

6 ounces pancetta or unsmoked bacon, cut into very small cubes
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
6 eggs at room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk
1 sprig (about 3 tbsp) Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pancetta works best in this application, but regular bacon will work. It will just impart a smokier flavor to the finished dish. Same rule applies to the parsley as in the previous recipe. If you even consider using the pre-grated vaguely cheese-flavored sawdust in a green plastic can that commonly masquerades as Parmesan, I will send the Italian Cheese Police to your kitchen and it will not be pretty. I use and recommend real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Grana Padano is an acceptable substitute. Domestic Parmesan is okay. Whichever you choose, grate it fresh yourself. Pre-grated cheese – even the good stuff – looses flavor quickly.

Here's what you do:

In a large, non-stick skillet, cook the bacon in 2 tbsp of the olive oil over medium heat until it begins to crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon and set it aside, reserving some of the drippings in the pan.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and milk until frothy and add salt and pepper to taste. Add the parsley, cheese, and cooked bacon.

Add the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil to the skillet the bacon was cooked in, heat it and pour in the egg mixture. Cook over medium heat until the bottom of the frittata is lightly browned and the top begins to set, 6 to 8 minutes.

Place a large plate over the top of the skillet and turn the frittata onto the plate. Then slide it back into the skillet and cook for several minutes more, until set.

Transfer to a plate, cut and serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves 6

Finally, one just for fun. This one just uses the oven and a muffin tin and turns out neat little
individual frittate. Or you can make one of the most popular items on our catering menu by using a mini-muffin tin to produce a bite-size version.

Here's what you'll need:

Non-stick cooking spray
8 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 oz thinly sliced prosciutto or ham, chopped
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley

Having already worn out the topic of fresh ingredients, I'll move on. Just remember the Italian Cheese Police.

Here's what you do:

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Spray either 1 standard (12 cup) or 2 mini muffin tins (24 cups each) with non-stick spray. Olive oil spray is best.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and milk until frothy and add the salt and pepper. Stir in the ham, cheese, and parsley. Fill the prepared muffin cups with the egg mixture. Make sure you leave some head space. These little suckers will puff up like souffles, so don't overfill the cups. Half to two-thirds, maybe.

Bake until the mixture puffs and is just set in the center, about 8 to 10 minutes. Using a small spatula, loosen the sides of the frittate and slide 'em out and onto a serving platter.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yields about a dozen standard size or around 40 minis

Once you get the hang of the basics, impazzire! (Means “go crazy”) Chop up some cooked spaghetti and add it to the mix. Or experiment with different Italian cheeses like asiago, ricotta, or mascarpone. Spice it up with some peperoncino. The world is your oyster! And some people even add those to a frittata.

Buon appetito!