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!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why You Should Stop Inhaling Your Food

Slow Down, You Eat Too Fast; Got To Make Your Mealtime Last

You probably know somebody like this: You sit down for a nice meal, either at home or at a restaurant. The food comes out of the kitchen looking good, smelling great, and ready to enjoy. The meal begins.......and before you've had a chance to say “pass the pepper, please,” you notice that Cousin Bill has almost cleaned his plate. He's like an eating machine. Leaning in and plying his knife and fork at an amazing rate of speed, he completely demolishes his dinner long before anybody else at the table is even halfway finished with theirs, leaving you to wonder “how did he do that?” A better question might be “why did he do that?”

In medical parlance it's called “tachyphagia” and it can be a serious problem. Sometimes it's caused by a physiological disorder, but more often it is the result of a psychological condition. The psychological root cause in most cases goes back to childhood. Many fast eaters cite “supply and demand” as the reason for their accelerated rate of consumption. “I grew up in a big family. If I didn't get there first and fast, there wouldn't be anything left.” And, “If you wanted seconds in my house, you had to be fast with your fork.” Or, “I ate as fast as I could so I could leave the table and go back to doing other things.” These childhood habits often carry over into adult life and often with unhealthy consequences. If you are a “fast eater,” there are several reasons why you should slow down.

Numerous studies have shown that gobbling down food bypasses the mechanism that tells the brain when the stomach is full. This results in a higher rate of obesity among fast eaters. A recent review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that eating more slowly is linked with statistically significant weight loss.

Another issue speed eaters face is an increased incidence of digestive difficulties. Acid reflux and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) are common among those who wolf down their food, as are bloating and gas. You take in a lot of air when you gulp down food, and it's gotta go somewhere. Fast eaters have higher rates of indigestion than those who eat more slowly and are often candidates for ulcers and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome.)

People who gobble their groceries also face social stigma. You might have gotten away with eating every meal like it was your last when you were ten and you might even have made a game of speed eating by your college days. But most adults consider stuffing your face to be ill-mannered and rude. This is especially true in Asian and European cultures where mealtimes are social occasions. The enjoyment of food is a part of the enjoyment of life and mindlessly rushing headlong through a meal so you can get it over with is often seen as ultimately disrespectful of the food itself as well as of the company in which you are eating it.

Finally, there's flavor. Cooks know and science has proven that there are more factors involved in the taste of food than just the common “taste buds” in your mouth. The real complexity of flavors comes from a food or drink's aroma. That doesn't mean you have to shove food up your nose to taste it. Food scents and aromas actually travel from the backs of our mouths up into our nasal cavities, where everything comes together to enable our brains to determine the differences in flavors. When you just throw food in your mouth and swallow without hardly tasting a morsel, you bypass these complex flavor detecting mechanisms, thus depriving yourself of an enhanced sensory experience. Hot dogs and Kobe beef are likely to taste pretty much the same to people who just shove it all down their necks.

There are almost as many opinions on how to slow down your eating as there are “experts” to render them, but here are a few of the most common suggestions:

Sit Down: Eating on the run usually results in eating too fast. Sit down in order to slow down.

Chew: You've heard it over and over since childhood; you should chew your food X number of times. The number varies from thirty to a hundred depending on whether it's your mother, your grandmother, or your Aunt Sally lecturing you. But they've all got the right idea. If you have to think about chewing your food, it's going to slow you down. As to the actual chewing time, nutritionists suggest you chew most foods for fifteen or twenty seconds before swallowing. Selecting chewier foods will slow you down even more.

Sip: Keeping a drink near at hand and sipping at it between bites of food will reduce your rate of shoveling down the comestibles.

Put Down Your Fork: Or your spoon. Setting down whatever utensil you are using between bites naturally forces you to slow the pace of your eating.

Time: Use an actual timer to regulate your eating speed. The people who know these things say that, on average, it should take you about twenty minutes to finish a meal. If you're making it in five, you need to slow down.

Unitask: When it's time to eat, eat. Don't eat and watch TV or eat and read a book or eat and do anything else. When you're distracted by such things, you tend to ignore what you're eating and how quickly you're eating it.

Smaller Bites: People who eat too fast tend to heap up large amounts of food on their forks or spoons. Taking smaller bites forces you to slow your pace and to be more aware of how much you're consuming.

Don't Starve: When you are famished, chances are you will eat faster. Try not to let yourself get so hungry that you're likely to gorge.

Eat With Slow Eaters: Sometimes just being with other people who eat at a different pace will make you more aware of how quickly you're eating.

Visit Your Dentist: In extreme circumstances, your dentist might be able to assist by prescribing a dental appliance designed to help you eat more slowly. The device resembles a dental retainer. You place it in the roof of your mouth before meals. It reduces the size of your oral cavity and forces you to take smaller mouthfuls.

One last tip; avoid “fast” eating places. Fast food or fast casual restaurants are particularly dangerous places for fast eaters because they encourage quick consumption. Most restaurants live and die by “turning tables,” that is getting people in and out as quickly as possible. The more times a table is turned in a shift, the more money is going into the till. All well and good for the business, but not so good for you. If your server presents your check along with your plate or if you can feel the server's eyes boring into you as you eat, you're being rushed. Find somewhere that will let you savor the food and enjoy it at a slower pace; a place that doesn't present a “here's your food, there's the door” vibe. Doing so will help you slow down and actually taste what you're eating.

When her kids sat down and started shoving food into their faces, a lady I once knew used to tell them, “Hey, it's dinner, not a race.” And that's a good thought to bear in mind. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, slow down, you eat too fast; got to make your mealtime last. For better health, for more social acceptance, and for more enjoyment of the food you eat, take it slow.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Only Real, Authentic, Positively Perfect Way To Serve Your Spaghetti

“Finish Cooking Your Pasta IN THE G**D*** SAUCE”

Everybody knows that professional chefs and experienced cooks have a few tricks up their sleeves which enable them to elevate simple fare to a level unachievable by mere mortal cooks. Wanting to discover some of these tricks, a curious Reddit user recently posited the question: "Chefs of Reddit, what mistakes are we lay people all making in the kitchen?"

The answers were pretty straightforward – don't try to catch a falling knife, measure before you start cooking, don't try to put out a grease fire with water. Common sense stuff. But there was one answer I can really get behind and push into the collective consciousness of every home cook and faux-Italian restaurant cook in these here United States; “Add sauce to your pasta before finishing cooking.” Or as Reddit user Wahpaw more colorfully expressed it, “Finish cooking your pasta IN THE GOD DAMN SAUCE.”

I do not know nor will I ever understand from whence came the practice of cooking up a heaping pile of naked pasta, slapping it onto a cold dinner plate, then pouring about a quart of runny red sauce over the top of it. You see it everywhere and it's just got to STOP! Moms cooking spaghetti for your families, stop it! Volunteers cooking for church or civic functions, stop it! Restaurant cooks, especially you “Italian” cooks, basta! Do you not realize you are crushing the Italian soul? The only thing you could do that would be worse – and you're also doing it, believe me – would be to break up the pasta before you cook it and then to further desecrate it by piling it on a plate, drowning it in horrible sauce, and cutting it into tiny little bite-size pieces before stuffing it in your face. If a fairy drops dead every time someone says, “I don't believe in fairies,” I am warning you an Italian suffers the same fate every time you mistreat spaghetti.

From time to time we have the opportunity to teach relatively informal “hands-on” classes on various aspects of Italian cooking. We have a few studenti we are mentoring right now, in fact, and the very first lesson involved cooking and serving a proper spaghetti dinner. I started by busting every myth to which they had been exposed and by utterly eradicating everything their mothers had taught them or that they might have otherwise observed in local restaurants with names that end in vowels. A pinch of salt in a quart of water is not enough; don't ever put oil in the water or on the cooked pasta; don't rinse the pasta in cold water; don't break spaghetti in half before you cook it and don't cut it up after you plate it; and above all, don't throw naked hot spaghetti on a cold plate, dump a gallon of lukewarm sauce on top of it, and then cover it in salt, pepper, and grated “crap in a can” fake Parmesan. If this is the way you are accustomed to eating spaghetti, it is high time for you to start a new custom.

Before you tell me “well, that's the way the real authentic Italian restaurant down the street does it,” let me tell you something about most “real, authentic” Italian restaurants: they cater to their customer's tastes. That means they dumb down their menus for your benefit. I have several Italian friends in the restaurant business. I'm not talking about second or third or fourth-generation Italian-Americans. These are people born and raised in Italy. When I ask them why they serve exaggerated heaping portions of inauthentic gawdawful Italian-American dishes that would never, ever be found in their kitchens or on their tables at home, their answer is always the same; “If we cook in the restaurant like we do at home, the people would just go to Olive Garden.”

I'm not going to give you the whole “spaghetti dinner” master class here. What I am going to do, however, is reiterate the “Finish cooking your pasta in the sauce” rule.

Assuming you do everything else right – plenty of water, plenty of salt, no oil, no breaky the pasta – cook your pasta to just shy of al dente. I realize in addition to being a foreign phrase, that may be a foreign concept to many of you, so here's a simpler way to say it; cook your spaghetti about a minute or two less than what the package directions tell you. Reason? It'll finish cooking in the sauce.

Don't dump your cooked pasta into a colander and drain it desert dry. A little cooking water clinging to the noodles is a good thing. Reason? It helps evenly distribute the sauce. If I'm not cooking large quantities of pasta in big pots with special inserts, I just fish the pasta out with tongs or with one of those specially designed spaghetti server things. Either way, the noodles are a little wet when I drop them in the sauce. And I also reserve about cup of the cooking water on the side. Reason? It can be used later to help develop the flavor and texture of the sauce.

Now, there's a pot or pan of sauce already simmering on the stove. Meat sauce or plain tomato sauce; doesn't matter. Cream sauce or butter sauce; doesn't matter. Whatever sauce you're using, it should be hot and ready to receive the pasta. When you remove the pasta from the water by whatever means you choose, drop it directly into the waiting, simmering pot or pan of sauce. Add anywhere from a few tablespoons to a fraction of a cup of the reserved water and start stirring. Reason? You're sealing in the flavor.

A lot of nifty physical and chemical stuff happens when pasta cooks. Pasta is just flour, egg, and water. This means it's nothing more than a glutinous matrix of starches and proteins. Dried pasta, obviously, has had a lot of its moisture removed. When you drop it in hot water, several things happen. When the dehydrated starch molecules get warm, they start to absorb moisture. They rehydrate. Eventually, they kind of over-hydrate and burst open, releasing their starches. That's why pasta sticks like a mad thing if you don't have enough water. At the same time, however, the noodles are also absorbing flavor from the surrounding liquid. That's why you need salty water. If there isn't adequate salt in the cooking water, the finished product will be flat and bland. You can dump salt on cooked pasta until it gags you and all you'll get is overly salty pasta. It won't have a nice delicate flavor because the little flavor absorbing molecules are already done absorbing and have sealed up. That's also why you finish cooking pasta in the sauce – or the goddamn sauce, if you're Reddit user Wahpaw. Cooking it for that final minute or two in the warm sauce will enable the pasta – with it's little flavor absorbing molecules still operating – to better absorb the flavor of the sauce. That's something it can't do if it's been drained and dumped on a plate and had sauce poured over the top of it. Stir as you might, the sauce will never incorporate as completely. And you'll never get the same flavor and texture. It will never be a harmonious marriage of pasta and sauce. It will always be just a furtive affair of the two trying to come together. Sounds kind of sad and pathetic when you put it that way, doesn't it? That's because spaghetti cooked and served that way IS sad and pathetic! So stop it! Basta!

Seriously, finishing in sauce is the most authentically Italian way to cook pasta, it's the most authentically Italian way to serve pasta, and it is definitely the way to enjoy the most authentically Italian flavor in your pasta. Never mind the way your third-generation mother did it and forget about Frankie down at “Nunzio's.” Hell, even Chef Boy-Ar-Dee cooks the sauce and the pasta together. Do yourself a favor and a flavor; finish cooking your pasta in the sauce. You'll taste the difference.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

GMO Labels: Corn Refiners Think You're An Idiot

Why Is Transparency So Scary?

As the debate over GMO labeling rages on, Congress has finally done something right and blocked an attempt by Big Food to undermine state efforts requiring food labels listing GMO ingredients. The Honorable Republican Senator from the Great State of Kansas managed to squeeze himself out of the pockets of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and other special interest groups long enough to introduce a bill that would have made GMO labeling strictly voluntary on a federal level, thereby gutting and negating mandatory efforts by Vermont and other states to list GMO ingredients at the state level. Nice dodge, huh? The old “cut 'em off at the knees” gambit. Except it didn't exactly work. By the narrowest of margins – 48 to 49 – the Senate defeated the measure, voting largely along party lines with Sen. Roberts' fellow Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed. Three senators, Cruz, Rubio, and Sanders did not vote on the proposal, apparently having other things on their agendas.

So it appears the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act – dubbed the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act by GMO opponents – is dead. This means that individual states can continue to move forward with a variety of labeling laws. Vermont's mandatory labeling law is set to go into effect July 1, and other states are considering similar laws. Of course, some other bought and paid for bonehead in Washington could and probably will come up with another obfuscatory attempt at subverting our right to know what we're eating, but for now the effort is as dead as it deserves to be. The millions of dollars Big Food overtly and covertly spread like fertilizer all over DC are now moot, meaning they'll have to jack up the cost of our comestibles to cover their losses.

Curiously, that very thing is one of the selling points outfits like the Corn Refiners and the Grocery Manufacturers uses to frighten and mislead the gullible and uninformed into opposing labeling laws. The Corn Refiners Association, for example, released a “study” in which they claimed your grocery bill will increase by about $1,050 per year as a result of GMO labeling. “The impact of Vermont’s mandatory law requiring on package labels for foods produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would increase food costs for consumers across the country due to the cost of the new labeling systems and because consumers will likely view the GMO labels as warnings, leading food companies to switch from GMO ingredients to more expensive non-GMO ingredients. Such costs would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.”

The “study” throws out numbers like “$81.9 billion annually” and “2.5 percent of the median income of the poorest fifth of the population” and “nearly 2 percent (1.76 percent) in average food prices nationwide in the first year. These higher grocery costs will likely continue in the years ahead with a total cost of approximately $13,250 per household over 20 years.”

By the way, the “study” was commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association. That's in the really fine print at the bottom.

Obviously, the Corn Refiners think you're an idiot. And so do the Grocery Manufacturers, whose spokes-flak whined, "Despite today’s vote, there continues to be a strong bipartisan consensus to protect American consumers from the increased food costs and confusion of a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws."

Oh, we poor, benighted fools! How fortunate we are to have big, strong, unbiased, non-partisan organizations like the Grocery Manufacturers and the Corn Refiners out there in the trenches protecting us from ourselves. We, the weak-minded, are so easily “confused.” We should be on our knees every day thanking God that we have Corn Refiners and Grocery Manufacturers to guide our steps and show us the way, for, yea, verily, we are but ignorant clods, too oblivious and obtuse to understand these things for ourselves.

I don't know about you, but the assault on my intelligence offends me. And it probably offends the 89 to 90 percent of people recently surveyed who say they want to know what's in the food they're consuming. They're not confused, they're outraged. And justifiably so. Why is transparency so scary?

For the benefit of any Corn Refiners, Grocery Manufacturers, or Republican senators reading this, allow me to clarify the issue, using small, easy to understand words. I don't care that an ingredient is genetically modified. Food scientists say that kind of thing is perfectly alright. And you know how reliable food scientists are. (Trans-fats are good; trans-fats are bad. Eggs are bad; eggs are good. Cholesterol will kill you; ooops.....never mind.) The point the political puppets and their string-pulling masters don't seem to get is that I/we don't care that the GMOs are in there, we just want to know that they are so we can make informed buying decisions.

Genetically modified or not, for instance, I don't like high-fructose corn syrup. I want to know if the product I'm purchasing contains HFCS. If it's not printed on the label, then I don't know. Hence, I am uninformed and that, apparently, is the way Big Food would like to keep me. Even to the extent that the Corn Refiners Association, the source of HFCS, once floated a campaign past the FDA to get HFCS re-designated as “corn sugar” on food labels. Thankfully, the normally lapdog-ish FDA shot that one down. But was the effort made in order to alleviate our “confusion?” Hell no! It was a blatantly transparent attempt on the part of the manufacturer to deliberately confuse and mislead the consumer. And yet, they don't want to “confuse” us with GMO labeling? Chew on that for awhile and if it doesn't make you madder than hell, you must be kin to Gandhi.

How stupid, Corn Refiners, do you think I am? Do you really believe that I'm going to misconstrue the words “genetically modified” before the word “corn” in fine print on a food label as a “warning?” I'm not that damn dumb, thankyouverymuch. Now, if somebody were demanding that you slap “Contains GMO” in big red letters on the front of the package right under the product name, I could understand your concern. But the words “genetically modified corn” in an ingredient list don't scare me any more than the words “high-fructose corn syrup” do. Why does putting them there scare you?

Fortunately, there are rams among the sheep. Groups like “Just Label It”, “GMO-Free USA”, and Top Chef Tom Colicchio's “Food Policy Action” are actively shedding light on something that has been too long in the dark. After gathering the signatures of more than four thousand chefs on a petition, Colicchio said, "Senator Roberts' ridiculous new version of the DARK Act would deny us the right to know what's in our food and how it's grown — the same right held by consumers in 64 other nations. Consumers should be trusted to decide their own food choices, but Senator Roberts apparently thinks Washington knows best. This is exactly the sort of crony capitalism that voters across the country are rejecting."

“Just Label It” chairman Gary Hirshberg put a fine point on it when he said, "Americans have the right to know what's in their food and how it's grown." Period. End of sentence. End of debate.

Here's some advice for pandering back-pocket politicians and their avaricious bankrollers: Don't give me self-serving fuddle muddle about how you're out there nobly fighting the good fight to represent and protect me and keep me from being “confused.” It's maddeningly, infuriatingly insulting. I know better and I'll prove it at the grocery counter and at the ballot box.

Let me reiterate; I'm not questioning the safety of GMOs. That's a debate for another time. I just want to know what I'm buying. I'll decide, based on my own knowledge and research, whether or not to buy your product once I see what's in it. Don't try to sell me a pig in a poke. Make the poke sack transparent and let me see the pig. That's all I'm asking. If I still want the pig, I'll buy it, and if I'd rather have chicken, I won't. Why is that so hard for Corn Refiners, Grocery Manufacturers and Republican senators to comprehend?

I don't give a rat's ass about Presidential politics here, but Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has it right when he says, "All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the food they eat and the food they serve their kids. When parents go to the store and purchase food for their children, they have a right to know what they are feeding them. GMO labeling exists in 64 other countries. There is no reason it can’t exist here."

Campbell's has broken ranks with its other Big Food cronies. The soup giant that also owns the Pepperidge Farm, V8, and Prego labels will place a small statement under their ingredient lists that reads: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit” That's it. No flashing signs, no dire warnings. No “confusion.” Information, plain and simple. And that's all 89 to 90 percent of us want.

(UPDATE: from the Associated Press: "General Mills said on Friday (3/18) that it would start labeling all products that contain genetically modified ingredients to comply with a law set to go into effect in Vermont. General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, Progresso soups and Yoplait yogurt, said it was simply impractical to label products for sale in just one state, so the disclosures required by Vermont starting in July will be on all its products, beginning over the next several weeks." Guess that means the cost of my Cheerios will now skyrocket. Oh, I'm so confused.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

You Say Tomato “Gravy,” I Say Tomato “Sauce”

It's An Italian-American Thing

If you are a follower or at least a frequent reader, you know about my quixotic one-man campaign to stamp out ill-used Italian words and phrases. If you're new to these scribblings and screeds, benvenuti. Today, however, is a little different; today's windmill tilting exercise involves gravy. “Sunday gravy.” “Tomato gravy.” “Red gravy.” Whatever you call it, it's a source of great culinary and cultural debate. What's it about? I'll attempt to tell you.

Essentially, it's una cosa italiana-americana; an Italian-American thing. When Italian immigrants began arriving on American shores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most were intent on assimilating into American culture. In some cases, the assimilation was driven by a desire to begin a new life in a new world; wanting to leave the hardships of the Old World and the old life behind. In other instances, rapid assimilation was the result of the extreme prejudice exhibited toward Italians in many parts of the United States. Often too low on the social ladder to even be considered as second-class citizens, Italians were the objects of scorn, derision, and mistrust. It was, therefore, to the immigrant's advantage to “become American” as quickly as possible. And that's where “tomato gravy” likely originated.

In their rush to “become American,” Italian immigrants often tacked “American” names onto things, including themselves and many of their traditional dishes. Back in Italy, a meat sauce was called a “ragu” or a “sugo.” A plain sauce was just a “salsa.” Of course, none of that Italian lingo was going to fly on American tables. Americans called the meat-based sauces they poured over their food “gravy.” So, because they wanted to “be American,” Italians began calling their hearty meat sauces “gravy,” as well. And the misnomer was passed down through the generations so that it persists even today. If you are a member of one of the country's dwindling Italian-American enclaves and your mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother called the stuff you pour over pasta “gravy,” chances are you call it that, too. Even though it's not.

By strict definition, a “gravy” is “a sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juices of cooked meat.” The word comes from the Middle English “gravey,” which, in turn, derives from Anglo-French “gravĂ©,” meaning “broth” or “stew.” Ain't nothin' Italian about any of it. In general, a gravy is a subset of a sauce; usually a quick "rustic" or unrefined sauce made from pan drippings but with little, if any, reduction, often relying on a starch thickener like flour or cornstarch. It's about as far removed from a meat and tomato-based Italian sugo or ragu as any concoction I can think of. When I think of gravy, I think of the unctuous substance you pour over mashed potatoes or meatloaf. Or maybe the creamy “sawmill” gravy or “red-eye” gravy served with biscuits, ubiquitous in Southern cuisine. Tomatoes don't enter the equation.

Still and all, a handful of diehard descendants continue to refer to their “Sunday gravy,” not because the sauce they're referencing bears any resemblance to a true gravy, but merely because their anxious ancestors dubbed it thus in an effort to “be American.” But you can't tell them that; they were born calling it “gravy” and they'll take “gravy” to the grave.

The “gravy” train of thought runs on the same bent, rickety rails as the so-called “Italian” these people often use to describe their food. Anybody who mangles Italian words like mozzarella (“moots-uh-RELL”), prosciutto (“proh-ZHOOT”), cappicola (“gabba-GOOL”), cavatelli (“cava-DEEL”), and an ear-assaulting array of others is also likely to call a sauce “gravy.” And there's just no point in arguing with them. You might as well go have a conversation with a post. The proud bandiera-waving denizens of these enclaves are going to say the things they say because that's the way Grandma said them and there's no arguing with Grandma.

Beyond the borders of a few square miles on the east coast of the United States, there is not one place on the planet that calls tomato sauce “gravy.” Try going to Italy and asking for a plate of pasta with “gravy;” your Italian host will have to go find a dictionary to even begin to figure out what you're talking about. And he won't have much luck because there's no direct Italian translation for “gravy.”

I write all this in full realization that I'm not going to change a single mind among those already aboard the “gravy” boat. Italian-Americans who don't pronounce the last vowel in their names, who believe that spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana are authentic Italian dishes, that Italian ham is called “proh-ZHOOT,” and that the red sauce on their pasta is a “gravy” are not going to be much influenced by my pedantic “proper Italian” pedagogy. After all, if it comes down to choosing between some goober on the Internet or Grandma, Grandma wins. No, rather, I'm trying to reach those young, impressionable, questioning knowledge-seekers who have not been encumbered by generations of flawed immigrant tradition and who are truly interested in learning pure, modern Italian.

See, that's the crux; all these wretched mispronunciations aren't really all that wretched. Instead, they are based on dead dialects, regional dialects that were being superseded by modern Italian even as their speakers were leaving Italy for America. What these immigrants brought with them was essentially a dead language. And when their descendants persist in using words like “moots-uh-RELL,” they're not speaking “Italian,” they're just mouthing hand-me-down words that would barely be recognized in the country where they originated. Maybe if these folks went to Calabria or Sicily, they might find some ninety-year-old paesano who would understand them, but the vast majority of Italians would hear “gabbagool” as nothing but gobbledygook.

But I digress. Back to the “gravy” issue.

“Gravy” eaters sometimes make certain distinctions. Anything in a a jar or anything made with just tomatoes and herbs apparently qualifies as a “sauce.” However, if it's got meat in it, it's a “gravy.” But even that isn't universally true. In fact, there is no universal acceptance among gravy groupies. It all comes down to who you ask. One Brooklyn restaurateur says, “Traditionally, gravy has meat in it,” while another one opines, “Italian-Americans connote ‘gravy’ to mean a sauce with meat in it, but that’s a ragu,” A guy out in Coney Island says it depends on the color: if it's red, it's a sauce and if it's brown, it's a gravy. Another New Yorker believes that linguistically, “sauce” is a more accurate term, derived from the Italian word “salsa,” which refers to a topping.

Of course, if you want to bolster the “gravy” side of the debate, you could point out that “sugo” is a derivative of “succo,” the Italian word for “juice.” And since “gravy” is made from meat juices......but now we're doing a semantic dance on the head of a pin.

Bottom line? If you're from one of those families or one of those places that calls it “gravy,” go for it. Call it “gravy” because you're going to anyway. How could Grandma be wrong? For the rest of us, it's always going to be a sauce. And as long as it's good, who cares? Just shut up and eat.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tossing Pizza Dough: Essential Technique or Elaborate Showmanship?

To Toss or Not to Toss, That Is the Question

If Hollywood is to be believed, every Italian pizza joint in the world has some guy in a white T-shirt tossing dough in the air. Anybody who watches TV or goes to the movies is familiar with the scene. Sometimes they play it for authenticity and sometimes for laughs. Lucille Ball's famous “Visitor from Italy” episode comes to mind. The ubiquity of this iconic image is such that most people believe it to be an essential part of the art of making pizza. But is it? Or is it mere showmanship?

To toss or not to toss, that is the question.

There is an entire culture built around throwing pizza dough. A World Pizza Championship is held annually, which, along with taste tests and speed trials, features freestyle pizza throwing competitions. The United States fields its very own pizza team and you can even purchase practice throwing dough should you decide you want to be a professional pizzaiolo. But as far as actual pizza making is concerned, is all that tossing and spinning and whirling and twirling really necessary? As is the case with every hotly debated global controversy, some say “yes,” some say “no,” and some say “maybe.”

Among the “yes” crowd, the assertion stands that spinning those flattened circles of dough in the air helps ensure the correct amount of moisture. They aver that airflow over the dough's surface dries it out just enough to make it less sticky and easier to handle. And the perfect amount of airflow makes for a perfectly crispy crust.

World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani is quick to tell you that there's more to tossing dough than just the “cool” factor. He says throwing the dough into the air is extremely important in ensuring that you get a good crust. First, he notes, it's the best way to get the perfect size you want. The second benefit, he says, involves achieving optimum consistency with thicker outside edges surrounding a thinner center. And most importantly, he agrees, is the airflow that dries the dough for a perfectly crispy crust.

Another guy who knows a bit about pizza, former “Stuff Yer Face” employee Mario Batali, also believes hand-tossed dough makes the best crust. Mario says tossing is the most efficient way to stretch out the dough without applying too much pressure or potentially tearing through it with your fingers. It’s a skill worth practicing at home, he says, even though he admits “it is a little guido…”

The “maybe” people sort of agree with some of these principles, but they debate the technique. The middle-of-the-roaders tend to think that tossing is “okay,” but you don't have to go through all those elaborate acrobatics to achieve the best result. Just a little lift is fine. You can spin up your dough without ever having it gain an altitude of more than a few inches off your hands. According to these folks, the rest is just theater.

Then there are the real naysayers, the pizza makers who believe the whole tossing and throwing and spinning routine is completely unnecessary. Among this group are some pretty heavy hitters, including Chef Gaetano Fazio, one of the masters of traditional Neapolitan pizza. As a renowned instructor in the art of pizza making and as the proprietor of Pizzeria Rosticceria Da Gaetano in Ischia, Fazio relegates tossing and spinning dough over one's head to something made famous in the movies and on TV and only done on “fantasy” pizzas. Like many traditionalists, he believes the stretching, pulling, pressing and kneading of the pizza dough should only be done with the hands and then only very carefully. Like women, Fazio says, the dough should be handled gently.

One of Naples’ greatest pizzaioli, Antonio Starita of Starita a Materdei, also disapproves of flying pizza. When asked about pizza tossing, Antonio just shakes his head, waggles his hand a little, and says “ mai” (never), explaining that rough handling ruins pizza dough.

Still another pizza expert, third-generation Neapolitan pizzaiolo Rosario Granieri, who runs New York's Rossopomodoro in Greenwich Village, weighs in with his opinion that pizza tossing is not even Italian in its origin. Granieri dismisses the practice as an “American show."

When you break it down, it looks like the “pro tossing” crowd consists primarily of Italian-Americans while those aligned against the practice are mostly Italians, generally Neapolitans, the folks who invented the modern version of pizza in the first place. So who are you gonna believe?

Personally, I'm a more of a “no.” But my Italian roots are northern rather than southern and they were transplanted to Canada rather than to the U.S., so what do I know? I only have experience to guide me. In that experience, I use a traditional dough recipe of flour, water, salt, and yeast. When I can get my hands on Caputo or some other quality “00” flour, I use that. Otherwise, I use King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose flour. Depending on my mood and the circumstances, I make the dough by hand, in a KitchenAid mixer, or in a food processor. When it's done, I portion the dough out, roll it into balls, flatten the balls slightly into disks, and let them rest until they're ready to use. If the dough doesn't rest and rise a little, you'll never get it to stretch.

When it comes time to make pizza, I plop the dough disk down onto a lightly-floured surface and flatten it out further using my fingertips and turning the dough quarter turns as I work. After I get it flattened and shaped a little, I'll pick it up and work it gently over the backs of my closed fists, tossing it maybe an inch in the air as I turn it. That's as much altitude as it gets – or needs. Then I return it to the work surface and finish shaping it into the desired size and thickness by pressing outward from the center of the circle until I get a nice thin center and a thicker perimeter with a defined cornicione. From there, I top it, bake it, and serve it. Out of the hundreds of pizze (that's the correct plural of “pizza”) I've made, nobody has ever complained or sent one back, so I must be doing something right.

One thing upon which nearly everybody agrees; don't ever use a rolling pin on your pizza dough. You see recipes in cookbooks and on TV all the time telling you to "roll out your dough" for "a perfectly thin crust." Uffa! I'm here to warn you that Dante has a special circle all warmed up for cooks who use a blunt instrument to crush the very life and vitality out of pizza dough. Those atrocious recipes are directed at rank amateurs and home cooks who can barely boil water. Use your hands! If God had wanted you to bludgeon pizza dough, he'd have attached rolling pins to your wrists. 

Toss or don't toss. It's up to you. The debate will continue regardless. Rosario Granieri doesn't necessarily think you should avoid places that toss their dough, he just thinks there are other more useful kitchen skills to learn. Like, maybe, making decent pizza in the first place. Oh, and by the way; be careful you don't accidentally try and bake up any of that rubber practice dough. It would make really nasty pizza. Hmmm.....perhaps that explains the pizza I got at that chain place the other night.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Hooray for Chick-fil-A and the “Cell Phone Coop”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Unfortunately

I'm old. And every day I feel a little older. No, I'm healthy, wealthy, and wise enough.......well, two out of three ain't bad. That's not the problem. What makes me feel old is living in a time in which we actually have to tell people things like the fact that it's not safe to text and drive. Imagine my best creaky, cranky Grandpa voice here: “In my day, people were smart enough to know that you can't write a letter and drive a car at the same time.” Young whippersnappers! Today, not only do you have to tell people basic common sense stuff like that, but you actually have to convince them of its veracity! It boggles the mind and makes me wonder where we, as a society, are headed. Of course, I've been wondering that since the first label I read on a frozen pizza that said, “Cook before eating.” Or the one on the back of the cardboard windshield sunscreen that said, “Remove before driving.” Signs of the times.

Now fast food chicken chain Chick-fil-A has hatched an idea whose time has come – unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because it is a sad reflection on modern times that such an idea has even to be conceived, much less implemented. “Why, in my day.......” Oh, never mind.

A franchise operator in Georgia got a little concerned when he noticed that families were coming into his restaurants firmly attached to their cell phones. Look around; you'll see it every day. Families and groups of friends go to a restaurant, order their food, pull out their phones, and proceed to totally ignore one another. And that's not the way it's supposed to be. Eating together is supposed to be the ultimate act of communion. Why do you think churches use that word for the sacramental sharing of bread? You come together to eat, to share, to converse, to commune. You're not supposed to sit there with your nose stuck to a screen checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush. You're there with other people. Be a person, for gawdsake, not just an organic extension of an electronic device. Why do you find it necessary to “connect” with a “friend” on the other side of the planet when you can't connect with the one sitting on the other side of the table? And why do old people like me have to explain that? “Back in my day.......”

Anyway, this Chick-fil-A franchisee came up with a plan to combat this rampant cybertronic isolation. He invented what he calls the “Cell Phone Coop.” Basically, it's a cardboard box, dressed up with printed chicken wire, that sits on the table. The front of the box says, “Chick-fil-A Family Challenge.” Printed on the sides are the instructions: “How the Challenge Works: 1. Turn all family cell phones to silent and place in this cell phone coop. 2. Enjoy your Chick-fil-A meal and each other distraction free. 3. After the meal, let us know that you have successfully completed the challenge and each of you will receive a small Icedream cone.”

"We really want our restaurant to provide a sense of community for our customers, where family and friends can come together and share quality time with one another," Georgia operator Brad Williams explains.

The idea has caught on. Williams estimates that about ninety percent of customers who attempt the "cell phone coop challenge" are successful. A few fall short. He cites the example of the family who tried the challenge but failed when one of the kids just had to send a text during the meal. But the father assured him the family would return the following week and try again. And the concept has spread within the chain. At last count, nearly two hundred Chick-fil-A locations around the country have embraced the cell phone coop.

The notion of paying people to stay off their damn phones for a few minutes is not entirely new. Some restaurants have long offered discounts to patrons who leave their devices at the door. Other establishments just appeal to a rapidly disappearing sense of etiquette and propriety by posting signs asking diners to turn off or silence their phones. Pandering to greed is usually more successful.

And that's strange because a recent Pew Research survey indicates that only thirty-eight percent of respondents approve of cell phone use in restaurants. Meaning that sixty-two percent of old fuddy duddies like me think such behavior is crass and ill-mannered. And yet the problem persists.

So, inasmuch as I believe it to be a sad reflection of the times in which we live, I suppose the societal reeducation process has to begin somewhere and if it requires outright bribery, whether through discounts or desserts, then so be it. Hooray for Chick-fil-A. May their coops remain full and their Icedream machines empty.

Now let's see if some enterprising movie theater operator can come up with a similar scheme.